Aalap Shah remembers when he didn’t feel comfortable being out at work. A decade ago, he says, LGBTQI individuals still lived in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” type of environment.

“Back then,” says the 37-year-old director of product management at the price-tracking app Paribus, “we had this fear that our boss would look at us differently or treat us differently. Now, it’s just so different.”

Shah says he’s changed a lot since then. But more importantly, so have the people who work alongside him.

“There’s a lot more acceptance for diversity and differences,” says Shah. “I’ve definitely evolved from being in the closet to being out, so why wouldn’t my straight colleagues evolve in the same way?”

While the majority of Americans support nondiscrimination laws in the workplace and the overall employment landscape has become far more accepting, laws haven’t necessarily caught up with public sentiment. In fact, in 28 states it’s still legal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation.

According to a 2017 Workplace Equality Fact Sheet by OutandEqual.org, an organization dedicated to advocating for equality and non-discrimination policies in the workforce, one in four LGBTQI employees reported experiencing employment discrimination in the last five years. Nearly one in 10 LGBTQI employees has left a job because the environment was unwelcoming.

So what can LGBTQI individuals themselves do to work with their employers and coworkers to not only create a welcoming environment, but to also feel more confident with who they are?

Being out at work is important even when you’re in a supportive environment.

“Sometimes we have our own implicit bias,” says the New Yorker, whose company was acquired by banking giant Capital One in 2016. “I live in a very progressive city and my peers, I assume, are also progressive. And I think it does look different when you work somewhere that doesn’t have the same openness. But I think we need to give more credit to our peers and our allies, just because they may not show openness in the way we expect them to—and again this is only an assumption—but they are also looking for context from us, and we have to do the heavy lifting to help bring them in.”

One piece of advice is to bring up LGBTQI issues at work — and engage allies when they ask questions.

Marie McGwier, a 27-year-old UX designer at IAC Applications, says that being out at work is important even when you’re in a supportive environment.

“Try to find the commonality with people in your workplace and have conversations,” says McGwier. “When I first started talking about my gender exploration, I first stuck my toe in the water to see if it was warm enough for me to gradually get in and then went from there.”

McGwier, who also founded a nonprofit that promotes gender self-expression called Gender Is Over, feels lucky to have a good relationship with managers and coworkers. With such support, McGwier felt comfortable enough to broach the subject of gender and become an educator of sorts throughout the process.

“I’ve been an out queer person since I started my job, but I didn’t start exploring the world of gender for a couple of years,” says McGwier. “I think because of my relationship with my manager I’ve been able to sidestep the insecurity and navigate that. But as long as I feel I can continue to be a bridge and be an educator in the workplace, and because I have the privilege of being in a workplace that is so freeing for me, it is my obligation as a person who is queer to be able to educate people.”

Even when companies embrace their LGBTQI workforce, other challenges can arise. Sometimes certain groups within the community are overlooked and need extra support. Tatenda Ngwaru is a 29-year-old refugee from Zimbabwe. She fled her country in 2016 and has since become an activist and speaker about the rights of LGBTQI refugees and intersex individuals—a group she feels is just starting to be accepted within the fold.

“Employers are focused on the LGBTQ side of things, and the ‘I’ often is left out,” says Ngwaru. “This is why I am doing what I am doing. Intersex stories are not being told, and once people see those stories, they will start asking questions, and they will start learning.”

Ngwaru says employers need to promote LGBTQI people within the company.

“Employers should embrace individuals who need to be uplifted,” says Ngwaru. “Put them in stronger and visible positions. Respect them. And give them a platform to share their stories and be themselves. Embrace them as much as you can.”

Even in companies whose employees are LGBTQI, there is still work to be done, according to 31-year-old Alex Kacala. As the senior content editor of Hornet, a gay social networking app, Kacala knows what it’s like to work in an environment that is overwhelmingly LGBTQI.

“What inspires to me to talk about my challenges or speak up is my own personal mission to stay in line with what the company is doing,” says Kacala. “I really believe that our stories are best told when we tell them ourselves.”

Kacala says it’s important to take the initiative and have the conversation with colleagues outside the LGBTQI community.

