It’s now a global LGBTQIA+ diversity firm, but the seeds for Out Leadership were sown on a night at the theater more than 25 years ago. Its CEO and founder, Hell’s Kitchen resident Todd Sears, recalls the moment that changed the course of his life – and shares his West Side Story.
A trip to the theater changed the course of Todd Sears’ life. Back in 1994, Sears — now the founder and CEO of global LGBTQIA+ diversity firm Out Leadership, then a high school senior at a boarding school in Virginia — saw the original production of Tony Kushner’s barrier-breaking Angels in America.
“It blew my mind,” he recalled. “I saw both pieces, and right there in the Walter Kerr Theatre, it made me come out to myself.” Sears was particularly moved by the performance of actor David Marshall Grant, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of closeted Mormon Joe Pitt. “I wrote David a letter telling him that his portrayal and the character literally made me realize that I was gay,” said Sears. “And I sent it to the stage door of the theater because I didn’t know how else to get it to him.”
Grant responded to the letter and the pair struck up a lifelong correspondence. “I actually had coffee with him in LA about a month ago,” said Sears. “25 years later he’s been a mentor and a supporter of mine, which is pretty cool.”
Sears would go on to serve as a mentor to countless others in his work championing LGBTQIA+ leadership in the C-suite, boards, and staffs across corporate industries through Out Leadership. Founded in 2011 and now the largest global LGBTQIA+ organization and largest LGBTQIA+ B-Corp, Out Leadership serves a network of over 700 global partners in creating inclusive talent accelerators, executive summits, and advocacy campaigns to make LGBTQIA+ equality a priority for all companies.
Despite his transformative experience at Angels in America, Sears didn’t quite anticipate the path he would take when he moved to Hell’s Kitchen in May of 1998 after graduating from Duke University. “I had about a week between college graduation and starting a 100 hours a week investment banking job to find a place,” said Sears. “My first bank was in Midtown, so being able to walk to and from the office was important — and truthfully, in 1998, Hell’s Kitchen was a whole lot more affordable.”
Sears settled on a building in W43rd Street, where he still lives, and he has seen many changes in the neighborhood in the course of his stay. “When I moved onto the block, the Market Diner was on one corner. The Chinese Consulate had not been converted from a motel, all around it was vacant lots. My view south was unobstructed all the way to the Statue of Liberty. I still have a really great view, but I had a phenomenal view back then. The neighborhood’s changed an awful lot since I moved in.”
When the Great Recession hit and Sears was laid off in 2010, he found himself “sitting on my sofa with a severance check and lots of martinis.” He decided to found Out on the Street, a Wall Street-focused firm connected with six banks to promote equality across the industry. “Originally we had one summit and a convening of CEOs and business leaders to advocate for equality,” Sears recalled.
Working from the ground up building relationships he had from his days on Wall Street, “We grew from there — we now have 96 companies,” said Sears. “We have summits in New York, London, Hong Kong, Paris, and Sydney. We have talent initiatives for young gay leaders for gay women for board leadership. We have about 700 CEOs who work both globally and about 30,000 business leaders. And we are the first and only global gay organization. And we were the first LGBTQIA+ B-Corp and we’re the only global LGBTQIA+ Corp, which is something I’m proud of and something that started in Hell’s Kitchen,” he added.
Acknowledging that there is always more progress to be made, Sears is happy to reflect on the last decade-plus of advocacy work through Out Leadership.“We turned 12 this year and we’re going to be having a celebration this fall at the Rainbow Room, which I’m excited about,” he said. His years of mentorship and relationship building harken back to that fateful day in 1994, when he took a chance and reached out to an actor in the production that changed his entire worldview. Said Sears: “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, had he not been who he was then.”
West Side Story Q&A
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
Moved here in 1998, after Duke, to go into investment banking.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
I had one week between graduation and starting as an analyst in banking. I found a no-fee apartment listing at a building called the New Gotham on 43rd Street. I moved into the in May 1998 and never left.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
The authenticity of it. I love that while it’s continued to grow and gentrify, it’s kept its historic grounding. We’ve got amazing new buildings on every block, but Esposito’s Meat Market hasn’t changed for 50 years.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
That because of my travel I don’t get to spend enough time here.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
I was lucky enough to escape to my house in Fire Island. But I was so happy to get back home to HK as soon as I could.
What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
That I missed going to the office.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
The resilience of our City.
What’s your superpower?
Getting some of the world’s top business leaders to use their platform to advocate for LGBTQ civil rights.
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
Anything that’s on the radio.
Which people inspire you the most?
People who use their access and platforms to make the world a better place.
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
Integrity is what you do when you think no one else is looking.
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
From a distance. For obvious reasons.
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
I have a view of it from my apartment, looking straight South. When I moved into the building, I could see all the way to the Statue of Liberty. Now I look into Hudson Yards, and the Vessel. I think they did a great job making the buildings look unique, sleek and modern. I do wish it felt a little more human, however, and not so mall-like.
If you could bring one thing (person/place/event) back to HK that is no longer around, what would it be?
The Market Diner. It was such an iconic spot for everyone from The Westies (who planned their hit jobs there) to the early trans community who’d show up for late night food from Club Edelweiss (which used to be right next door). Simply the greatest diner in Manhattan — with its own parking lot!!
Anything we missed?
I’m currently single, and have the greatest rescue dog on the planet named Wylie.
Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
44&X — Scott & Bruce have been proprietors in our neighborhood as long as I’ve been here. They first opened 10th Avenue Lounge, then 44&X then 44 and 1/2. I love the vibe, the food, and feeling like home when I’m there.
Big Apple Meat Market — When I first moved here, it was literally an open air grocery store under a TENT! Now it’s a bit fancier in the new gorgeous space under a new apartment building. But you can still get the absolute best steaks in the barrio for the greatest prices!
Domus — Nicki & Lulu have created something incredibly special that’s more than a store of some of the most unique and beautiful sustainable objects from around the world. They’ve created a community of like-minded patrons who seek to do good in the world. If you want to experience amazing energy from two truly special humans (and find a gorgeous gift for yourself or someone else), look no further.
Mémé Mediterranean — The food is top notch, consistent and reasonable, and the owner is a true asset to our neighborhood.
The Little Pie Company — For 23 years, I’ve had the pleasure of walking to and from work and smelling the most amazing scents of cinnamon, sugar and their walnut sour cream apple pie. Every now and then, I break down and buy one.
The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum — I co-founded and chaired a fashion show fundraiser many years ago called Jeffrey Fashion Cares. We had the show (and 1,100 people) every year for over 14 years on the ship, raising almost $8 million for LGBTQ causes. I have so many fond memories of those evenings, not to mention the 41 amazing male models!