When Fran Benjamin ('14) traveled to Italy last year to assess local companies' policies surrounding LGBT employees, he thought he might find himself in a country more forward-thinking than the U.S.

"We think of Western Europe as being progressive, accepting, with social policies in place," he says. "But Italy — and Western Europe, to a certain extent, but Italy in particular — is a little behind the times." Indeed, no legislation exists in Italy to guarantee full equal rights for LGBT people, though employment discrimination was officially banned in the European Union in 2000.

Benjamin was in Italy with two other Anderson students as part of UCLA Anderson's Applied Management Research (AMR) program, doing work on behalf of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that educates companies across the globe about LGBT rights in the workplace. As part of the same project, two of Benjamin's other teammates traveled to India. (All full-time UCLA Anderson students complete an AMR project in lieu of a master's thesis.)

Out & Equal produces an annual summit to generate global awareness and action toward fully inclusive workplace equality. The organization has helped more than 500 multinational companies adopt domestic partner health and family leave benefits, antidiscrimination policies and diversity training. It's still legal in 29 states to fire someone based on his or her sexual orientation; an impressive 91 percent of Fortune 500s now have in place nondiscrimination policies for sexual orientation. That figure was just five percent in the early 1990s when Out & Equal began its work.

Out & Equal approached UCLA Anderson on the recommendation of its then-chief development officer, Kevin Jones. The Anderson group was assigned to help the organization expand its global reach. "We typically work with a Fortune 500 company, and our constituents, while U.S.-based, are in hundreds of different countries," says Tony Talbot, Out & Equal's chief financial officer. "Over time, what they've been asking us is not just about nondiscrimination policy in the U.S. but how do you implement that globally?"

Tony Talbot
"The idea that you could have the caliber of the MBA team we had do the assessments and the recommendations…that's not something we would have had the ability or time to do. It was a great opportunity for us."

Having made strides in the U.S. at such mega-corporations as Clorox, where an informal employee pride resource group was officially embraced by the company, and at Xerox, where leadership appeals to employee caucus groups defined and set goals for LGBT inclusion, the organization wanted to use Italy and India as data points for Western Europe and South Asia. These countries would serve as proxies to find out how the company could best implement its programs in regions where it had yet to partner.

"This would give us a chance to prove out how we could work in those environments," Talbot says. But the amount of research necessary to make real recommendations was something the small nonprofit simply didn't have the time for.

"The idea that you could have this caliber of MBA team do the assessments and the recommendations…that's not something we would have had the ability or time to do," adds Talbot. "It was a great opportunity for us."

Although the AMR partnership was the result of a selection process (the team chose a handful of companies it wanted to work with and were placed with one at random), for each team member, the project was personal.

"I have a family member in the LGBT community," says Lauren Zimmer ('14), who worked in India, "and two of our team members are as well. It really was something that we all felt very passionate about."

Talbot and the UCLA Anderson team commenced their work together with a crash course in the programs offered by Out & Equal, which include an online LGBT careers portal, multiday executive forums and diversity training. The team learned about the organization and the work that it does, as well as its goals for the future. Then, in January 2014, they split up to head abroad.

Each team spent a total of 10 days in either India and Italy, meeting with human resources representatives of influential companies such as Deloitte and Intuit, as well as local nonprofit organizations and individuals working on the ground for LGBT rights. Through a series of in-depth interviews and field research, the team came away with a complex picture of the challenges facing both LGBT employees and the corporations that seek to support them.

Team member Kavitha Ramakrishnan ('14), who traveled to Italy, discovered that the country's Catholicism strongly affected LGBT rights.

"Italy is the home of the Vatican," she says. "The clergy holds a lot of power, and people are very Catholic. With that comes a certain stigma to be LGBT."

Ramakrishnan's impression was that, true to stereotype, many Italians hold close the notion of machismo: "It seems important for men to have those traditionally defined gender roles."

Out & Equal Advocates staff member with (left) Mark Joshua ('14) and (right) Michael Leyva ('14)

Coupled with the fact that Italians consider any discussion of sexual preference taboo, Benjamin says, those two factors create an environment in which LGBT individuals often don't feel comfortable coming out at work. That secrecy often results in the misguided notion that there's no need to address LGBT equality.

"Folks in the workplace would say, ‘No one has come to us with a need for inclusion because they're gay, so, therefore, there must not be a need,'" he says.

In India, Zimmer says, the team received similar feedback.

"It's like a chicken-and-egg situation," Zimmer says. "Is it not an issue because no one's gay, which is almost laughable, or is it because people aren't comfortable coming out in the workplace, so they're not coming out, and then you feel like there isn't a gay population?"

Based on these insights and others, the team was able to come together and make three primary recommendations for the organization to expand into new areas around the globe. First, they suggested that Out & Equal establish networks of local experts and organizations. "Companies would be more receptive to the efforts made by people who speak the local language," says Benjamin, "and are familiar with the local politics."

Next, the team suggested that Out & Equal revamp its global summit to include more information that pertains to an international audience.

And finally, the team encouraged Out & Equal to set up an online community where companies struggling with LGBT equality could discuss issues with others facing similar problems.

Talbot says that a handful of the recommendations made by the Anderson team have already been put in place. "The bigger, heavier items have been incorporated into our 2015 business plan," he says.

Other consultants to Out & Equal have provided lengthy lists of tasks and steps that were overly ambitious for a small staff. The Anderson MBAs pared down the plan to focus on the highest priorities and the most immediate, sustainable solutions.

"What they've given us is a project plan to move forward globally. They gave us a plan that we can now implement in a very quick timeframe." But what stuck with him, he adds, was the passion, commitment and dedication demonstrated by the Anderson team. "Their preparation, knowledge of the subject and what we were trying to approach was fantastic," he says. "They were all superstars."