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Series Sixteen, Episode Five – LGBTQ+ Activism: From the Bar to Boardroom

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In this episode, Host Julia Streets is joined by Stacy Lentz, LGBTQ+ activist, speaker, and co-owner of the Stonewall Inn and Eve Ellis, wealth adviser at William Blair. Together they chart the path of LGBTQ+ activism from the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement to obstacles to change in our current social and political climate.  They discuss PRIDE, privilege, marginalisation, creating change through authenticity and the future of LGBTQ+ activism through policy change, accountability and corporate involvement.

ulia Streets is joined by Stacy Lentz, LGBTQ+ activist, speaker, and co-owner of the Stonewall Inn and Eve Ellis, wealth adviser at William Blair.
Eve Ellis

Eve Ellis

Eve Ellis is a wealth advisor developing sophisticated solutions which integrate traditional investments, trust and estate planning, lending, and philanthropy for a select number of high net-worth individuals, families, family offices, and nonprofit organizations, as well as custom planning for executives and entrepreneurs anticipating late-stage, pre- and post-liquidity events. She also advises interested clients on socially responsible and impact investments and provides access to two proprietary portfolios which she co-manages – the Gender Parity Strategy and the Matterhorn/Refinitiv Diversity & Inclusion Strategy - to investors seeking to align their investments with their values. She is a member of the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF). At William Blair, Eve is a member of the firm’s Community Impact Steering Committee which facilitates the William Blair Foundation grant-making; the firm’s Global Inclusion Council which is responsible for implementing its inclusion and diversity strategy; Private Wealth Management’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force; and the cross-functional working group to advance the firm's ESG initiatives. Eve served on the board of the Ms. Foundation for Women for eight years and is a founding board member of the Ms. Action Fund. She is also longtime board member of Maccabi USA and of the investment committee of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in NYC. A former professional tennis player, Eve was inducted into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. She is also a Captain for the Yale Women’s Athletic Network.

Stacy Lentz

Stacy Lentz

CEO and Co-Founder - Stacy Lentz has been a prominent LGBTQ rights activist for over a decade and played a leading role in the rescue and renewal of the historic Stonewall Inn located in West Greenwich Village, New York City. Lentz has dedicated herself to issues of equality and improving the lives of the diverse LGBTQ community and is currently a co-owner of the Stonewall Inn. She has participated in organizing hundreds of events and fundraisers for LGBTQ organizations such as GLAAD, Marriage Equality USA, the Hetrick-Martin Institute, HRC, The New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), Sylvia's Place, Lambda Legal, SAGE and others. She has partnered with Heritage Of Pride (HOP) to help produce some of the largest events during HOP's annual NYC Pride Week which attracts over two million visitors to New York City from around the globe. Over the years, Stacy Lentz has helped organize numerous rallies, marches and protests for LGBTQ equality. She has also appeared on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC and various other news outlets as a spokesperson for gay rights and other issues impacting the LGBT community. For her work she has been honored by the Stonewall Community Foundation (not affiliated with The Stonewall Gives Back Initiative), and has received the Community Hero Award from The New York City Anti-Violence Project and Home Box Office (HBO). Finally, Lentz was recently knighted by The Imperial Court of New York.

Series Sixteen, Episode Five Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets, and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equity, inclusion, and diversity in financial services.

On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas for requiring further focus, and offer lots of ideas to help drive change. Before we get started today, I just want to take a moment to thank our friends at City A.M. They’ve given DiverCity Podcast a new home at Impact A.M. Their pages dedicated to ESG impact investments DE&I and more. And we really appreciate that they publish and promote both our episodes and our supporting blog series so that their readers can stay right on top of the very latest diversity, equity, and inclusion debate. So thank you to City A.M.

Today I’m very excited because I’m joined by two stellar guests, Eve Ellis and Stacy Lentz. Eve Ellis is a wealth advisor at the firm, William Blair, developing sophisticated solutions that integrate traditional investments, trust and estate planning, lending, and philanthropy for a select number of high-net-worth individuals, families, family offices and nonprofit organisations. She served on the board of Ms. Foundation for Women, which is an organisation started by Gloria Steinem and others. That was all about empowering girls and women. Today their focus is very much girls and women of colour and of course, DE&I is at the very, very heart of all her work. A very warm welcome to Eve.

