AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today, the CEO of one of America's biggest companies came out as gay. Apple's leader, Tim Cook, wrote an essay in Bloomberg Businessweek publicly acknowledging his sexual orientation. Coming out is still rare in the top ranks of the corporate world. Still, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, Cook's decision may have a larger impact overseas than in the U.S.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It was a lot harder to come out as a businessperson back in the 1990s - just ask Tim Gill. Gill founded Quark, an early desktop publishing company for Mac and Windows computers. He even made the Fortune 400 list. But when he wanted to mention his partner of seven years in the article...
TIM GILL: It was an interesting tussle because they didn't want to print that I was gay in that list.
SYDELL: Gill says eventually, they did print it. Gill has retired and has his own foundation in Colorado that fights for lesbian, gay, bi and transgender rights. Gill says he'd like to see Cook go a little further.
GILL: Apple, for example, has tremendous influence on places that they do business. And for them to ask those places to respect their gay employees and the gay citizens of those states and municipalities has potential to have a lot of impact.
SYDELL: Though, in the U.S. the tide has been turning in favor of the LGBT community in terms of acceptance. But Apple is a popular brand around the world, with global offices and factories. Sarah Kate Ellis, who heads the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Defamation League, says in some countries it would be illegal for Tim Cook to be open about his sexual orientation.
SARAH KATE ELLIS: There are dozens. It's close to 70 countries where it's illegal to be LGBT. And Apple products are probably sold there. So I think it's going to raise a lot of eyebrows and help change a lot of hearts and minds.
SYDELL: For LGBT executives who don't work for Apple but travel outside the U.S., Tim Cook's words were welcome. Li Han Chan is the CEO of DynaOptics, a startup that's making cameras for mobile devices. Chan is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it's fairly easy to be out and open. But she travels a lot to Asia, where she must be more discreet.
LI HAN CHAN: It's hard enough to run a business and to try and, you know, have to hide something and be, you know focused on something else deeply personal when you're focusing on the business sometimes, when you're interacting, that's challenging.
SYDELL: Chan says she feels like Tim Cook has opened the door a crack for her to perhaps being a little more revealing.
CHAN: It helps that Apple is a sexy brand. Given that there is so much love for the brand, I think that it just makes the entire ecosystem think about this issue of being gay, I think, slightly differently.
SYDELL: Though, as CEO of a startup, she remains very cautious about doing anything that would put her company at risk. But at least in the U.S., some executives say being open about their sexual orientation has actually been great for recruiting talent. Trevor Burgess is the founder and CEO of C1 Bank, which caters to entrepreneurs. When he founded the company, he was open about being gay.
TREVOR BURGESS: Most exciting to me was the number of people that contacted me and our business and wanted to work here at C1 Bank. What they loved was that they had a leader who was authentic in who he was. And they saw that that might present an opportunity for them also to be authentic.
SYDELL: Burgess says it wasn't just gay people who were getting in touch. It was talented women and minorities. Burgess says he hopes that Tim Cook has opened a path for lesbian and gay employees everywhere who want to reach for that corner office. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.