Beth Brooke is a board member at The New York Times, eHealth, Beta Bionics, and Tricolor Holdings. She is one of the most prominent openly LGBTQ+ corporate leaders in the world and formerly served as EY’s Global Vice Chair – Public Policy, Global Board member, and Global Sponsor of Diversity and Inclusion. She has been named to Forbes’ “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list eleven times, and speaks regularly at the world’s most important business forums, including the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.
Beth is a member of Out Leadership’s Global Advisory Board, and she’s been instrumental in many of our initiatives, including our engagement globally with CEOs. A former star college athlete at Purdue, Beth was named to the Board of Directors of the United States Olympic Committee in January 2019. As a person who accomplished a great deal while still in the closet, she says that she had “no idea” how much of her potential she’d been holding in reserve until she came out.
Beth was elected to the board of the New York Times in April 2021.
Please describe how you came to understand that you were LGBTQ+, and then also how you came out, in life and at work.
I was married to a man for 13 years. Not that I was trying to be somebody I wasn’t, but I always, always suspecting there was something else. I’d had a 10-year career in Indianapolis, Indiana, and got transferred to Washington DC, and I bought a condo in Dupont Circle, and suddenly I was surrounded by people who, I felt, I was coming home to. Had I never left Indiana, I don’t know if, or when, I might have acted on what I always knew about myself. It was an interesting time in my life.
I moved to DC and realized that I was gay, but it was probably another 20, 25 years before I actually came out at work. And I eventually came out because of The Trevor Project’s “It Gets Better” campaign. At the time, lots of leading corporations were doing videos to support the campaign, targeted at LGBT+ kids who are at high risk of suicide.
As a prominent straight ally within EY, I was approached to participate in the video. And when I was preparing what I was going to say, I just decided to be myself. I decided that I couldn’t be inauthentic in this message to kids. And I decided to simply say what I thought, to share a message about difference. Because I had been different, very different, my entire life, on many dimensions.
EY had never made me feel excluded, they always valued my difference. And my message to those kids was, “You’re valuable because of your difference, not in spite of your difference.” Difference matters and everyone is different, so hang in there, get through this. Because life will get better, and you need to find, and surround yourself with, people who embrace your differences and value them. And that’s how I came out publicly.
How has coming out has influenced your leadership approach and style?
It’s totally opened me up. I’m a far better leader, and before I came out, I honestly never have guessed that. I’m more approachable, I’m more authentic, I’m actually real. I would say I’m a more passionate leader because I’ve unleashed my potential. And I just didn’t realize that being closeted and holding just this one aspect of yourself back, was … monumental. I didn’t realize it until I got to the other side. It’s probably why I’m so passionate about helping others get to the other side today.
When you’re closeted, you just don’t know how much of yourself the world is not getting. How black and white your life is before you get to the other side. It just blooms into full color. And people can engage you, your entire life just opens up. And so, because of that, I’m a far better leader.
Who are your role models?
I adore Madeleine Albright and Condie Rice. Those are two figures I watch more than anybody else. I’m interested in what they have to say. And it’s probably just because they’re strong women. They’re diplomats. They’re no bullshit people, they call it like they see it. They’re extraordinarily thoughtful but very strong.
If you could have any other job other than the one you have now, what would it be?
It’s a strange question, to me. Because I do what I do for a reason. But I suppose I’d like to be a governor or a mayor, or the President of the World Bank, something like that. What’s important to me is to have a platform to make a difference for people, because leadership matters.
In my early days in Indianapolis, I watched a mayor come into power, he was elected and he just transformed the city. And I had a front-row seat to that, as a corporate stakeholder.
And over the years I’ve watched governors of states – some governors who’ve managed their states through very disruptive times and come out on the other side in a way that has really elevated the state, and created opportunities for its citizens. And then I’ve also seen governors get crucial things wrong, and their states suffer. And it just reinforces to me that leadership really matters.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from a boss?
Don’t expect people to be something they can’t see. As a leader and as a boss, you’ve got to role model the behaviors you want. If you want your employees to be a certain way, they can’t be that if they don’t see it from you. I’ve been able to work for great, inclusive leaders. I’ve been a sponge over my lifetime, and I’ve picked up a lot of traits from a lot of great bosses. How you behave, when you’re the boss, is really important.
