Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Changemakers: Allie Fleder

The travel entrepreneur on her successful startup and being out in business

Pod Changemakers Allie Fleder 1140x36

Standing in front of almost 100 strangers, all eyes on her, Allie Fleder had a moment’s doubt. Who would she become if she shared her story with people she’d hardly spoken to – let alone had chance to make friends with? It was the first week of her MBA at London Business School and expectations were high.

“As I stood up, I thought: ‘What the hell am I doing? I’ve only just met these people – I’m just getting to know them. This is way too personal!’”

So she sat back down. 

“I was worried I’d be seen as the class dyke,” laughs Allie. 

But one man came to the front to stand beside her and another started clapping. The applause soon spread and Allie decided to take the stand. Reluctantly, but with a renewed sense of purpose, she began to speak. 

“I ended up telling 90 strangers my ‘coming out’ story. When I finished, everyone in the room came to give me a hug. It was such a positive reception.” 

Tech adventures in Latin America

Born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, Allie Fleder, now 32, had come to London Business School looking for a change. She just hadn’t realised she’d find it in the LGBTQ+ community.

Before her MBA, Allie was Chief of Staff to the CEO of the Council of Americas in New York, travelling extensively across Latin America and gaining inside knowledge of how multinational and local companies operate in the region. “I was working with presidents, ex-presidents and ministers across Latin America, including senior leaders of the Obama administration,” she explains. 

Having spent a lot of time in Cuba, where Obama was beginning to change US policy to open up opportunities for US businesses, Allie began working with tech businesses to moderate the deals they struck with the Cuban government.

 “I really enjoyed working for tech companies, so decided to switch careers,” she says. After months of research, Allie applied to London Business School in 2016.

And after sharing her story that day in September 2017, Allie felt emboldened. But she never dreamt that her identity as a queer woman would end up shaping her career trajectory as decidedly as it did.

“Before I came to the School, it never crossed my mind to ‘come out’ in a work environment. I'd never heard of that concept.” 

Up until then, she’d never joined any LGBTQ+ communities and was unaware that LBS had a large LGBTQ+ population within the MBA programme.  

Before long, Allie was helping plan EUROUT, Europe’s leading LGBTQ+ business conference. “With around 400 participants, it’s a huge event,” she says. “Part of it is a recruiting fair, where companies large and small are there looking to recruit a diverse mix of candidates. It sounds silly, but I walked into this fair and immediately started tearing up. I could not believe that there were companies that would be interested in you because of your identity. It was amazing to me that this could be an element of recruiting.” 

 
"I walked into the recruitment fair at EUROUT and immediately started tearing up"

It should be obvious, Allie says, but homogeneity – only recruiting people from one school or background or identity – is bad for business. “I've recommended that not only names of people and schools be removed from résumés , but names of companies too, as recruiters get so swayed by seeing Amazon or Facebook or Google that they don’t really see anything else – but of course those companies are recruiting from the same top schools, bringing in the same type of people.”

Allie’s newfound voice in the LGBTQ+ business community initially worried her family. “My mom said: ‘Allie, I don’t know if you should do this – you’re suddenly identifying yourself as LGBT across your career and this is going to be online.’” She was worried about the repercussions, that Allie would be pigeonholed or discriminated against. “My mom comes from a different generation. I told her this wasn’t something you had to hide anymore in the business world.” 

The genesis of a travel start-up

In autumn 2018, Allie and fellow MBA student Eliska Mallickova came up with the idea of creating luggage delivery service Sherpa. The idea came about when they were travelling in Europe. “We were students, staying in Airbnbs, but we had the same problem everywhere we went – an 11am check-out time and a flight or train at 8-9pm. So we were lugging our bags everywhere. We ended up wondering why there was there no Uber for your luggage.”

Allie and Eliska went to the LBS Hackathon fund, won the competition, and had a bit of cash to build up the idea and team. In a little over a year, they were in conversations with a company in the US about acquiring Sherpa. And after a lot of deliberation they made the decision to sell.

In the past year, Allie’s identity has completely shifted. “I went from doing Latin American policy to travel entrepreneurship. Having the infrastructure of LBS has been incredible.”

Allie acknowledges that as a white woman living in New York, she’s a privileged member of the LGBTQ+ community. “Coming out isn’t always the right thing for everyone. Some in the School’s Out in Business club [of which Allie was president while at LBS] are going back home to very different realities. They know for a fact that coming out would hurt their career, so they didn’t want to be photographed at events or listed online. It wasn’t going to go on their résumé and they needed to keep their heads down.”

But even Allie has faced discrimination in the workplace. “At some companies I’ve done consulting for, there’d be jokes about me being a dyke, when I haven’t made that joke, or about queer sex. I respond by talking to them privately about how it makes me feel.” 

Are any businesses impressing on the diversity front? “Monzo sponsored EUROUT in 2018, when 30% of their staff identified as LGBTQ+ – they’ve done so well by making diversity important early on in the recruiting process. If you do it from the beginning, it will attract people who feel comfortable in that space.”

 
“This isn’t something you have to hide in the business world any more”

“Since coming out and actively aligning myself in a public way with organisations by speaking on LGBTQ panels, I have elements of my résumé and LinkedIn profile that say ‘LGBTQ+ leader’. The fact that it’s all out there is such a weight off my shoulders.”

The School was a place of growth for Allie. “It was great for me in so many ways, particularly in terms of entrepreneurship and in becoming part of the LGBTQ+ community. I had a place to explore that part of my identity safely with people who, when they see I’m feeling nervous, will come up and give me a hug. The skills I built and the empathy I developed has paved the way for how I lead.”

What can business leaders do to be more inclusive? Allie’s top tips

  • Recruit outside the box. As you seek to hire the most qualified candidates, diversify where you post and hire and who does the hiring. Consider advertising at women’s or LGBTQ+ conferences and job fairs, and ensure your interview panels are also diverse.
  • Hire for objective criteria versus ‘culture fit’. Screening candidates for supposed culture fit can itself lead to unconscious bias that results in surrounding ourselves with people like us. 
 
  • Send small signals that go a big way. Consider putting a rainbow flag on your desk during Pride month or including your preferred pronouns in your email. Most people might not notice – but minorities do, and it matters.
  • Diversity on a team isn’t enough. Create a culture that emphasises learning and open communication. By actively working to remove barriers, we ensure minority opinions are heard and that we can reap the benefits of diversity. 
 
  • Practice the art of productive confrontation. If a minority is being singled out, immediately address the situation by having a direct but empathetic conversation with the offender. Know when to set a boundary with the person (and, if necessary, when to report the behaviour). 
  • Take action. Every company, institution, city, country and team is different, because people are different – and diversity comes down to people. Stop debating whether quotas or gender-neutral bathrooms ‘work’ and try out different initiatives. If they work for your team, great; if they don’t, scrap them and keep moving. Don't waste time; take action today.