Eve: Thank you so much, Julia. I am delighted to be here.

Julia: Well, I can’t wait to get into the conversation with our second guest today, Stacy Lentz is an LGBTQ+ activist, speaker and she is the co-owner of the Stonewall Inn, the birthplace of the modern gay rights movements after the Stonewall riots in 1969. In 2006, the Stonewall Inn was closed and Lentz was part of a team of investors who stepped in to save the iconic landmark. And now she leads its marketing, public relations, and community outreach. She’s also the CEO and Co-founder of The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, a nonprofit helping some of the most underserved members of the LGBT+ community. The initiative recently launched its Safe Spaces Certification Programme, ensuring that businesses and venues that say they are safe, truly are and support full global equality. Stacy, welcome to the show.

Stacy: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to dive into this conversation.

Julia: Well, I think it’s going to be phenomenal, but before we do, I love both your enthusiasm by the way. But before we do, I just do want to take a moment for the benefit of our audience to invite you both to talk about what you’re focused on right now. Eve, can I come to you first?

Eve: As you said, I’m a wealth advisor and we provide holistic financial planning for our clients. Obviously, a big part of that is about investments. What we’re working on is aligning our clients’ investments with their values. Just the way you need to align investments with your tolerance for risk. And some of our clients are risk averse, don’t want to take much risk at all, and others gravitate towards taking much risk. We align their portfolios with who they are in terms of their risk, but also in terms of who they are. That’s what we’ll get into today about their values because they can invest in line with their values. And many of our clients, I will say, are as interested as we are in DE&I, diversity, equity, and inclusion. And there are ways to reward companies that do the right thing.

Julia: Can’t wait to get into some of that. And before we do, Stacy, talk to us about what you are focused on right now.

Stacy: Well, right now I’m sure a lot of you may be aware that the LGBTQ global community is really facing attack. It’s like we’re moving a little bit backwards from some of the progress that we’ve made in recent times. I’m really focused on getting corporations to use their platform and to have DE&I practises and policies to make sure that they are being accountable, not only to their employees, their stakeholders but also to their consumers. And really making sure that we have safe spaces to go to work and to be our authentic selves as LGBTQ members of the community, but also making sure that LGBTQ consumers and especially Gen Z that really want to see that businesses are on the side of equality, are actually really doing the work and putting in the time and effort to ensure they are safe spaces and fighting for global quality.

Julia: It’s so interesting your remark there about the focus on Gen Z and the workforce coming in or the talents coming into our workforce today. But then also hearing Eve’s comment about the appetite for investors to become very aligned. There will obviously be intersections between the two, but it is going to be a very rich rounded discussion. I wonder if I could start though by Stacy, coming to you first of all because I’m really curious about your involvement with the iconic Stonewall Inn and as it stands today, I’d love to hear about some of its work and why it matters.

Stacy: As you mentioned in the introduction, the Stonewall Inn is the birthplace of the modern day gay rights movement. The riots that started there in 1969 literally sparked a revolution globally. This is why we have a lot of LGBTQ Pride parades that market on June 28th, 1969, the actual day of the riots. So we have really used the Stonewall Inn as a vehicle to keep that fight that started there on Christopher Street in 1969 alive and well and use it a vehicle for LGBTQ progress not only in business but for LGBTQ rights. And as mentioned, we’re seeing that slide backwards. We’ve really got to think about ways that we can continue to have that progress happen. In 2017 we launched the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, which is the official and only nonprofit of the Stonewall Inn to make sure that we’re keeping that fight alive.

We work with marginalised community members all across the globe, whether that’s in Uganda, whether that’s in Brazil, whether that’s here in the south and the Midwest part of the U.S. Places where it’s still hard to be LGBTQ+ in 2023. Through our Safe Spaces Programme, we’re really working with businesses and corporate leaders to say that LGBTQ being on the side of equality is actually good for business and that’s super important. There was actually a study out by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in 2019 that showed being inclusive of LGBTQ practises actually lead to 3% more productivity out of your employees. I would also argue it equates to a better bottom line as well.

