It feels almost inaccurate to write in the headline that NetBiscuits CEO Daniel Weisbeck is 'coming out' as gay, given that he has been open about being a homosexual man in his personal life for quite some time. In fact he has been with his partner now for 14 years – which is impressive, regardless of his sexuality.
However, this is the problem with coming out as being gay. It's not generally a one-time thing. You have to come out to your friends, then your family, then to your colleagues and then whenever you meet somebody for the first time. Of course many people choose not to and choose to rather have select groups of people in their lives that they feel comfortable telling, whilst simply concealing certain facts from other groups that are perhaps a bit more 'risky'.
This is particularly true of the workplace group. And this is even more pertinent when talking about the technology industry, which has a rather embarrassing history of maintaining a certain level of 'bro-ness'. I've written about this before, when talking about the worrying levels of sexism that are still prevalent in Silicon Valley and other global technology firms.
But coming out as a gay person to your colleagues is also incredibly daunting. Will I make other people around me feel uncomfortable? How do I let people know it's not a big deal? Will people assume certain things about me? How will it impact my career? Will I be excluded from things? Will I be discriminated against?
What makes it even more tricky, is that a lot of the time you have to make a public announcement about your sexuality – given that it isn't often something you can tell by just looking at someone. And as a result, people choose to rather just not say anything. As Weisbeck puts it, gay people are becoming the “silent minority” in business.
And of course this isn't right. I'm a big believer in the idea that the more diverse teams are, the more successful teams are and that everyone should openly be able to be who they are in their work environment, without having it impact their progress.
Apple CEO Tim Cook coming out as gay earlier this year made the front page of publications all over the world – bringing both positive and incredibly negative responses (we are looking at you, Russia). But it was such big news because Tim Cook is now the only CEO in the Fortune 500 that is openly gay. There are currently 26 women CEOs. From what I can tell there are 23 CEOs from ethnic minorities.
Whilst the latter two figures are equally worrying compared to the number of straight, white men at the top of Fortune 500 companies – just one openly gay CEO? Really?
This is what Daniel Weisbeck wants to help change. Whilst he recognises that NetBiscuits, a SaaS company specialising in mobile web analytics, isn't in the same category as Apple – he wants to publicly talk about being a gay CEO in the technology industry in the hope that it will not only encourage other CEOs to come out, but to also make those that are gay and starting their careers feel like they have people to look up to.
Weisbeck met me for lunch to discuss his decision to publicly talk about being gay for the first time. He said that Tim Cook coming out made him realise that he too had a responsibility to just put the information out there. He said:
I've known lots of people like Tim Cook who are open about it in their personal lives, but don't speak about it at work. They don't publicly walk in and make an announcement about it. Being a gay man and growing up in any industry can be a challenge. You make strategic choices about when you share information about yourself and you learn to navigate yourself through very difficult situations or when questions come up.
Tim Cook has stood up, he has started a dialogue and that dialogue has to continue. I would never say don't hire a straight, white man, but at the same time I think the best teams are the most diverse ones.
I've always wanted to be a CEO of a company and I'm very excited about that. And with that, talking publicly about being gay, which is something I would never have done during an interview before, will hopefully help other people get to that level and feel comfortable getting to that level.
Diversity programmes are great, but that's happening at a HR level. And that's great, I would never want that not to happen. But we need leaders in the world who make people feel like it's okay for themselves to come out and not have to wait for a HR programme to support them in a bad situation, but to come out in a positive situation. I think what he [Cook] did is help young people in the working world feel okay and make them feel like they can make it.
Speaking to Weisbeck was a fascinating conversation for me, mostly because as a gay man myself, I recognise challenges he spoke about with regards to being open about who you are in the technology industry when you aren't a straight, white male. And that's not to say that it is specific to the technology industry, of course it's not. But as Weisbeck put it, we should be encouraging the technology industry to be a beacon for others.
For example, Weisback was honest about the fact that in all the years working in the technology industry, which has included senior positions at Polycom, Corel and VisionTe, he hasn't always had the best experience when sharing information about his sexuality. He said:
In my career I tended to be silent in the beginning and not share information about myself, while others around me were sharing private information about themselves. But I have become more and more comfortable in my work environment, and that's had some negative effects and it has had some positive effects. For example, I've not been invited to certain client meetings. When those things start to happen, you start to wonder how far that goes inside a company and the effect of that.
