Coming out isn't something you do just once

Smoove CEO Jesper With-Fogstrup, EMBA2021, on leadership, fearless conversations and supporting more people to be out in business


As a CEO with an impressive career history of innovation and leadership, Jesper With-Fogstrup can clearly see the opportunities of breaking down barriers – in the business world and beyond. That same desire – to free people to fulfil their potential – drives him to be active for people who are out at work, including being on the board for the LBS-run EUROUT (Europe's leading LGBTQ+ business conference).

“I can give you lots of examples of not feeling comfortable to be out, and I’ve probably been limited on occasions in my professional and personal life, preoccupied thinking about that, instead of doing what I should be doing. So if you can take that out of the way – enable people a safe environment to share what they have – I think that helps them perform better.”

A quest for learning

Jesper grew up in Denmark with his university lecturer mother and doctor father. His father’s job meant they moved a lot, and he got used to adjusting to new areas and schools. “My resilience built up as a result,” he says. He seems to have a thirst now for the knowledge that comes from new places and conversations.

“I was a pretty rebellious teenager, so I wouldn’t say things were always calm at home, but there was a calm base where we could always have a good conversation. It was rational, fact-based, challenging in a positive way, all those things. 

“In my late teens I went to the US as an exchange student and lived with a Jamaican American family in Michigan. It was one of the best years of my life; it taught me a lot and was an important influence for me. I came from Scandinavia, from a very white environment. Detroit had been through a lot of changes in the 60s and 70s and it really opened my eyes to the value of diversity and the kinds of changes that are needed – in education and everywhere else.”

After a couple of years back in Scandinavia, Jesper came to the UK to go to University. “I thought I’d be in the UK for a few years, and then go back to the US,” he reflects. “But I never did, I’m still living in the UK, and am now a citizen.”

Out of university, he started his career in the travel industry, working his way up over 15 years. “It was an industry that was being disrupted – there was a lot happening, it was very interesting. If you think back to before the 90s, you’d pick up a brochure and walk into a travel agent. Now we all book online. That’s why my career moved into digital, the customer preference, markets and business models was changing very quickly, lots of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), shifting and growing teams.”

I wanted to stretch my brain

With all that experience under his belt, Jesper wanted a new challenge, and decided to do an executive MBA. 

“A lot of people study for an MBA because they want to move from industry to consulting or finance to entrepreneurship. I didn’t have that objective. I was a senior vice president at the time so it wasn’t a conscious step to a next level, my motivation was to stretch my brain. 

“I was accepted to LBS and it felt like a good fit for me and my schedule – a great school, nice people, just a good vibe. It gave me foundational business skills that had maybe been rough around the edges before. I can talk confidently on a broader range of subjects and I think that has a positive effect in my business. 

“I think it developed me significantly as a person, I could talk about that all day. It was so intense, every night you could be reading, every weekend you could be studying. And during all of this I was doing two M&A deals at work. It showed me that you can do something with every minute you have.

“At the end of the course, we had to write a physical letter to say where we were going to be in five years. I didn’t know – my approach to my career at that point was pretty organic, there were lots of opportunities presenting themselves and things were going well. But I think I wrote something like ‘I’ll be a CEO in five years.

“After a great year and a half, when I finished my MBA, and we’d just sold the business, I moved on to a new company as COO, and within 10 months of that I was CEO. So my statement in the letter was a good one. Many of my classmates with clear goals have achieved theirs too. I think LBS gives you what you want to take away from it.”

Coming out isn’t something you do just once

Coming out to his family in his late teens wasn’t an issue for Jesper. “I wasn’t rejected out of my home, there wasn’t a lot of confusion over ‘what does this mean?’, it was just an accepting: ‘Oh yeah, OK, next.’

“But coming out is not something you do once. It’s something you do on a frequent basis. I think some of the resilience I’ve built up has been a product of dealing with coming out a lot of times, especially with going from school to school and moving to new places.”

“I’ve grown up with that and got through it – but it’s not the optimal way of operating. If you think about any other context where you’re trying to drive maximum performance, you would try to remove all the obstacles. Yet society for many LGBTQ+ people have deep-rooted – although maybe not intended – barriers to growth and realising potential. They should be removed in the same way as a lack of funding or tools to do your job.”

