What connects Dan Savage, author of the internationally syndicated sex-advice column “Savage Love,” and SAP, an old-line enterprise software company? The It Gets Better Project, and a desire to save and improve the lives of young people.
Savage started the It Gets Better Project in September 2010 to help prevent suicide among lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. After a rash of suicides by teens who were bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation, Savage wanted to create a way for supporters to tell LGBT youth that, however bad things are, however alone they might feel, adolescence is a temporary hell and – it gets better. He uploaded a video message to YouTube, and thus began a worldwide movement.
To date, the ‘It Gets Better’ Project has inspired more than 50,000 videos viewed more than 50 million times – made by people of all ages and walks of life, celebrities, politicians (among them U.S. President Barack Obama) and corporations like The Gap, Google, Facebook, Pixar, Deloitte, and many others. On June 7, SAP joined that group, and while, according to Savage, “Every video changes a life; it doesn’t matter who makes it,” the SAP submission is special.
At nearly 12 minutes, SAP’s ‘It Gets Better’ film is considerably longer than most. It features executives from the highest levels of the company, including co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe and Jan Grasshoff, SVP of Talent, Leadership, and Organization – the company’s highest-ranking out, gay executive.
But what really sets the film apart from other corporate contributions is its intensely personal nature. Steve Fehr, an SAP Vice president, participated in the project to tell the story of his 18-year-old son Jeffrey, who took his life on New Year’s Day 2012.
Jeffrey Fehr, March 23, 1993 – January 1, 2012
In the early hours of January 1, Jeffrey Fehr hanged himself in the foyer of his family’s home in California – a tragic end to a lifetime of bullying.
Nearly 1,000 people attended Jeffrey’s funeral, where he was remembered for his vibrant personality, his kind nature, his ability to lead and motivate others, and his athletic prowess – Jeffrey was captain of his high school’s cheerleading squad and a member of an elite competitive cheerleading team.
Jeffrey ‘came out’ as gay to his family (father Steve, mother Patty, and two older brothers) in his sophomore year of high school. Bolstered by their acceptance and support, Jeffrey went on to build a group of close, caring friends at school. Sadly, outside this group, Jeffrey’s peers were less accepting. The bullying he had endured since the third grade continued. “For years and years people knocked him down for being different. It damaged him. It wore on him,” Steve Fehr says of his son. “He could never fully believe how wonderful he was, and how many people loved him.”
Jeffrey’s story is, sadly, all too familiar. Nine out of 10 gay and bisexual students report harassment at school, and gay and bisexual youths are four times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, according to The Trevor Project, an advocacy, crisis intervention, and suicide prevention group serving lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth.
The Fehr family was unaware of The Trevor Project at the time of Jeffrey’s death. After the tragedy, they wondered if it might have saved his life. At Jeffrey’s funeral, his family requested donations to the project be made in lieu of flowers or other condolence gifts. Today, they hope that people moved by their son’s story in SAP’s ‘It Gets Better’ film will do the same – that others might be saved.
From Tragedy to Tribute
SAP’s ‘It Gets Better’ film project began with Moya Watson, technology evangelist and prototyping project manager with SAP Research. Watson, who has been with the company for ten years based in Palo Alto, CA, is part of Pride at SAP Palo Alto, a chapter of SAP’s worldwide LGBT employee group HomoSAPiens@SAP.
“We meet for monthly lunches,” says Watson, “and around the first of the year I started showing some of the ‘It Gets Better’ films to the group.”
Watson and her fellow ‘Pride at SAP Palo Alto’ colleagues were inspired to produce a film featuring employees of SAP. Watson approached Phyllis Stewart Pires, head of the SAP Global Diversity Office, who approved the project and provided a modest budget.
“There were a couple of reasons why I was attracted to this project,” says Stewart Pires. “First of all, I am a parent, of two teenagers and one younger child, and as a parent to know that there are kids that are bullied for who they are to the point where they would be so hopeless – it’s just heart wrenching and it’s tragic. And if I had the opportunity to be a part of something that might help even a single kid, I wanted to do it.”And so work began to get the film produced. Watson put out a casting call to the company. The response, both inside SAP’s LGBT community and without, was overwhelming. Dozens upon dozens of emails filled her inbox, representing people who wanted to take part. One, however, stood out.
“Someone forwarded me Jeffrey Fehr’s death announcement,” Watson remembers. “His funeral had just taken place. I didn’t know Steve Fehr, but once I, and the core group of those involved, discovered that the issue was this close not just to employees who had been bullied but also to colleagues that had gay kids – that catalyzed our efforts to make this film.”
“We agonized about if and how we should make contact with the Fehr family, their tragedy being so fresh, but ultimately I contacted Steve and he responded with incredible support. He said ‘I will do anything I can to make sure that another family doesn’t suffer the same agony.’ That’s when I realized this is really, really important. I have to honor Steve and his son by spreading this as much as possible.
It was almost as though I didn’t have any choice but to work day and night to get this message out. And everyone else who heard his story responded the same way.” The film debuted at the SAP Labs Palo Alto campus the evening of Thursday, June 7, to a standing-room-only crowd of employees, their family and friends, and community members. The same day, the film was released on YouTube, to a flurry of media attention and praise. But the effort didn’t end there.
“We wanted this to be bigger than just posting the video online,” says Stewart Pires. “SAP arranged a community event around the film debut, with a dinner and panel discussion on bullying and LGBT issues with local high school students, non-profits, and advocacy groups who do work surrounding this issue.”
The standing-room-only crowd in attendance was a powerful and lovely tribute to the life of Jeffrey Fehr.
Company Meets Culture
Stewart Pires is proud of how the ‘It Gets Better’ project reflects SAP’s commitment to diversity.
“From a philosophical standpoint on the topic of diversity, I think that employee resource groups like HomoSAPiens@SAP play a really important role in bringing forward actions and activities they believe are so compelling for the groups they represent that they will influence the way people think about SAP as an employer – as a company that really cares about creating an open and trusting environment for their employees.”
She is also proud of the employee groups’ effort to get this done. “It’s important to note that this was a grassroots initiative,” she says. “It’s the employees of SAP, not SAP, that drove this effort. Employees raised the need to do this because, above all, they are people. SAP was able to provide corporate and executive support, which bridged a gap, but this project happened because there were really passionate people, Moya Watson among them, who drove it, and it was a cause that resonated with countless others.”Stewart Pires also stresses that the ‘It Gets Better’ film project was not just a checkmark-on-a-diversity-agenda-initiative. It was, in every sense of the word, personal.
“The bottom line is the main reason to do this film is to provide support for kids who are in trouble, period,” she says. “A secondary benefit is that we get to talk about why diversity is important at SAP and what this means at SAP. But the bottom line is there are people out there who are in trouble because they feel different and they’re bullied, and we need to let them know that they have a future.”
The Future Starts Now
SAP is a company that is oft chided for being complex and impenetrable. On this issue, however, the message could not be simpler: If you’re struggling, you need to reach out and get help. If you know anyone who’s struggling, you need to help them reach out and get help.
“Really,” says Stewart Pires, “when you’re talking about helping these kids save themselves, telling them that there’s a future and they could be part of it and there’s something really exciting that they could do, it isn’t too hard to make the leap to say that kid whose life is saved might be the one behind the next big thing that drives us all.”