I've never lied about it, I've never said I'm not gay. But over the years I've learned to be very crafty at the way I answered my questions until I was comfortable to talk about it. You learn to be strategic.
The women you hire and the more people of ethnic minority you hire, the more they help each other without ever having to state that they are a woman and a CEO. Gay people in those positions have to stand up and say that, otherwise nobody knows. On the flip side gay people can hide it, and that's the bit that I want to help stop. A woman can't go in and hide the fact that she's a woman, she just has to go in and be that and work with it. And I want to see a world where gay people can just go in and be themselves.
And while people reading this may think, so what? Surely it's easy to just not tell people that you are gay? Wrong. Not telling people can be quite stressful,because even though you may just be holding back information, you often do feel like you're lying. Not only that, but how do you engage with people talking about their personal lives when you aren't able to openly talk about yours? Successful relationships, both in your personal life and at work, inevitably involve opening up and sharing details about yourself. When you are gay, leaving that detail out is incredibly tricky.
But does Weisbeck think he'd be a CEO of a growing tech company if he'd been open about being gay at the start of his career? He's not so sure. He said:
If I had had to declare it up-front, I may have made safer choices - like I wouldn't have gone into an environment that could have potentially been hostile [for example, technology]. I grew up with the tech industry and [to start I was working in a] very conservative part of the United States. I never felt physically unsafe, but I knew that it could hamper my career by stating that I was gay.
I grew up in this industry and there are still moments where I feel I need to be strategic about what I say and nobody should have to be in that situation because of who they are. I got to a level in my career that I wanted to get to, I fought really hard and worked for some really brilliant people, and I'm not done. But what I'm not afraid of now is the consequences of talking publicly about it. I'd rather take the consequences of talking about it and help somebody that is back where I was when I didn't talk about it so openly.
I think the more that know there are gay people in IT and the more people that talk about it, the more tolerant people become. That doesn't change people's opinions, but it doesn't give people permission anymore to behave negatively towards gay people inside the job environment. I hope more people come out.
I also asked Weisbeck if he was worried about the result of this interview, in terms of what it means for the people that do business with NetBiscuits. For example, I asked, what would he do if a customer came to him and said that they didn't want to do business with him anymore because he has publicly come out as gay? He said:
My response would probably be non-public. I wouldn't feel the need to make a public statement against somebody, business is business and you make choices every day in it.
But I would be very happy to not do business with a company that felt they couldn't do business with me because I'm gay. I've got a long history in my career that I would like to be measured on and if that's not why you are doing business with me, I don't want to do business with you.
Finally, I asked Weisbeck what message he wanted to put across as a result of the interview. He mentioned a number of things that he felt that were important. For instance, the technology industry is an industry that is in desperate need of talent and that means that we cannot target people that are just white, that are just male and that are exclusively straight. The technology industry needs to recognise that it has a role to play in being seen as a welcoming and exciting place to work for, for people from all backgrounds. And Weisbeck hopes he can play a role in that. He said:
I have two main messages – one is to the gay youth in the world. Be comfortable in who you are and strive to find the people that will support you in your career, because they are out there. The world isn't hostile everywhere.
And I would say to the gay people out there that are in a position, such as myself, that can turn around and give a hand and help those guys forward – do it. That's how we get there. This isn't about coming out so that the world accepts me, this is about coming out to make other people feel more comfortable.
My takeDuring this interview Weisbeck barely mentioned NetBiscuits and he didn't try and pitch me once about the company's products, which proves to me that this isn't a PR trick. This is simply about Weisbeck wanting to do some good for the world and for the tech industry, now that he is in the position he is in. And he should be commended for it.
People may see gay people having a wonderful time in the media and may assume that there isn't a fight to be had, but there really is. Being gay is often seen to be okay if you do it on your own time, in certain areas, with similar minded people, and if you behave in a certain way – but often this doesn't include the workplace.
There are gay CEOs out there who feel like they can't talk about their sexuality because of the industry they work in, and that's incredibly sad. But unfortunately they are also doing a disservice to gay people starting out in their careers. Let's hope the likes of Cook and Weisbeck make others feel like they can come forward and show how the IT industry is a place that is both an accepting and exciting place to work.