The Atlanta Executive Network will mark 20 years of gay and lesbian business advocacy with a party at Kai Lin Art Gallery on Aug. 23.
AEN will honor past leaders of the organization while looking forward to its future. One of those to be honored is the organization’s founder and first president, Allen Jones.
Jones, now 75, recalls how the early days of AEN were a different time for gays and lesbians inside (and outside) the workplace.
“Well, in 1992, when I started with AEN, some people were still pretty closeted,” Jones says. “We had a couple of people that wouldn’t wear name tags to the early meetings because they were senior officers with businesses here in Atlanta. It took them a couple of meetings to warm up to the idea of wearing name tags.”
Jones and AEN’s early board members stressed a professional dress code, suit coat and ties for men and business dress for women.
“It was important at the time that people wore a coat and ties, so the speakers would see what an exceptional group it was,” he says.
Jones and the early board of AEN also faced a series of challenges, from finding a friendly venue to host meetings to concerns over the personal safety of its members.
“I had quite a time finding a location to host early meetings,” Jones remembers. “That concern [safety] disappeared right after the first meeting.When you see 60 people in coats and ties that look like the Rotary Club, you don’t have that problem anymore.”
The group’s first meeting far exceeded Jones’ expectations.
“We had assumed that we’d have about 30 people. It turned out we had 60 at the first meeting,” he says.
Throughout its history, AEN played host to politicians, business leaders and advocates for LGBT equality as guest speakers.
“We had quite a roster of speakers early on, such as Bernie Marcus [CEO of Home Depot], Thomas Roeck [CFO of Delta Airlines] and Rebecca Dunn [Vice President of Human Resources at Bell South]. There were a couple of senators and congressmen that spoke. Richard Tafel was also very popular. He was chairman of the Young Republicans and the second director of the Log Cabin Republicans,” Jones says.
AEN also empowered its members to advocate change in policy at their places of business.
“Over time, people were telling me that they wanted to work in an open, non-discriminatory environment,” Jones says. “Bell South came up with a non-discrimination policy because of one of our members. There was one man who was a professor at a local college. He talked to them and they passed a non-discrimination resolution at the school. That happened numerous times at numerous businesses.”
The business world, in large part to broad social changes toward gays and lesbians in the last two decades, is a drastically different place today than it was when AEN was founded. Jones believes that organizations like AEN will continue to have a place, even with continued growing acceptance.
“There will be a place for groups like AEN in the future. If the focus is on business and not on gay politics, there’s a lot of good things that happen,” Jones says.
“But if you lose your mission and turn into a party organization or a political organization, then you’re just competing with the other 140 organizations in Atlanta and that just doesn’t work. It’s mission should be business and to promote community-based organizations,” Jones adds.
AEN looks forward
AEN’s core mission, business networking, has held steady throughout its 20 year history. But the last few years have brought changes in leadership and direction. Todd Harkleroad, a current AEN board member, says the focus has shifted from the corporate world to all matter of business.
“There’s a mix,” Harkleroad says. “We still have Home Depot, Sun Trust and a variety of big-name partners, but most of the people that I know well are involved in a small business.”
As for the future of AEN, Harkleroad says the organization is in a growing period.
“I’d like to see it where we have 100-150 people at the meetings, where we have a mentoring program for people coming out of college and where we’re able to participate more fully in someone’s entire career span all the way through the point where they retire and can become a mentor to someone who’s much younger,” he says.
Harkleroad notes that he’s looking forward to the next 20 years.
“We don’t want to go back to being exactly what it used to be,” Harkleroad says. “You can’t go back, but we do want it to be relevant and meet people’s needs.”
Top photo: Left: Allen Jones, along with 14 others, founded the Atlanta Executive Network in 1992. At the time, some members were afraid to wear name tags so they could be identified at meetings. Above: AEN’s core mission, business networking, lead to the development of its popular speed networking events. (Courtesy photo, photo by Brent Corcoran/RNZ Photography)