Interview: Todd Sears - Founder of Out Leadership


Founder of Out Leadership, Todd Sears tells Kaitlin McPhee that Hong Kong businesses are failing its LGBTI workforce

With the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US and the launch of Asia’s first LGBTI benchmark index for equal opportunities and corporate inclusion, there appears to be a promising global shift toward diversity and inclusion. However, a closer look at Hong Kong’s Workplace Inclusion Index 2015 reveals that the most diverse and inclusive companies are expat – heavy multinational businesses. None of the high performers were strictly local businesses. “Chinese and Hong Kong-based companies are completely absent, not only from the index, but from Out on the Street and Out Leadership as well,” says Todd Sears, the founder of Out Leadership, a global organisation that advocates for equal opportunities and representation of LGBT members in business. “We have not been able to interest one single Chinese company to get involved with Out Leadership. Asian companies have LGBT employees and at some point they’re going to have to acknowledge that and start supporting them.”

The Hong Kong LGBT Workplace Inclusion Index's top 10 performing companies

It’s in the best interest of companies to create an inclusive workplace that’s free from discrimination. Not just for moral and ethical reasons, but for economic ones as well, Sears explains. “We estimate the global LGBT market to be a three trillion dollar marketplace, and from a talent opportunity perspective, the market is roughly 175 million people, roughly the population of Brazil. LGBT consumers pay attention to the brands that support them.” 

Fostering a supportive work environment also reaps internal dividends. “There are significant studies that show coming out of the closet allows you to get promoted more quickly. You’re more engaged and you’re much more trusted by your colleagues. If you can be authentic, you are much more likely to succeed.”

Sears knows this first hand. He began his career as a banker on Wall Street and he initiated the first private banking team to focus exclusively on the LGBT market. “After that team brought in USD$1.5 billion to Merrill Lynch in its first four years, I decided to build something new that didn’t exist,” recalls Sears. “There was no real opportunity for senior LGBT bankers to engage around LGBT equality from a business perspective. So I got six senior bankers together and asked if I built a summit based on three key things – business, talent and equality – would that be interesting? Would you come? And they said yes.” Sears then proceeded to launch the first Out on the Street summit with six firms and 175 senior LGBTI and allied bankers focusing on the advancement of LGBT representation in senior-level positions, as well as the development of global talent acquisition programmes for emerging LGBTI leaders. “Now, five years later, we’ve had 150 CEOs and 4,000 senior leaders speak at our summits around the world,” says Sears.

Out on the Street 2014. Image: Out Leadership

The summit’s success in New York led to its cross-border expansion into Hong Kong, making it the first such event in Asia. 2015’s summit, held in December, included panellists from top firms such as Thomson Reuters, Standard Chartered, Bloomberg Television, HSBC, Hogan Lovells and McKinsey & Company, as well as various religious leaders, to discuss the impact of LGBTI inclusiveness in business and faith communities around the region. The group also launched their talent initiative OutNext, which ‘is the first global LGBT Next Generation talent development programme for junior leaders’, Sears informs us. “We connect them to career sponsors and provide leadership training.”

Why was Hong Kong chosen to host the summit? “The primary reason for holding it here was because of the depth of financial services available. Many multinationals have their Asia bases in HK, which gives [the event] potential.” However, Sears adds, “Between New York, London and Hong Kong, Hong Kong is definitely last because LGBT protections are not offered to its citizens. One of the biggest challenges in Hong Kong is what comes from the religious Christian right, which seeks to block LGBT inclusion. It’s not just bad for the citizens, it’s bad for business. It’s time for Hong Kong to change and join the 21st century.”

Out Leadership Find out more about LGBTI inclusion in the workplace at


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