Shaun McMahon ’90 clearly remembers his first few days as a Babson College student.
A classic overachiever, McMahon was thrilled to connect with like-minded friends on campus who were just as committed to Babson’s rigorous classwork as he was.
“I came from a middle-class hometown and went to a high school where there was a, let’s say, wide range in how studious the kids were. When I got to Babson I was like, ‘Oh, my god, everyone here studies like me,’” McMahon said. “It could not have been a more perfect fit.”
Beyond the classroom, McMahon said Babson’s supportive faculty and competitive projects gave him the hands-on experience and confidence to thrive in the business world. Those skills, combined with the hard-working examples set by his parents, helped McMahon become one of Massachusetts’ prominent gay business owners.
McMahon is the founder and president of Illuminate, a Boston-based company that creates custom clinical sales training for the life sciences industry. In 2020, Illuminate joined the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce, a national business advocacy group dedicated to expanding business opportunities for LGBTQ+ people.
And, while McMahon wishes sexuality wasn’t a factor in corporate America, he recognizes the power of example that well-known gay or lesbian CEOs can provide for the LGBTQ+ community.
“There are prominent folks like Apple’s Tim Cook and PayPal’s Peter Theil that I think help just by being out,” McMahon said. “It encourages others and shows that your identity isn’t a barrier to achieving your goals.”
Giving Back, With Pride
As Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, kicks off in June, McMahon pointed to other signs of progress in the competitive and fairly conservative world of business.
“One thing that pleases me these days is how open companies are about honoring Pride Month,” he said. “Never in a million years—back when I used to hide in the closet at work or after I came out as gay—would I have thought that organizations of all shapes and sizes would not only change their logo on LinkedIn to recognize Pride Month, but would openly celebrate it.”
McMahon hopes to nurture that progress through his donations to Babson, which total more than $75,000 since he began giving in 2018. He supports two causes close to his heart: Babson’s LGBTQ+ community, and fiscally-strained students and families.
“I was not from a wealthy family. My parents weren’t the parents that were able to get their name on a plaque. They worked very hard to pay for me to go there,” McMahon said. Hoping to pay his good fortune forward, McMahon worked with Babson to create a scholarship meant to help students of modest means experience the same sense of connection and community that he felt on the Wellesley campus.
The scholarship, named the James F. and Linda D. McMahon Scholarship in honor of his parents, is earmarked for prospective students who need financial help, ideally but not necessarily a student from the LGBTQ+ community.
“I wasn’t thinking only about my own experiences,” McMahon said. “I was also thinking about my father. He didn’t grow up with the opportunities that I had. My hope was that a kid like him could benefit.”
Above all, McMahon hopes his donations provide the same fulfilling education and college experience he had at Babson. “I love the college,” he said, “and I wouldn’t change anything about my time there.”
Babson and Beyond
McMahon’s favorite classes by far were those with entrepreneurial thought-leader William D. Bygrave, a now-retired professor, and the statistics and data analytics he learned under Steven Erikson, another popular former Babson professor.
Much like Babson students today, McMahon and his friends created a business plan for a contact lens company that was a finalist for what is now known as the John H. Muller Jr. Business Plan Prize Competition. The competition awards $5,000 to the winning undergraduate proposal from a group or individual that developed the best business plan for an entrepreneurial venture.
“We were finalists, but we didn’t get it,” McMahon said of the competition, clearly still smarting a bit from the defeat. “Yeah, I like to win, and I didn’t. I don’t forget those things!”
“My big hope is that we can reach a place where we no longer need to discuss or defend LGBTQ+ people or other marginalized communities in the workplace, as it will mean that we have all found an equal place at the table.”
Shaun McMahon ’90, founder and president of Illuminate
McMahon left Babson with a job, but he was a decade into his career when he found his niche in pharmaceutical sales training, which would lead to the creation of his own company. Illuminate creates custom clinical sales training for the life sciences industry, in effect providing content that teaches those in pharmaceutical sales about the drug they’re going to be selling.
“There was an intensity to it, and I absolutely loved it,” McMahon said. “I realized this was what I was meant to do.”
The company has thrived since its inception in 2004, surviving rocky fiscal waters in 2008 and the pandemic shutdown. For the past three years, Illuminate has been recognized in Inc. magazine’s Inc. 5000 list of fast-growing private companies across America.
McMahon is grateful for the head start Babson gave him and hopes more entrepreneurial and business-minded members of the LGBTQ+ community have the chance to get the education they need to be successful.
And, while corporations across the country have increasingly supported the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month, McMahon looks forward to the day when CEOs and entrepreneurs don’t have to worry about how their sexual orientation or their gender identity might effect them in the boardroom.
“I want a world in which our success or value at work is based upon our contributions, not our sexual orientation, gender, or skin color,” McMahon said. “My big hope is that we can reach a place where we no longer need to discuss or defend LGBTQ+ people or other marginalized communities in the workplace, as it will mean that we have all found an equal place at the table.”
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