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The Power of Being an Out Entrepreneur

The Power of Being an Out Entrepreneur

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Can you be the gay Bill Gates? The organization known as StartOut thinks so.

Entrepreneurs should never have to choose between the closet and their careers, yet one in three LGBT entrepreneurs in the process of seeking funding for their business are not out to investors. When asked why, nearly half said it was not relevant, with another 12 percent believing it would hurt them.

Americans today are growing more supportive of LGBT people and their equality, evidenced with the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. However, it's easy to forget people can still get fired from their jobs in 26 states simply for being gay or bisexual, in 28 for being transgender. Further, as entrepreneurial activity plays an increasingly important role in the overall U.S. economy, how do we ensure that LGBT entrepreneurs are protected against discrimination?

The reality is that startups founded by LGBT entrepreneurs are at risk for discrimination -- affecting where they locate their businesses, their ability to raise capital, and how they build trust with investors. These are the findings of a recently released study from StartOut, the leading national nonprofit to support LGBTQ entrepreneurs.

Our study found that over a span of 10 years, over a million jobs created by LGBT entrepreneurs left "discriminatory" states in favor of inclusive states like California and New York. And another troublesome finding: Lesbian entrepreneurs suffered the "double whammy" of being lesbian and female. In our post-marriage equality society, the legal environment does not come close to accurately reflecting the everyday reality for our member entrepreneurs -- a sobering reminder that we all have our work cut out for us to achieve economic equality. Even though we benefit society as a whole, we have to fight hard to ensure the economic viability of our community.

Not all is bleak, though. Countless entrepreneurs embody the spirit and perseverance that builds the backbone of great companies, large and small alike. Allow me to give some examples of personal heroes from such diverse industries as high tech, coffee, or recruiting sites -- just to name a few of the entrepreneurs that make up the StartOut community.

"My background is technology, but my passion is dogs," says Patrick Perrine, founder and CEO of DogTelligent. Perrine's company developed the Connected Collar, which electronically helps to train, track, and manage the health and safety of man's best friend.

To build DogTelligent, Perrine headed to Austin, where he first encountered the StartOut effect. "Once I got to Austin, StartOut was my primary network. Aside from networking, my software team came from StartOut member referrals," he says. "It's a community of like-minded people with one aspect of their lives that's a common denominator." Being out hasn't kept Patrick from enrolling in a top accelerator program to move his company forward in 2016. He's clearly on to something, just like Stephanie Lampkin.

After being turned down for a data analytics role despite having degrees in engineering and business, San Francisco-based entrepreneur Stephanie Lampkin came up with idea for Blendoor, a new app that aims to reduce unconscious bias in the recruitment process by hiding the applicant's name, gender, and ethnicity. Aware that tech companies in Silicon Valley are 2 percent black, 2 percent Latino, and 70 percent male, Lampkin's app tackles the problem that a lot of people don't get work simply because they don't look like the "typical" software engineer.

It was this sell of Blendoor that resulted in Lampkin winning StartOut's pitch competition in 2015. "I'm black, female, and queer," Lampkin says. "It's very important for me to be representative of a technical founder, and being at StartOut has given me a platform to promote that image."

\Helen Russell has been at the helm of Equator Coffee for more than two decades. Russell's leadership at Equator, along with her life and business partner, Brooke McDonnell, is more an exception than the rule in an industry dominated by men. As a customer-focused company serving people who love coffee, Equator Coffee set history by becoming the first LGBT-owned business to be named National Small Business of the Year by the Small Business Administration in 2016.

While the newfound spotlight on Equator garnered attention from journalists and business associations seeking Russell as a progressive thought leader or activist, her involvement with StartOut since 2012 proves Russell has always been a champion of LGBT equality. Speaking at numerous events to increase the visibility of lesbian entrepreneurs, Russell continues to inspire the next generation of business leaders, especially for women-led businesses.

These examples and many more I am privileged to hear about every single day as part of my job are inspiring and powerful reminders of what we can do with passion, drive, and the right support environment. Incredibly talented and driven entrepreneurs remain in the closet for fear of discrimination, and thus can't live up to their full potential. Kudos to Patrick, Stephanie, and Helen for bringing their authentic selves to their businesses, defying stereotypes, and being so successful at what they do. They are role models for all of us.

Starting and growing a business is hard, no matter what, and many businesses never see the light of day. That's simply the way it is for everyone. Yet, as a 2015 Kauffman study found, new businesses account for nearly all net new job creation and almost 20 percent of gross job creation. To greatly increase their chances to succeed, entrepreneurs want and need people close to them who care about supporting them throughout the business life cycles, from the earliest ideas to the sale or initial public offering of your company. That's why we're moving our StartOut community online. We are building a global community so that every LGBTQ entrepreneur, aspiring or already there, has access to experts who understand their every facet of life. To expand our community throughout the U.S. and beyond will create great opportunities for LGBTQ entrepreneurs, their employees and families wherever they live.

We just launched an awesome IndieGoGo campaign to help us grow our services and eventually to support tens of thousands of LGBTQ entrepreneurs like Patrick, Stephanie, and Helen. At StartOut, we are determined to not only accelerate our entrepreneurs' success but also showcase their positive impact on all the communities in which they live, so that the LGBTQ trailblazers and their businesses get the recognition and respect they deserve.

ANDRES WYDLER is the executive director of StartOut, the leading nonprofit organization supporting LGBTQ entrepreneurs through networking, mentorship, access to capital, and education. Previously he was an out entrepreneur, angel investor, and executive for over 20 years.

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