The following are excerpts from Nick Alm's student commencement address delivered May 14 at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. Alm graduated with a major in management information systems.
It means so much to represent the Class of 2018. You are all people I look up to and respect more than you know. I wouldn't be here without you. ...
Today I'm going to share my truth and how the Carlson School brought me closer to it. Part of my truth is that I am a gay, first-generation college student who didn’t come to the University of Minnesota because of rankings or degree offerings, but because of its reputation as a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender friendly community. Business school felt like a natural step for the inner high achiever in me. For much of my pre-adult years, I made distractions from my identity by having a 4.0, by being an officer of every student group, and by essentially working towards being a professional type A person.
If people asked me about having a girlfriend I would just say, “Do you think I have time for that? I'm really busy.” I thought if I made my way to the top, if I became a CEO, then I could finally be honest about who I was, because I would be protected by my status and my authority. Money and power, after all, are the keys to happiness, am I right? They're not. From a young age I was the flamboyant, girly boy with a high-pitched voice who would let my girlfriends do my makeup on the bus. And I was bullied because of it. I learned from a very young age that being my true self would pose a threat to my emotional and physical safety.
Those experiences went on for years. It's kind of like living every day like it's your freshman orientation. You really just want everybody to accept you, you want to fit in, and you’re very cautious about what you share with people and when you share it. Today I still get this deep fear that if I put my real, authentic self out for the world, it will be met with the same pain that I received as a child. It’s been hard to unlearn this.
Within my first year of Carlson my mind and body were in complete disagreement about the path we had chosen and for what reasons. It felt like my life was falling apart all around me. If it wasn’t for my parents, as well as Carlson’s advisers and career coaches, I probably would have opted for a different path. It’s important to call out that the support that I had is somewhat unusual. Since I was 17 I could be honest with my parents, something that too many LGBT youth don’t have. It’s important that I make it clear that my story is in many ways much more advantaged and positive than other LGBT people, especially for transgender folks, LGBT people of color.
Seeing the bigger picture
There were two moments that allowed me to start seeing the bigger picture – the first was when I met my mentor, Charlie Rounds. Charlie — a successful businessperson and gay and married. I was 19 years old before I knew anybody who had those qualities. Today I get to work full time with him on an organization that we started to help LGBT people globally start businesses in the 77 countries where you can still be legally denied employment based on your gender and sexual orientation. The second was when I found myself in a Carlson breakout room with four other LGBT individuals and we all mutually acknowledged that this battle we were fighting was impacting our ability to succeed and thrive in this highly competitive environment.
We started a group called Compass. This act of courage turned into another, and another, and then 30 people showed up to our first meeting. Then six Fortune 500 companies sponsored us. Then we organized the Carlson LGBT alumni reunion, the first of its kind. Carlson was the first college at this university to do such an event, and we brought back 40 years of LGBT alumni. Brian Gerhardson, a panelist from the class of 1986, who at the time believed he was the only LGBT person in the entire student body, on the day of our reunion committed $6 million dollars to the Carlson School, the fourth largest gift in our history, for the purposes of a scholarship benefiting anyone, LGBT or not, that's interested in improving the lives of the LGBT community.
Compass is now a structural part of this university. The Carlson School has put their full weight and support behind us. Any LGBT student or ally who sets foot in our school will know right away that whatever your story is, whatever your challenges are, you are wanted, you are valued, and you’re going to be the person that you have always wanted to be. It needs to be noted that multiple people who contributed to Compass in significant ways were not able to be public about their involvement because of fear that they will lose emotional and/or financial support from their families.
I need to note that as we built this group we had many conversations with people in and outside of the LGBT community. We learned that as a woman, it’s an isolating and lonely feeling when you look at Fortune 500 CEOS and you see that less than 5 percent of them are women. Or that 1 in 3 women between the ages of 18-34 will be sexually harassed at work. And outside of those numbers, I’ve learned that many women fight against an underlying tone within the business community that they have something more to prove before they can be on an equal playing field with men.
Are we OK with that?
So I have to ask the parents, siblings, and friends of women: Are we OK with that? As human beings? This journey helped us learn from people of color as well. In 2016, economic development nonprofit Greater Minneapolis - St. Paul surveyed 1,200 local professionals of color about the metro job market. Twenty-two percent of respondents said they would likely leave the state in the next five years. Those who plan to leave cited a lack of diversity and cultural awareness as a primary factor, and that it influenced their decision even more than our cold weather. Are we OK with that? I ask because we get to decide if this is acceptable or not. We also learned from straight white men, about battling mental illness, about losing loved ones and family members, and from everyone about all kinds of battles we fight in silence. Grades, classes and group projects are really just a small part of our story here.
The Carlson School has made incredible progress towards creating an environment where we can tell our truth in a way the helps foster a more empathetic, compassionate, and intelligent community of critical thinkers. Businesses and organizations that choose to confront the hard truths and create these compassionate communities ultimately do better from a financial standpoint. I encourage you to read the data. Most importantly, creating inclusive communities is simply the right thing to do.
Our generation is tasked with solving some of the world’s grand challenges. When people look back in 30 years and say, “Wow, business has changed. I now see business as playing a serious role in the betterment of our world,” they're going to mention Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc. But when people ask who did lead that change, they will say The Carlson School. We are going to be the leaders who are willing to extend a hand, build a bridge, and seek a deeper understanding of who we all are and the truth we all carry. This legacy is ours. Speaking your truth is the best thing you can do for yourself, the organization you work for, and ultimately the world that we all share. When we can all find a way to share our truth, we will be a force for good. Thank you.
Nick Alm is the co-founder and executive director of Mossier, a nonprofit with a dual ambition of boosting LGBT rights around the globe through economic empowerment while also creating an intergenerational activism movement in Minnesota.