I’m fortunate to meet many wonderful people who are involved in one way or another with the sports diversity movement. I met Sam Lehman earlier this year in Las Vegas at a meeting of the Sports Diversity Leadership Council and realized what an important resource he is for the LGBT community.
Sam is a great athlete involved with the National Gay Flag Football League (NGFFL), the New York Gay Flag Football League (NYGFFL) and the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA). But he’s also very involved with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), helping LGBT business owners improve and grow their businesses. I’d like you to meet him.
Compete: Sam, please tell me where you grew up and what sports you were involved in throughout your high school and college years.
Sam Lehman: I grew up in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I played basketball but mainly focused on baseball, a game my father taught me to play. I attended West Virginia University but did not play organized sports while I was there, only intramural sports.
C: When did you come out to your family and friends? Coming from traditional western Pennsylvania, how was that news received?
SL: I came out to my family a few years after I moved to the New York City/Connecticut area. I met Robbie in 1990 and wanted to share my love for him with my family. Coming from an Irish Catholic family, I was a bit nervous how they would react but my family immediately reinforced how they loved me unconditionally – if I was happy, they were happy. I am one of six children and my siblings are my best friends; they would never abandon me.
C: What’s your career background, Sam?
SL: I began my career working at Quinnipiac University for a company called ARA Services. After three years working with them, I left and began working for a company called IKON, a large distributor for Canon USA where I began in sales and quickly moved into management. Within a few years, I was promoted to run a division in New York City.
I truly loved my job and the amazing people I met. For weekend fun a fellow employee and I would write various mock business plans. We quickly felt one, in particular, would be a profitable business opportunity and we began to build a company we named Columbia Consulting Group. The company was incorporated in 1997 and continues today.
C: When, where and how did you and your husband Rob Tanis-Evon meet?
SL: Robbie and I met on a hot summer night at a club in New Haven, Connecticut. I was out with my friends and he was with his friends. I noticed him from across the room and was instantly smitten but I had no experience meeting guys at that point. On this particular night I was wearing a horribly matched outfit that consisted of a striped polo, plaid shorts and neon high-top Converse tennis shoes. Robbie and his fashion-forward crew were debating if I was a top trend setter or a disillusioned fashion sap (he would prefer the latter).
Robbie sent one of his friends over to talk to me. By the way, she thought I was a trend setter who was far ahead of my time. She approached me, looked at my outfit and said, “I love how you put all of this together.” I looked at her and said, “Thank you; but what are you talking about?” She walked away realizing I was not a trend setter After informing Robbie of that fact, he came over to say hello. He had a large blond mop of hair reminiscent of the lead singer of Flock of Seagulls. That was 26 years ago and I am so thankful he came over to say hello. That was the moment that changed my life.
C: What is Rob’s career background? I understand he’s actually in the fashion industry.
SL: Robbie is one of the leading representatives of Giorgio Armani in New York City. He began his career at The Gap. But following my transfer to New York City, he was recruited to work for Mr. Armani and he has been with Giorgio Armani since 1997.
C: How have the two of you maintained such a strong relationship over the years? If I remember correctly, thanks to Facebook, you’ve been together for 26 years and officially married for one year Have sports played a part in your relationship?
SL: Early in our relationship I only had a handful of LGBT friends and I felt lost. Sports were such a large part of my life I felt disconnected from the LGBT community. But one day in 1994 I happened to see a flyer for an LGBT softball league called the Southern New England Friendship League. Until then I had no idea the LGBT community had sports leagues. I tried out for a team in Wallingford, Connecticut and fell in love with LGBT sports. I had felt so lost before this but now I came home after the tryout and told Robbie, “I found a home!!”
I loved the league and all the new friends I was making. As an adult I have had three life-changing events; meeting Robbie, joining the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) and finding the Southern New England Friendship Softball League. Each event has had a positive impact on my life and I became a happier person as a result. Robbie enjoys coming to my various sports tournaments around the country. He witnesses the joy I experience which, of course brings him joy. I love him so much for this!!
C. When did your Columbia Consulting Group become involved with the NGLCC?
SL: We became a member of the NGLCC eight years ago and the group has revolutionized my company and the way we do business. Since joining, Columbia Consulting Group has been invited by the White House to attend an innovation summit and has also had the honor of ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange. The NYSE has honored Columbia as one of the top ten LGBT diversity suppliers within the business sector.
I am truly grateful for the opportunities presented by the chamber. Relating to sports, the NGLCC is comprised of 150 corporate partners whose sole purpose is to conduct business with LGBT suppliers; this includes Major League Baseball, the PGA and the U.S. Tennis Association. I recently attended an NGLCC conference in Palm Desert, California attended by 1,000 eager LGBT business professionals. Next August the conference is back in Las Vegas and attendance is likely to surpass 1,200.
C: I know you were a speaker at the Palm Springs conference. What sort of information did you share with the attendees?
SL: Columbia is one of a handful of the chamber’s “Platinum Suppliers” across the country. I am a vocal advocate for LGBT businesses who currently aren’t part of the chamber. I work monthly in Washington, D.C. on a certification committee; this is the very first step to becoming an active member in the NGLCC. I speak to as many new members as possible, helping them to develop success steps after certification. During the most recent conference, I was interviewed and asked to share my experiences and how my success may inspire others.
C: No one achieves success all on their own. Are there special people in your life who have mentored you? And what is it that drives you to in turn, mentor others?
SL: My entire family (including Robbie) has an excellent work ethic. That was instilled in me at an early age and continues to inspire me. I also happen to have a business partner, Doug Finlay who inspires me on a daily basis. He’s another one whose work ethic is infectious. Early on, my Dad told me to surround myself with successful people; very good advice.
I really consider my life a “daily miracle.” Life has given me many gifts, starting with my life with Robbie, participation in LGBT sports and my success with the NGLCC. It would be selfish of me to take these gifts and go home; it’s important to share and give back as much as possible.
C: I know you play softball with the New York Cranky Yankees. Congratulations to you and your team for taking first place in the Master’s division of NAGAAA’s recent 40th anniversary Gay Softball World Series. But you’re also a referee for the NGFFL. Any particular reason why you don’t also play football?
SL: I played flag football for many years with the New York Gay Flag Football League (NYGFFL) but ultimately realized my body could not compete at the level I needed to be successful. Becoming a referee was a natural migration to still stay involved in the game.
C: Can you please share what it is you feel gay sports have given you over the years?
SL: I cannot minimize the impact gay sports have had on my life. Everyone likes to feel like they belong to a community; that aspect of my life was missing before gay sports. Today I am an active volunteer with the New York Gay Flag Football League, NAGAAA and the National Gay Flag Football League. And working with the LGBT leagues has led me to work with the NFL in various roles throughout the years. In September I was asked to join the referee team at USA Flag Football and I’m one of two U.S. referees working the World Flag Football Championships. All this became possible in 1994 the moment I noticed a simple flyer on a coffee shop wall in New Haven, Connecticut.
Thanks to people like Sam Lehman, an openly gay man, athlete, businessman, advocate, mentor, friend and husband, the LGBT community has a powerful resource. If you are an LGBT business owner interested in talking with Sam about the NGLCC, you may contact him at: [email protected].
By Connie Wardman
Photos courtesy of Sam Lehman