Although Jesper says he’s had few obviously negative experiences of being out in the workplace, he gives a number of examples where conversations have had to be “course corrected”, including one time where a colleague used a homophobic slur in conversation.

“I could see the regret – the blood draining out of their face – as they caught sight of me. They approached me and apologised later. On the one hand you could say it was positive as they knew it was a mistake and apologised. On the other hand, clearly it wouldn’t have come up if that wasn’t a natural way for them to speak.”

Of course, these conversations take energy, even for someone clearly unafraid of opening difficult discussions and adept at defusing tension.

Anything that’s fake will fail

“If your heart’s not in it, it will fail and you’ll be found out – with Pride month as with anything,” suggests Jesper when asked about corporate involvement in one-off calendar moments to celebrate diversity, and whether it can be tokenistic.

“Would I like every month to be Pride month? Apart from the fact that I’d be very tired, yes – it’s fun and it’s another platform. I was at an event recently, sponsored by a big corporation with diversity and inclusion deep in its roots. A large part of the leadership, customers and suppliers were all there under this banner. It was fun, but there were also some challenging conversations – so if that can happen during Pride month, I’ll take that.”

But he doesn’t believe there’s just one way to drive greater acceptance, and suggests it can be harder to invest in and do well within smaller companies.

“I’ve been in companies with up to 4,000 people. Where I am now there’s a no more than 200. I spent a couple of years running the global digital channel for HSBC – a massive company – and suddenly you see there’s good awareness that something has to change, and positive steps forward. 

“I strongly believe the best way to overcome discrimination in any form, whether racism or homophobia, is through personal experience. You have to create the right platform that’s open, not stereotypical, it has to promote individual conversations. In creating that, people who identify as LGBTQ+ need to allow people to ask questions, even if the question might be perceived as stupid, to be part of an open, safe environment so that people with the right intentions don’t feel frightened of inadvertently upsetting people.”

“I want to help give people the confidence to be who they are – all barriers removed – so they can show up with energy.”

Being an activist (when it matters)

“There are people with incredible drive who make change their mission in life and I really admire all they do, but for most people, you can’t be an activist all the time, it’s incredibly draining.

“There’ll be moments that matter, where something isn’t OK, or there’s an opportunity to shift a perspective. That’s what being an activist means for me – if you see something that’s not right, speak up. Don’t just accept that bad things happen. There’s so many bad things in the world and calling it out is absolutely the right thing to do. Hopefully it can be done as part of a positive conversation with dignity and respect.

“There’s a horrible statistic about the number of people who come out at University or school and then go back into the closet when they leave, because they don’t feel like they can be out in the context of their job, or the company they get to.” A study by Romba, the US equivalent of EUROUT, revealed that 50% to 80% of LGBTQ+ individuals who are out at business school feel unable to stay out once at work.

“I think society as a whole has a job to change that. And it’s not going to be a continuous upward-sloping curve of acceptance. In fact, with the current conditions and everything that’s been going on in the world over the last five years, it has probably dialled back significantly and we have to work doubly hard at it.

“That’s why I do what I do. So people feel when they leave school and go into working life, they can be who they are, be effective, perform at their best. That doesn’t have to be business output, it can be happiness, personal financial goals or whatever it may be. And I hope that by helping to remove barriers, I can share that with someone else who might want to be part of my quest. Hopefully we can get the world to be more welcoming and accepting, and a higher-performing place too.”

What does an LBS MBA do for you?

Challenges your brain

“It took me some time to get used to being at LBS – there are so many bright people, it’s very easy to think that everyone’s smarter than you are. There’s an incredible environment of knowledge-sharing.”

Sparks conversation

“I don’t think you could find a school that’s more diverse from a nationality perspective, and in terms of thought. If you don’t disagree sometimes, it’s almost like you’re not adding to the conversation.”

Creates a network

“Any problem or issue I think about right now, I think I could have 20 responses in about half an hour – some radical, some more mainstream. There’s incredible brain power at the school, and I never known anyone to say ‘actually I’m not going to help you with that’.”


Executive MBA

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