How an Executive MBA student fosters inclusive leadership
For Rebecca Smith ’22, Executive MBA Program (EMBA), it wasn’t until she reached adulthood that she felt safe and comfortable enough to share her LBGTQIA+ heritage, and it’s why now she’s made it part of her work’s mission. Here, Rebecca reflects on her upbringing as the child of a transgender parent and how an inclusive workplace culture starts from the top.
Every year, a rainbow Pride flag flies for about half the summer in front of my house. Pride represents more than a sexual identity for me; being raised in a queer family is also something I’m proud to embrace. I agreed to write this for Kellogg, in line with my usual wrecking-ball personality, to make some space for all of us whose family culture comes from the LBGTQIA+ community, regardless of our own identity. The value I bring to my EMBA cohort is derived from my unique perspective and life experiences, sure, but even more so from my authenticity, bold communication style and intentionality.
Inclusion is a core personal value, but it’s also important for running a successful organization. From my experience, I would describe the ideal team as diverse, welcoming and willing to work together with flexible expectations. In a small company, I am able to cement diversity and inclusion as a top-down priority. I’m fortunate in that our founder created the lab to provide “a place where people want to come to work” so there’s a natural complement between preserving his legacy and hiring for unique perspectives and flexibility.
When I entered Kellogg, it was with the expectation that my cohort would embrace our differences and fully include its members, too. By advocating for this early and “putting myself out there” in group chats as a potential LBGTQIA+ bridge-builder, I hoped to make space for individuality and show support for everyone to be authentically themselves. Cohort 125 met and exceeded my expectations. They fully accepted me and where I come from, so perhaps my approach was a bit overly bold! But the desire to protect others in the community comes from my childhood, as does my push to be fully “out” and not hide important parts of myself and my family.
Tracing my roots
I grew up with a transgender parent in a conservative pocket of rural California, so embracing and defending differences has become my nature. While we traveled frequently to San Francisco and a more welcoming community, back home it often felt dangerous for my mom (he/him/his). He transitioned while I was in elementary school. The other kids were very ostracizing, so I was largely alone outside of class time. He also transitioned on the job, which in the 1990s was downright scary, but necessary as a single parent. By the time I was attending high school across town, my mom was working at a different job which provided him anonymity. So, it felt safer to stay “closeted” about this part of my life despite how important he is to me.
I became fluent at speaking without using any pronouns at all, a compromise I made to still be able to talk about “my mom.” In fact, it wasn’t until the end of undergrad, when I was living nearly 3,000 miles from home when I felt comfortable and safe to talk openly about my mom in the context of his gender. But I will never forget the rush of emotions when I made the announcement to my friends (right before he visited for graduation) and I was met with acceptance, without exception, from the entire living group. What a powerful difference from my childhood. It crystallized for me how I want to make others feel, which is to say, included.
Showing up authentically and unapologetically at Kellogg
As an adult, I also enjoy sharing about my LBGTQIA+ heritage. Promoting understanding and healthy dialogue is key, and I believe it’s also important to use myself and my story to create normalcy around queer families. Although this was a bigger challenge when I was a kid, I’m often the first person with a transgender parent that people have met. There’s also a whole greater LBGTQIA+ community and culture that I’ve experienced, which is fun to share with a respectful audience. Recently, I traveled to London to participate in the global elective Strategies for Growth, which included interviewing local small businesses. By using my network, my elective study team and I connected with a London-based drag company that provides gender-bending performances all over London. With the help of my Toronto and Evanston-based teammates, we presented live in class on both the LBGTQIA+ context and the details of the unique business model and their exciting growth trajectory. It was such a welcoming and rewarding experience to have my culture embraced by both professors and classmates, and I hope to have created a positive and lasting impact even with this one opportunity.
I hope to find occasions to continue the conversation and expose more people to LBGTQIA+ inclusion as a Kellogg alumna after this summer. It’s important to me that incoming students know their cohort will welcome their individuality from whatever unique experiences created their voice and perspective. That’s what creates the rich connections, which are among the most valuable parts I’ve gained during my EMBA experience. It’s also important for Kellogg to be supported in moving the conversation forward on diversity and inclusion. With bold, caring alumni like the members of cohort 125 continuing to push change and promote inclusion, I cannot help but be excited for future Kellogg leaders.