A leader of McKinsey’s LGBTQ+ community on the significance of Pride

As several parts of the world celebrate Pride this month, we spoke to Guangyu Li, a senior partner based in Hong Kong. Guangyu is co-leader of Equal at McKinsey, McKinsey’s global network for LGBTQ+ colleagues. Here, he reflects on courage, representation, and allyship.

You were born in China but have studied and worked in several countries, including the U.S. and Canada. How has that shaped your perspective on diversity and inclusion?

I had planned to go to university in Canada or the U.S. Back then, half of the motivation came from a chance to be my true self. At the time, I perceived those countries to be more open, and my choice to study at McGill ended up opening my mind in ways I couldn’t have expected. For the first time in my life, I was part of an association for gay and lesbian students, and the group had lively weekly discussions that were fascinating to me.

I left China in 1989, and the notion of being able to come out at that time felt like a privilege. I was wowed when, in my first days at McGill, I got the student handbook and it had a section on safe sex education, the directory listings of all the student organizations, and then all the discussions going on in the college newspaper. You just can’t imagine what it was like for me. It was like opening up a joy box.

When I came out to my family in 1995, they were so worried. Back then, pretty much everybody I knew associated being gay with AIDS, because most of the newspaper articles, especially the newspaper articles in China, reflected that. So when I heard that McKinsey was recruiting at places like Harvard Business School, I was thrilled. When I got my offer, I couldn’t wait to share that precious news with my family and my friends. It was like, “Hey, you know it’s really not what you think. You don’t have to worry that I might not be able to get a good job.” It meant a lot to me—a lot, lot more than people could imagine today.

What was it like to come out at McKinsey?

I went through a few stages. When I first decided to bring my significant other to a retreat as a second-year associate, many close friends outside the firm were saying, “Are you ready to ruin your career?” They wanted to make sure I was ready for anything that might come next. But I thought, this could go one of two ways. On the one hand, it could ruin my career. And if it had, I would have been happy to leave. I don’t need to stay in a place where I work hard but can’t feel comfortable with who I am. But on the other hand, I might find a place that embraced me, and I might go on to spend a significant chunk of my career there. It turned out to be the latter—and I’m so happy it did.

And then you went on to co-lead Equal at McKinsey globally.

After I came out, I heard from colleagues who were scared to do the same or skeptical of the response they would get. It underscored how important it is to have allies. I’ve especially been excited to get involved with local Equal at McKinsey chapters around our different office locations. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to help people feel more comfortable at work, and it’s crucial for attracting talent, so it carries both personal and professional meaning to me.

McKinsey’s global GLAM co-leader on identity, solidary, and being your true self
Senior partner Guangyu Li (holding a McKinsey flag) attends a Pride event in Taipei.
McKinsey’s global GLAM co-leader on identity, solidary, and being your true self

Who have been some of your biggest allies at the firm?

The firm has been supportive as a whole over many years. One of our earliest supporters was Kevin Sneader. He talked about it with me in Hong Kong long before his election to managing partner. I remember he said, “If we want to do this right, we better do it in a very big, bold way, rather than small incremental changes.” That made a huge difference. Right after his election, we decided to have the first-ever global Alliance, a McKinsey-led gathering for LGBTQ+ business executives. Then we had a global Equal at McKinsey conference for colleagues. I immediately sent invitations to Kevin. Within the day, I got a confirmation from him, saying he would give it his priority. And he did.

We’ve made a lot of big strides as a result of Kevin’s leadership, and we’re so excited knowing this is one of Bob Sternfels’s priorities as well—and to continue our progress under his upcoming tenure as global managing partner.

You and Diana Ellsworth, a fellow Equal at McKinsey co-leader, recently sent a personal note to the Asians at McKinsey group about the racist attacks their communities have been suffering. What prompted that?

Diana and I have both experienced being a minority during our lives. And during my time in North America, I experienced being a dual minority of sorts. It shouldn’t be left to any individual community to defend itself. It’s in our collective interest to show up for each other with concrete action and to come together in solidarity.

And this is very much in the tradition of McKinsey—we’re a global firm, not just because we work in places around the world. Our people are part of communities around the world, so it’s imperative we support them. I know personally how meaningful it is to be able to bring your whole, authentic self to work, and I want to ensure our colleagues globally feel empowered to do so as well.

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