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Pride in Tech: How Lotus Championed Gay Rights During the AIDS Crisis

posted on Jul 11, 2021
tags tech-history tech-history cyberspace

How do you compare plagues? If you’re like me, an elder member of Generation X, then your late adolescence and young adulthood were profoundly shaped by a plague that still stalks us today—HIV/AIDS—even as your middle age is being refashioned by the savagery of COVID-19. The differences and the similarities between these two overlapping plagues are haunting. COVID-19 has been a much faster killer. While AIDS has claimed more than 700,000 lives in the United States since the late 1970s, COVID-19 has robbed us of nearly 600,000 of our neighbors in less than two years. With both plagues, though, the most devastated group has been Black men—a testament in both cases to structural racism.

For the HIV/AIDS epidemic, an additional defining factor has been homophobia. Those who were infected with HIV and died from AIDS were primarily gay men. At the height of the epidemic in the United States in the 1980s, it was enormously consequential that much of officialdom—politicians, business leaders, the media, cultural and religious figures—were openly, even officially, anti-gay. Their inaction and antipathy put the plague on the path to claim so many lives and to remain so persistent today. The extent of official homophobia is chillingly captured in recently recovered recordings of White House press briefings from the first half of the 1980s, with laughter and crude jokes accompanying questions about AIDS:

In the 1980s, public health and medical officials began to see the true nature and extent of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and they began working with members of the gay community to raise the alarm. Individuals and organizations then faced the challenge of how they would respond to the crisis. Many chose to ignore or downplay it. Others, though, at some risk, chose to step up and take action.

And so the response to the AIDS crisis is not just a story of failure. It is also a story of pride—of people and organizations who walked the walk, lived up to their values, and took moving and meaningful action. What follows is one of these stories. It is the story of three people at Lotus Development Corp., then the largest personal-computer software company in the world. With their colleagues, these three individuals took the lead to help make one of the first AIDS Walk fundraisers a triumph, and they set a new standard for corporate support to address the AIDS crisis and to advocate for the gay community.

How Lotus became the world’s leading personal-computer software company

Founded in 1982 in Cambridge, Mass., Lotus is remembered today for its spreadsheet, Lotus 1-2-3, which dominated its market into the 1990s, rocketing to success with the proliferation of the IBM PC and IBM PC-compatible computers. In 1995, on the success of 1-2-3 and the collaboration and email software Lotus Notes (created by Computer History Museum Fellow Ray Ozzie), IBM acquired Lotus for US $3.5 billion in a hostile takeover.

Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, is the first character in this story. Born in 1950, Kapor had shown an early talent for mathematics, skipping ahead in early grades and gaining unusual access to computers as a student. As an undergraduate at Yale in the late 1960s, he developed his own major, combining computing and linguistics, and jumped into the counterculture with both feet. He worked as a professional disk jockey and then as a mental health counselor in a hospital. He reconnected with computing in 1977, as personal computers grew more popular. Soon, he had purchased an Apple II, started programming in BASIC, and began developing commercial software for the nascent personal computing software industry.

In a few short years, working in partnerships and with software publishing contracts, Kapor brought to market a financial analysis program, a spreadsheet graphing program, and presentation software. The financial windfall left him, in 1982, with $600,000 ($1.7 million today). He kept half as a nest egg—figuring he could live off of it for a decade if need be—and spent the other half on starting his next effort in software: Lotus.

Kapor’s focus at Lotus was to build a better spreadsheet for the IBM PC market, which brought him a quick venture investment from Ben Rosen. But Kapor also wanted Lotus to be a different kind of company, one that was explicitly values-led and politically progressive. He wanted it to respect and welcome outsiders, and to be an environment where “bad employees” like himself could thrive. As he recalled in his 2004 oral history for the Computer History Museum, “We created a very progressive corporate culture.…The woman I hired as my office manager [Janet Axelrod] was a political radical…who needed a job, and I was more comfortable hiring other oddball people because I felt more comfortable with them.…We did all of this outrageous stuff that I’m extremely proud of.”

