Starting an LGBTI network group

Starting an LGBTI network group

Kate McLaren is the Shopper Marketing Manager at one of Australia’s biggest retailers, Woolworths Limited. The business has 3,000 stores and counting and employ 205,000 team members who serve over 29 million customers across our brands every week. In 2015 Kate and her colleague Chelsea McPhail Rosenberg co-founded the businesses lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) and allies network, called Proud at Woolworths Group. She tells us more about her network group journey.

Picture two friends, at work, catching up over lunch. Not that uncommon you might say. Well in late 2015, one such lunch was occurring, but there was something different about this one. My colleague, Chelsea McPhail Rosenberg, and I were discussing Marriage Equality and LGBTI rights. A conversation that transformed us both.

We started our journey as Woolworths Graduates (Australia), juggling rotations, projects and new teams as standard but quickly found ourselves throwing more balls in the air as we became investigators, strategists, advocates and Co-founders of an inclusion network start-up. A challenging but rewarding 12 month journey driving LGBTI equality in one of Australia’s largest employers.

Today, we find ourselves holding the position of Co-founders and Co-chairs of a 1,100 person strong LGBTI and Allies Network, called Proud at Woolworths Group.

I won’t pretend that getting any group or initiative off the ground in an organisation as large as Woolworths is anything other than a pretty daunting task. Where do you start? Who needs to know about it? Does it need sign off? If yes, then who? How will people react, will they embrace it or will this be an uphill battle? Initially, we had lots of questions and very few answers.

“We gathered information internally about existing diversity strategies and policies and coupled it with hard facts about the LGBTI community and its people. We didn’t sugar coat it and we always brought it back to the benefits to the organisation and our organisational values.”

I co-founded Proud at Woolworths Group because it was the right thing to do, because when I looked around the organisation, I couldn’t see any ways in which we were promoting or supporting LGBTI inclusion. I wouldn’t say that we were actively excluding LGBTI people, just that we weren’t actively removing inequality and improving inclusivity. So a year ago, Chelsea and I started building a business case, and we relentlessly sought out senior leaders to present it to, even to the point, where I stopped our CEO on the stairs and asked him if I could put time in his diary to talk about it!

This is our journey, and some may argue that we haven’t followed the ‘right’ way. However, in my experience, when you are trying to enact massive cultural change like we were, you take it as it comes. Focus on the end goal, not the order in which you complete the tasks. As such the following have not been numbered or listed in any particular order. These are simply the tasks we undertook to start our network!


Not always the easiest thing to do, because a really good sponsor is often a bit like a rare bird in the jungle, you know it is out there but finding it can be tricky! We have a fantastic Network Sponsor in James Goth, he is passionate, engaged, approachable and committed to pushing our agenda at the Executive and Board level. We didn’t find James straight away, we were several months into our campaign before a senior leader we met with mentioned James was passionate in this space and interested in doing more in our business. We reached out to him and he jumped at the chance. We have made some great strides since James came on board!


The camaraderie and support of organisations on this same journey towards LGBTI equality is like nothing I have ever experienced before. In the early stages of network setup – Chelsea and I met with PwC, Lendlease, Macquarie Bank, Herbert Smith Freehills and more. This was critical to our success as we were able to learn from their experiences and use their knowledge as foundations for our plans. This was particularly helpful when we were starting our business case, but also when we were setting up ally training and programs, and developing content to share internally with team members.


We gathered information internally about existing diversity strategies and policies and coupled it with hard facts about the LGBTI community and its people. We didn’t sugar coat it and we always brought it back to the benefits to the organisation and our organisational values. We knew that our organisation liked to deal in facts and figures and needed to understand not just the human capital benefit but the broader benefit to productivity and customer experience. Our business case wasn’t perfected before we started showing Senior Leaders. The more we showed it, the more feedback we had to improve it, to make it stronger and more powerful. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback and support.


We used our internal Google platform to set up a Google+ page. Initially, our hope was to educate, advocate and inspire. Our plan was simple, we focused on definitions and terminology, links to good news stories and inspiring quotes. We started by inviting our graduate cohort and colleagues we worked with currently or in the past (one of the many benefits of rotating through teams on the graduate program!). Then we asked our colleagues to share it with their teams. Uptake was slow. At least, until Mardi Gras of 2016, which saw us jump from under 100 to over 300! Quite the uplift and just the ground swell we needed to leverage more conversations internally.