Julia: Absolutely. I think about the time and the energy that is wasted, and it comes to a sense of belonging so often and feeling safe. That’s the word I really took out from when I was doing your introduction about feeling safe in spaces as well. Also, we had a phenomenal episode about tech in Ghana where we talked about LGBTQ rights there as well. It’s fascinating to hear about your work around the world. Eve, can I ask you a similar question because I know that in your career you’ve 

been very much involved in activism and pressing forward for some of this change. I’d love to hear some of your experiences.

Eve: We started the gender parity strategy about 10 years ago. We started it because we saw research that showed that companies with more women on their boards had stronger financials than companies with no or one woman on their board. Had I not read that research, it was done by Catalyst, but there was other research as well that showed a strong correlation between significant numbers of women on boards and company financial strength. If I hadn’t seen that study and studies, we would not have started the gender parity strategy. What we did was we started it where the companies in the portfolio, we take from the Russell 3000 and they need to meet our financial criteria, but every company in the portfolio must have a minimum of three women on its board. A number of years later I saw research by Refinitiv that showed that companies that scored well with regard to diversity and inclusion and we’re talking about 24 metrics.

Refinitiv has 150 researchers looking at these 24 metrics over 8,000 companies worldwide and they rank them and that becomes the Refinitiv Diversity and Inclusion Index. Then we, the Matterhorn team at William Blair create our diversity and inclusion strategy using the Refinitiv index as the basis. What happened was, as I started to say several years ago, I had seen that there was outperformance of their index. If I hadn’t seen the outperformance of their index, I would not have said to my partner, Nikolay Djibankov, we need to use this data to create a portfolio for our clients. As Stacy discussed, there’s a strong business case to invest this way as well. She was talking about business performance and I think your listeners will appreciate seeing so much of the research that you post after the discussion because it is extensive and it’s because the business reason is there for corporations to pay attention.

Julia: We’ve had actually a guest from Catalyst on the show and also from Women on Boards in the UK as well. And this is exactly what this series is framed around, which is we understand that absolute, the social imperative but also the commercial opportunity is significant. Hearing you both talk about that in the focus of your work and the extensiveness of your work as well is really impressive. But I wonder if I could pick up on a remark that Stacy was making about how the world is changing and not in the favour of the LGBTQIA+ community. May I stay with you, I know that in your career you’ve advised on social responsibility and also DE&I strategies as well. And I’m curious to understand where are the biggest obstacles when it comes to bringing around change? What are they and why do you think they exist?

Eve: I think it’s four letters, B-I-A-S, bias. And I think people really don’t like change and they like to hold onto their biases. We’re all biassed. I have biases too, but people are just reluctant. I say people, I mean people who stand to gain by their privilege and keeping their privilege and understanding that we will all do better, even those who have had the privilege through the years will do better in the long run if they let others in. It’s just a really hard topic for people to feel like something will be taken away from them.

I think we have to recognise that there are two things. One is yes, something may be taken away from them, some of that power, but they’ve also had their own quota for many years. And if it’s a white male quota that was the cultural norm for so many years, it’s very difficult to say no there are actually other people who are going to be applying for this position now. I think that’s hard for some people to deal with. I think we need to be sensitive to the fact that they’re losing some power. By the same token, I think actually the LGBTQ+ community is a fighting community, and actually the pushback shows that we’re winning and it’s hard for somebody else I think when we’re winning.

Julia: It’s a really fascinating thought,Stacy, I have a feeling you are quite keen to come in here. By all means, please do.

Stacy: Absolutely and we are winning on certain levels for sure, but if you talk to our community around safe spaces and in this conversation the context being within business and within being an employee or a consumer, we did a poll nationwide just here in the US and found that 97% of folks in the LGBTQ community believe we could benefit from more safe spaces in general, whether that be in the workplace, a store, a business when we’re travelling. And then when you also break it down, when you look within a workplace, 29% of LGBTQ people of colour said that they felt they were discriminated against based on sexual orientation, or gender identity. By the way, I don’t like to use the word sexual orientation, we’re not oriented this way, we’re actually born this way. I like to use sexuality within the DE&I space.

