Why Top Executives at Conagra, Allstate and Citibank Hosted Transgender Teens for National Coming Out Day

The GenderCool Project aims to facilitate positive conversations

L to R: Daniel, Gia, Landon, Nicole, Chazzie, Stella The GenderCool Project
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

In order to celebrate National Coming Out Day, one nonprofit advocacy group turned to three major corporations to provide a platform for one of the most vulnerable communities in our society: young transgender individuals.

The GenderCool Project formed earlier this year in order to facilitate a larger conversation about gender identity “in a positive and easily understandable way.” It was founded by Jen Grosshandler, a longtime marketing executive, veteran of the Edelman organization and mother of a transgender child, and Gearah Goldstein, a speaker and consultant on diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ matters.

"Families raising transgender children are consumers just like everyone else. We eat. We shop. We drive. We sleep. We need insurance."
Jen Grosshandler, co-founder, The GenderCool Project

They launched their project this February after the Trump administration announced that it would roll back federal protections allowing transgender public-school students to use the restrooms that correspond to their gender identities. GenderCool earned media coverage from People, The New York Times, Chicago’s WGN and more, with Grosshandler and Goldstein making an appearance on the Today Show.

Trump later announced that he would ban openly transgender soldiers from serving in the U.S. military, though that effort has so far been blocked by multiple federal judges.

On Wednesday, Grosshandler’s daughter Chazzie and the five other young people who make up the “GenderCool Champions” visited the Chicago offices of Conagra, Allstate and Citibank on what was, essentially, a corporate diversity tour. The idea is that familiarity remains key to acceptance, especially for the millions of people in America and around the world who have never met or loved a transgender individual.

The GenderCool Champions enter Chicago's Conagra headquarters

“The truth is, there is a tsunami of negative, sad and often inaccurate information about transgender children. This directly contradicts the experiences thousands of families raising transgender children are having,” said Grosshandler in explaining the purpose of the event.

Citi, Conagra Brands and Allstate are known for their diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly within the LGTBQ space; Lisa Davis, Citi’s openly gay global head of enterprise services, flew from New York to Chicago to take part in the “talk tour” of her company’s offices, while Conagra Brands CEO Sean Connolly led his own tour.

“As part of Conagra’s efforts to encourage broadmindedness, we were excited to welcome the GenderCool Project to our office for National Coming Out Day. All of our employees own creating our inclusive culture through their behaviors and their understanding of diversity and inclusion, and many of our employees are active in Employee Resource Groups, including the LGBT+Ally group, which offer opportunities to learn and engage in complex conversations about sometimes difficult topics,” said Khalilah Lyons, Conagra Brands’ manager of diversity and inclusion, who helped lead the tour.

Noted Goldstein, “These companies wanted their employees to go through their own transition by welcoming the GenderCool Project into their workplace to do the following: help replace opinions with real, powerful experiences of actually meeting and listening to transgender children who are succeeding beyond measure in their daily lives.”

Gearah Goldstein (L) and Jen Grosshandler (R) address Conagra executives

There’s a marketing component to this effort as well, because many of these brands’ consumers have transgender friends, loved ones or children. And the companies’ leaders believe it to be in their best interest to grow more familiar with members of the community.

Or, as Grosshandler puts it, “Families raising transgender children are consumers just like everyone else. We eat. We shop. We drive. We sleep. We need insurance. We try to save for retirement.”

Ultimately, GenderCool does not aim to focus on a specific group of people, she says, but rather to emphasize the importance of its tagline: “Who we are, not what we are.” Both Grosshandler and Goldstein told Adweek that corporations can become cultural arbiters with outsized roles in reducing the stigma that still surrounds those who identify as transgender by simply, openly and publicly treating them as equals.

They describe the amount of time these companies have devoted to their project as “deeply moving.”

“We value and expect our employees to be externally focused and curious about the world around us, and being able to interact with the GenderCool Champions helps to put these values into action,” added Lyons of Conagra. “It makes all of us better when we nurture diversity and inclusion, as it allows us to connect with each other, our consumers, communities and future Conagra colleagues.”

Several of Grosshandler’s former Chicago-area marketing colleagues have also helped execute the project. Ben Hershey, formerly with Leo Burnett, serves as its creative director; Ogilvy485 creative director Rudy Rios and former Edelman designer John Avila handle logo and other design work; Golin veteran Rachel Greene leads media outreach; and Sammy Ganz Pepper, who worked on social media strategy for Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action, serves as digital strategic lead.

The GenderCool Champions with Conagra Brands employees.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.