Mumbai-born Kayton Bhatia chose to study in the US for an MBA 20 years ago because, as a gay man who had not yet come out, he feared for his safety and worried about his future in India.

“I applied to schools in all the countries that were not hostile to gay people,” says Bhatia, who took his MBA at Philadelphia’s Temple University.

Being gay has not been an issue in Bhatia’s personal life since he made the move to the US and chose to stay. He now lives in San Francisco with his partner and their two children, aged three and six.

However, at work in the Bay area technology sector, Bhatia nonetheless found that while his sexual identity was not overtly discriminated against, there was an atmosphere of don’t ask, don’t tell. He felt it was holding him back as an ambitious manager. So when a colleague mentioned a new leadership programme at Stanford Graduate School of Business for LGBT executives, he jumped at the chance. “I had run away from a country to be who I was,” he says. “So I felt I didn’t need to do this heteronormative thing anymore.”

Stanford’s LGBTQ Executive Leadership Program is now in its third year and has already spawned one of the school’s most active alumni networking groups and inspired programmes in other countries.

Kayton Bhatia jumped at the chance to take an LGBT leadership programme
Kayton Bhatia jumped at the chance to take an LGBT leadership programme

The curriculum combines conventional management education subjects, such as design thinking and leading teams, with those more aimed at fostering inclusion, such as the “authentic leadership” lesson, in which students are coached to be their “genuine self” in the workplace. Another is the design thinking class, a method of thinking innovatively in small teams taught on many leadership courses, but in this context focused on how students can strengthen LGBT networks within and between organisations. Learning is through a combination of classroom teaching, group discussions, team exercises and personal assessment.

Sarah Soule, Stanford’s senior associate dean for academic affairs, was pitched the concept as an extension of other leadership categories already run by the school, such as those aimed at women and ethnic minorities. “It was a no-brainer that we should run with this idea,” she says.

One of the biggest challenges has been keeping down the cohort size, according to Soule. She claims that she could easily double the intake but that would destroy the intimacy that allows students to share their workplace experiences openly and honestly.

Tutors on Stanford’s other leadership courses were also keen to take part because it was an opportunity to learn about the problems faced by LGBT executives. Shelley Correll, a professor of sociology and organisational behaviour who runs a session on leadership challenges, says that as a result of the Stanford course she is now more aware about various behaviours she once took for granted in her job, such as the pronouns she uses for people with different sexual orientations and gender identities.

“I felt like I was teaching a group of advanced PhD students because they were so sophisticated and self-aware,” she says. “I was sharing what I know from my research into the subject but I was also learning from the experiences they shared.”

Meghan Stabler wanted to rebuild her career after transitioning from male to female
Meghan Stabler wanted to rebuild her career after transitioning from male to female © Sandy Carson

Meghan Stabler, who transitioned a number of years ago, was recommended to apply to the Stanford course by a friend when she took on a new role with her employer, CA Technologies, the software group. The job meant she would be working closely with management around the world, including regions where she felt her identity might be less well understood.

For Stabler, the course was an opportunity to improve her professional skills while taking another step to rebuild her professional life after making her transition and coming out as a lesbian. “When I decided to become me, my career took an absolute nosedive,” the 53-year-old says, noting that unemployment in the transgender community is higher than among gay, lesbian and straight people. “This was a way to improve my management experience and prove to myself that I am still worthy of employment.”

Students on Stanford’s LGBT leadership programme
Students on Stanford’s LGBT leadership programme © Elena Zhukova

Stabler admits to feeling some trepidation on entering the classroom, where she was one of two transgender students in her cohort.

She was surprised how much she learnt from classmates with different sexual orientations and gender identities. “It was an affirming course, where I could share the challenges we were all facing in our own context,” she says, noting that she valued hearing what coming out meant for people from a much younger generation. “I learnt that it was not about who you identified as but getting the job done wherever you work.”

Stanford’s course has helped inspire similar courses in schools in other countries. For example, Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business in Canada starts an LGBTQ+ Professional Leadership Program this year. According to the Canadian Board Diversity Council, a business campaign group, the proportion of executives self-identifying as LGBT serving on the boards of the country’s 500 largest companies decreased from 2.1 per cent in 2016 to 1.6 per cent last year. The aim of Smith’s programme is to “move the dial” and increase the talent pool, according to Tina Dacin, director of the school’s Centre for Social Impact, which oversees the one-week course.

Lawrence Spicer now speaks publicly about sexual identity
Lawrence Spicer now speaks publicly about sexual identity

What happens after such courses is as important as what you learn in class, according to Lawrence Spicer, vice-president of audit for personal and commercial banking at Royal Bank of Canada and an alumni of the Stanford course.

The 52-year-old, who worked at RBC for 18 years before coming out as gay, credits the course for encouraging him to speak at external leadership events about issues of sexual identity in the workplace and providing connections to do this through the alumni group.

The strength of the Stanford brand as a teaching institution was important in giving him credibility, he says. “When you mention that you have been on a course run by Stanford, people tend to prick up their ears.”

The alumni network has assisted former course participants with introductions in different industries and countries. Kayton Bhatia credits it with helping him to move after many years in the technology industry to a role in the traditional retail sector. He is now senior director of digital products and operations at the US supermarket group Albertsons.

“I am in touch with the network almost every day, texting and Facebooking people,” Bhatia says. “I feel like I have a community of friends for life.”

This article has been amended to reflect that transgender people assert that their actions are best described as confirming their true gender identity, not changing gender, as originally stated.

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