How about the most important thing you’ve learned from someone who worked for you?
That you’re not authentic until you’re totally authentic.
If you could tell someone who’s graduating from college or who graduated in June one thing from your career, what would it be?
Relationships matter. And you’ve got to build them based on what you can do for others. And that starts the moment you graduate.
Can you tell a story about a time in your career when someone who was a mentor or helped you take your next step?
When I was just starting my career, I worked with a partner in the Indianapolis office. His name was Steve Miller, and I owe so much to him. He was a great sponsor. He was brilliant, just brilliant.
He was the kind of person who had 10 ideas a minute, and well, maybe one of them was actually good, or practical. And we worked together extremely well, because I just had a knack for figuring out which one of 10 was really good, and then I’d go implement and execute. I just had a ball, working with him.
At one point, he arranged a meeting that gave me exposure to EY’s head of the tax practice from New York. I had the opportunity to present the project we’d been working on, and Steve had sort of primed the pump a bit, in terms of talking with the head of tax about me ahead of time. I didn’t know that at the time, I didn’t know any of it was orchestrated. I just showed up and performed, did what my sponsor thought I was capable of. And I didn’t let him down. And the next day I got a call: “Go to New York,” and I was asked to transfer to Washington DC. And that was just an incredibly pivotal moment, both professionally and personally, and it happened because he created an opportunity for me to succeed.
He taught me to dream, to think big, to challenge the status quo. Every day, he’d have 10 hare-brained ideas, and it taught me to never be satisfied with the way things look. To always be willing to look at things differently, try something new.
Who is your LGBTQ+ hero?
Billie Jean King. As I have gotten to know her over the years, my respect and admiration for what she’s done has grown and grown. Everything she went through, and the courage with which she did it. To have lost everything, pretty much, as a result of being herself. And then to recognize the platform she had, in creating the Women’s Sports Foundation, and to become a prominent voice, and to see what she’s still doing at this time of her life. I think history will judge her very favorably.
What was your first job?
Detasseling corn in the fields of Kokomo, Indiana.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My dad would say, “Girl, you’ve been given gifts, use them.” And, “Don’t get too full of yourself because you’ll fall on your face tomorrow.”
It was a sly way of saying success isn’t good enough. If you’re not doing things that matter, if you’re not doing things that are significant, then success is worthless.
Do you have a motto?
I believe that difference matters and everyone’s different. That drives the way I operate.
What do you think the next big thing for the global LGBT+ community and movement will be?
I think it’ll be multinational corporate power, the private sector power. As companies are becoming more forward-leaning on LGBTQ+ issues, I think that the multinational corporate community will engage on policy issues. The influence of global business working collectively will really, really make a difference. And I think that the corporate is maybe really waking up to that.
What do you think the next big step for you and your career might be?
To find a new platform, to keep trying to make change. I’m retired. But I want to continue to have an impact and reach and work on things that matter.
If you were planning a dinner party and you could invite any five people, living or dead, from history or your life, who would they be and why?
Eleanor Roosevelt, because I’m fascinated by the whole FDR era and what they faced during that time, and specifically the role that she played. Also, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, because I’m very inspired by the different ways they employed the power of civil disobedience to make change. I’d like to invite Jesus, for very similar reasons – it would be wonderful to understand what motivated them.
And I’d also like to invite my grandfather, my mother’s father, who I never met. He died when my mother was pregnant with me. I have a feeling I’m very much like him. There’s this very strong connection that I feel, through stories and pictures.
He was a farmer in rural Indiana during the Depression. Quite a successful farmer and the farm was self-sustaining. And at that time, he invited people who didn’t have food into their home.
He was also a politician and a Democrat. Which I didn’t know until late in my life when my mother confessed to it – because our family had a Republican background.
I would like to just know who he was. Because I have a feeling he was very different.
What are six things you could never live without?
Hmm. Water, food, cats? I love my cats, I could never be without them. My wife, working out, intellectual stimulation, and challenges to tackle. That’s what I need.
What’s your favorite vacation destination?
What are three books you would take to a desert island?
I would stare in the distance forever. And then I’d probably read three John Grisham novels. That’s where I’m at.