When Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, the largest publicly traded company in the world, came out as gay on Thursday, it sent a pretty powerful message to business owners around the globe: Openness and inclusion of diversity are key drivers of innovation and productivity.

And any startup or small business that wants the best from its workforce would do well to follow Cook's lead. Corporate policies that allow employees to be open about who they are also allow those employees to do a better job, make stronger connections with their co-workers, and connect more effectively in networks that are critical to the business.

"[Tim Cook's announcement] has the potential to bring added visibility to the issue of non-discrimination, and of welcoming people into the workplace to do the job they are hired to do," says Justin Nelson, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

This Is Diversity?

Still, while many companies pay lip service to the idea of diversity, few actually make it a cornerstone value. Even Silicon Valley tech companies, which consistently rank at the top of diversity rankings for their treatment of LGBT employees, have their own problems with difference--namely that they tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. Cook's announcement is certainly groundbreaking, but inclusion of all minorities in U.S. workplaces still has a long way to go.

In Cook's article from Businessweek, he writes:

I've had the good fortune to work at a company that loves creativity and innovation and knows it can only flourish when you embrace people's differences. Not everyone is so lucky.

You need look no further than Exxon Mobil to see what Cook means. Apple and Exxon Mobil frequently compete for rank as the largest public company globally--though Exxon, with a market cap of $400 billion, is currently playing second fiddle, in more ways than one. Exxon ranks at the bottom of Fortune 1,000 companies, because it does not include LGBT people in its corporate diversity policy, among other things.

That's important because LGBT workers, including those working for Exxon, can be fired in about 30 states for their sexual orientation and expression. (Even though, ironically, they may now marry in many of the same states, thanks to a Supreme Court decision from 2012 allowing same sex marriage on a federal level.)

And elsewhere throughout the world where Apple does a thriving business, Draconian laws exist that criminalize homosexuality and sexual expression. In Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, for example, you can be executed for being gay. Russia forbids public discussion of homosexuality with a threat of imprisonment.

A Policy of Openness

So, for entrepreneurs like Thomas Sanchez, co-founder and chief executive of social media marketing and strategy company Social Driver, Cook's announcement is groundbreaking in a multitude of ways.

Sanchez founded the 35-employee Social Driver, based in Washington, D.C., with his husband Anthony Shop. Both left Missouri, one of the states where you can be fired for being gay, to start their current enterprise about four years ago.

"I knew people in Missouri who would go to Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal, to get married, and then not tell people at work, because they were afraid," Sanchez says.

As an openly gay executive and owner of a startup, Sanchez says he can create an environment in his own company in which diversity is appreciated and encouraged. Just as important, he says he can also network with other gay business owners, which helps create new business opportunities for his company and others. (There are about 1.4 million gay-owned businesses in the U.S., according to the NGLCC.)

"You do a better job when you can be out," Sanchez says. "And as a CEO, I don't want my employees worrying about [revealing] their personal lives at work."

Or, as Cook says in more soaring language: "We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick."

That brick belongs to all of us.