When each year’s Pride festivals happen in Pittsburgh and Central PA, Highmark is there as a proud sponsor. Employee volunteers hand out giveaways and valuable health, wellness and insurance information, and hundreds more employees and family members join the celebrations.
Pride events draw larger crowds, and more corporate sponsors, every year. But thanks to courageous, change-leading employees like Louise Stutler and Joe Baumiller, Highmark Inc. was a pioneer in sponsoring Pride events in its communities, including being the first corporate sponsor of Pittsburgh Pride in 2008. The following year, Highmark Inc. was one of three companies (along with Bank of New York Mellon and Deloitte) to sign on as the event’s first premier corporate sponsors.
Stutler, now a program manager with HM Health Solutions, has also served in leadership roles for the Delta Foundation, which has organized Pride in Pittsburgh since 2007. In 2008, she joined a newly formed LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Corporate Round Table group that brought together people from the region’s leading companies to discuss how their organizations could be more visible and effective in supporting the LGBT community. That same year, she and other Highmark employees began looking at forming an LGBTA business resource group (BRG) at Highmark. (One of those employees, Susan Whitehead, later became a plaintiff in the case that overturned Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban.)
Baumiller, now regional retail manager for Highmark Direct stores, was another employee who got involved in 2008 and was part of Highmark’s BRG/Pride leadership team until 2012.
“At first, there was not a lot going on as far as events,” Baumiller explains. “This was a group that came together to develop a BRG, to review Highmark policies and procedures to make sure they were inclusive, and to look at what we could do to make sure LGBT employees had somewhere to go if they felt discriminated against or had a concern. But we also began thinking about how to engage people outside that. Pride was becoming the event that everyone attended and looked forward to, so we began brainstorming how to get Highmark more involved.”
Stutler credits long-time friend and former Pride Chair Jeff Freedman with suggesting corporate sponsorship during early meetings that also included current Delta Foundation President Gary Van Horn.
“We were looking at what they had planned for the 2008 Pride,” Stutler recalls, “and Jeff asked, ‘What if Highmark sponsored the kids play area?’ This was a family-friendly area, the cost was reasonable — everything fell into place and Highmark became the first corporate sponsor.”
That first year, approximately 25 Highmark employees, friends and family walked in Pittsburgh’s Pride March, and there were close to 18,000 attendees overall. In 2009, about 80 Highmark employees, friends and family walked together in the march as the event itself nearly doubled in size.
Both Stutler and Baumiller emphasize the importance of support from Highmark senior leaders like Sara Oliver-Carter (former vice president of Highmark Health Diversity & Inclusion), Jim Fawcett (now president of Highmark West Virginia health plans), and Melissa Anderson (now Highmark Health’s chief audit and compliance officer) in the success of early Pride sponsorships and the official formation of the LGBTA BRG in 2009. But they had also done their homework in making the business case for Highmark to become more visible as an LGBT-friendly organization. For example, Harris survey data from that period had shown that LGBT consumers support brands, and will pay more for their products and services, if they are known to support the LGBT community.
Another aspect of the business case was Highmark’s active efforts to expand its retail business, including the launch of its Highmark Direct stores. That led to having the Highmark mobile marketing truck at the event starting in 2009.
“It was easy to convince senior leadership of the benefits of having that massive Highmark mobile marketing unit parked in the middle of everything,” says Baumiller. “If you were at PrideFest, you could not walk anywhere and not see Highmark. We were everywhere due to that truck and our employee volunteers.”
Having launched the first Highmark Pride conversations with a blind email that attracted about a dozen employees, Stutler says that “what we quickly found was that lots of people were willing to support this.” It wasn’t just Diversity & Inclusion and the health plans’ retail marketing team, affiliated businesses like United Concordia also got involved by staffing tables or contributing promotional giveaways.
Another key participant early on was Dr. Rhonda Johnson, now Highmark’s senior medical director of quality management. At the time, she led the Health Equity & Quality Services team. Their work — ensuring that all groups have equal access and quality in health care — requires data. Gathering such data for the LGBT community can be challenging since patients may not report that they are gay.
“Being at Pride opened up a way to obtain metrics that no one had before,” Baumiller says. “We collaborated with Dr. Johnson and the health equity team to create a survey that we handed out in 2010, 2011 and 2012, which provided valuable data to draw on for their work.”
From the start, Highmark has had a very visible presence as a sponsor of Pride — and as the event has grown, so has the company’s involvement. Some things remain consistent — like tables where LGBT-specific health documents are distributed, and plenty of promotional giveaways.
Other elements have changed year to year. Highmark has sometimes sponsored the main stage, for example, and in 2012 a Highmark float featuring people doing aerobic exercise and dancing was a popular “surprise” addition to the Pride parade. In 2014, Highmark partnered with Molly’s Trolleys to provide fun transportation at the event.
Highmark’s early success with Pride also helped pave the way for involvement with other events: from the LGBTA BRG participating as a group in Highmark Walk for a Healthy Community events, to hosting National Coming Out Day panels, having the spire on the Highmark building turn red on Dec. 1 for Worlds AIDS Day, and much more.
“Highmark was always inclusive in my experience,” says Baumiller, who has been with the company for more than a decade. “But being known more widely as an inclusive company requires activities and events that show you are inclusive. The LGBTA BRG, and Pride as the largest event we do, are very visible ways that we tell employees and the entire community that this is a company that cares about you as a person.”
From the start, one highlight of Highmark’s official participation in Pride has been a large contingent of employees walking together behind a Highmark banner in the Pride March that kicks off PrideFest. In fact, as the top sponsor in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, Highmark led the parade — which provided one of Baumiller’s most memorable Pride moments.
“I remember walking with Sara Oliver-Carter and my partner and about 150 other employees, just marching down Liberty with the Highmark building in the distance,” he recalls. “I had been out for many years, and I had been to Pride before, but I had never been on display like you are leading off that parade. Just seeing all my co-workers together and having such support from the crowd — that by far is my favorite memory.”
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