Credit: Samuel Zeller, StockSnap
Credit: Samuel Zeller, StockSnap

“Be yourself.” Female entrepreneurs are especially likely to hear this bit of wisdom. In fact, a key tenet of Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s famous “Lean In” philosophy is “seeking and speaking your truth.”

But what if expressing that truth is a scary, even dangerous, proposition?

This is a concern that many LGBT individuals face when starting and growing businesses. In many places in the world, intolerance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people means there can be significant risk in disclosing that portion of their lives to others.

This worry exacts costs for them — and for their companies. When LGBT business owners expend energy mentally gauging the tolerance of those around them, they hold themselves back from being all they can be to an organization, says Jennifer Brown, founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, a leadership and diversity coaching firm.

“Anyone who is different is watching to see if they need to hide aspects of who they are,” based on what they hear and see around them, says Brown. As a lesbian, she reported doing the same in certain settings.

“LGBT people are shifting based on safety all the time,” she explains. “The downside is that those people are spending energy on that internal dialogue, which is distracting, exhausting and demoralizing. You’re not bringing all of your ideas with that mindset. And if people are holding out on you, it will impact your bottom line.”

The Next Equal Rights Fight

Economic concerns like these are poised to become a major focus of advocates for LGBT equality in the United States following the historic victory of the Supreme Court’s recent landmark decision in favor of marriage equality.

Indeed, the LGBT community faces a unique set of finance-related struggles, including higher rates of poverty and a pervasive lack of job security. In 29 states, a now-legally married lesbian can still be legally fired upon returning to work from her honeymoon. Meanwhile, trans individuals have no protection from job discrimination in 32 states.

Workplace bias runs deep. Some 42 percent of homosexuals and 90 percent of trans people say they have experienced employment discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, respectively, a report from the Center for American Progress shows.

LGBT customers also grapple with prejudice. In Indiana, the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows business owners to turn away gay clientele due to religious beliefs. And with or without legal sanction, 57 percent of Americans think wedding-related businesses, such as florists and cake bakers, should be entitled to refuse service to LGBT couples, an Associated Press poll revealed.

Legal and legislative battles are looming, including over the recently introduced, bipartisan Equality Act (which would ensure certain protections for LGBT workers). But some experts are looking in quite a different direction for a real and lasting solution to the community’s economic woes: encouraging and promoting entrepreneurship. After all, owning a business can enable them to design more inclusive workplace cultures and create their own livelihoods.

Today, only 3.7 percent of all small business owners identify as LGBT, a Gallup study finds, accounting for approximately 1.4 million businesses in all. (Some experts have noted that many LGBT people do not publicly identify as such, making it difficult to trust such figures.) To increase LGBT representation, advocates say a more supportive, open-minded ecosystem in which to start up and thrive is needed.

Safe Spaces in the Business World

The Story Exchange believes business ownership offers more than just opportunity for an individual — it can lift up entire populations. (See our series on race and entrepreneurship for more.)

Indeed, supporting LGBT entrepreneurs offers economic benefits for the larger economy, if you take it from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which has ramped up support for this group, arguing, “America benefits when we draw from the entire spectrum of American diversity.”

Business ownership could also become a force for increased inclusion of LGBT people, says Jonathan Lovitz, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce New York. “Business will very much be a leader in [making progress on gay rights], because money talks.”

Lovitz is, in part, giving a nod to the “trickle up” theory, which considers how customer brand loyalty to gay-friendly operations can influence supplier and service-provider decisions made by LGBT and ally business owners. It suggests the financial clout of an LGBT-friendly economy has tangible, dollars-and-cents impact. A 2013 report from the Pew Research Center backs that claim, showing that about half of all LGBT consumers will make purchasing decisions based on a given company’s stance on gay rights.

With such systems of support in place, LGBT people can bring more value to the table as business owners. “Being out in the workplace, and being allowed to be out in your own business, is great for your bottom line, because it allows you to bring your whole self to work,” Lovitz says. “Your productivity goes up. Your wealth goes up. Your ability to personally network with people goes up.”

Their employees also appear to be happier. As of 2006, engagement levels for workers with gay bosses were 25 percent higher than average, according to “The G Quotient: Why Gay Executives are Excelling as Leaders.”

Brown agrees with this proposition, attributing it to skills often developed while living as an LGBT individual. Empathy, perseverance, self-actualization and educated risk-taking make members of this community especially well suited for entrepreneurship, she says.

As social attitudes slowly shift, lesbians, gays and trans folks are becoming an increasingly powerful and outspoken part of the business world. Still, their leadership achievements aren’t covered frequently in mainstream media (aside from high-profile coming-out stories like that of Apple CEO Tim Cook). With this special project, we aim to help fill that void.

Telling LGBT Women’s Stories

The female LGBT entrepreneurs we have spoken with for this series are doing amazing, innovative things — and using their drive, skills and networks to take creative ideas to the next level. They are finding new solutions to longstanding problems by leveraging their smarts and unique life perspectives in profitable and interesting ways.

For the next few weeks, we will be highlighting women who have started, grown and maintained successful businesses — women who just so happen to be members of the LGBT community.

Come explore their joys, struggles and accomplishments with us.

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