“We get scared to talk about these things when in reality having a conversation with someone who is straight is the most important thing we can do,” says Kacala. “They may not know any trans or gay people personally. And I think people will surprise you if you give them a chance to step up. I really feel that if people have the opportunity to respond, they’ll want to be an ally.”

Reporting on the ongoing civil war that had spilled over from Syria into Lebanon, René Cao says she witnessed suffering on a scale unlike anything she’d ever seen before. But despite the hardships she encountered in war zones and refugee camps, she found herself inspired by the selflessness of the people she encountered.

The former reporter for Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV network now works for a bitcoin exchange based out of Shanghai’s WeWork Financial Center. But the Chinese citizen has never forgotten the people she met when she was on assignment in Lebanon in 2011.

“The people I met really shaped my values,” says Cao. “They have driven me to do something for someone else, not just care about myself. As a journalist, I thought I could use my skills to tell their stories and share them with the world. I knew their voices needed to be heard.”

Her determination to help the displaced people in the Middle East led her to found the Ponybaby Project, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for the education of refugee children.

In 2014, she decided to return to Lebanon to document the lives of young people there. Finding a videographer was tough — her first one dropped out after a terrorist attack in Paris — but her editor connected her to Olmo Reverter. Together Cao and Reverter made a documentary called The Hard Stop: The Plight of Syrian Refugee Children, which reached more than 10 million viewers in China alone.

“Flying over with Olmo and shooting that first documentary was really a turning point in my life,” says Cao, who is 30. “I had no idea at the time that I was going to carry on with this project. What I really wanted to do was tell their stories.”

Within a year the team had officially set up the Ponybaby Project. Cao and her partners tell moving stories through articles, documentaries, and photo exhibitions. In honor of World Refugee Day, she and her team hosted a panel discussion on the crisis in Syria at WeWork Shanghai Finance Center.

Cao says the name was inspired by a verse in a famous Chinese poem, which loosely translates to: “Take your dream as a horse, act your glorious youth.”

The Ponybaby Project partnered with Pear Video, one of China’s leading video platforms, to broadcast its Orphans of the World series. It recently embarked on a new series called Their Responses that follows more than a dozen Syrian refugees living across the Middle East. The Ponybaby Project also teamed up with Tencent Charity, one of the leading fundraising platforms in China, to help raise money to help refugees directly.

Niu Song, a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, likes the “community spirit” displayed by the Ponybaby Project team.

“I believe that the stories and documentaries displayed by Ponybaby Project, as first-hand information, can honestly uncover the real status of the refugees, including their basic life, children’s education, job employment, and willingness to return to their home country,” says Song, who was among the speakers at the panel discussion.

All of the funds raised by the Ponybaby Project go towards scholarships for families living in refugee camps who can’t afford their children’s school fees, materials, and books.

“Almost 90 percent of Syrian refugees are in debt,” says Lisa Abou Khaled, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Parents are having to resort to difficult choices like pulling their children out of school and sending them to work because they can’t afford to feed the family anymore.”

Since Cao’s first visit to the Middle East, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has claimed the lives of 70,000 civilians and displaced 5 million others. Despite the scale of trauma, Cao says the refugee crisis is rarely discussed in her native China. But that’s part of the goal—to start the conversation by bringing the personal stories of refugees to households across the country.

“Many people don’t have a chance to talk with refugees, so they have a very unclear concept of who they are,” says Cao. “They’re often treated like wild animals, vulnerable and unpredictable. But they want to live with respect and dignity, just like everyone else.”

Photo by Nicholas Tortajada

Even before the lights went up on the stage, the WeWork Creator Awards was literally one of the biggest events of the year in Jerusalem. Nearly 4,000 people packed a stadium that usually hosts basketball games, and they came from as far away as Tel Aviv, Herzliya, and Be’er Sheva. It was also the largest regional competition so far for the awards, hosted in cities around the world.

At the job fair and pop-up market held before the awards, there were so many people that it was sometimes difficult to navigate the aisles. People eagerly pushed forward for free samples of food — even crispy grasshoppers.

When WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann finally stepped onto the stage, the event had the feeling of a homecoming. Neumann and his sister Adi Neumann, a model who hosted the event, both grew up on a kibbutz not far away.