So that’s one way to look at this. I would say there has been a lot of progress, but if you look within corporate America and you look at and within the Pride movement and LGBTQ rights, there is so much work to be done. And I think if you also take a look within marketing to our community as well if you’ve looked at some brands that were allegedly on our side and then came back down to reality when they got some pushback from their consumer base. I think there’s lots of work to be done and this is exactly why we created our Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative Safe Space Programme.

Julia: I’m curious to stay with the point about corporate engagement because when we think about Pride Month embedded in corporate culture now and we’re seeing great adoption of the rainbow flag in lanyards and even steps are coloured and buildings are covered in flags, I’d love to get your thoughts, Stacy, about where there is still work to be done and just even if you have an attitude on or an opinion on the corporatism of Pride.

Stacy: This is an interesting topic because it depends on geographic privilege, right? I’m here in New York City, you’re in London. These are areas that typically have geographic privilege where you might say, “Hey, we do not need this bank or this corporation to have all of these flags waving during Pride. It is not as important.” And then if you look at a place like Kansas where I’m from here in the U.S. or a place globally like Iraq, it matters so much if you could get one business to be on your side to be part of that movement and to show any rainbow flags. But I think there’s also an authentic way to do it. And our community now is really stating we want businesses to support us 365 days a year and not just during Pride Month. And that’s where corporations can really make a difference. And that’s one of our safe spaces criteria. There’s actually 10, and I’ll go into that a little bit further in the conversation, but one of them is making sure that businesses that say they’re on the side of equality don’t just show up during Pride Month.

I’m LGBTQ, we’re all lesbians 365 days a year, not just in June, right? So coming to do that and then also making sure businesses put their money where their mouth is. That’s another one that when we poll the community, they wanted in our criteria of safe spaces that you donate to an LGBTQ charity, that can be a local grassroots one or you give to a local LGBTQ organisation. And those are super important things. I would say a third one that we see around, not just around Pride but a certain thing around corporations that our community is holding them accountable to. And it’s also another criteria in our Safe Spaces Certification Programme, is not donating to anti-LGBTQ politicians. It’s really tough for you to have all this corporate rainbow logo everything during June and then in July you’re donating to an anti-LGBTQ legislator who’s actually writing bills trying to get them passed into laws against our community.

Julia: I’m really delighted that you brought that up. Obviously not delighted about the context, but I’m delighted you brought that up because I’ve been asked a lot and particularly when I speak on stages, but also our listeners is while there is this political climate of change and actual worse still anti-LGBTQ preference, I’m going to describe it that way because that’s all encompassing word is what can organisations do because they should be standing up and protecting their employees and going out to bat for their employees. So it is wonderful to hear that’s a very practical way in which people can look at that. I’d love to welcome other thoughts and voices into this discussion, Eve.

Eve: I joined William Blair in January of 2020 and I remember that the very first day we have these different alliances of the different units within Blair and our Pride Alliance reached out to me on day one to welcome me. And I think that that’s actually walking the walk and talking the talk and doing it. They’re not out there publicly getting known for that. William Blair isn’t like that, but it’s a quiet gem of a firm that I believe makes all 2000 employees feel included and valued. And there’re all different ways to show it. I brought to the firm the organisation called StartOut, which is a huge network of LGBTQ+ founders worldwide. As soon as I brought it to the firm to say, “How about if we support StartOut.” They said, great, “Let’s do it.” So we now have mentors within the firm who are mentors to StartOut founders.

A few of us have been on panels for the founders. I mean there’s a real partnership there and relationship and that’s what is behind how the firm functions. Again, I don’t think that’s out there in the news, nor does it need to be. But I think getting back to what Stacy was saying and what you were saying, Julia as well is, if all the corporations really take responsibility and do that, the end result is going to be much stronger for all of us and for the economy, for the country, for the world. It takes a village, it takes everybody working on this, whether it’s customers, clients, investors, shareholders. Corporations are just people.

