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The CEO of GLAAD knows why Gen Z doesn’t trust corporations

April 19, 2022, 6:23 PM UTC

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization, doesn’t approach her work as a chief executive. Instead, she conceives of herself as a founder.

“No matter where you work, think of your product as something you’re building, and continually iterating,” she says. “Not something you’re in charge of.” 

A small group of journalists formed the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in 1985, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in New York, to respond to “defamatory and sensationalized” media coverage. Though Ellis only took the helm in 2014, she sees herself as founding a Digital Age version of the famous nonprofit. 

“There had been a democratization of the media landscape, and I wanted to know how [GLAAD would] approach that in new ways,” she says. One of her biggest accomplishments in that regard has been founding the GLAAD Media Institute, an arm of the organization dedicated to training and consulting individuals and companies on LGBTQ+ issues and responsible storytelling. 

In one of its latest achievements, the Institute partnered last month with record label Sony Music Group to spotlight LGBTQ+ music, artists, and songwriters, and to consult on campaigns and programs seeking to highlight contemporary LGBTQ+ issues. “I have twin 13-year-olds, and for me, it’s about building the GLAAD of tomorrow for them,” Ellis says.

The GLAAD that Ellis is founding is one that connects with young people where they are. Given the amount of time she spends knee-deep in social media research, Ellis said she’s come to recognize a list of blind spots most of the old guard isn’t realizing about the new age. 

“Gen Z expresses themselves differently—and powerfully,” she says. “There isn’t a CEO in America today who isn’t thinking about that, and trying to work through what that looks like and how that impacts their company.” 

As for how to get a read on younger people, and avoid a train wreck of an ad campaign or cringey social media posting, Ellis’s first recommendation is simple: There are no shortcuts except to engage.

“Talk to young people,” she advises. “Consider them partners and invite them to the table. Include their voice, so your product or service is formed in their vision. Find out what matters to them from the source. We spend a lot of time wondering but not enough asking.”

Making the political personal

The importance of engaging with Gen Z where they are brings Ellis to her next point: why so many companies keep falling short of their DEI goals. 

“I think companies view LGBTQ+ rights, voting rights, and race in America as political issues rather than human issues,” she says. “That’s when you start missing the boat.”

Ellis knows authenticity when she sees it. Before joining GLAAD, she led marketing at Vogue, Real Simple, and New York magazine. “I wasn’t looking to climb the ladder, or had my sights set on being CEO,” she tells Fortune. “I was trying to find what I was really good at, and bring that to something that means a tremendous amount to me.”

Companies quick to slot human issues into the “political” bucket—where they can be considered hot-button, or risky to comment on—“move to the side instead of step up,” Ellis says. She points to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which assesses how much people trust different businesses, media companies, and government sectors. 

The barometer’s most recent iteration portrayed a deeply polarized America, in which most media giants sow distrust and few businesses can credibly back up their commitments to environmental and social issues. Even so, more people in 2021 said they trust their employers than their government or the media—Ellis says this means the onus is on business to maintain that trust.

“Businesses need to ensure, when they weigh in on these issues, they use their voice and economic clout to move the dialogue forward,” she says. 

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