Adweek Pride Stars Celebrates 15 LGBTQ Leaders in Sports, Media, Marketing and Culture

From Lena Waithe and Young M.A. to execs at Mastercard, MSNBC, Procter & Gamble and the NFL

Adweek's inaugural Pride Stars list recognizes LGBTQ leaders across the industry spectrum. Illustration: Dianna McDougall

A big part of Adweek’s mission is to spotlight innovative work and leadership in our industry, from celebrating those who advocate for greater diversity (Adweek + Adcolor Champions) to our Young Influentials (coming your way in August) and the Most Powerful Women in Sports (look for it in November). This year, we’ve added a new showcase to our portfolio: Adweek Pride Stars. Not only are we recognizing the remarkable leaders of the LGBTQ community across the industry spectrum, we’re also shining a light on a consumer group that boasts a buying power of close to $4 trillion. The first class of Pride Stars features A-list celebrities and NFL coaches, brand-inclusion officers, company founders and more. We’re proud to share their stories. —Kristina Feliciano

Join Adweek and many of this year’s Pride Stars, LGBTQ leaders creating an impact in advertising, marketing and culture this Friday at 12 p.m. ET for a live discussion on how they are personally and professionally navigating these turbulent times. Save your virtual seat.

Bowen Yang

Getty Images

Yang became Saturday Night Live’s first “gaysian” cast member in September 2019, just in time to parody President Trump’s trade war with China as the caustic-but-cute Chen “Trade Daddy” Biao on Weekend Update. As if that didn’t queer the SNL stage enough, Yang’s November skit about a horny gay social media manager posting through his work account—written for Harry Styles—brought a messy new meaning to the concept of code-switching. In a March interview with GQ, Yang called the sketch a “completely insane, loud dog whistle to the queer community, with all of the specific depressed gay voice.” Before Yang faced the world as a bitchy Kim Jong-un on one of the world’s most influential TV shows, the LGBTQ community knew him through his podcast with Matt Rogers, Las Culturistas. That show’s 60-second rant segment, “I Don’t Think So, Honey,” is a joyously cathartic, biting complaint fest telling of queer resilience in a challenging straight world. —Mary Emily O’Hara

Young M.A

Getty Images

Young M.A is a lot of things. She’s one of the most impressive freelancers in the rap game; the person who turned down the role of Freda Gatz on Empire even though it was reportedly written for her; and the director of an arty lesbian porn feature in partnership with Pornhub. She’s also known for selling products, appearing in ads for Google Pixel, Beats by Dre and Pandora. “My brand is innocent in this way, where you can trust it,” Young M.A says. “I can really bring a lot of fans and people to the table because people actually follow my movement.” Why has she captured fans’ adoration? Because she’s being fearlessly out, one of the few successful masculine “stud” lesbians in pop culture. She doesn’t make a big deal out of being gay, she says, and shrugs off homophobes with a blunt retort. “What could they say? I’m a dyke? OK, cool. I know,” says Young M.A, “And I get more bitches than you.” —Mary Emily O’Hara 

Read the full Adweek interview with Young M.A here.

Rachael Rapinoe and Kendra Freeman

Courtesy of Mendi

CBD is everywhere. The nonpsychoactive cannabis extract can be found in sodas, chewing gum, lotions and even makeup. But Portland, Ore.-based Mendi co-founders Rapinoe and Freeman aren’t just hopping on the green-rush bandwagon. They see their brand as both an opportunity to reduce addiction—by advocating for CBD as a replacement painkiller for athletes routinely overprescribed opioids—and as a tool to advance social justice. “The rate that people of color are arrested for marijuana is 4-to-1 compared to their counterparts,” notes Freeman, who also helps set up criminal-record expungement clinics with the Oregon Cannabis Association. “I do not believe it is fair for anyone to make money on this plant while others sit in jail today.” Rapinoe quickly signed up her twin sister, global soccer star Megan, and her basketball champ girlfriend, Sue Bird, as the brand’s first ambassadors. “This world is far too diverse to primarily only show white heterosexual couples in the media,” says Rapinoe of the chance to offer lesbian representation via Mendi’s marketing. “If companies want to implement equality by putting their money where their mouths are, they can. If they don’t, they’re choosing not to.” —Mary Emily O’Hara

Lena Waithe
Writer, producer, actor

Photograph by Lelanie Foster; styled by and wearing Richfresh; hair by Dominique Evans; makeup by Rebekah Aladdin

Waithe has become an icon for Black and queer representation on-screen, a stature that was cemented when she became the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing in 2017. As CEO of Hillman Grad Productions, Waithe wrote 2019’s on-the-lam romance Queen & Slim and produced The 40-Year-Old Version, a film about a struggling Black woman playwright, set for a Netflix release this year. She’s also produced two comedy series for BET that were released in the past year: Boomerang and the semi-autobiographical Twenties, which follows a queer Black woman navigating friendship and dating in Los Angeles. “LGBTQIA+ visibility is second nature. It’s a part of my world. Of course it will be reflected in my work,” Waithe says. “I just try to make sure I don’t hang a hat on it. We are a part of this world. Period.” Waithe also made time last fall to be on the cover of Adweek’s L.A. Issue as well as be in front of the camera, appearing as hacker Ash James in Westworld Season 3 and starring in the third season of her own series, Showtime’s The Chi, premiering this month. —Ian Zelaya

