When we think of people who embody upward unrelenting forward motion Lisa Sherman, former Executive Vice President and General Manager of Logo TV at Viacom Media Networks, comes to mind. She is passionate, vibrant, and real. She begins her talk with a send-chills-down-your-spine short film of the history of social change from the 60’s to the present. It moves from civil rights marches to the AIDS crisis to the repeal of Don’t ask, don’t tell. She makes a case for the correlation between the increased visibility of LGBT characters in mainstream media and the increased human rights change in the US. She argues that this change is partially due to America falling in love with the characters of these TV shows because they were “honest, they were vulnerable, they were human, and they were just basically trying to get through every day with a little sanity, a little respect, a little compassion, and a little love. And isn’t that what everyone is trying to do?” She emphasizes that the connection between the characters and reality was vital.
Sherman then turns to the personal, she notes that when she was able to be seen and known, out and proud her life changed monumentally. Sherman shares that 30 years ago she couldn’t have imagined gays in the military tweeting images, or that cameras would be built into our daily lives or that a “straight white rapper would go on to win four grammy awards singing a song about same love that became the cultural anthem for marriage equality.” Taking a more serious tone Sherman takes us back to her days to her first job. She slowly came out to friends and family, yet constantly worried that if she let her sexuality show her career would never thrive. She recounts how she would bring a platonic male friend to the company holiday party and how her office cubicle would be covered with pictures of her dog unlike her colleagues who had pictures of their families. She quickly realized that in failing to share her entire life with her colleagues she was disempowering herself and failing to form vital connections and relationships. She notes, “It’s not just about the quality of the work that we do, it’s also about the quality of the genuine connections and meaningful relationships we make.”
Not long after she agreed to co-chair the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) national dinner and shortly realized that she found herself to be happier and more alive when around members of the HRC planning committee. However, she found herself between a rock and a hard place, feeling like it was harder to “come clean” and out herself as she rose further up the corporate ladder while simultaneously feeling like not being out held her back from advancing. She recounts how all of this came to head one day during an executive diversity training where everyone was invited to participate by writing adjectives that described certain identities. Nobody in the room knew that Sherman was gay and used the opportunity to use some candor and with tears welling up in her eyes, Sherman re-reads some of their comments. She describes this moment as the turning point of her career and in doing so made a commitment to herself to never be in any closet in her life ever again.
On her very last day at her job at Verizon she found the courage, guts, and bravery to come out to her boss and long time friend. What she discovered is that “coming out isn’t just asking people to welcome us into their lives or not fire us for being gay. It is about expanding the imaginations of everyone around us.” She found her boss to be a true ally and push for expanded domestic partnership benefits within the company long after she left. Sherman says that when we have the courage to be vulnerable and authentic it not only liberates us but, it inspires those around us to do the same.
Sherman’s final takeaway is that “if your heart is whole and your mind is clear, every risk is worth taking.” After a short period of unemployment and insecurity, Sherman finally landed a job working at a NYC advertising agency however, she felt unfilled and without the same passion that she had in previous jobs. Out of the blue she got a call from a search agent on a referral from a former client looking for a person to manage Viacom’s new channel that catered to the LGBT population. She was surprised as she had never been in TV industry, yet the agent was interested because of her brand building, management, marketing, and business skills. The recruiter also highlighted that Sherman would be good for the job because of her ability to take risks, and be a promoter of the brand internally and externally as well as person who had significant ties to the LGBT community. She re-emphasizes the fact that her journey truly begun when she had the courage to live her life authentically as the person she truly was, including the part of her that was gay. Like the LGBT characters on tv, authenticity in our whole selves is the catalyst to which social change happens and Sherman closes with a quote by Ceasar Chavez, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”