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LDSMBA Conference: Is it OK for a Christian "to be your authentic self?"

PALO ALTO, California — A two-day gathering in the heart of Silicon Valley focused on a topic that's become at best one to politely avoid, at worst, anathema for many of the companies that drive the country's booming tech sector.

But the 300-plus participants in the 2018 LDSMBA Conference at Stanford University came together to explore strategies to cultivate the intersection of faith and work in a way that embraces success both in what people do for a living and the spirituality that guides how they live.

Speaker Liz Wiseman, best-selling author, tech veteran and president of The Wiseman Group, noted that while a credo of "be your authentic self" is a standard recruiting platform for many tech firms, the adage may come with some unspoken qualifiers.

"I have chosen personally to be very up front about my faith at work," Wiseman said. "But there is a joke that runs throughout this community that it's illegal to be a Christian. And it's because the industry, as a whole, has failed to recognize faith as a legitimate dimension of diversity."

Besides working for nearly 20 years for software giant Oracle, she's consulted for some of the biggest names in the tech and innovation industry.

The event drew MBA students from around the country, pulling from some of the nation's top business schools as well as those closer to the world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. Stanford MBA student Steven Biringer helped organize the event and attended last year's edition at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

Biringer said while he and his student colleagues would disperse into a broad range of career paths post-graduation, it was hard to deny how big a draw tech and tech-related industries were for business school graduates. And he underscored that his faith would guide the decision-making process for future employment and may even play a major role in the path he travels to get there.

"Life's too short to not build who you are into the work setting," Biringer said. "All of us here recognize this is a powerful tool in our careers. Meeting people and making professional connections through faith channels does play a big role."

Making connections has been at the core of the LDSMBA Conference since its inception.

Back in 2009, before he launched multiple businesses including his current endeavor as founder and CEO of Utah's "Gear for Good" company Cotopaxi, Davis Smith was a student at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While he was at Wharton, Smith had a cousin at Harvard Business School.

"My closest friends at Wharton were often times the LDS students," Smith said. "Then I started meeting LDS students at (Harvard Business School) through my cousin."

His epiphany was that there must be some way to connect students who were on common paths at their perspective business schools who also shared their faith commitments.

"I realized I couldn't finish business school without creating this conference," Smith said.

That debut event drew about 180 people and, even though his focus became working on launching his career, other students stepped in to keep the event going with the help of the LDSMBA Society.

"I was shocked that it happened again, and kept happening," Smith said. "I love seeing it here and that it's kept growing."

Not just growing but also attracting a slate of speakers that would be the envy of any business gathering. This year's program included BYU and San Francisco 49ers star, now co-founder and managing director of equity investment firm HGGC Steve Young; venture capitalist and Floodgate co-founder Ann Miura-Ko; capital investor, Peterson Partners founder and JetBlue board chairman Joel Peterson; Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Qualtrics co-founder and CEO Ryan Smith; Wiseman; Apple veteran John Brandon; Salesforce documentation director Sue Warnke; Voicera founder and CEO Omar Tawakol; and the president of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, Clark Gilbert.

While the attendees were predominantly LDS Church members, the underlying effort was focused less on any particular denomination and more on the necessity of unifying those with faith in the name of destigmatizing belief as an aspect of the work world.

Warnke, another tech veteran, shared her story at an interfaith panel discussion on Friday evening. She related how she found the strength to navigate some unexpected personal and professional changes through a faith conversion about a year ago.

"I was one of those Silicon Valley people that was pretty anti-religious," Warnke said. "After finding Christ, I struggled with 'do I come out of the shadows'? That's a very scary prospect in Silicon Valley."

But Warnke overcame her trepidation about going public with her spirituality and even helped form an interfaith group at her company that has grown to about 200 members.

Wiseman said that the best path to overcoming negative workplace energy directed at those with religious convictions may very well be building interfaith coalitions.

"Making comfortable space for people of faith to be who they are at work, not in a proselytizing sense but just being their complete selves, is the best way to utilize their full capabilities," Wiseman said. "If we could unite believers across multiple faiths, I think there are great gains that can be achieved. We know, and the research backs it up, that the best outcomes, the highest successes flow from collaborative teams that are comprised of diverse voices and backgrounds."

"I think this conference is helping us move in that direction."