Networking group aimed at LGBT community launches this week

Scott Marder, a partner at Duane Morris, is one of the founders of the Maryland Corporate Council, a professional networking group geared toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender professionals in Baltimore.

One day in the fall of 2010, Scott Marder, a partner at the law firm of Duane Morris in Baltimore, received a cold call from a young lawyer in Maryland seeking advice. The lawyer had found Marder's name in a directory maintained by the National LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Bar Association.

"He had all these questions to ask and nobody to answer them," Marder recalled. "Should you be out at work? Do your clients care? What about co-workers? Does it affect your career progression? Things like that."

Over the years, Marder has fielded similar questions from young gay professionals and had conversations with friends who wondered why there wasn't a professional networking group geared toward a growing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Maryland.

Responding to such needs, Marder and Ted Hart, who heads a management consulting firm in Columbia, founded a nonprofit group focused on bringing together LGBT executives for networking, business development and to mentor students and up-and-coming professionals in Maryland.

On Thursday, the Maryland Corporate Council will celebrate its launch with an event featuring a keynote address by Legg Mason Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Mark R. Fetting.

Besides Baltimore's Legg, the Maryland Corporate Council has signed on other large Baltimore companies, such as Constellation Energy Group and Miles & Stockbridge, as corporate members or sponsors. The group's board of directors include executives from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, commercial brokerage firm Cassidy Turley and SunTrust.

For Constellation and Legg Mason, it makes business sense to be involved in a group like Maryland Corporate Council because it helps support their diversity efforts, encourages employees and helps recruit potential candidates, the companies say.

"It's very important that we be a company that is seen as a place where we use the phrase 'you don't have to check who you are at the door' so that we could attract the best and the brightest here," said Charles A. Berardesco, Constellation's senior vice president and general counsel, who is a member of the group's board of directors.

Added Legg spokeswoman Mary Athridge, "Diversity of people and viewpoint is important."

Like business groups for women and ethnic groups, professional organizations focused on the LGBT community appears to be growing, said Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management.

"People want to let their hair down a bit and not worry that their identity will cause a roadblock," Peterson said.

One of the most well-known LGBT networking groups is Out Professionals in New York, which was founded in 1983 and now has 1,000 members, according to the group's website.

"There is definitely an LGBT business movement going on," said Laura Berry, a spokeswoman for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 29,000 members.

While LGBT business executives and professionals can turn to the numerous networking groups out there, the Maryland Corporate Council's officers say the new group also serves the same function as minority business groups. The council plans to hold monthly networking events and business education workshops.

"There's clearly a need. You have many organizations in the area, including my firm, that's very supportive of their LGBT employees and don't care one way or another. Straight, gay or purple, as long as they are good at what they do," said Marder, who was elected as the group's chairman.

"But you have people out there who work for some organizations [that may not be as supportive] or don't know how the organizations feel. They may be the first, breaking new ground at their organization, and are concerned and have questions," he added. "Some of the unique issues that we face in business is why this organization, I think, is very important."

Hart, who was elected to serve as the group's president, said there are business leaders and professionals in Maryland's LGBT community who don't know each other. And that's partly because Maryland and the business community, in particular, has been accepting of the LGBT community, Hart said.

"There's also value in knowing who we are and educating each other and mentoring the next generation," he said.

Besides networking, Hart said, the group plans to focus on community involvement and providing mentorship and scholarships to students at colleges and universities in Maryland.

The group's leaders say they did not have role models when they were starting out in their respective careers 15 to 20 years ago.

Berardesco, the Constellation executive, came out when he was 39. Now 53, Berardesco recalled not finding many LGBT business executives who could serve as his mentor.

"We're now moving into a time where there are more and more," he said. "They're in their 30s and 40s and getting into the prime time of their careers, and here is this rich resource now of successful people who happen to be LGBT and could be a resource for younger people coming into their professions who are also LGBT. At the end of the day, all of life is networking."