Ten Money Questions for James Robertson
James Robertson is a founding co-chair of Reaching Out, the premier conference for LGBT students earning their MBA. This October the event moves to San Francisco and unites students and professionals from around the world to connect, build and achieve with the LGBT business community. Business, of course means money, so I jumped at the chance to speak with James about the conference, queer careers and the almighty dollar.
1. Why do we need a conference to connect gay business school students with potential employers?
Finding a job is high on the agenda of most MBA students, so the Reaching Out conference has immediate appeal both for students who are looking to work with top firms and with top firms want to recruit talented and soon-to-be-minted MBAs. No less important, Reaching Out also allows students to meet their LGBT peers from other schools across the country and around the world, building their professional and personal networks and creating connections that strengthen our community and contribute to success in business.
2. What is your most significant memory about money?
Whatever that memory may have been, I fear I have now forgotten it.
3. What is your worst habit around finances?
4. Why have U.S. financial firms finally become more gay-friendly?
Two reasons: 1) it’s undeniably the right thing to do; and 2) it keeps firms competitive with their peers. In 1999, when we founded the Reaching Out conference, New York Magazine published an article on gay life on Wall Street. It was filled with interviews with too many people who wouldn’t give their full names or otherwise obscured their identities.
In 2006, both Fortune and Bloomberg Markets published lengthy articles about the increasingly positive position of LGBT executives on Wall Street and in other industries. In a very short period of time, we’ve seen a startling sea-change, and I think the forces of globalization will eventually extend these protections to our LGBT colleagues around the world. Don’t get me wrong: we are not yet in the Promised Land, but I think we can see it. There is still much work to do, but we will get there.
5. Do you think an MBA is worth the time and investment?
My time at Yale was certainly worth it for me, however I’m a little wary of the proliferation of MBA programs over the last decade or so. If asked, I typically counsel someone to find out what an MBA will give them and what it won’t. A good MBA provides a toolkit for solving problems and managing challenges. You aren’t a carpenter just because you have a hammer and saw, and similarly, you aren’t a CEO just because you have an MBA. You need to have ambition, creativity and frankly experience to take the toolkit and make something lasting out of it.
6. I understand that you work at an international health consultancy as an advisor on HIV/AIDS. How has this experience influenced your perspective on life and money?
I have been working in the response to HIV and AIDS for about 15 years, first in San Francisco and now on global programs, mostly in Africa but increasingly in Asia. The personal loss from the epidemic has been enormous, but my work continues to be rewarding perhaps because through this work I have developed a sense of the limitations of life and money.
As some wise person once said, no one on his deathbed wishes for more time at work. There are many people who could use a bit more money; more than two billion people live on less than the equivalent of $2 per day. But needing more money for basic needs is quite different than wanting more for a new Lamborghini. Compared to most people around the world, I have riches beyond dreams, and anyway I’m quite confident that sports cars are an unreliable indicator of success and hardly necessary for happiness.
7. How did you learn the value of a hard-earned dollar?
I’m not sure I ever have.
8. Is it important for gay professionals to be out at work?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Most people when they come out wonder to themselves, “What took me so long?” If the personal cost is so slight in retrospect and the social value to one’s self and our community is so high, what’s stopping someone? I don’t mean to trivialize the challenges of coming out; different contexts often require us to adapt to protect ourselves. Yet, for most professionals, hiding in the closet suggests a lack of trust in your colleagues, and today that may be a greater disgrace than being queer.
9. What role has money played in your relationships?
Not enough. I appear to have a thing for men without means.
10. Is there truth to the saying: do what you love and the money will follow?
If you love hedge funds, I’m sure money will follow. I’m not sure if you love hedges that you’ll end up a rich and content gardener–you might have to settle for simply being content. I think I’d have to choose following one’s bliss over cold hard cash, but as your aphorism suggests, there may be hope that they aren’t mutually exclusive.
More about James Robertson
James Robertson, MPH, MBA, is a Senior HIV/AIDS Advisor at John Snow, Inc., a Boston-based international health consultancy. He serves as a focal point for HIV prevention and as senior advisor to JSI’s portfolio of bilateral HIV/AIDS programs in Africa and Asia. Before joining JSI, he was Project Manager (Africa) in the Global Health Initiative of the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland where he contributed to efforts to expand the private sector’s response to the epidemic. In 1999, while at Yale School of Management, James was a founding co-chair of the Reaching Out conference. He is currently board president.
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.