WeWork cofounder Adam Neumann and his sister Adi share a moment at the Jerusalem Creator Awards.

“It’s a really special city and really special to be here,” said Adi from what is usually the home court for the HaPoel Jerusalem Basketball Club.

This is the second time the Creator Awards has been held in Israel. In October more than $1 million was awarded to winners at an event in Tel Aviv. In Jerusalem — where a WeWork location is slated to open later this year — a total of $774,000 went to eight winners.

Host Adi Neumann announces the winners in the business ventures category at the Jerusalem Creator Awards.

Here are some of the most unique and exciting highlights of the evening.

Most progressive fashion statement: More than 30 local artists, companies, and nonprofit organizations took part in a pop-up market on the arena’s concourse. There were bright paintings on canvas, glittering jewelry, natural beauty products, and plenty of T-shirts, including some emblazoned with the words “I’m Not for Sale,” part of a campaign against prostitution and human trafficking by the local nonprofit Turning the Tables, which was also a finalist at the Creator Awards.

Best product you can bury: Perhaps the most intriguing items for sale were paper greeting cards that weren’t just recyclable — they could actually be planted in the ground. Made by the Israeli company Paper Bloom, there are nine types of seeds embedded in the paper of the cards, resulting in several types of flowers that bloom throughout the year.

Winners in the nonprofit category of the Jerusalem Creator Awards pose for a photo together.

Best way to attract a crowd: More than 30 companies and nonprofits staffed tables at the event’s job fair, including half a dozen Creator Awards winners from last year’s event in Tel Aviv., The participants, like Yahoo’s Israeli R&D team and Taboola, were looking to hire a total of more than 70 people. Among the most attention-grabbing booths was that of the Israel Innovation Fund, a nonprofit promoting culture and creativity in Israel, whose table was covered with bottles of local wine.

Most popular souvenir: The most intriguing table at the job fair belonged to Hargol, an Israeli company that produces food products made from grasshoppers. The company — the top winner at the Tel Aviv Creator Awards — caught many people’s eyes with jars of roasted grasshoppers. About 40 percent of people who stopped by the table sampled them, leaving their transparent wings and crispy legs in little piles on the table. Many people then pocketed full jars to take home. “People keep taking them when we’re not looking,” said Hargol CEO Dror Tamir. “I don’t blame them. It really is the best souvenir.”

Most practical swag: The most in-demand item of the evening appeared to be bright red bags emblazoned with the words “Work Happy.” These were from Jobbio, the Dublin-based online hiring platform. “Personally I think they are quite eye-catching,” said Jobbio’s account manager Martha Hayes, who traveled from Dublin to attend the event in Jerusalem. “And they are a useful place to keep the rest of your swag.”

Netta Barzilai, who recently propelled Israel to Eurovision champion, is surrounded by fans.

Favorite food: At a moment when Israeli cuisine has been making global headlines, tables filled with local specialties were scattered throughout the event’s pop-up market and job fair. Popular items included fresh pitas stuffed with chicken, lamb, fish, or roasted vegetables and topped with cilantro-infused tahini. There were also tiny jars of creamy malabi pudding topped with pomegranate syrup and pistachio nuts. But the biggest hit may have been the chocolate chip cookies, baked on the premises in a giant oven by Pilpel Catering. “Holy Moses, these are good,” said one person who sampled them.

Most creative cocktail: Open bars served beer, wine, and craft cocktails all night long. People seemed to love the Golden City, a drink inspired by Jerusalem and made from vodka and honey and garnished with fresh cucumbers.

Most mind-blowing performance: For those who could tear themselves away from the party-like scene at the pop-up market, the highlight of the masterclasses was a show by Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard. As usual, the internationally known performer wowed the audience by reading people’s minds. At one point he seemed to know some participants better than they knew themselves. When asking one woman how many letters were in the name of her first crush, she kept saying five. Suchard replied, “Are you sure it isn’t six?” Sure enough, Suchard guessed the name, and there were indeed six letters.

Most tear-inducing moment: After the audience heard inspiring stories from all of the night’s finalists, it was Kaima Farm, which helps teeneagers who have dropped out of school, that took home the top prize for nonprofit ventures. Yoni Yefet-Reich, Kaima’s CEO, immediately handed the prize over to one of the teenagers who said his life had been transformed by his time on the farm.

