LGBTQ+ Inclusion, Mental Health And Well-being – Steve Keith
To mark PRIDE month, we’re sharing the stories of inspirational business school students and alumni around the world who are using their business school experiences to make the world a more inclusive, place.
Steve Keith is the founder and director of Curious Consulting. A former secondary school teacher, Steve’s career has always been focused on how to best support young people as they take their first independent steps in the world. From teaching and coaching, to providing graduate careers support and advising educational institutions on their branding and recruitment strategies, the focus has always been on creating environments that enable the next generation to thrive.
Curious Consulting was launched in 2018, with the aim of finding ways to create more inclusive, diverse and equal workplaces where all young people feel like they belong. Through his work, Steve specialises in LGBTQ+ inclusion, and mental health and well-being.
Steve also launched the Queer Student Awards in 2021. The event is an annual celebration which recognises and shines a positive spotlight on the many talented LGBTQ+ students and allies proudly leading in their lives and in the communities around them.
Steve gained his MSc Management at Durham University Business School, as well as his BSc Geography, Durham University (2001-2004) at Collingwood College.
Could you tell us a bit about your business and what it does?
I launched my business in 2018 after burning out in a corporate role that I had been successfully working in for almost eight years. The business originally focused on working with student employers to create engaging employer branding and recruitment marketing campaigns for young people exploring their career options after completing school, college and university. However, after the pandemic, I made the decision to pivot the work that I do with them towards diversity, equity, inclusion (DE&I) and belonging.
This intentional shift leaned into my own experiences as a cisgender gay man, the first in their family to go to university, who lives with anxiety and depression. I now work with the same group of employers to create brand experiences that use my own lived experiences to help them better connect with a more diverse group of young people exploring their apprenticeship, internship and graduate programmes.
In the last two years I have gained several qualifications in mental health first aid and workplace advocacy, and launched The Queer Student Awards – an annual celebration of LGBTQ+ youths and the educational spaces and employers which help them to thrive regardless of their sexuality and gender identity. I also host two podcasts on which I interview people from a diverse range of backgrounds and careers.
What has your experience been of launching a business as an LGBTQ+ founder?
One of my biggest frustrations around DE&I work in most businesses has always been that they tend to focus their work heavily on the diversity characteristics that we can see. Gender and ethnicity are of course a priority; however, I feel very strongly that that doesn’t mean the hidden diversity characteristics including sexuality and disability aren’t important.
Re-focusing my work onto the LGBTQ+ community and mental health has been very challenging at times. In my experience, a lot of employers really struggle to tackle these in a meaningful way – there’s a lot that they can say and do wrong which isn’t something they are comfortable with particularly when they are risk averse and/or operate on a global scale. For example, it’s much easier for them to slap a rainbow flag onto a logo during Pride month and to talk about well-being and mental health in terms of perks and benefits, than it is to tackle important issues such as transphobia and burnout being experienced by their people. It makes selling the work that I do – which operates on a much deeper, people-centred level – harder. There are a lot of doors closed in your face, and being told that whilst they see the value of my work that it ‘isn’t a priority right now.’
How did your business education help you launch this business venture?
I consider myself to be a very creative person. I love thinking about solutions to problems and issues in the workplace for young people. Whilst I see the huge importance of financial planning and accounting, it’s not something that I consider to be a strength of mine. The units that I studied whilst completing my MA in Management at Durham Business School provided a strong foundation which I often rely upon to ensure that the work I tend to put off, gets done and gets done properly.
Other units I studied covering the importance of business marketing have been integral to both launching my business five years ago, but also in continuing to build my personal brand. The dissertation that I completed focused on the impact of ‘emotional labour’ on employees and the theory behind this has been something that I often find myself referring to especially in the work I do delivering workshops on supporting mental health in the workplace with my clients.
Have you experienced any unique challenges from being an LGBTQ+ entrepreneur?
Absolutely, and to be completely honest most of these challenges have been the result of homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic views and opinions that people still hold, and feel it is acceptable to share with you. Since launching The Queer Student Awards in 2021, I’ve received entries for the awards that have intentionally misgendered people and some which have attempted to publicly ‘out’ someone. There have been several comments left on social media which openly discriminate against and share hateful words against the LGBTQ+ community. I created the awards to provide a safe, inclusive space for LGBTQ+ youths to be celebrated and to celebrate themselves. It’s always upsetting when someone decides to try and take that away from them. Safeguarding them is an incredibly important part of the work that I do, and if that means emailing the headteacher of a school to ask if their pupils have been educated on LGBTQ+ inclusion after I’ve received an email from one of them asking ‘why don’t we have a straight Pride’ (true story) then I will do it. I shouldn’t have to.
How important is it to get more LGBTQ+ people into executive roles, and how can we do so?
Getting more people from any marginalised group into executive roles is important, but to focus on those from the LGBTQ+ community I’d say it’s important in terms of visibility of role models within an organisation.
That said, I think that LGBTQ+ people in executive roles have a responsibility to not only ‘send the ladder back down’ but to also help other LGBTQ+ people to build the confidence they need to climb up the ladder too. There are still a huge number of people who either don’t feel comfortable sharing their sexuality in the workplace, or who have chosen to go back into the closet when starting a new job. That’s a personal choice, and it has to be respected, however I will argue that this choice is heavily influenced by whether or not an LGBTQ+ person feels safe and comfortable to be themselves at work.
It’s therefore important that LGBTQ+ executives recognise that being seen isn’t enough. I’ve seen some fantastic work from employers who have created reverse mentoring programmes where older and younger generations spend time learning from each other, working together to make their workplace a space where LGBTQ+ people can be their true selves, and thrive as a result.