This progressive corporate culture blossomed under the cover of the mindboggling success of 1-2-3. A year after its founding, Lotus had $53 million in sales. In 1984, sales tripled to $156 million, making Lotus the largest personal computer software company in the world—larger than Microsoft, Ashton-Tate, WordPerfect, Borland, MicroPro, Aldus, VisiCorp, Software Publishing, and Adobe. With this astonishing profitability, no one inside or outside of the company objected to the progressive moves that seemed “outrageous” compared to U.S. corporate culture more broadly. As Kapor explained in the 2004 oral history:

We had a corporate values statement. Usually, corporate values statements are bad for morale because you do it and people realize this is not the reality. … Managers’ bonuses were tied in part to how well they were rated by the people who worked for them, embodying the corporate values. … They did not get their bonus unless they live up to our values. We gave back profits. There was an employee-run Philanthropy Committee. … We had very serious diversity efforts ongoing. We had a very diverse workforce. …We adopted the Sullivan Principles and wouldn’t sell into South Africa [because of apartheid]. We had a very egalitarian kind of culture, based on respect and fairness. I’m really proud of that.

The diverse workforce at Lotus was the decisive factor in the appearance of the second character in our story. Matt Stern, like Mitch Kapor, displayed an early talent for math. As an undergraduate at MIT from 1978 to 1982, Stern encountered computers and found he had an aptitude for programming. His college summers were filled with programming jobs for large financial and aerospace firms. One even paid to have a terminal and dial-up modem installed in his dorm room so he could continue to support his projects during the academic year. By graduation, he had landed a job with a financial software company in Boston.

Stern grappled with some uncertainties in his new life post-MIT. He had doubts about the firm’s prospects. And he was figuring out how to live his life as a young gay man—out of the closet at home but facing the bleak landscape of official homophobia in America. Then in 1983, Stern took a call from a headhunter.

He soon found himself in the Lotus lobby waiting to be called in for his interview. “I remember watching the receptionist, Elaine Yeomelakis, handle the calls,” he recalled in a 2021 oral history with the Computer History Museum. “She was this really sweet, sweet person. And on the bulletin board was a copy of an article from the Boston Business Journal, I think, profiling Chris Morgan, who was a Vice President at Lotus, who the article said was openly gay, and how noteworthy that was to have a senior executive at an up-and-coming Boston-area company be out as a gay man. That got my attention.”

Attracted by the diversity of Lotus, Stern signed on as Lotus employee number 107. Lotus 1-2-3 was ready to ship, and during his first week, he—along with everyone else—helped get it quite literally get out the door: “They needed all hands on deck to pack the boxes.…We were that small that it was, you know, everybody stop what you’re doing, come over, and let’s get this product shipped.” Soon thereafter, Stern joined Ray Ozzie and Barry Spencer in a small Lotus office in Littleton, Mass. There the trio created Lotus’s next big product, Symphony, which combined spreadsheet, word processor, graphing, database, and communications.

Lotus aimed to be the most progressive company in the world

As Lotus rose on the success of 1-2-3, the third of our three characters arrived at Lotus: Freada Klein. Klein was recruited to join Lotus fresh from her doctorate at Brandeis, where she did pioneering work in identifying and combatting workplace sexual harassment.

At Lotus, Klein became Director of Employee Relations, Organizational Development, and Management Training. Her charter was explicitly to make Lotus the most progressive employer in the United States. Among the many moves she took in service to that challenge, Klein created a Diversity Council that represented every dimension of difference and included representatives from the lowest to the highest paid employees.

