This article originally appeared in ‘Out and About’ magazine in December 2013.
“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions” — Dalai Lama
It may sound cliché, but I believe the key to happiness is to stay true to who you are. It seems like the new generation of 20-something-year-olds, just coming out of law school or in their early years of practice, have it easier than we did coming out 20 years ago. And, in today’s environment, it may be easier to come out or just be “you,” but you still have to continue to make a decision about how and when to come out. Perhaps now that I can call my partner my wife, the reveal of my sexuality will be understood more immediately.
I first came out to myself when I was fifteen and a half, but struggled with what that meant. When I was an undergraduate student at UCLA, I was starting to come to terms that I was a lesbian. However, being such a large campus, I did not feel like I belonged anywhere. I felt lost until I joined Loyola Law School in Los Angeles in 1995. It was a smaller setting that made it much easier to be out and share with people I was a lesbian. I met my first lesbian law school professor who became a role model to me, and realized that it was ok to be out and successful in law. Upon graduation, I joined my first firm, a mid-size, California-focused firm. Oh yes, and they were mostly democratic. I was very out at this firm and did not feel impeded in any way as a result. I remember during my first year, we had a law firm retreat in Hawaii in which everyone’s significant others were invited and made to feel welcome, including mine. I even recall having quite a bad break up during the end of my time at the firm, and the associates and partners were very supportive and didn’t treat me any differently.
I stayed at this firm for 4 years and then decided to join a larger, AmLaw 200, law firm. I thought a bigger firm and more money was what I wanted, and really didn’t think much about the type of firm I would ultimately end up at. It was a very conservative, Republican, Texas based firm. The people were smart and professional, but something just did not fit right for me. When I started there, I felt I could not be very out, although I didn’t completely hide it. That combined with the fact that I was South Asian, just made me always feel a little like I didn’t belong. There were a few attorneys I worked with who were great mentors and friends, but I realized that firm wasn’t the right fit for me.
After one year, I left the firm and made the move to business. I wanted to stay in the legal industry as I loved law and believed there was a way to make the management and delivery of legal services more efficient. In 2004, I decided to start a legal outsourcing company called LawScribe with offices in the US and India… yes, India, and let me mention how that decision really put me back in the closet, at least with respect to people in India. A lot of the reason for that was the result of my experience with my own family. I was part of the South Asian culture having a very difficult time with my being a lesbian. So, I thought no one in India would be ok with it. I ran a company for 6 years and never discussed my personal life with anyone who worked with me in India during that time. That was extremely difficult and created a distance, I now wish hadn’t existed. With respect to my colleagues in the United States, I was open with them and felt very comfortable being out. I don’t think it was just because I was the CEO of the company, but I am sure that didn’t hurt. I think it was a positive thing for them to see a lesbian in that type of a position.
What was different for me running my own business was what decision to make about being out with clients. Our client base was comprised of law firms and corporate legal departments, and the individuals we worked with ranged from legal operations executives to in-house counsel, general counsel, and managing partners. I felt quite comfortable in being out, but I wonder if a lot of that decision came from the fact that I was running a company, giving me a sense of security. At that point, I did not feel that being a lesbian would impede my ability to bring in business.
The move to my next company, however, pushed me back in the closet. I sold my company to a Kansas based legal outsourcing company, run by two very conservative, Caucasian men and one conservative, South Asian man. I remember being so nervous about being out and never spoke about it with anyone until two months later after a company holiday party. My suspicions about this group of individuals not being comfortable with my sexuality were correct. After this party, everyone was talking about, “did you know Kunoor is with a girl,” and not in a good way. I recall some of the senior people reacting in a very immature manner to two women being together. There were a few folks of course who were fine with it, but again, I had ended up at a company that just wasn’t the right fit.
My next venture as a co-founder in my current company Elevate Services, finally brought me back to who I was and where I was meant to be. The Chairman of our company and I had known of each other as we ran competing companies, but we had never met. On our first lunch meeting in January of 2012, really meant by me to just reach out and make a connection, showed me the type of person the Chairman was, but also the type of company we were going to build that that was going to be the right fit for me. I remember during the lunch I was talking about my partner, but very ambiguously until he made me feel comfortable by just referring to “her” and continuing the conversation, making me feel “normal.” He of course had heard of my being a lesbian through others who worked with him at his prior company and wanted me to know it was not a big deal.
Fast forward 3 months, I travel to India to help start building the company, and meet with one of our clients who was visiting our facility and just making the decision to work with Elevate. He happened to be an out gay man, who was so open (and comfortable) about his sexuality that it made me start to think about what decision I was going make about being out in India, and generally at Elevate.
Fast forward another 6 months, I travel to India to continue to help set up operations and I meet our Global COO, a very Indian individual who had worked with our Chairman in their prior company. We went out to lunch, and I was again ambiguously talking about my partner and he quickly mentioned Liam had told him about my woman partner, and we just continued the conversation, making me again feel normal. I had never been out to anyone in the business setting in India. This was a huge moment for me.
Our Chairman, client and COO (and of course wife) all contributed to my finally being able to just be me in the work context — globally. Now, I am out with everyone. Many of my colleagues globally are on my Facebook page, where I am clearly out. I must admit that I am the happiest I have ever been. I am out in my current company and with my clients (one of my clients even came to my wedding). I am married to the most wonderful and supportive woman in the world.
My advice: Don’t just make decisions of what to do based on what others think is best for you – i.e. larger firm, the private sector or more money. Think about what type of people, company, environment seem like the right fit and will help you evolve and grow as a person. The world won’t all be accepting, but the people who are meant to be in your life will.
“I believe the key to happiness is to stay true to who you are.”