Allyn Shaw
President and chief technology officer
Recycle Track Systems

Courtesy of Recycle Track Systems

Following a 15-year career at Bank of America, Shaw in 2019 joined Recycle Track Systems, where he leads operations and growth of the waste and recycling management firm’s tech platform, which uses tracking and data reports to help companies improve waste practices. As a gay Black man, Shaw is committed to bringing visibility to the workplace and elevating his community outside of work. He’s a board member of Out & Equal, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ workplace equality, and the Victory Fund, a political action committee dedicated to increasing the number of openly LGBTQ public officials in the U.S. “The work you do in and for your community should not be your side hustle. No more of this talk about my ‘day’ job and my ‘gay’ job,” he says. “As leaders in our communities, businesses, families and even religious organizations, we have a responsibility to be real and our whole selves. It’s not easy, but frankly, when has material progress ever been easy?” —Ian Zelaya

Robyn Streisand-Luppino
Founder and CEO
The Mixx and Titanium Worldwide

Courtesy of The Mixx

The external face of marketing shop The Mixx and agency collective Titanium Worldwide, Streisand-Luppino makes it her mission to help clients diversify messaging and hire real people, not actors, for campaigns that can genuinely connect with LGBTQ audiences. “It’s not just about messaging or strategy, but elevating the audience itself,” says Streisand-Luppino, who identifies as a lesbian woman. “That’s how you really make an impact, by shining the spotlight on them, instead of just the product.” In the past year, she has overseen LGBTQ campaigns for brands like Absolut, H&M, Just Water and Mercedes-Benz, the latter of which The Mixx has worked with for more than 10 years. “I am always out there pounding the pavement and showing brands who may have never invested in diversity campaigns, or LGBTQ audiences, in particular, the benefits it can bring,” she says. —Ian Zelaya

Asad Dhunna
The Unmistakables

Courtesy of The Unmistakables

Two years ago, Dhunna founded The Unmistakables, a consultancy that helps companies reach, better understand and become more relevant to diverse audiences. For instance, it recently helped the Museum of London create a short film that shows what the city looks like on Christmas morning through the eyes of a Muslim man cycling to morning prayer. “The most rewarding thing about our work is the game-changing and ambitious clients that bring us on because they want something different,” Dhunna says. “Like us, they’re bored of diversity talk and want to do something about it.” The Unmistakables also provides resources for businesses, like its “Covid-26” glossary highlighting the impact coronavirus has had on marginalized communities. In Dhunna’s mind, most critically, is ensuring that an intersectional approach is taken. “Being LGBTQ is a major part of someone’s identity, but it isn’t the only part,” he says. “So we have to consider all of the various crossovers.” —Minda Smiley

Yvette Miley
MSNBC and NBC News

Courtesy of NBCU

Miley is an NBCUniversal vet of more than 20 years, having gotten her start at the company’s local stations in her native Florida. These days, she wears many hats. In addition to managing talent, Miley oversees weekend, overnight, breaking news and special-events programming on MSNBC and NBC’s Early Today broadcasts. She’s also executive in charge of NBC Out, which covers the LGBTQ community. As a Black lesbian, she says, “so many” have paved the way for her. “I identified early on with voices such as Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and Alvin Ailey, just to name a few,” she says. “Not only as artists, visionaries and pioneers but because of the fierceness of their strength to claim who they were, without apology.” —Minda Smiley

Empress S. Varnado
The Empress Agency

Courtesy of Black Brown & Digital

As a freelance producer, Varnado says she has the freedom to work on projects that speak to her personal values and passions. “The first video I ever made was a video focused on women using fashion to express their identity,” she says. “I made sure to include trans women and nonbinary humans in this video series to dismantle traditional gender roles and narratives.” She has since brought her principled approach to BET, recently collaborating with the network to create #BETQueerAF, a social push that focuses on the Black queer community. During Black History Month, she helped BET roll out #29DaysOfQueerExcellence, a campaign highlighting Black queer artists, activists and entrepreneurs each day. Varnado is also boosting the next generation—she’s a founding member of @R29Unbothered, Refinery29’s platform for Black millennial women. —Minda Smiley

Randall M. Tucker
Chief inclusion officer

Courtesy of Mastercard

Tucker, who was named chief inclusion officer a little more than three years ago, is charged with leading a team to develop and implement diversity and inclusion strategy throughout Mastercard’s offices around the world. “Our goal is to build on our culture of decency and ensure an environment where all employees know they are valued, respected and have the ability to reach their greatest potential regardless of what they look like, where they come from or their sexual orientation,” he says. That’s not an easy feat when you consider that Mastercard operates in 210 countries and territories, across which diversity, in Tucker’s words, “looks and feels different depending on where you are.” Under his watch, Mastercard launched a campaign called “A Seat at the Table,” which calls on staffers to use inclusive language. “Every day, I show up to the office and make it a point to not hide who I am or my perspective as a Black gay guy,” says Tucker, who’s a certified Six Sigma Black Belt. “In fact, that perspective is critical to how I solve problems and help drive innovation.” —Richard Collings