Julia : I think that builds very much on what Stacy was saying about the authentic way to do it. I mean that is an example of a very authentic way in terms of real cultural appreciation and support as well. It’s fascinating to hear you talk about the present tense. I’d love to look ahead a little bit and just think about the future of activism. Stacy, can I bring you in here? I’d love to hear your thoughts about are there new ways of activism or corporate involvement that you are seeing that can change the narrative.

Stacy: I think it’s really super important to also remind folks that Gen Z as a future generation, as consumers and as future employees, they will not work for, or tolerate or even want to be a part of a business that is not on the side of equality. I would argue that if you’re not on the side of LGBTQ equality, whether that’s as a corporation or any kind of business that you would probably be extinct in about 40 years, that’s probably the future of where business is headed. I would say get on board or be left behind. You also have to remember that LGBTQ issues and all marginalised groups, whether that’s people of colour, whether that’s other religious protections and things of that nature, 72% of LGBTQ allies say they are more likely to accept a job at an LGBTQ business that supports all marginalised organisations, especially LGBTQ+ employees. This is about recruiting and attracting great talent. This is about keeping and retaining consumers. And this is also really about being on the right side of history.

Julia: When I talk to CEOs around the world, there are three things that come up all the time. One of them is about climate change, one of them is about technology transformation, and the third is about talent. That’s exactly what that speaks to, which is the fight for talent, the ability to attract talent and retain talent as well. And that’s where the culture comes in. Eve, I would love to just pick up one of those remarks of my own actually about the climate change but extend that a little into being more socially responsible. A lot of organisations are seeking to align with the ESG agenda. Also, there’s this response that you’ve articulated earlier about an investor appetite to get behind greater inclusion as well. I’m wondering what aspects of policy should they prioritise as they move forward?

Eve: If your listeners are in HR, then I think that question of “do our employees feel valued, do they feel included”, and translate that into policy, that will be a start. I think taking surveys within companies, some people just don’t think they’re important, they’re really important. 

How many answer a survey? How many are engaged within the firm? I think that number of respondents is a huge answer to another kickoff point. The way Stacy talked about the younger generation not wanting to work at companies that are not doing the right thing. That’s a huge impact to companies, a huge negative financial impact if they’re losing people for that reason. It’s interesting, Bloomberg LP put out a report that said that companies are now providing more information to them about how diverse they are within their company. And that in 2020 they had very few companies that answered they call for what they’re reporting to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In 2020 they asked the S&P 100 companies to release the data that they submit to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and just 25 of those S&P 500 responded. This year, 97 of those 100 companies provided their most recent data. So somebody’s paying attention here and it’s important to note that companies are paying attention, meaning the people at the top of companies are paying attention and recognise, getting back to your question, it’s about talent, it’s about retention, it’s about promotion from within. It’s about keeping those employees, keeping them happy, keeping them within the firm, and keeping them productive. I would posit that a happier employee is actually more productive and perhaps I’m out on a limb on that. But I think that engaged happy employees are good for companies.

Julia: Could not agree more. And also about being held to high account as the work that you’re doing, for example in these funds is assessing the 97% of the companies who are giving their data up, which it feels like a massive shift and certainly reasons to be cheerful. I think this is also a great moment. Another reason to be cheerful is to welcome in Cynthia Akinsanya for some research to support today’s discussion.

Cynthia: Nearly two-thirds of American Generation Z is worried about the future of LGBTQ+ rights, including a quarter who say they are extremely concerned, according to new survey data from market research firm Toluna. A 2023 survey which collected responses from more than 1000 Gen Z participants aged between 18 to 25, found that most young people in the US are deeply anxious about the state of LGBTQ+, rights.

