When it comes to promoting social equality around the world, entrepreneurs play a unique and powerful role.

"Business is a key ingredient in stopping hate," said Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, speaking at a panel in New York City on Thursday. "They [executives] have a different kind of influence."

Griffen spoke in conversation with Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott International, and Kenji Yoshino, a professor of constitutional law at New York University, at The Economist's first-ever "Pride and Prejudice" conference.

The event, which takes place simultaneously in London and Hong Kong, gathered leaders and change-makers--from government to the C-suite--for a comprehensive discussion of why LGBT diversity and inclusion matters.

While the connection between better financial returns and diversity may not be immediately apparent, at least one study from UCLA found that nearly all (92 percent) of companies with LGBT anti-discrimination rules credit the policies for having boosted annual sales. Other reported benefits included better recruitment of top talent, stronger innovation and productivity, as well as enticing more public sector clients.

"There's an interesting financial case to be made in terms of the social strides being made around LGBT rights," said Michael Gold, an editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit, in a previous interview with Inc.

Sorenson of Marriott International certainly agrees. The global hotel chain, which operates in countries where homosexuality is illegal, has made major strides to support both its LGBT employees and customers.

In 2014, the company launched its popular "Love Travels" ad campaign, featuring clips with gay and lesbian couples on vacation to better welcome those guests. And just last year, Marriott was named a "Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality," after earning a perfect score on the HRC's 2016 Corporate Equality Index, a widely recognized benchmark for diversity and inclusion. 

Sorenson believes that to better entice customers, you need to start by empowering your own workforce. "We can only get to our customers through our people. We have some influence, and we use it by coming out and saying here's what our position is," he said.

To his point, Sorenson caused something of a media blitz last year when he called a piece of legislation (Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act) "madness," as it would give businesses in Indiana the right to discriminate against LGBT employees. He was joined by powerful executive voices, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, in decrying the legislation.

"That to us was a very concrete business issue," Sorenson added. Although the bill was ultimately signed into law, it saw a strong backlash from the local business community, fueled largely by comments from the global C-suite.

If you're not convinced by the argument that LGBT inclusion has a fiscal advantage, consider too that inclusion serves a more vital purpose: Saving lives.

"Life happens in four places for most folks: Home, school, and church. And then, where they go to work," said HRC's Griffin. "For most LGBT people around the globe, they are rejected at home, they are rejected at church, and they were rejected in school and in the communities they call home. They are rejected from around their own dinner table."

Sometimes, he concluded, the consequences can be life-threatening.

Consider, for instance, that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24--and what's worse, that LGBT youth are four times as likely to commit suicide as their straight peers, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (It has been estimated that as many as 1,500 gay and lesbian youth commit suicide every year, according to 1991 research from consultants Anne Thompson Cook and Wayne Pawlowski.)

"Having the CEO of one of the largest companies in the world communicating to employees that we value you, he values you, and accepts you and protects you and embraces you, that not only makes them a good worker, where they an bring their full self to the extent possible to the job, it can also actually save their lives," Griffin said, referring to the movement as an important piece of the puzzle that is often neglected.

Published on: Mar 3, 2016