Truthfully, I was not sure what to expect as I rode the elevator up to the top floor of the Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco to attend the kickoff event for Coca-Cola’s inaugural Next Generation LGBTQ Leaders’ Initiative last January.

Perhaps I was going to walk away with stacks of dry professional development fodder and some iconic Coca-Cola memorabilia. Perhaps I’d make a new friend or two.

After all, who’s ever heard of a company going out of its way to make a yearlong commitment to supporting emerging LGBTQ leaders?

But as doors opened to reveal the Julia Morgan Ballroom filled with trailblazers of the LGBTQ community together with my peers who aspire to carry forward their legacy, I realized that Coke was serious and that this would not be your run-of-the-mill experience.

In this quintessentially San Francisco venue, I met for the first time a diverse group of some 30 young LGBTQ professionals who, like me, had been nominated by senior leaders in our community who knew us well—our supervisors at work, graduate school deans, clergy, and other civic leaders.

Though we may not have known it at the time, our class, and the network of experts and mentors the program connected us with, would come to develop a close bond over the course of a year that would prove formative to all who participated. To provide such a strong and diverse group of experts and mentors, Coca-Cola tapped leaders in its outstanding partner organizations, including Equality California, Transgender Law Center, Victory Fund and Institute, and San Francisco AIDS Foundation, among others.

The centerpiece of the kickoff event was a panel discussion with five diverse, highly accomplished professionals from very different walks of life who reflected on their growth as leaders and lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Three themes stood out as I listened to these experts. First, be your whole, true self, every day. Simple in theory. Harder in practice. Essential to building the credibility to lead.

Second, I was struck by the value placed on building and empowering strong teams. As Coca-Cola’s Pamela Stewart put it, the more you empower others, the greater your ability to effect change. Finally, everyone agreed that leadership is about finding common ground, being courageous enough to respect and build bridges to people with different priorities and being committed to finding win-win solutions.

Thanks largely to the courage and commitment of LGBTQ and allied leaders like the ones assembled by Coca-Cola that evening, today’s young LGBTQ professionals have many advantages that didn’t exist even a few years ago. For me and many other Next Generation fellows, those advantages come with an obligation to serve our communities and our country as best we can. The Next Generation Leaders’ Initiative is designed to give us the skills and opportunities so we can do just that.

Fellows at JD Schramm's LGBT Executive Communications Lab at the 2016 International LGBT Leaders Conference, Washington D.C.

Perhaps the most exciting part of our yearlong program was welcoming the second San Francisco cohort of Coca-Cola’s Next Generation Fellows at their first convening this past July. Seeing their eagerness to get to work on behalf of the community was yet another inspiration and a strong sign that our vision of a more equitable and inclusive world is within our reach. 

Next Generation Leaders’ Forum San Francisco 2017 Cohort
Next Generation Leaders’ Forum Los Angeles 2017 Cohort

As for my own future, the Next Generation Leaders’ Initiative has invigorated my passion for public service. With the deeply rewarding relationships I have formed with my colleagues and mentors, I feel well supported in taking the mantle of leadership; I am even considering running for public office someday.  

What continues to inspire me on my journey are my peers, whose accomplished leadership on behalf of their home communities shines as an example to all. And with the guidance of our mentors, I know this next generation can succeed in building the bridges we need to reach a brighter future.  

Jason Galisatus is a community relations associate for Stanford University and active civic participant. This blog reflects his personal views and not necessarily those of the university, or any other organization with which he is or was affiliated.