Biggest winner: The $360,000 grand prize went to Yehudit Abrams, a recent American immigrant to Israel, for her startup MonitHer, which is developing a hand-held ultrasound device women can use for monthly breasts exams. The device will alert them to any changes in tissue, a key to early diagnosis of breast cancer. “I’m empowering women,” Abrams said, holding up her award.

Best show of hometown pride: Moments after Abrams was showered in sparkly confetti, another top figure in women’s empowerment, Netta Barzilai, who recently propelled Israel to Eurovision champion with her song “Toy,” took the stage to kick off the real party part of the evening. The crowd gathered around her, wildly snapping photos.

When Raffi Rembrand’s son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, it was not the worst news the family received that day. The biggest blow came when their doctor said it was too late for the earliest treatments.

So for Rembrand, a chemical engineer by training, finding a way to detect autism earlier became his life’s mission.

Now, more than three decades after his son was diagnosed with autism, Rembrand has founded an Israeli company, SensPD, which he hopes will accomplish just that. 

SensPD, a winner in the WeWork Creator Awards held on June 20 in Jerusalem, is developing a way to detect autism based on physiological signs. The company uses an existing device commonly used to check the hearing of newborns, but has modified it to check for sensory perception. One of the major components of autism, which affects one of every 59 children born in the U.S., is its effect on the sensory system.

“We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” says Maayan Shahar, SensPD’s CEO.  “But we have altered a very known device used in all hospitals that will hopefully provide a standard screening process for all babies.”

The goal is for such a test to eventually become standard for every baby born around the world, allowing the various treatments for autism to start as soon as possible. When started very early in life, some therapies have a success rate of up to 90 percent.

“It’s been known for a long time that it’s early intervention that makes all the difference,” Shahar says.

But the standard diagnosis of autism based on a series of evaluations often comes after a children has reached the age of 3 or 4, which is too late for some treatments.

SensPD is currently preparing to start clinical trials in Israel. It hopes that if all goes well it will get regulatory approval for its device within three years.

Rembrand’s son, now 35 and living in a group home in Israel, remains an inspiration for the company.

“We want to bring this to market as soon as possible, but in the most professional way,” Shahar says.  ”So that instead of being isolated, children with autism can be a productive part of society.”

While Yehudit Abrams was working as a postdoctoral fellow at NASA, her job was to research the potential use of ultrasound to monitor astronauts on long missions to the international space station. But when her cousin, a gynecologist and breast cancer survivor, was killed in a car accident in 2011, Abrams started thinking of other uses for the medical device.

“She was so passionate about the early detection of cancer, and I wanted to honor her for that,” says Abrams, a physician and mechanical engineer who immigrated to Israel last year from California. “That is what got me thinking about using some sort of portable ultrasound for early detection of cancer.”

Abrams founded MonitHer, a Jerusalem-based startup that is developing a handheld ultrasound device that women can use at home to monitor their breast tissue. The device and its potential to change the way breast cancer is detected is why MonitHer was the big winner the WeWork Creator Awards, held in Jerusalem on June 20. Her company took home $360,000.

“I’m empowering women,” Abrams told the crowd, holding up her award.

An early prototype of the MonitHer scanner.

Women using the device will scan their breasts once a month for about 10 minutes. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved software program then scans the images for any changes over time. If the software detects any potential problems, users will be advised to consult a physician.

By monitoring breast tissue over time, Abrams says women will be able to detect cancer earlier than the traditional method of self-exams where women feel each breast in order to find lumps or swelling.

“We are changing the paradigm from breast cancer screening to breast health monitoring,” Abrams says.

Once more than 100,000 women begin to use the device and upload their scans to the app each month, artificial intelligence and machine learning methods will be used to evaluate tissue changes.

While mammography has long been the best way to diagnose breast cancer, it is less effective on certain women, especially those with dense breast tissue. And the current protocols for breast cancer detection have recently been questioned for resulting in the unnecessary treatment of tumors that may never grow in size or harm a women’s health.

“We are wasting billions of dollars of year treating cancer that women don’t have, and this is because we have stopped innovating,” Abrams said. “Medicine is a dinosaur.”