Identifying influential senior leaders in our business who are also pro-inclusion wasn’t too hard. Often when we found a leader who wanted to support us, they would also give great referrals to other individuals in our business who were passionate about LGBTI inclusion. The more we talked to people the more people we found who wanted to be part of it. Before we knew it, we had a lot of people asking us ‘what can I do to help you’. This took us by surprise, and my advice is to go into each stakeholder meeting knowing what it is you need from them and what you are ultimately asking them to do. We learnt that lesson quickly!


I think there are two main schools of thought when it comes to setting up your committee. The first is to harness an individual’s passion by allowing them to work on areas of the network where they want to gain experience or have an interest. The second is to focus on utilising their existing skillset, for which they were hired in the first place. We chose the latter option because in an organisation our size we have access to lots of highly skilled and specialised individuals who can easily draw from their existing talents. I don’t think either is right or wrong. What works for your organisation is more likely to depend on the individuals who want to be involved and your organisations structure and size. Once you decide, formalise your structure and identify clear roles and accountabilities.


Organising and hosting an event for a new network can be daunting. Not being experienced event organisers we have relied on learning through doing. Here are some ideas that helped us improve the professionalism and success of our events.

  • Choose a topic that has relevance to your audience. Think about how you can broaden your topics in order to capture the interest of the largest number of people while keeping it relevant.
  • Get a great speaker. Our first event was titled Diversity in Retail and our guest panellist was Paul Zahra, former CEO of David Jones. Putting together a mix of internal and external speakers really helped to generate interest and excitement as well as lend authority to the topic.
  • Consider running the events over lunch to avoid the majority of meeting clashes, and where possible link the event with a food offering (no one says no to pastries and a fruit platter!).
  • Link up with your internal communications team, and develop structured comms strategies and plans that define actions, dates and accountabilities. This also provides access to the main internal communications points and channels, meaning you are alerting more of your team to the upcoming event.
  • Outline a run sheet – this is helpful for both the committee and the guest speakers and keeps everyone on track.
  • Engage senior leaders to facilitate, host or be part of the event as this reinforces the importance of the activity.

    Something we learned quickly was that the panel session only engaged our support office – what about the 150,000+ team members we have working in our stores, distribution centres and the like? We decided to trial an event, which we aligned with Wear it Purple Day, a national Australian event. We invited two of our business units (Metro and BWS) to opt-in to participate. We were overwhelmed by the positive response and the requests from other business units to engage. In the end, we had over 460 stores across Metro, Fuel, BWS, Dan Murphy’s, Big W and Woolworths Supermarkets, plus two support offices in NSW and one in QLD.

    “Don’t be afraid of the fact that not everything will be a raging success. We have had setbacks and challenges along the way, just as everyone else does. Keep picking yourself up and pushing forward and let’s create greater equality and inclusion together!”

    We provided printable materials that teams could put up in their break rooms and encouraged them to wear purple and conduct any activities they thought relevant to their team, store and customer base. We developed flyers, pens and stickers that we handed out on the day in our support offices which communicated the importance of inclusion and the purpose of Wear it Purple day and we also had a few themed giveaways to add a bit of excitement to the event! We saw a fantastic level of involvement and received great feedback from store teams, highlighting the satisfaction they felt from being empowered to celebrate the event.

    Like all projects and work that we do, it is always important to seek feedback, adapt and adjust. Work out what is working for you and the network and what isn’t and make changes. We are constantly trialling new ideas and methods for communicating as well as looking at the engagement levels for the different events we run in order to identify what is best for our network.

    Don’t be afraid of the fact that not everything will be a raging success. We have had setbacks and challenges along the way, just as everyone else does. Keep picking yourself up and pushing forward and let’s create greater equality and inclusion together!


    Nobody is more influential when it comes to communicating your company’s brand and workplace culture, than the employees themselves. If you’d like to share your workplace, employee and community engagement and network group news and updates with our readers, then we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us here!

    About The Author

    Kate McLaren

    Kate is a passionate, driven and engaged individual who loves brand, strategy and retail marketing. She is known for her positive and can-do attitude and is driven to achieve strategic goals. Kate has proven experience in development and management of internal and external stakeholder relationships which she has displayed repeatedly throughout her rotations on the Woolworths Limited Graduate Program and in her roles working across the Fuel, Metro and Thomas Dux brands. Recently, Kate co-founded Proud at Woolworths Group, the organisations Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Allies network. To support, promote and build awareness of the importance of inclusion and diversity at Woolworths. Kate has combined her passion with a business need and achieved great success in the network’s first year of operation. Including a network of over 1000 members and the coordination of an event that saw participation from over 450 stores and three support offices across Australia.

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