Michael Hamar

Building a Network of Gay Entrepreneurs

Filed By Michael Hamar | June 06, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: business networking, gay activists, HRBOR, LGBT businesses, NGLCC

On May 20, 2010 Hampton Roads Business Out Reach ("HRBOR") held its third HRBOR.jpganniversary event, which was a huge success. The number of attendees was in the 200 range and included local elected officials, Jessica Sandlin, a gay-friendly Republican running for the 2nd Congressional District nomination against Ken Cuccinelli-wannabe, Scott Rigell, who is trying to buy the GOP nomination, a host of business owners and representatives of some heavy hitting local non-profit organizations.

Also in attendance was a representative of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) to announce that HRBOR was being awarded the "Rising Star Award" - i.e, the chamber of the year. The formal presentation of the award will be in November in Washington, D.C.

As one of the inaugural board members of HRBOR, it is amazing to see what has grown out of the efforts of a small core of like minded individuals. Equally important, we have awakened local elected officials to the presence of the LGBT business community and as a bonus I have made a circle of amazing friends and business referral sources.

It was more than a bit ironic subsequently that I received an e-mail from a reader who had forwarded to me a link to a New York Times story on networking groups for gay-owned business. The story also looks at how some LGBT entrepreneurs have found the resolve to come out of the closet in their businesses. What's amazing is that the concept works both in Hampton Roads and New York City - not exactly similar demographic areas. The message is that it's a concept that needs to grow around the country. Here are some story highlights:

How do you come out of the closet in your business? And how do you handle investors who might be uncomfortable with your vocal support of gay rights? Mr. Conley, 49, who came out four years before he opened his first hotel, the Phoenix, in 1987, recounted steering such investors to the Web site of Kimpton Hotels, a competitor that promotes its support for gay employees. Then he told them that one of Kimpton's biggest investors was a former Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist. That example, Mr. Conley recalled, was enough to ease the investors' concerns.

Mr. Conley's talk was organized by StartOut, a new nonprofit networking group for gay entrepreneurs. The group, organized by a circle of friends in spring 2009, has since drawn some 1,000 participants to events in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.

Entrepreneurs come to StartOut events to network, share ideas and sip cocktails. They come to talk business in a setting free of awkward assumptions ("What does your husband think?"). And they come to hear speakers like Mr. Conley, who serves on the group's advisory board, or Mitchell Gold, the co-founder of the furniture company Mitchell Gold & Bob Williams, or Megan Smith, the vice president for new business development at Google, who is headlining a StartOut event later this month. Darren Spedale, an investment banker turned serial entrepreneur in Manhattan, came up with the idea for StartOut a year ago.

In fact, the last decade has seen a flowering of affinity groups for gays in business. . . . There are some 1.2 million gay-owned businesses in the United States and about 29,000 of them belong to local gay chambers of commerce, according to Justin G. Nelson, president and a founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which was organized in 2002 in Washington.

For too many years, Mr. Nelson said, the prevailing attitude among gay entrepreneurs in America was, "It's O.K. for me to be gay, but I can't do it in my business for fear that it will ruin my company." That message, however, has evolved.

This month, StartOut volunteers plan to teach teenagers about entrepreneurship at the Martin Institute, a New York City nonprofit organization that serves gay youths. Mr. Spedale and a few colleagues will play the part of investors, critiquing the teenagers as they come up with and present business ideas, discussing how to get clients, sell products and complete other entrepreneurial tasks. "You end up creating an ecosystem where people can help fund each other."

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Hey, that's cool. How can I find the New York City chapter?

StartOut.org is great.

They have formed a NYC Group that has begun scheduling events.

And now for a touch of cold water..

How many of them do well with Trans entrepreneurs?

GLCoC's are among the most notorious locales for sentiment and treatment that results in marginalization of Trans people who would, otherwise, be really strong additions.

entrepreneurship is critical to minority communities having the ability to effectively create change -- and that takes support and the development of decent best practices, as well as effective adaptability.

How many of the GLCoC's also get their members to provide benefits for and hire trans people?

Traditionally, it's relatively few and often at a social cost for the trans person.

Whew! Brisk, wasn't it?

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 7, 2010 3:45 AM

I said before, how do we fight a recession. We find our strengths and play to them. All LGBT persons working together. This is excellent for referrals and I wish it existed when I sold my business in 2002.

I have always preferred to spend my "gay dollars" in gay owned and operated locations when I could. Too often you never knew.

Thanks for sharing Michael. It's always great to be able to draw strength and support from our fellow community members.


I hear your point. I believe that most HRBOR members are open to employing anyone who is competent and who can do the job. Obviously, Virginia is a challenging jurisdiction for ALL LGBT citizens since we have ZERO employment non-discrimination protections.

My firm works with a number of trans clients, particularly in the area of post reassignment surgery amendment of birth certificates, etc. Sadly, many attorneys in this state will not do so. As for my law firm, we provide health benefits to all full time employees.

Michael -- too true! Virginia, as we have come to see in the national media, is about as much for LGBT people as Arizona is for immigrants.

Which makes it even more important to make sure that people are out and willing to take care of their own in areas like that.

I knew it was cold water on the good stuff you were talking about -- it's a pet peeve of mine that we often gloss over the way that those good things we celebrate for LG folks often also include erasure and the opposite for BT folks.

I am thrilled that your firm provides medical coverage -- hopefully it's truly full (that is, including the medically necessary surgery costs for trans people), but law firms and banks usually rank pretty highly in that area.

Oddly enough, I've advocated off and on using an approach that people feel is rather unfair of me: I want to start a business that only hires LGBT folks.

Some have said that's discrimination, but it's not illegal in Virginia -- as was demonstrated recently, and when you put that kind of thing together, it makes folks who are not used to being discriminated against see things in a different light.

Michael- I'm just a fan!
What a great night that was- and HRBOR is an amazing benefit to all of us in this area. I've told several friends who are business-owners about HRBOR and I hope they join!