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."