By Emily Mills | Photography by Hillary Schave
When Heidi Duss became president of the Out Professional Engagement Network (OPEN), the Dane County-based organization had been providing networking and community-building opportunities for LGBTQ+ people and their allies for well over a decade. Along the way, a consistent message from members was that there was a need for dedicated career development and training tailored to the unique needs of their diverse and traditionally underserved community.
That’s where the newly established OPEN Foundation comes in. Begun in early 2023, the nonprofit is focused on providing support and guidance to those who may otherwise be held back in their career due to their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“Dane County is ready for the OPEN Foundation,” says Duss.
Launch of the new initiative was made possible in large part thanks to an interim chief of staff who helped lay the groundwork for the foundation by way of a pro-bono opportunity from vChief, an executive staffing company. Duss met vChief’s founder and CEO, Madeleine Niebauer, at the 2022 BRAVA Women to Watch celebration, where Niebauer was being honored (Duss is a previous honoree herself).
“It was a really game-changing opportunity for OPEN,” Duss says. “Marita [the chief of staff] really helped us establish an organizational strategy and direction to organize and centralize a lot of the resources and materials that we had for OPEN. She helped us visualize and think about what the OPEN Foundation could be.”
LGBTQ+ people face disproportionate rates of unemployment, compensation and discrimination. For people who live at the intersections of race, gender and sexuality, those disparities are often life-threatening. By working with individuals, employers and employee resource groups, the OPEN Foundation hopes to work on amending these disparities. They’ll offer everything from resume writing and interview prep workshops to identifying and partnering with truly inclusive workplaces to place job seekers.
The foundation is actively seeking individuals, organizations and businesses to offer support —monetarily, and by volunteering to help provide some of the needed training, networking and career opportunities to its members. OPEN is particularly seeking sponsors for their annual Celebration of Community on Oct. 18 at Monona Terrace. Funds will help build and sustain programming, including the eventual offering of online training to help reach people in more rural areas of the county and state.
“We want to work towards creating a space where individuals know how to better navigate the workforce and advocate for themselves in the process,” Duss says, “and we want them to think of OPEN as that first resource to help them tackle it. We need to work to empower our community to understand what to look for in a truly inclusive and supportive employer, and to know from experience which employers are really doing that work.”
Learn more and get involved at openmadison.org/openfoundation.