The Independence Business Association is a great source for organizations and companies in the greater Philadelphia area. I was perusing IBA’s website when one company jumped out at me, “Out in Tech.”
One look at their website and I wanted to find out more.
Under core values, the company listed: Kindness (to one another, on- and offline); knowledge (timely and thought-provoking content); belonging (events for the full LGBTQ+ spectrum, and those who love us); and joy (we take your time and our community seriously, not ourselves).
I located the organization’s founder, Marc Dickstein, and had a chat about joy and what brings it to him these days.
PGN: Where do you hail from?
MD: I’m from Scranton — well, actually, Clark Summit, Pennsylvania. Ever since skater Adam Rippon hit the scene at the Olympics, I’m able to get some recognition for Clark Summit, which I have to say beats mentioning Scranton and having everyone say, “Ah yes, ‘The Office.’” Adam’s really changed the game.
PGN: That Adam is fabulous! Tell me a little about the family.
MD: I’m the product of high-school sweethearts. My parents are still married and still living in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I grew up in a happy family. I have one older brother named Eric who lives in Philadelphia with his wife, so we’re all reasonably close. I grew up in Clark Summit, went to Penn for undergrad. I loved it — it’s when I fell in love with Philly. After that, I moved to New York City where I spent about 10 years before moving to San Francisco, and then returned to Philly about a year ago. But I’m probably getting ahead of you and your flow.
PGN: No worries. Were you an athlete like Mr. Rippon?
MD: [Laughs] Most definitely not! I am a broad-shouldered man of 6-foot-4, so most people assume I played football or rugby or even ice hockey, but I did none of those things. I did play some tennis and a little bit of soccer and basketball, but I would hardly have described myself as an athlete.
PGN: Ah. How would you have described yourself?
MD: I was very social; I loved creating opportunities for people to come together. I wouldn’t have described it as this at the time, but I was all about creating and investing in community. In grade school and high school, I was all about bringing people together from different clubs, different groups and walks of life to have a good time and learn from each other. Even the fraternity I ended up joining at Penn was a voluntarily diverse group of students. At Penn, of course, there’s an incredible amount of diversity, but for better or worse, it’s a natural inclination for people to self-segregate. But I wanted to make the most out of being in a diverse community and be a part of bringing different people together. That theme continued both professionally and personally after Penn, most notably through “Out in Tech,” which is a global LGBTQ nonprofit that I cofounded in 2014.
PGN: [Laughing] OK, now you are jumping ahead. So, as a kid you liked bringing different people together. How did you do that? Party at Marc’s house?
MD: Actually, yes! It started with my birthday. I recognized early on that a party would be a good opportunity to bring different friend groups together.
PGN: So you weren’t an athlete. Were you a tech nerd?
MD: That’s a good question. Not necessarily. I was sort of a blend between a social butterfly and nerd. I walked the line. I think I benefited from going to a public school where it was possible to be all things. You could study and get good grades and have fun and be sociable, and it was all cool.
PGN: What did you study at Penn?
MD: Communications and marketing. I had the phenomenal opportunity to speak at the Annenberg School’s graduation ceremony when I graduated, and the prompt they gave me was to discuss the most important things I learned, which was somewhat amusing because “communications” is considered a little light as an academic major. So in the speech, I said that while we may have learned nothing but “things and stuff,” what we really learned was how to learn. I’m probably part of the last generation to use microfiche and the Dewey Decimal System before everything shifted toward everything being online.
PGN: What was your first job out of school?
MD: I worked as a recruiter for a retail store called Steve and Barry’s. It was started right on Penn’s campus, and they sold college-branded gear: Penn hoodies and T-shirts, etc., at a fraction of the costs of the college bookstore, since college bookstores are notorious for ridiculously gouging prices. They opened up shops all over the country at or nearby campuses. I took a role running the recruiting program; they’d grown from about 75 stores to over 200 in a short amount of time. It was an exciting time, and I got to travel all over. Here I was a student not more than a year ago, and now I was helping people find opportunities for themselves. We had 30-40 different functions to recruit for, and it was amazing to be able to help people find passions.
PGN: And to have that power at such a young age.
MD: Yes, that too.
PGN: First job ever?
MD: I worked in the samples department of my father’s hat company — Jacobson’s Hat Company. They manufactured and imported all sorts of hats, lots of novelty hats sold in zoos and theme parks. My department sent samples to salespeople all over the world and it was fun.
PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?
MD: Australia. I went there for my honeymoon in 2018.
PGN: What was your craziest travel adventure?
MD: I was rescued out of the water by a helicopter in Brazil, a cautionary tale about the dangers of sneaky undercurrents — and that’s tied with having been bitten by a monkey in Mexico. I wasn’t comfortable going to an infirmary in rural Mexico, so I came back and went to the Penn Health Center and told them I’d been bitten by a monkey. They said, “Oh, you work in a lab?” I said, “No, it happened in Mexico” and they were not happy about that. They wrestled me off to do all sorts of testing. Fortunately everything was fine but this was right when the movie “Outbreak” had come out, so it was a little disturbing.
PGN: When did you come out?
