Among the marching bands and twirlers at Saturday's St. Pete Pride Parade, one major sponsor, Tech Data, is sending by far a record number of employees — more than 700 at last count — to march in Florida's largest gay pride parade.
The parade, which drew more than 30,000 people to the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront last year, will have more than 155 units and will be followed by fireworks on Saturday night. And in a sign of the growing influence of millennials to urge their employers to evolve, Tech Data has seen its participation in Pride weekend snowball in just three years.
"It will be about 10 minutes of just Tech Data employees marching by," said Luke Blankenship, Pride executive director.
"Oh, I hope so," said John Tonnison, CIO of the Clearwater-based firm, which earlier this year became Florida's largest public company.
Tech Data, like much of corporate America, has found that support for Pride and LGBTQ issues has proven to be good for morale and good for business.
When the employment advocacy group Out & Equal was founded in 1996, less than 4 percent of Fortune 500 companies had policies in place that protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That number has now risen to more than 93 percent.
History professor David K. Johnson, who helped found the Florida LGBT History Initiative within the University of South Florida library, noted that some have objected to the growing corporate presence. He's heard, "It's a movement not a market," shouted at corporate Pride floats.
"But I don't see it as a corporate takeover of Pride because it's usually the LGBT employees at a firm like Tech Data who are leading this, so I think it's a great sign," said Johnson, who is writing a book coming out in February called Buying Gay about the history of the movement's economic power. He noted the boycott of Florida orange juice in the 1970s in which citrus spokeswoman Anita Bryant lost her job after her outspoken opposition to gay rights.
"Corporate America has been ahead of the politicians in this area, especially in conservative states like Florida where we still don't have statewide legal protection," Johnson said. "But most major corporations do."
It's good for recruiting talent, Johnson said, and it's good for business.
"The gay and lesbian population is extremely brand-loyal," said Justin Nelson, who leads the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. "We have more than 150 corporate partners that understand not only the value of the LGBT dollar but the economics of inclusivity and loyalty."
A sevenfold jump in participation in three years
Tech Data, a computer products reseller that operates in more than 100 countries, has participated in Pride weekend for just three years, but Tonnison credits the company's employee resource group (or ERG) with the success. The ERGs are a collection of special committees devoted to topics. There's also an African-American committee, one for veterans and a womans' ERG, among others.
Three years ago, the LGBT group, called Spectrum, urged the company to participate in Pride, and about 100 employees and their families joined. In its second year, the company created a float and had a couple hundred more employees, and Tonnison said he noticed a marked improvement in morale.
"They were very excited and quite moved by the impact their participation made," Tonnison said. "People were grateful they were there, and I think that was maybe a reaction they didn't expect. They realized they were reacting in different ways throughout the company."
This year, the company raised a rainbow Pride flag on June 1, not just in its Clearwater headquarters but at 10 locations across the country and put out the call for a big showing at the Pride parade.
Out of 2,200 employees based in the Tampa Bay area, more than 700 have signed up so far for this year's Pride Parade. And a bigger parade float is being built for the Tech Data crew, who will be sporting powder-blue Pride T-shirts.
"This kind of participation is catchy, it's viral. We certainly see its effect," Tonnison said. "I'm not surprised, but I'm very proud, and I'm buying a lot of T-shirts,"
Blankenship said some who have been with the Pride weekend since its beginning 16 years ago can be put off by corporate participation, lamenting the loss of the grass-roots feel in a midst of a corporate sponsor list that includes Wells Fargo, Valpak, HCA's Pinellas hospitals and the Visit St. Pete/Clearwater tourism marketing arm.
"But what's amazing is look where we've come as a society," Blankenship said. "That the biggest brands in our community are showing us love. That is a huge leap."
While it might look like a party, Pride is at its heart about radical activism. Pride was born in New York in 1970 as a way to commemorate the three-day Stonewall riots. The June 1969 riots were instigated by transgender, gay and drag performers fed up with the harassment and arrests of the gay community.
Tonnison said becoming Florida's largest public company made this an important year in the company's history, "and we recognized that also brings some responsibility" to be more visible in the community.
He said the company has long had a commitment to what he called "the superpower" of diversity and inclusion.
"Once you recognize that diverse point of view as a superpower, that builds into this very important program as a real force to win."
Like so many managers, he said, he has witnessed the change that millennials have had on his company.
"They are tremendously aware before they join a company of the reputation and its values. I'm becoming increasing aware that they are looking for signs of cultural intelligence, and corporate social responsibility, in fundamental goodness," Tonnison said. "I don't remember that 15 years ago. Now it's a frequent conversation."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at email@example.com. Follow @SharonKWn.