Julia: Thank you as always, Cynthia Akinsanya you for the research and let’s take a moment to remind everybody about how to find DiverCity Podcast and the links to the research can be found on our website, divercitypodcast.com. You can find all our episodes on the website and do sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Also, sign up for our newsletter, it’s called DE&I That Caught Our Eye. And that’s where we share new stories and updates so you can stay on top of what’s current. Do follow us on X, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and DiverCity podcast is available on Bright Talk and all good podcast channels. And we’re immensely proud of our five-star rating. We’d love it if you would rate and review because it all helps this show extends to even more listeners around the world.

As we go into our final remarks, this is a section of the show I always really appreciate because we ask everybody the same question. I’m always very inspired by the thoughtful responses that come back. This is basically particularly now, we’re navigating challenging and interesting economic times. If I’m honest, I’m really concerned that the diversity, equity, and inclusion discussion will fall down the corporate priority list. My question to each of you is, see us out for the compelling reason why DE&I must remain high on the corporate agenda. Stacy I’m coming to you first of all.

Stacy: I have the same concerns, as we might see or be falling into a little bit more of a global recession of sorts and also the pushback globally, particularly against the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ DE&I policies and practises. And that’s exactly why we started The Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative Safe Space Certification Programme to work with brands of businesses to ensure that they are being accountable. And again, when they’re trying to market it to our community, we’re going to say, “Okay, if you want to market to us and if you want to participate in Pride, you want to say you’re doing the right thing. We want to see those practises from top to bottom all the way throughout your corporation. Whether that’s hiring and promoting LGBTQ folks, whether that’s supporting us 365 days a year, whether that’s giving funds to us, to our nonprofits and organisations, and whether that’s making sure that you go through training.”

One of the other things we have in our programme is we have extensive anti-bias training that over 80% of employees at a corporation or venue or business must complete before they can be certified as a safe space. You need to continue to invest in training. You need to continue to invest in more marginalised communities. I’m speaking on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. But it’s not only just good for business, I’m still going to argue even as we see some maybe darker days ahead financially for some companies and corporations, DE&I can keep your employees engaged and it can lead to positive bottom line numbers.

Julia: I could not think of a better reason. Thank you, Stacy for your thoughts on that. Eve, let me turn to you now for your compelling reason why this must remain higher on the corporate agenda.

Eve: I would just add one thing to what Stacy said, which is I’ve met with C-Suites of established companies and I’ve met with entrepreneurs of young companies and I have the utmost confidence in them all to not only do the right thing but to seek and succeed in achieving the strongest financial returns for their company. They will keep this front and centre as long as they want to financially succeed. I have the utmost confidence in the people who run these companies, whether established companies or new companies. I have the utmost confidence that they want to achieve financial success. Because they want us to achieve financial success, this is one component that will help get them there. And I believe that they want very much to be financially successful. As Stacy said, it’s the bottom line and that’s the reason they should keep it front and centre.

Julia: I’d say it’s been a phenomenal conversation. Thank you both so much for your time. We’ve described this through not only your individual lenses, but your unique areas of focus in your work, your personal experiences as part of the community, but then also your inspiration. As we think about activism, we think about the challenges ahead, the reality of how the LGBTQ+ community is actually coming under attack and it is not equitable around the world. And then really thinking about what this means for organisations. Organisations that want to succeed, organisations that want to hire and retain the very best of talent, and those organisations who are holding themselves to high account as they look ahead. Eve Ellis, wealth advisor at William Blair, thank you so much for being with us.

Eve: Thanks so much, Julia. It’s been a wonderful conversation with you. Thank you.

Julia: It’s a pleasure. Stacy Lentz, CEO and Co-founder of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, thank you for being with us.

Stacy: Thank you for having me. It has been an enlightening and thrilling conversation to have with you both.

Julia: To  all our listeners, thank you as always for taking time out your day to listen to this episode. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have. And until next time, goodbye.

Cynthia: This episode of DiverCity Podcast was produced by Roshan Roberts on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. You can find out more about the guests from this week’s show on our website, that’s www.divercitypodcast.com. That’s DiverCity with a C and not an S. Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates. All our episodes are available in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app. If you enjoy DiverCity Podcast, remember to share on social media and give us a rating or review. And finally, our Twitter handle is @divercitypod. Thanks for listening.