By T.J. DEGROAT
©2000 My Internship
Aug. 15, 2000
Today’s business world is home to female CEOs, African-American presidents and Latino chairpersons. But despite how inclusive corporate America considers itself, there remains at least one taboo: many gay professionals are in the closet.
In July 1999, when Lowell Selvin became CEO of Online Partners and the Gay.com Network, he was not just fueling his passion for the high-tech business world, but he was publicly serving the gay community as a role model and advocate.
"There is great fear in gay and lesbian professionals and business people in coming out," Selvin says. "As a teen-ager growing up in today’s world, you’re hearing Republicans talking about inclusion but not mentioning gays and lesbians. You hear Dr. Laura telling you everything about you is wrong. It plays out with professionals, too."
When Selvin began his career developing information systems at Light Signatures in the early 1980s, he feared coming out. "Even though I was in a long-term relationship, and still am, the last thing I could do was come out," he says.
During the past two decades, tolerance has increased and Selvin decided he couldn’t hide part of himself from co-workers. Now, he always tells potential partners and clients he is gay before beginning a business alliance. "I decided to come out in waves. It’s a continuing management process," he says.
Despite increased corporate diversity initiatives there still is a long way to go, Selvin says. In his last position as CEO of a network marketing company, advisors repeatedly suggested that Selvin remain in the closet.
"We’ve made some improvements in the world of fashion, media and even politics, but I think the business world has a very long way to go," he says. "There are important contributors to businesses who are afraid to come out. They are CEOs, they are senior vice presidents and they are also mailroom clerks and assistants. So my underlying personal mission is to use this job to build acceptance."
Acceptance is also a mission of the company, which provides a place for the gay and lesbian community to come together. The San Francisco-based Gay.com provides interactive services such as news, shopping and chat to about 2.6 million unique visitors each month.
The network and its parent company, Online Partners, recently increased its global presence when it opened an office in Buenos Aires – an area not known for tolerance of gays - to coincide with the launch of a Spanish-language site.
There are offices in New York, Paris and London, as well. There also is a French-language Web site and the company is about to launch a Portuguese-language site.
Since Selvin joined Gay.com, revenue has increased five-fold. In March, he raised the largest amount of funding for gay-identified business, raising $23 million from investors such as Chase Capital Partners, Flatiron Partners and The New York Times.
Selvin came to the company with about 20 years of experience in business management and consulting. After graduating in 1981 with a specialized degree in human factors engineering from the University of Illinois, he worked with Fortune 500 companies such as Johnson & Johnson and MGM. He served as CEO for Arbonne International and as a practice director for Arthur Andersen Business Consulting.
Selvin believes that in the business world, 80 percent of success is perseverance, but the remaining 20 percent is timing and good fortune. Both factors came together last summer when he Online Partners and Gay.com were looking for a CEO.
"I always said when I hit 40 I would retire to teach and consult, but after just a few months I realized I wasn’t ready to stop," he says.
The position was a perfect fit for Selvin, who always had been an activist. He is a founder of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, serves on the Capital Committee for the Human Rights Campaign and is a committee member for AIDS Project Los Angeles.
The company is involved with youth organizations such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, and works to create "a world-class site that presents a great face for gay and lesbian youth. How do you reach the 18-year-old in Topeka, Kan.?"
Selvin’s ultimate goal is to reach people. "To have people say, ‘Wow, they’re Gay.com and they’re a great, well-run business," I think sends a very strong message."