For this Pride Month episode of The Events Experience, we spoke with our Founder and Owner, Dan Nilsen, about the importance of Pride Month for our agency and how we ensure everyone feels welcomed and included. Topics include:
- Why inclusion is one of our core values
- How Dan founded the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce
- Dan’s personal story regarding pride
- How other organizations can support the LGBTQ+ community
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Hi, and welcome to The Events Experience, where we take a deep dive into everything event planning. I work for Bishop-McCann, an agency devoted to creating JOY through meetings, incentives, and events for big name brands. On this podcast, myself and our company's experts will discuss all things events, so keep listening to hear all about the latest tips and trends for virtual, live, and hybrid events.
Hi everyone! June is Pride Month, so on this episode of The Events Experience, we have our Owner and Founder, Dan Nilsen, to discuss the importance of Pride Month for our agency and why inclusion is one of our core values. Thank you so much for joining me today!
Oh, it's nice to be here. Happy Pride Month, everybody!
So, Dan, I know that when you were founding our company, you wanted to ensure that inclusion was a part of our culture. To this day, this is one of our core values. How did you, as the founder, instill this value in Bishop-McCann?
Well, you know, 25 years ago, most of us really didn't use words like inclusion, diversity, and now equity is a word that's used a lot. And I actually had just come out as a gay man not long before I started the company. So the idea of being inclusive as a company really evolved over the years. At that time, for me, being more naive to all of this at the time, I really just wanted to create a place where people love to work. Starting my career at Marion Laboratories based here in Kansas City right out of college, I learned the important core values from Marion's Founder, Ewing Marion Kauffman. We called him Mr. K. The first was, "Treat others the way you want to be treated: with dignity and respect." Next, "Share your profits with those who earn it.” And finally, "Give back to your community." But now that I was out by that point, that first one about treating others meant a lot more.
So Pride Month now to me means a lot because back then - I'm going to be honest with you - I really wasn't proud to be gay, and a lot of us weren't. I felt the need to hide it. I thought about that all the time, especially when it came to presenting and representing our company to our clients and prospective clients. You know, people would ask me all the time, "When did you come out?" And for many of us, you actually have to make that decision to come out almost every day, in fear of someone making a decision not to want to work with you because they didn't believe that being gay is right. Or - and this is the important "or" - at least that was my fear. It wasn't necessarily the case all the time. It was my fear. I would never want that to impact our business or the livelihood of all of our associates who didn't choose to work for me as a gay man. But now fast forward to me growing personally, becoming more confident with who I was (who I am), learning how important it was to be a leader in the diversity, inclusion, and equity effort. I really needed to be a good example for others who also might be struggling. So I really shifted in my thinking.
But to close the loop on that topic, I clearly understood that it wasn't just about being gay. It was, and it is, about being different or feeling like you're different. So many, I think, listening to this can relate to feeling different at one or many times in your life. For me, it was most of the time. So this is an important core value at Bishop-McCann because I want everyone to know that I'm proud to say that being different is good. I think it makes you stronger and better as a company. I think it produces better ideas. I think the more people you have participating at a table, coming from different backgrounds and different cultures, the better and the more creative the idea. I mean, just imagine the ideas that would come from a table full of people that had similar backgrounds, same color of skin, or the same culture. It just goes to show you, I think, that the ideas are going to be better if we really pay attention to the people being represented at that table. So that was always very important to me, was that I wanted a seat at the table. But I do want everybody to know that you should be proud to be different no matter what you think makes you different, and you're certainly always welcome here at Bishop-McCann.
Yeah, I absolutely agree that you have to have diversity at the table, and I'm so glad that I get to work somewhere that understands the importance of that. So I know that you also founded the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce. So how did you go about starting this organization and what has this organization been able to accomplish for the LGBTQ+ community?
I joined the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, gosh, way back in 2010 on the suggestion of one of our clients, who's also become a good friend. The large company he works for is really a trailblazer in the diversity and inclusion effort. He told me that joining the national chamber could actually be good for our business, and that was a really different thing for me to do. It's another decision whether or not you want to come out. So I did. I took a chance, and it wasn't until a few years later, I realized the void we had in the Midwest - in Kansas City, specifically, when it relates to business and business owners. So I asked some of my best friends to get involved. They all said yes, and the rest kind of fell into place. We created a board of directors, we hired an executive director, and actually eventually became the fastest growing LGBT Chamber in the country. I think a lot of it happened because we were met with open arms in this community, and just about every major corporation became a corporate sponsor. We're just about to celebrate our 10th anniversary, and I think we're up to over 500 members. My main goal for starting the chamber was so that others wouldn't have to hide who they were in a business setting, kind of like what I talked about before. This is whether you own your own business, you're an employee of a company, or you're an emerging leader of a small or a large company in Kansas City. I'm proud to say that just before we celebrate our 10 year anniversary, I think we did it, and I think we did so much more.
Yeah, to have over 500 members after 10 years is such a huge accomplishment. I mean, that's amazing. So how do you continue to make sure that everyone at our agency feels welcome and included at our company?
Well, it's pretty simple. I think our actions speak much louder than our words do. I mean, you start with a company policy, and our policy welcomes diversity. And anybody who's in a leadership role at Bishop-McCann has to embrace that fully. I actually have the proud role of being the last interview for many of our new hires. Unfortunately, COVID kind of messed that up a bit, but I try to make sure they know that I'm gay, and I don't think anyone's turned down a job at Bishop-McCann because of that.
Right, and I know you also have a specific story regarding one of our clients and their support of our inclusivity. I was just wondering if you could share that story with our audience?