Shelly McNamara
Chief diversity and inclusion officer
Procter & Gamble

Courtesy of P&G

McNamara took on the role of chief diversity and inclusion officer at the consumer products conglomerate about a year ago, and her ambitions are as large as the company itself. “I am actively shaping the culture to be inclusive—to remove bias and act as an agent for equal voice, equal representation and equal opportunity,” McNamara says. A veteran of P&G since 1985 and its previous vp of human resources, she expanded the footprint of the company’s LGBTQ+ employee network, Gable (Gay, Ally, Bisexual, Lesbian and Transgender Employees), now with more than 5,000 members in 43 countries. She has also sponsored transgender education seminars at P&G. “I am fortunate to be in a role and with a company that supports my personal passion and commitment to advance equality and equity,” she says. “I believe there has never been a more important time.” —Richard Collings

Michaela Ivri Mendelsohn
CEO, Pollo West Corp.
Founder, TransCanWork

Courtesy of Pollo West

As the CEO of El Pollo Loco franchisee Pollo West Corp. and the founder of TransCanWork, Mendelsohn has a lot on her plate. As a chief executive, her job is wide-ranging, from administration to oversight of marketing and operations. Just as important, if not more so, is her work at TransCanWork, whose programs assist companies in creating cultures that, in her own words, “enable diverse populations to excel and contribute to their maximum potential.” Mendelsohn says that after hiring Pollo West’s first transgender employee in 2012 and hearing her story of abuse in the workplace, the company decided to help this vulnerable community. “We accomplished this through hiring transgender individuals into a work environment that supports them in their true gender identity and promoted their stories through national and international media,” says Mendelsohn. From 2013 to 2017, with the help of local LGBT organizations, the company hired nearly 50 transgender employees in its El Pollo Loco franchise restaurants. “We were thrilled to watch our new employees thrive in a workplace where they were truly honored for who they were. About 25% made the pathway to management,” she says. Out of the success of the hiring program, TransCanWork was born, with a mission to create a national culture in which transgender workers can thrive. —Richard Collings

Katie Sowers
Offensive assistant coach
San Francisco 49ers

Courtesy of San Francisco 49ers

Sowers made her mark as the first woman and openly gay NFL coach in Super Bowl history—a milestone that Microsoft, one of the league’s major sponsors, celebrated with a powerful ad featuring Sowers’ journey to the biggest game in the sport. As former 49ers receiver Marquise Goodwin once noted in an interview with radio station KNBR, the attention is well deserved. “Katie is a baller, 100%,” he said. “She understands the game [and] definitely has the attitude that it takes to be in that [coaches] room.” For Sowers’ part, “Seeing players grow is the most rewarding aspect of this work.” She’s arguably helping others grow too. Being the NFL’s first openly gay coach “allowed me to develop a platform to increase awareness about the importance of being authentic and true to yourself in the workplace and at home.” —Doug Zanger

Benjamin Lord
Mira Beauty

Courtesy of NARS

Ask Lord what his typical day is like, and his answer is both brief and immense: “Challenging the status quo.” As CMO of Mira Beauty, he leads the new search engine where people can find beauty products based on personal preferences. For Lord, that means experimenting with branding, marketing and merchandising initiatives in order to build “a new, modern cosmetics marketplace”—specifically, using his role to challenge beauty myths about what genders can do by educating colleagues and raising the LGBTQ community’s visibility beyond Pride Month. “I can have an impact on breaking stereotypes of aesthetics and self-expression,” says Lord. “Beauty is not about how the world sees you; it’s about making you feel confident and happier. You can be a manly man and wear eyeshadow. You can be a girl’s girl and only use facial scrub. You can be punk and rock lipstick. The true power of beauty is that it doesn’t have norms.” His biggest advice to companies looking to improve LGBTQ representation is simple: Don’t just check an inclusivity box. “I want to encourage brands and media owners to be on the right side of history,” he says, “even if it means sacrificing short-term profit over human progress.” —Tiffany Moustakas

Rigel Cable (aka Rigel Gemini)
Director of analytics and SEO, Astound Commerce
Social media influencer

Kharyisma Smallwood

For Cable, sometimes being himself can be a form of activism. When he isn’t working with brands such as Hydro Flask and Toms as the director of analytics and SEO at Astound Commerce, he’s a social media influencer who goes by Rigel Gemini. Cable has no qualms about working two jobs because he represents the LGBTQ community in different ways. At Astound, he brings his queer and mixed-race perspectives to brand and customer strategies. As Rigel Gemini, Cable partners with Pride organizations and raises money for nonprofits such as the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, while also teaming with brands such as Hulu and LifeStyles. “I feel advocacy work is an obligation for those of us in privileged positions, and it is a life mission that I take seriously,” he says. “Watching the landscape evolve as more and more brands seek out ways to connect with LGBTQ+ audiences has been a good sign in societal shifts.” —Tiffany Moustakas

This story first appeared in the June 22, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.