Allie Fleder is the COO and a founding team member of SimplyWise. She previously founded and ran Sherpa, a British luggage delivery platform that was acquired in 2019. Allie began her career at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, where she served as the chief of staff to the president. She is a founding member and former Executive Director of the Young Professionals of the Americas network, a board member and former Chair of EUROUT, Europe’s largest LGBT+ business conference, and serves on the Digital Corps leadership committee of Out in Tech. Allie is a graduate of Columbia College and received her MBA from London Business School, where she was a 50thAnniversary Scholar. 

Allie generously shared with us the pivotal moments that shaped her professional journey, and how deciding to be out in the workplace has impacted her career. The following is a lightly edited and thoughtfully condensed transcript of Allie’s story. 

I grew up being told not to mix “sex and work”, and by extension, not to bring up one’s sexuality at work. Because to talk about your sexuality was to bring sex into the office.

Working at an NGO in Latin America, I was often the only woman in the room. I would have ideas, but would, particularly when I was just starting out, often shrink back, literally sitting on the side of the room, unable to speak up, afraid to interrupt conversations about sports or childcare. 

I had the opportunity to work closely with a number of public and private leaders across the region, from ministers and presidents to CEOs. I learned a lot about leadership from working with them. One of the harder lessons was that just because someone is a visionary leader does not mean that they are a successful manager. Creating an inclusive, supportive work environment takes work. It takes actively seeking minority voices around the table as you make decisions. The tone must be set at the top by a leader willing to get in the trenches to fight for all voices in order to engender a culture of learning and open communication.

I left the NGO to go to business school in London. During my first months in London, I went to a huge LGTQ conference. They had a career fair, where over 40 companies were looking to recruit LGBTQ hires. I saw the overwhelming number of booths and quite literally cried. I could not believe that, in that room, in that employment context, I didn’t have to hide who I was. Here I was, a 30-year old woman who had spent the last decade in NYC and this felt like a foreign concept to me. I had never had that kind of exposure.

The idea of having a seat at the table, not despite one’s sexuality but rather because of it, felt like a completely foreign concept. It sparked something in me that began to shift the way I thought about sexuality and the workplace. 

Shortly thereafter, I launched my own company–a luggage delivery startup–with my good friend and classmate. I knew that as we were building our own team, I didn’t want to have to hide who I was. I wanted my identity to be known–without beating around the bush or talking about my partner with vague pronouns. When meeting a new member of our team, I wanted to be able to say upfront, “I have a fiancée who is a woman.” 

Around the same time, a mentor of mine named Paul Boskind advised me that if a minority is privileged enough to speak out on behalf of others, they should. Even if you don’t love public speaking or never wanted to be public, if you have a voice it’s important to use it. So I started volunteering and speaking up for the LGBTQ community on panels and in articles online. Going “public” on being out opened the door to disgraceful, bigoted responses. I was “trolled” for having stepped so far out of the closet. I received hate mail and death threats, and while this was something that obviously affected my day-to-day and hurt me deeply, it wasn’t something I was sure I could be open about or share with my team. I felt that to share it was to be too vulnerable, taking some of my power away.

I knew I had to change that. I wanted to finally feel as though I could be fully open about myself at work. And I wanted to be sure that other minority teammates would feel the same. So, I decided to have a conversation with my team, to open up to them about my activeness in the LGBTQ community and the hateful retaliation I received online.

To my surprise, having that vulnerable moment with my team members actually led to mutual openness and trust among us. I even had an employee open up to me afterward, saying they didn’t know I was LGBTQ but that they felt like they could come out and be open about themself because I had. I never thought of it as leading by example–I just knew that I wanted a work culture where I could be exactly who I was, share my struggles, and have a relationship of trust with my team–where everyone’s voice is heard and respected. And I wanted my team to have that, too. 

I learned that being vulnerable, with the right group of people, made for a workplace that functioned on trust and acceptance. I finally knew how to build the culture I had always wanted.