Not So Different

I’m in Atlanta this week for the SHRM Diversity Conference. While I’ve already made some important contacts for work — information I hope to bring to you in some form or another through Diversity Executive — I had to take the opportunity to catch up with a few friends who live in town.

We’ll call one friend Lee. An intensely stylish and charismatic man, Lee and I have known each other since we worked together at an executive search firm almost 10 years ago. He’s often in the air flying here, there and everywhere working in the fashion industry, but we’ve managed to stay in touch.

Lee is native to Atlanta, and he took it upon himself to take me on a whirlwind tour of the city and all his favorite spots. And Lee doesn’t just take you to a hot bar or club, he takes you to the hot bars and clubs where he knows the owners. Everywhere we went we were treated like family.

As we caught up, Lee told me he’d evolved past his work as a stylist: “It’s all well and good to follow Fantasia (American Idol winner, Broadway hit in The Color Purple and popular R&B singer) or somebody around on tour, but I’ve done that. It’s boring. I’m trying to get Delta to sponsor me so I can wrap a plane!”

Lee has designed everything from evening gowns to vodka bottles and has worked with big-name celebs for print, runway and photo shoots in the U.S. and abroad. I was once in Borders flipping through magazines with a friend and shrieked to find Lee’s face glaring out at me from the pages of one of the mainstream consumer fashion bibles.

As the night wore on, we talked more seriously. In between stops, he shared his aspirations to not only build his brand and expand his creative reach, but to help others do the same. At one point, he even corrected me. We’d been talking to a health care consultant and I’d introduced Lee as a stylist. After our new friend left, he said, “I’m a style consultant, not a stylist. That’s far too limiting.”

Like anyone trying to make a name for himself professionally, Lee bucks any attempt to box him in or limit his options. On a more personal note, he won’t even acknowledge the word “gay,” again refusing to potentially isolate himself from anything — in this case love — that might prevent him from taking part in something wonderful.

If Lee was white and female and straight, his need for change and his desire to make his mark and learn and grow would still resonate with me. I share those same aspirations, and I bet many of you in the Diversity Executive audience do as well.

Sometimes, even as we strive to understand each others’ differences so we can work more happily and efficiently together, it pays to remember that in many of the most basic ways we are very similar. In our need for love and for fulfilling and challenging work, we’re really not that different.