It was going to be tough no matter what.
Starting a new business is a challenge in itself, but for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, their identities can present an additional hurdle.
There’s often pressure on these entrepreneurs to withhold aspects of their personal lives from professional circles to steer clear of controversy.
Since last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, more LGBT business owners are driven by shifting public opinion and diversity-hungry companies to start openly embracing who they are.
“While people may be out in their personal lives, connecting it to their business is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Jonathan Lovitz, vice president of external affairs at the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). “But doing so has been incredibly beneficial for them.”
Erica Fields, president of St. Paul-based grain trader Brooks Grain, didn’t come out as a transgender woman until she was 53 in 2007.
Even then, she only came out to a few friends. Just five months earlier, Fields had started her business providing rye to whiskey distilleries like Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. Fields feared how the revelation might be perceived by her clients in a male-dominated industry.
“I thought if I just came out, I would lose everything,” said Fields, who waited until 2009 to tell clients.
That fear, echoed by many LGBT entrepreneurs, stems from a desire to avoid friction with potentially less accepting colleagues or clients, said Jay Miller, founder and creative director of Minneapolis branding firm Imagehaus.
Since starting his own firm in 2000, Miller joined NGLCC’s Supplier Diversity Initiative, which he calls a “professional way to come out” that is less frightening.
The program, which started in 2004, certifies LGBT-owned businesses and connects them to a network of “corporate partners” looking to improve diversity in their supply chain.
It follows similar initiatives that promote businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans and people with disabilities.
Recently, there’s been a spike in interest for the certification.
The national roster of certified LGBT businesses jumped from roughly 500 in 2013 to 896 by the end of July. In Minneapolis, that number grew from just four in 2013 to 22 in 2015, said Mark Waldorf, president of the Twin Cities Quorum, an affiliate of the NGLCC.
About 140 companies — including Delta Air Lines, General Mills and Target — use the program’s directory to find LGBT vendors. This year, NGLCC added the Democratic National Convention, Major League Baseball and defense contractor Northrop Grumman.
The certification can help a new business get noticed and make new connections, said Teresa Mock, owner of wedding planner L’Etoile Events in Minneapolis.
Mock attends NGLCC and Quorum events, such as Quorum’s annual luncheon on National Coming Out Day.
At last October’s luncheon at the Marriott City Center, Mock found vendors she’d like to use for future events. Mock, who started her business January 2015, displays her NGLCC certification on her website and says it’s a good way to filter out a “poor match.”
“When someone looks at the website and sees that [certification], and if that’s a reason they don’t want to work with me, they have to look no further,” Mock said.
Miller said he got his certification after an executive at Office Max, a longtime client, asked him about it because the office supplies retailer wanted a way to quantify how much it spent on diverse vendors.
It’s a way for companies to go beyond preaching diversity as they feel pressure from groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which tracks workplace equality at Fortune 500 companies.
“They can’t just say it anymore,” Miller said. “They have to actually follow through with what they say by action, and it needs to be in a way that is measurable.”
Fields said she was asked by Jack Daniel’s, one of her biggest clients, to apply for the certification a year ago. She said it’s mutually beneficial — Jack Daniel’s gets to tout supplier diversity while she cements relations with a vital client. Fields said she sees more companies trying to up their diversity as more consumers are voting with their wallet.
LGBT consumers are especially drawn to companies that reflect their values, according to a 2015 survey by Community Marketing Inc., an LGBT market research firm used by NGLCC.
The survey found that 89 percent of purchasing decisions by gay men and 92 percent by lesbians are influenced by a company’s treatment of LGBT workers.
And their buying power is not one to scoff at — a 2014 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found about 783,000 same-sex couples earned an average of nearly $118,000 year.
Still, a fear of the unknown lingers for LGBT business owners: Will clients welcome their identity or leave because it’s incompatible with their views?
When Fields came out in late 2007, her daughter Cara offered to step in and tend client relations. Over the next year and a half, Fields transitioned in private and prepared to come out to her clients. Fields wrote “heartfelt” letters to about 15 clients and business partners explaining her journey and reassured that it wouldn’t affect the business.
Relationships changed. Some clients felt uncomfortable interacting with Fields directly, she recalled, and it took them time to adapt to the change.
But she didn’t lose her clients. She said she considers herself lucky.
“It was a cathartic experience,” she said. “These were people who I’ve known for years. … And I think over time, there’s a growing sense that it’s not a big deal.”
Advocates say there’s more work to be done. Lovitz said NGLCC has its sights on new bills that would allow LGBT-owned businesses to vie for a portion of government contracts that are awarded to businesses owned by women, minorities, disabled people and veterans.
So far, California and Massachusetts have already adopted such provisions and a similar bill was introduced in New York in May.
By advancing LGBT entrepreneurs, activists aim to leverage the business success for more wins for the wider community.
“Many of the lessons learned from marriage equality are being used all over again to fight for business inclusion, which is leading with the business case,” Lovitz said. “Whether you’re for or against LGBT people, everyone’s for a strong economy. When we can make the case that equality is good for business, I think that’s going to help win more of these victories.”