VentureOut – Highlighting LGBT leaders in business.
Powered by StartOut. Written by Adam Sandel.
No one was gay in the tiny rural village of Chipping Sodbury, U.K. where Sarah Hodkinson grew up. If anyone was, she didn’t know it. While studying at Lancaster University, she learned that some people had same sex attractions — including herself.
“When I told my conservative, religious parents, they were very upset,” she says. “But over the past 20 years they’ve come around. I’ve brought girlfriends home, but we don’t really talk much about it.”
Since moving to London in 1996, and then arriving in the U.S. in 2002, the high-powered marketing executive, who is now Director of Marketing for PayPal’s Media Network, has been as out as anyone can be
“From the get-go I decided I was never going to be in an environment where I couldn’t be myself,” she says. “I’ve managed to leverage it as a plus. While some companies were reluctant to hire women in their mid-30s for fear they might get pregnant and leave, they knew that wouldn’t happen with me.”
Now known as “the Ellen of PayPal,” Hodkinson has turned her sexuality into a branding strategy. “I enjoy being that left of center, outspoken person. People love authenticity, which is incredibly conducive to building trust in the workplace.”
In 2010 she joined WHERE, a location-based mobile app company in Boston, developing strategic marketing partnerships with the likes of AT&T, Verizon, Amex and Sprint. They partnered with PayPal, which aspired to move beyond being an online payment mechanism to become a method of tender. In 2011, PayPal acquired WHERE, with its 90 employees, for $135 million.
WHERE was re-branded as the PayPal Media Network, with Hodkinson as its Director of Marketing and Sales Strategy, and the startup culture of its Boston office remained intact. “A lot of people stayed on after the acquisition,” she says of the company that is now close to 200 employees.
“We have 65,000 square feet of office space in Boston, so we founded Start Tank, a free incubation service that provides mentoring, support and small investments for early stage startups.”
Hodkinson’s one word of advice for anyone in the startup world is: networking. “Networking is the key to success for any business: for access to capital, to secure the talent you need, and to secure relationships with other service providers.”
Her advice to LGBT professionals about coming out varies. “It depends on what industry you’re in. Media and tech are very progressive, so you should have no hesitation about being out.”
“In more conservative industries such as finance or corporate real estate, people fear that being out might impede them. It might not make sense to be out initially, but once you’re successful, coming out could help change attitudes within those industries.”
She also has advice on how companies could make their working environments more comfortable for LGBT employees. While visiting the Silicon Valley eBay on PayPal office, a sign in the cafeteria had a big impact on her. “There was a big board that said, ‘March with us for Pride,’ reaching out to both gay and straight employees.”
“It helps a lot when companies form LGBTA groups, and are vocal about supporting Pride and philanthropic groups that support the LGBT community. It’s the responsibility of the company’s leadership to foster the kind of culture that says it’s okay to be out at work.”