MD: I was 26 — a little late — but it correlated with finally meeting some people for whom being gay wasn’t their defining characteristic. I suspected I’d be fine, but it took meeting people who I could see myself in. People living vibrant lives with all sorts of wonderful things going on, with being gay just one of them. Before that, I think I was up against what media showed us and my own mind, as to what being gay was all about. Once I was able find a different understanding of what it could be and that I could have a life that was not only doable but would be thriving, I came out.
PGN: And now you’re a married man. Where did you meet the hubby?
MD: We met on his first day of work; I’d taken a job in the tech sector at an advertising technology startup in New York. I stayed there about six years and about halfway through, I met my husband, whose name is also Mark, but with a K. I met him on his first day. I was sitting in on his orientation program because I was developing one for my team, and there he was. I told myself that I was helping as a mentor figure, but it was soon clear that sparks were there on both sides.
PGN: Your recruiting skills were still intact.
MD: Exactly. Fortunately, while we were on the same team from an LGBT perspective, we weren’t on the same team at work, so there was no conflict. And despite the dangers of dating in the workplace, ours was a success story.
PGN: What is advertising technology?
MD: Basically it’s the technology that enables advertising to be bought and sold online in real time.
PGN: Like the popups that come up on your screen?
MD: Sort of. So the banner ads and popups that appear on your screen that have to do with you are the result of an auction. Advertisers have decided in advance how much they’re willing to pay to show you their ad based on how well you meet their target. When you land on a webpage, an auction happens instantaneously and the winner of that auction is the ad you see. The technology that enables that to occur is the technology that our company provided.
PGN: Wow. Tell me more —
MD: Well, a lot of people are upset by that — it’s kind of creepy when you Google cars and, next thing you know, you’re getting emails from AAA and Goodyear, and it can be invasive. But at the same time, the reason that so many of the things you get on the Internet are free, like websites and search engines, are because of advertising. Ads on the Internet are never going away, so do you want to see ads that are completely irrelevant to you or do you want to see ads for things that you care about and that could be useful for you? So while I realize it can be disconcerting and personal data and information should be respected, there is an area where consumers and businesses can find common ground that is beneficial for all. And if it still bothers you, there are ways to opt out.
PGN: So as a tech guy, when you get that “I agree to the terms and conditions” notice with 40 pages of fine print, do you sign it?
MD: Ha! I do, I do. Sometimes if I have a moment, I’ll scan through it. I’m not even sure what I’m looking for, but I’ll do it anyway. But mostly I just blindly hit “agree” like everyone else.
PGN: Why did you start Out in Tech?
MD: When I first came out, I had no gay friends, and since I was new to the field, no real friends who worked in tech either, so I went from a life driven by community to a life and job where I really had no connections. I wanted to change that, so I connected with a few other out employees at our company, and we decided to do a social event to invite other tech people to meet each other. We reserved space at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen for about 30 people and put up a Facebook invitation hoping we’d get a few people to come out and network. We had close to 900 RSVPs. It was clear we were onto something, so we created a board and became a 501(C) nonprofit and away we went. We started producing events. At this point, we have over 25,000 members internationally and hold a huge conference in New York about every 18 months.
PGN: That’s incredible! I saw that you had Don Lemon as the guest for one of your Out in Tech Talks. I had him host the Lambda Awards here in Philly when he was a budding reporter.
MD: Yeah, we’ve had some incredible lecturers, businesspeople, activists and sports stars — you name it.
PGN: Tech skills are so important. Do you do mentorship programs?
MD: Yes, one of our missions is to inspire queer youth to enter the tech field. We have Out in Tech U, which pairs young people with mentors for an eight-week program that includes trips to cool tech companies like Spotify and Snapchat. It’s a free program, and we have the Out in Tech Coding Scholarship.
PGN: Since you mentioned mentoring — that kind of segues into what you’re doing now.
MD: Yes, I’ve actually left the tech world, and I now have a company called “Plus Marc.” Through my own coach that I utilized when I was switching careers, I realized that my passion was helping others achieve their goals and reach their potential. Finding a way to feel engaged and fulfilled in their personal and professional lives. So I now work as a leadership and career coach helping individuals and companies find ways to figure out the best paths for them to find what they’re passionate about, and how to align what they’re doing, either personally or professionally, with those values and goals. It was a pretty big jump from tech, but as soon as I took my certification course, I realized this was for me. Enabling people to learn how to get out of their own way and to navigate obstacles to be able to start a life that’s great instead of just fine or good enough. I love it.
PGN: OK, random questions. Something you dislike that everyone else seems to enjoy?
MD: A hot day at the beach. I’m all about the snow and cold.
PGN: What time period would you go back to?
MD: Oh, I would have liked to be part of the ’70s, specifically the ’70s in New York City. I know it’s a double-edged sword, but it seems like a dream.
PGN: What’s the screensaver on your computer?
MD: Our dog, Bubbie. She’s the best. A Miniature Schnauzer, she’s our little bearded lady.
PGN: If I owned a racehorse or a boat, I would name it …
MD: Soup Dumpling, for either.
PGN: Secret talent?
MD: I can make veggies taste good for anyone. I recently was volunteering for Vetri Community Partnership, teaching kids about produce — what it is, how to cook it, and ways to integrate vegetables into your life. I love to cook. The talent I secretly wish I had is to be able to sing with an a cappella group. I’ve never been formally trained but, on occasion, you may find me sneaking onto Penn’s campus to try to join some offbeat concert.