Meanwhile, Stern was finding his voice at Lotus. On a business trip to San Francisco in 1984, he became upset with homophobic language used by several of his colleagues, none of whom knew that Stern was gay. When he got back to Cambridge, he wrote a letter to Janet Axelrod, explaining the effects of this kind of language on him as a gay man and urging Lotus employees to do better. Axelrod responded immediately saying they wanted to publish his letter in the employee newsletter, but anonymously to protect his privacy. Stern insisted they use his name. They did. He suffered no ill repercussions and gained a lot of respect from other gay employees. When Klein met Stern during her first week on the job, she recalls him telling her, “Hi, I’m Matt. I’m gay. What are you going to do for gay people in the company?” Stern would serve on Klein’s Diversity Council, as well as the company’s Philanthropy Committee.

The AIDS crisis had a deeply personal dimension for Stern. As he explained in his oral history, “I felt like [the AIDS crisis] was getting closer to home for me, and I wanted to do something.” He started volunteering at the AIDS Action Committee in Boston, one of the few groups dealing with AIDS at the time. Klein, who had become friends with Stern, was also active with AIDS Action.

On 25 July 1985, movie star Rock Hudson announced that he was dying from AIDS. The announcement marked a turning point in public awareness and media coverage of the AIDS crisis. Three days later, the AIDS Project Los Angeles, a service organization founded in 1983, held an “AIDS Walk” fundraiser. Amidst the publicity following Hudson’s announcement, the Walk was unexpectedly successful. About 4,500 people walked the route, which began at the gates of Paramount Pictures; the event raised $673,000. Paramount was a corporate sponsor for the Walk and remains so today, with the LA AIDS Walk still leaving from its gates. The event gave a huge financial boost to service organizations in the region and provided public visibility and an opportunity for activism.

Heading into 1986, the AIDS crisis was worsening. AIDS Action looked at the success of the first AIDS Walk in Los Angeles and began to plan its own for the late spring. But when the organizers contacted established Boston-region firms about corporate sponsorships, they got nowhere.

On 18 May 1986, an AIDS Walk took place in New York City. Organized by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the New York AIDS Walk matched the success of the Los Angeles Walk, with some 4,500 walkers gathering in Central Park and raising $710,000. Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Mario Cuomo both made appearances, and business sponsors included the Village Voice and The Saint nightclub.

Back in Boston, Stern attended an AIDS Action meeting where the organizer for the planned AIDS Walk, Elizabeth Page, let everyone know what a difficult time they were having attracting corporate sponsors. In New York, the Voice and The Saint were local businesses for whom the gay community was indispensable. In Los Angeles, Paramount had quietly shown that a public company could walk the walk. But in Boston, the established corporate community had not budged.

Stern decided to approach the Philanthropy Committee at Lotus. “I just came back and I said, you know, ‘I hear that the walk for AIDS in Boston needs a corporate sponsor, and is it something that Lotus would consider?’ ”

Klein immediately took up the idea. She called around to contacts at some of the most progressive companies in the country. None of them had yet sponsored an AIDS Walk or publicly supported HIV/AIDS service organizations. They warned Klein that it was too dangerous. You would lose shareholders. You would lose customers. Your employees who walked or participated would be jeopardized. There were just too many red flags. Klein, who had the explicit charter to make Lotus the most progressive employer in the United States, listened to the advice—and decided not to take it. Lotus should sponsor the Boston AIDS Walk.

Kapor agreed. Lotus’s business had continued to boom, with 1-2-3 propelling the firm toward nearly $400 million in sales and sealing its lead as the top personal-computer software company. To make a decision like this, to publicly support the AIDS Walk as a corporation, he and his colleagues “used their own radar.” What others might think or do as a result of Lotus’s action, Kapor said, “mattered less to us than it would matter to other businesses, both as a material fact and as an attitude. … We wanted to do the right thing, and it was an independent value, not to do with the commercial success of the business.”

