Bruce Bastian, co-founder of WordPerfect, has devoted millions of dollars of his personal wealth to the fight for equality for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community. He has since sold WordPerfect and runs the B.W. Bastian Foundation, which funds organizations that promote gay rights. He spoke with Staff Writer Amy S. Choi about perseverance, honesty, and leveling the playing field. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
What is the biggest challenge for a gay entrepreneur?
One of the big struggles is getting rid of the stereotypes that you have of yourself. The first big hill of discrimination is our own, and it's huge. As gay people, we tend to discriminate against ourselves, and we hold ourselves back. If you want to start your business and you haven't come to terms with that, it's a huge obstacle.
Has the business community done well recognizing the rights of gay individuals?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It certainly is improving. There are certain areas of the country where being gay really is not a plus or a minus. When I started my business, I was married, living in Utah, and pretending to be straight. But I came out, separated from my wife, and came out to my business partners before WordPerfect's real growth happened. It certainly was not any kind of impediment to our growth.
Why should businesses strive to be open to the GLBT community?
My concern is for the young gay entrepreneur or great mind who lives in a place where they fear animosity from potential clients or partners. The people that are losing out are not only gay entrepreneurs but also the communities where that entrepreneur could blossom. People are so blinded by their own distrust and hate and ignorance that they're passing up great opportunities for growth and development for their communities. It's silly.
What would be your advice to that entrepreneur?
Regardless of how bleak it might look, there are always friendly places and friendly people. Keep trying. If someone respects your talent and respects your ideas, then my advice would always be to be up front. Say, "I know you like this idea, but you may find out eventually that I'm gay, and I want to make sure that it doesn't upset anything."
Do you wish you had done that when you first started out?
I wish somebody had told me this a long time ago, yeah. Being honest allows your creative mind to go. And that's what you want. You need to be able to act and not have these "uh-oh, what-ifs" in the back of your mind.
As a gay person, was it easier to be an entrepreneur than to work your way up the corporate ladder?
That was certainly the case for me. I got to the point where I didn't want to risk having anybody firing me or telling me what to do or holding me back because I was gay. As an entrepreneur, because I was the boss, nobody could hurt me. In 29 states, you can be fired just because your employer thinks you're gay, and there is no recourse. It's ridiculous.
What can a business owner do to make employees feel supported?
No. 1, they need to be vocal in their support. They should have firm nondiscrimination clauses, stand by those, and educate their workforce. Gay employees will see that and respect their employer for it. Younger people are still closeted. If workers find a place where they can live open and honest gay lives, they'll jump to work there.