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Companies spend insufficient time understanding the nuances and specific challenges of different subgroups, instead assuming a homogeneity of experiences and needs under the rainbow umbrella.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Andrew Seepersad, associate director of the Business Design Initiative at the Rotman School of Management

I was once asked to provide feedback on a financial startup’s business model. Their vision was to be a “gay bank,” a safe and welcoming space where customers could be their authentic selves, and with LGBTQ+ employees highly trained to advise their fellow community members.

When I asked about the design of specialized or individualized services for their customers, I was met with silence. There was no consideration of their customers beyond the commonality of being a member of a minority group of non-cis-heteronormative folks. I suggested they spend more time exploring and understanding the needs of their customers and adapting their business model to meet those needs – advice they ignored.

The company did not survive.

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The LGBTQ+ community is often treated as a uniform set of people. Companies spend insufficient time understanding the nuances and specific challenges of different subgroups, instead assuming a homogeneity of experiences and needs under the rainbow umbrella. This approach is painfully obvious every year during Pride month. Rainbows, along with the happy faces of presumably queer people, are plastered over buildings and companies’ social-media accounts. Organizations declare loudly that we are seen and we matter.

Many of us, however, perceive these actions as inauthentic. Under the guise of demonstrating their support, many businesses are just using Pride month as a marketing opportunity to build our brand loyalty and capture our pink dollars. This “rainbow capitalism” has been an active point of discussion this year, and rightly so. It feels borderline manipulative and reduces members of the LGBTQ+ community to a narrow stereotype of a proud, happy queer person with purchasing power.

A meaningful, genuine investment into LGBTQ+ people, especially during Pride month, would be directed at multiple subgroups of our community, not just the socially and financially secure. Our vulnerable queer brothers and sisters are the ones who stand to benefit most from businesses’ support. If companies demonstrate that they are willing to lift the entire community then, in turn, we will gladly support them.

So, how can companies effectively address the needs of the queer population?

At the Business Design Initiative in the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, we help our learners become more effective and empathetic leaders by developing their design and anthropological capabilities alongside their business acumen. It’s a human-centred approach to business innovation that helps leaders across all levels develop a deep understanding of what their customers need and stakeholders want, with the aim of fostering a balance between people and profits.

This begins with curiosity and empathy. A genuinely interested company will set aside any corporate arrogance of thinking they know what’s best for their queer customers and seek to understand, directly from them, what their actual needs are.

Companies must engage in open dialogue, inquiry, and observation to explore and uncover the nuances of the myriad and distinct challenges LGBTQ+ people face; from social isolation, homelessness, depression and financial instability to surrogacy, adoption and shared asset management. They can then determine which of the identified needs it wishes, or is best suited, to address.

Once defined, further inquiry into the associated community members’ needs, wants and aspirations is necessary to deepen the understanding of that subgroup. The aim is to robustly define the problem, uncover insights about the population in need and frame all the learnings into design prompts that can help produce sound solution ideas.

It’s all about discovering the “who” (the ones in need), “what” (the problem) and “why” (the reasons the problem exists). Once that’s understood, the company can then begin designing the “how” (the solution/intervention), leveraging creative thinking to come up with potential solutions that address the LGBTQ+ community members’ needs.

It’s important to recognize, however, that while companies might feel the need to embrace novel ideas, they aren’t completely altruistic. Performance targets, resource constraints and internal tensions must be managed. With that broader context, these ideas can be refined and converted into what we call a low-fidelity prototype, a quick, cheap and tangible idea of a concept that integrates the community members’ needs with company stakeholder wants.

As with any good design process, these proposed solutions should go through an iterative cycle of testing and redesign to ensure they are desirable to those in need, are strategically and financially viable, and are feasible from an operations perspective. Successful proposals can then be developed into full solutions and introduced to the community.

Pride month is a perfect time for businesses to share their positive, meaningful initiatives with the world. But they need to put the work into convincing us of their genuine commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. Only then will we truly feel seen and know that we actually matter.

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