Given the size of Boston relative to Los Angeles and New York City, the success of the Boston AIDS Walk on 1 June 1986 was extraordinary. About 4,000 people walked to Boston Common, raising $500,000. Governor Michael Dukakis and Mayor Ray Flynn both appeared. Lotus was the only corporate sponsor, and its early gift of $10,000 covered all the organizational costs. Stern proudly walked with his coworkers beneath a large Lotus banner and addressed the crowd on the Common from a stage he shared with the politicians and other notables. The crowd sang Dionne Warwick’s 1985 hit “That’s What Friends Are For,” which remains the Boston AIDS Walk’s anthem to this day.

Lotus suffered no fallout from its support of the Walk. Its growth continued. The press that it did receive was entirely positive. And the contribution to Lotus’s progressive culture by walking the walk was immeasurable.

How Lotus came to publish a book of love poems

Not long after the Walk, however, the three people who had been so important to Lotus’s involvement would leave the firm. In July 1986, Kapor stepped down as chairman of the board, leaving Jim Manzi as CEO and Chairman. Kapor was 35 years old. Klein left Lotus the following year, creating her own consultancy to work with firms on issues of bias and discrimination. Klein and Kapor married in the 1990s and, among many other things, continue to work on redefining what technology companies can and should be through their Kapor Capital investment fund and Kapor Center. Stern continued his work on Lotus Symphony for several years and then left Lotus in 1988 to pursue AIDS activism fulltime.

Despite these notable departures, Lotus’s commitment and support for AIDS groups did not wane. In 1990, a set of Lotus employees created an unusual and touching fundraiser for HIV/AIDS causes: a book of poems on the theme of love penned by Lotus employees and dedicated to the memory of two coworkers who had died from AIDS. With Love, Lotus was the result of several years’ effort and carried out as part of Lotus’s philanthropy program. Not only were company resources used to produce the book, but Lotus used its sales and marketing channels to promote it and its fulfillment infrastructure to ship it out.

In the book, Manzi, CEO of Lotus, writes, “The problem of AIDS is one of health, education, prejudice, and fear. Responses to the epidemic require courage and creativity. … I would like to congratulate everyone who contributed to With Love, Lotus. … May their work be as inspirational to you as it is to me.” Nori Odoi, one of the people behind the book project, writes in an introduction, “The proceeds of this book are dedicated with Love—love for those battling a disease that our technology has not yet conquered. It is a disease that touches all our lives, but some more terribly than others. We honor their struggle and their courage. … May a cure for AIDS be found soon.” When I came across this book in the collections of the Computer History Museum, it inspired me to write this essay. You can read With Love, Lotus here.

Ultimately, a broad coalition of groups and individuals—established AIDS organizations like those supported by the early AIDS Walks along with later movements like ACT UP—successfully pressured governments and corporations to develop HIV/AIDS treatments that have made living with HIV/AIDS a commonplace. But not everyone has access to such treatments, and HIV/AIDS is still very much with us. There are some 1.2 million people in the United States with HIV today, and an estimated 150,000 of them do not know they are infected. Worldwide, 38 million people are living with HIV, about 21 million of whom are in Eastern and Southern Africa. There is no vaccine for HIV. And so, AIDS Walks continue to this day in many cities and towns around the world.

This year, the creator of one of the new mRNA vaccines for COVID-19, Cambridge-based Moderna is a corporate sponsor for the Boston AIDS Walk. Moderna is putting two potential HIV vaccines into clinical trials this year, built using the same mRNA technology used in its COVID vaccine. If mRNA technology is successful in creating effective vaccines for both COVID and HIV, it will represent one of history’s greatest successes for public investment in science and technology.

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared as “Walking the Walk” on the blog of the Computer History Museum.

About the Author

David C. Brock is an historian of technology and director of curatorial affairs for the Computer History Museum.

Sources

The Computer History Museum’s 2021 oral history interview with Matt Stern is here.

The Computer History Museum’s 2004 oral history interview with Mitch Kapor is here.

For information about the current work of Freada Kapor Klein and Mitch Kapor, visit www.kaporcenter.org/ and www.kaporcapital.com/

A transcript of the Computer History Museum’s 2004 Lotus 1-2-3 Workshop is here.

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