Written by Adam Sandel | Powered by StartOut

On September 8, 2012, Jennifer Brown took to the stage before an audience of 800 in San Francisco. Although she entered to the strains of opera music, the classically trained opera singer was not there to sing. A series of vocal injuries had long since dashed that dream.

Brown was there to address an audience at TEDx Presidio about her new passion. As Founder and CEO of the consulting firm that bears her name, she was there to encourage corporate America to embrace, develop, and support true diversity in the workplace.

Since founding her company in 2006, Brown had addressed innumerable audiences of all sizes, but this speech gave her pause. Before the live audience of 800, and an online audience of more than 3,000, Jennifer Brown came out as a lesbian.

“I needed to really come out in that talk,” she says. “It was by invitation and LGBT people and allies had sought me out. They said. ‘You really need to tell your story and your story includes coming out.’ I was definitely concerned to do that on a stage in front of 800 people.”

But the focus of her speech, and the essence of her consulting work, is to stress the importance of employees being free to bring their whole selves to the workplace. And so she did. “It’s viewed by a lot of people and I get a lot of comments about it,” she says of her nine-minute TEDx talk.

“I come out right in the middle of it, and I know one client uses it for sales training. They’ll show it, then pause it right before I come out and say, ‘Who do you think this woman is? How do you envision her family and her life?’ They of course completely get it wrong, and then they roll the tape, and everyone has an ‘aha’ moment, and it’s an incredible learning around who do we really know? Do we really know who we’re working with, who we’re selling to? How curious are we and how can that make us better leaders?

The road that led to her highly influential career, consulting for heavyweight clients including Cisco, Hilton, Google, Prudential, American Express, State Farm, Verizon and Coca-Cola, began when she was laid off as Director of Training for Tommy Hilfiger.

“I had a moment of clarity that I’d like to be an independent change agent from the outside,” she says. “I feel I’m on this earth to create change and make it a better place.”

She crisscrossed the country as a group and team facilitator, coaching business leaders on various aspects of HR. “I came out of two years on the road and decided to found my own company focusing on workplace inclusiveness.”

Certified by the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and recognized as a leader in the StartOut community, Brown eventually built a team of 15-20, who now present the workshops to her myriad clients, leaving her to focus on high-level workshops, keynote events, and being the face of her brand at major conferences.

But there are many challenges, even with companies that have created sterling policies on behalf of women, LGBTs and employees of color. “Fortune 500s are giant and complex, with regional mini subcultures that can feel very different from the mother ship,” she says.

“The assumption is that ‘now we have policies, the work is done,’ but back-sliding can happen with mergers, acquisitions, and relocations to states with very different politics. Diverse talent can be most vulnerable to those changes.”

Regardless of what CEOs do or decree, the day-to-day direct managers have 90% to do with an employee’s motivation and desire to stay. “Executives are easy, but the day-to-day managers are tougher,” she says. “They’re a big population and they’re spread out. The biggest challenge is equipping regional and field managers with the tools to be supportive of LGBT staff.”

Finding support from her parents when she first came out at age 22, was another matter. “It was tricky,” she says. “They’re rather conservative [from Orange County, California], but 20 years later, my mom wears her ally shirt. They’re very proud of the business that I’ve built, and they’re very supportive of my partner Michelle [of 18 years] and our life.”

For more about Jennifer Brown Consulting, and to view her TEDx talks, visit her company website at: http://jenniferbrownconsulting.com

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