Yeah, and in fact, I can look back on it now and actually call it a good story. But at the time, I wouldn't have said that when I was right in the middle of it. So Hallmark has been a great client of ours for almost 25 years. We did their top incentive trips and the whole family who are the owners of Hallmark (and it's still a privately held company), and most of their top leaders went on the trip every year. I also went every year, so I got to know the family and the leadership really well. One night I was having dinner with my partner at the time and two of my best friends at the same restaurant. This was like 18 years ago. I wasn't out to any of them. And all of a sudden, Don Hall Sr., his sons, Don Jr. and Dave Hall, and all of the top executives came up from downstairs from having a dinner meeting and started heading right for our table to get to the exit. Needless to say, I was freaking out because I knew most of them knew one of my friends well, and they knew he was gay. So just by association, I knew they would figure out that I was gay, too. I know that sounds crazy, but that's just the way it goes, you know? Of course, they all stopped to say hello, shake our hands, and then they left. At that point, I was convinced that we were going to lose the account. I mean, that's how we thought, that's how a lot of us thought. Now, my friends at the table and my partner didn't think that. You know, they really tried to set me at ease. They kind of thought it was a little crazy, but that's just the way it was.
So fast forward to when we were just starting the chamber, I attended the Human Rights Campaign Kansas City Equality Awards. That's an awards ceremony that happens every year honoring Kansas City corporations who do their best when it comes to LGBT equality. And I immediately noticed Don Hall Jr. was there to accept Hallmark's perfect score of 100 for doing everything they could to support the community. So I went up to Don, and after a few niceties, I told him how much it meant to me and the rest of us that he was there personally to accept the award for Hallmark. You know, of course he thanked me, but he really didn't understand why it was so important to me. So I proceeded to tell him the story that happened at dinner that one night at Union Station when they walked by our table, and he couldn't believe it. I told him it meant a lot because we all know Hallmark treats their employees like gold, including their LGBT employees, but suppliers like us (and at that point we had been a supplier for a while), we were in a different situation. I explained that to him. As an external partner, we aren't able to benefit from company policies that protect from discrimination. Essentially, we could be fired for doing work for any reason versus using us because of our exceptional service, value, and all the good reasons why you would hire a company or you would bring on a vendor and keep a vendor if they were doing good work. So he'd never thought of it that way. It really opened his eyes to the situation, so much so that he was the one that approved Hallmark becoming the founding corporate partner of our LGBT Chamber. Don actually spoke at our official chamber launch event, which would have been the first day of our chamber's existence, and he told the story I just told you. Then he told everyone, obviously there, that everyone was welcome at Hallmark. Then later that year, Hallmark actually added LGBT-owned businesses to their International Supplier Diversity Program, which basically is a program that means from that point on, Hallmark set goals and kept track of the money that was spent on using LGBT-owned businesses like they do with all minority-owned businesses they work with. They just added the LGBT component to it. So to say the least, that was an extremely proud moment in time.
Right. I just love that story and the impact that it had. So how can other organizations show their support for the LGBTQ+ community during this month?
I mean, I could list many of the things that would be easy to search for on Google, and I really mean that. There's a lot of resources out there for companies to learn how to support the community. But for me, organizations can show their support by helping just to create awareness that things that make different people feel uncomfortable at work still occur today. And it's not just about being gay. It's about everybody that feels different. In fact, I was just mentoring a young, gay man that told me about a situation he had with a senior-level coworker. Oftentimes at the end of the workday, this coworker would assume that he either had a girlfriend or had the goal of finding a girl to date that night, for example. He said it happened a lot, and he always just kind of avoided it and changed the subject. But it made him very uncomfortable for him to tell the truth because he was afraid of the repercussions at work after he did. So after a few after-work happy hours that I was able to have with him, he finally got the courage to be able to respond to what he said. He said, "Actually, Bob," (I'll use the name), "I don't have a girlfriend. I'm gay, and tonight I'm planning to have dinner with a guy I just started seeing." And you know how Bob reacted?
With complete support. He actually apologized for assuming that he had a girlfriend. From that point on, he asked about his life, understanding that he was gay, and his questions were completely different. But until then, he didn't realize he was making him feel uncomfortable, and I think that kind of stuff happens. So that's the stuff that you don't talk about, the stuff that you probably wouldn't find on Google, that I think everybody needs to be aware of – aware of what they say to people. Don't assume that you're judging a book by its cover. There could be a lot more going on than you're really aware of. But I think we've come a long way. However, the data still says 46% of America's LGBTQ+ workforce are still closeted at work, and it's because they feel being out is, and would be, a serious disadvantage to their job and their career potential. So companies can do many things to show their workforce that it's not only okay to be their authentic selves, but the company encourages them and are proud of them.
I think there are many resources online that can help. I mean, one thing they could do is join their local LGBTQ Chamber, like we have in Kansas City. There are, I think, 54 affiliates around the country that they can join. It says a lot if a company with a large workforce joins an organization like that and communicates throughout the organization that they're joining this. That says a lot from leadership that they've actually made that decision. And one thing, believe it or not, about half of the members of our LGBT Chamber here in Kansas City are straight allies, which might surprise you. So that alone makes our members even more comfortable to go back to work and feel like they can be proud to be out. So again, I think it goes back to why Pride Month is so important to our community because it really does give us one month to focus on why we're proud. And for people like me, you know, at one point I wasn't proud. But I can honestly say that because of the work that so many people have done and the work that we've done here, I can say I'm proud. I'm proud now.
I love that. Well, thank you so much for talking with me today and for sharing why Pride Month is so important for us!
Thanks, Brenna! Happy Pride, everybody!
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