Voices of LGBTQ business leaders amplified thanks to NYU Wagner alum

Rhodes Perry at the NYC Administration for Children’s Services 3rd Annual LGBTQ & Ally Awards Ceremony at the NY State Surrogates Court Building in May, 2015. Photo © Justine Kelly-Fierro
Rhodes Perry at the NYC Administration for Children’s Services 3rd Annual LGBTQ & Ally Awards Ceremony at the NY State Surrogates Court Building in May, 2015. Photo © Justine Kelly-Fierro

Twenty years ago, there were few possibility models for transgender or queer entrepreneurs. Fortunately, in today’s evolving global workforce, LGBTQ leaders and entrepreneurs are carving a path for their successors to maximize their success by being authentic in the workplace.

Enter NYU Wagner alum Rhodes Perry (MPA 2006), founder of leadership and management consultancy Rhodes Perry LLC and host of The Out Entrepreneur podcast.

For his podcast each week, Rhodes sits down with a different out entrepreneur to discuss their personal and professional journey. His mission statement: “To share actionable advice, and introduce the listener to some of the 1.4 million LGBTQ entrepreneurs crushing it in business, all while bringing their whole selves to work.”

When Rhodes set up his consultancy in 2015, he was looking for mentorship from individuals with similar narratives to his own. He hoped to learn from successful entrepreneurs who were also LGBTQ, and pass these lessons on to those a few steps behind him. The podcast has been the perfect format. Since January 2017, he has interviewed nearly 100 “Out Bosses” including the likes of Dori Clark, author of Entrepreneurial You, Thomas Sanchez, CEO of Social Driver, and Bob Witeck, founder of Witeck Communications.

Rhodes credits NYU Wagner’s Office of Career Services with helping him figure out how to put his learnings into action while being authentic at work.

“I was in my early twenties, I had already transitioned, and I was really nervous about whether I could even talk about my gender history on the job in an era when there were almost no protections for trans people,” he says. “Career Services just really helped me understand how I could work with an employer who was going to understand me and let me have that space to run.”

As a student at NYU Wagner, Rhodes was very focused on LGBTQ policy—a narrow but growing field in the early 2000s. Although there was skepticism on what kind of jobs were available in that field, Rhodes was determined to make one.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, Rhodes was recruited from the White House Office of Management and Budget, where he was working on social safety net programs like social security and disability insurance programs, to serve as the first ever policy director at PFLAG National: an influential LGBTQ advocacy group that played a major role in shaping social policy under the Obama Administration.  

Rhodes Perry, photo © Justine Kelly-Fierro
Rhodes Perry, photo © Justine Kelly-Fierro

“The work accomplished between 2008 to 2016 was unprecedented, especially for transgender & non-binary people,” Rhodes says. “It was an honor to develop PFLAG’s policy director role and help shape the department.”

He went on to set up an LGBTQ Policy and Practice Office at the New York City Administration of Children’s Services, the nation’s largest municipal child welfare and juvenile justice agency. Through this role, he helped establish and implement the country’s most progressive LGBTQ child welfare policy leading to improved services for LGBTQ young people in care. After four years with the City, he realized  the potential to help similar organizations across the country, and he decided to take the entrepreneurial leap by starting his business, Rhodes Perry Consulting, LLC.

Rhodes says he sought to answer one question with his consultancy: “How to help leaders, visionaries, change agents implement their lofty diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments and transform them into daily practices.” Providing an answer to this question is essential for the organization of the future. Studies show that the bottom line is positively impacted when people who have long felt excluded in the workplace start to feel they belong: they are more productive, remain in jobs for longer, and take fewer days off work.

The November 2016 presidential election raised some apprehensions for Rhodes and the future of his business. However, to his surprise, his workload has exponentially increased since the election. Calls soliciting his expertise followed the same basic script: “There are messages coming out of Washington that conflict with what our values are as a business, and we want to get out ahead of that messaging: help!”

“Leadership matters,” he says. “When there’s a void of it at the highest level of the federal government, business is an important counterbalance.”

Rhodes is happy to see LGBTQ policy-specific courses such as LGBTQ Issues in Public Policy being offered at Wagner. As a student here from 2003-2006, he participated in the school’s progressive evolution on trans and non-binary inclusion.

“We helped pass gender identity protections for the school, and we helped implement a policy around student housing that was gender-inclusive,” he says. “A lot of my approach was informed by what I was learning at Wagner around policy change.”

Looking at how far NYU has continued to develop, he is proud. “I am grateful that NYU continues to try and push the envelope in ways that other institutions I’ve been a part of have not,” he says. “It’s exciting to be an alum from a school that really wants to do good in the world and inspire students to do that as well.”

Rhodes’s first book, Belonging at Work: Everyday Actions You Can Take to Cultivate an Inclusive Organization, is coming soon this fall. Learn more at rhodesperry.com/book.