Growing up here, I was always aware of Madison’s visible gay communities: the professors, artists, elected officials—and other stereotypical Madison professions—but the LGBT business professionals or executives were harder to identify as I looked for business leaders and mentors. I was an employee of Downtown Madison Inc. (DMI), an organization with hundreds of members in the late 90’s, and the only gay members I could identify were Chuck and Chuck of the landmark business The Soap Opera. I was “out” at work and it was never an issue, but if I had known other gay business professionals, I wonder what other doors might have been opened for me at DMI, or subsequently at Capital Newspapers.
At the time, I didn’t know other out gay professionals so I developed my own network of open-minded business people. I am not defined by my sexuality, but finding a place were I could be all of who I am—and not have to censor what I was saying—was needed. Something was missing, although I couldn’t exactly say what.
Last fall I was attending the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner as an ambassador. The Chamber chooses ambassadors from each major industry that drives their constituency, and I was asked to serve in this role as an employee of Capital Newspapers and then as president of Verve Media. During the dinner, I mulled over the program and it dawned on me that, besides myself and one woman, there weren’t any known LGBT representatives on the board of directors, the ambassador’s list, the small business advisory board, or even the minority business group. Moreover, not one of the Chamber’s subcommittees actively included LGBT advocacy.
I thought to myself, “There are over 100 people officially named in this program … and there are only two of us?” At the end of the evening I shared my thoughts with friend and Bunbury & Associates Realtor Liz Lauer who agreed that something should be done. We went to talk to the Chamber. To my surprise and dismay, the official response was that the minority business group was (and continues to be) exclusively for racial minorities. You could say that set the wheels of the Out Professional and Executive Network (OPEN) in motion.
I asked Patrick Farabaugh if he could meet me at Genna’s for a drink. He was instantly engaged by the potential of a business organization with a high level of programming, speakers and professional development that would foster connections in the business community. We each left committed to reaching out to six people for a causal lunch at the former Crave Lounge to see what the group might look like. To my surprise, those who attend perhaps knew one of us plus maybe one other at a table of about 12. Business cards and conversation were exchanged about who people knew in common; we were all making connections. It was clear that something was forming, and we agreed a second lunch was necessary. We each committed to bringing two people to the next meeting. At this point, things started moving fast.
Within a month, Patrick and I sent out an email inviting business colleagues and friends to join us for lunch. When I realized that we could have 30 people in the room, I arranged for a meeting facilitator to make sure that the grassroots business group forming would allow everyone to be heard. As the room filled you could feel the excitement as people were seeing a large group of LGBT professionals meet for the first time in a business setting.
As our group began to grow, the next lunch at the Madison Club sat 76 people. We held an organizing retreat at the Sheraton and created an interim board. We have had over 15 strong leaders step forward to serve on the board and share in the development of our organization, and countless other volunteers give their time and ideas to various committees. Now we have over 300 people on our Facebook page, and our events bring in more than 50 attendees on a consistent basis. Our most recent programming was the introduction of Chancellor Carolyn “Biddy” Martin to OPEN.
OPEN is empowering to me—both personally and professionally. If we are to build a vibrant city, it has to include a deeply connected LGBT community. If we don’t have a dynamic LGBT culture, then Madison is not going to be able to recruit and keep top talent. Yes, we do have amazing LGBT non-profits, a few world-class LGBT-focused sports organizations, and a handful of other resources. These are all very important groups that I feel OPEN augments in important ways. OPEN is a cultural tool for our communities, building and connecting a network of people with similar attributes, skills, and drive.
Connecting professionals through strong programming and professional development means that members will have peer support for some very complex workplace issues. I can’t deny there can be personal benefits to OPEN membership, too. The workplace is a highly social experience. For our community, this can be challenging if you don’t work with other LGBT people. I’m pleased to have made many new friends through this organization. My reality is that I am a gay man living in a straight world and I have a lot of straight friends, but at some point, I also need a gay network to support and grow personally as well as professionally. I really wish I had a group like OPEN when I was entering the workforce, but it’s never too late, right?
*Editor’s Note: James is no longer on the board of OPEN but the organization continues to go strong. For more on OPEN, go to: openmadison.org. James is currently the Executive Director at Clean Lakes Alliance, of Dane County.