Prizm News / April 1, 2018 / By Ken Schneck
After building her own successful career, Michelle Tomallo has been working to boost other LGBTQ professionals.
Never mix business with pleasure. Keep the passion out of the boardroom. Don’t let it get personal.
These cardinal rules of the business world are screamed at anyone who steps foot in the corporate sector. Thankfully, Michelle Tomallo chose not to listen to a single one of them.
The Cleveland-based president and co-founder of FIT Technologies has built her incredible success on the bedrock of bucking traditional corporate advice, embracing a career defined by living her authentic self in any and all contexts.
From healthcare to information systems to her current tenure as president of Plexus, the chamber of commerce for the LGBT community in Northeast Ohio, Tomallo has followed a path where she focuses her boundless energy on creating solid structure while always striving for meaningful connections.
It’s a journey that began many years ago.
“As a 7-year-old Girl Scout, I dove head first into business,” laughs Tomallo. “I organized the staffing of the table, served as our pitch person and whipped those sales into shape.”
Childhood dreams in the Dayton area of a career spent engaging with people steered her toward a business degree at Miami University. With diploma in hand, she translated her passion for organizational development into a community-relations position in the field of long-term and home care.
Marriage to her former husband took her first to Cincinnati and brought her to Northeast Ohio in 1994, where she quickly became dissatisfied with the separation of living in Lorain County and working in Cleveland.
Her life took a significant turn when a friend recommended that she seek out an opportunity at New Life Hospice in Lorain. Following up on that chance piece of advice, she first met Micki Tubbs on Valentine’s Day in 1995.
“I fell in love with hospice work,” recalls Tomallo. “There’s a truthfulness to how we care for people at the end of their lives that isn’t always present in curative care.”
The love quickly started to extend beyond the work. Within six months, Tomallo knew she was falling for Tubbs, and the intersection of business and personal got exponentially more crowded.
After the two were honest about their mutual feelings for each other, they began navigating toward their new lives together with supportive families on the one side and a business field on the other where word-of-mouth spread the news of their coupling within hours.
That moment was the starting point of a career marked by the pair educating their colleagues and the communities around them.
“Once you’re out, you just press on,” says Tomallo. “We had to constantly remind our colleagues and clients that we were the same people they knew before we came out. Did you love us yesterday? Yes? Then you still love us today.”
What followed was a litany of events that even Hollywood would find implausible.
Micki sold the hospice business, and her brother brought them an idea to create software to more substantively connect schools, homes and communities. That concept led to the creation of an agency focused on supporting the infrastructure side of businesses: field support, network development and a host of behind-the-scenes operations that Tomallo calls distinctly “unsexy.”
Along the way, they doubled their staff, doubled their revenue, were named top 10 of the prestigious Weatherhead Top 100, and even somehow purchased a school uniform business.
The setbacks were just as epic: The tech bubble implosion dramatically affected their business model, and the first day with a major new school client stalled out as the Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. A devastating fire then destroyed their offices in Downtown Cleveland.
Yet through it all, they doggedly moved forward.
“You have to be resilient,” advises Tomallo. “If you focus in on your motivation, surround yourself with advisers who can help you see multiple roads to success and hold on tightly to your perspective, you can find your way out of any crisis.”
As an out business owner, Tomallo has always felt a sense of responsibility to encourage and assist other LGBT businesses to thrive. When she first encountered Plexus, she knew she had identified the perfect opportunity to blend both her business focus and commitment to economic equity with some very real activism toward equality.
She joined the Plexus board in 2009 and became president in 2012, dramatically cutting her hours at FIT Technologies so she could devote the bulk of her time to the organization.
That work of creating resources for the LGBT business community and advocating for workplace equality presents a distinct challenge as Ohio stands among states where employment discrimination against LGBT people is still legal today.
Tomallo testified in front of an Ohio House committee in January to support the proposed Ohio Fairness Act, which would ban discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.
She testified: “It is disheartening at best and counter-productive at worst to know we’re conducting business in a state with laws that are in direct opposition to the goals of expanding our workforce and contradict the idea of Ohio as a destination of choice. We lose our competitiveness against other states in the attraction and retention of employees and employers.”
A crown jewel in the Plexus portfolio was serving as a lead community partner for the 2014 Gay Games. When Cleveland and Akron hosted Gay Games 9, they became the smallest-ever region to host the international-level sporting event and the first two-city host.
The economic impact of the Games was estimated to be $52.1 million, with $20.6 million in additional job income. But though the scale was global, the internationally recognized success with the Gay Games boiled down to the same focus on creating connections that has characterized the entirety of Michelle Tomallo’s career.
“At the end of the day, it’s always about the people,” she says. “Yes, the business community wants and needs us all to be visible and out. But above all else, they want and need us to be human. When that happens, hearts and minds are changed.”
Ken Schneck, PhD, is the author of “Seriously…What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew” (2017) and the forthcoming “LGBTQ Cleveland: Images of Modern America.” He is the producer/host of “This Show Is So Gay,” the award-winning radio show/podcast, and an associate professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.