4 LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs share their Pride
These are the stories of four entrepreneurs, all a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Though their businesses span industries and states, they all have something in common: they’re navigating the challenges of starting a business while also working towards sustainable growth, success, and happiness as queer entrepreneurs. We’re excited to amplify their voices, share their perspective on what needs to change, and learn their hopes for the future.
Episode 16 – Pride Journalistic
Sanjay Parekh: Welcome to the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast, brought to you by Hiscox. I’m your host, Sanjay Parekh. As a serial entrepreneur, I’m passionate about sharing the stories of other entrepreneurs. On this show, we share perspectives on all sides of the side hustle to small business journey: the challenges, triumphs, and everything in between.
Sanjay Parekh: We’ve produced 15 episodes on this season of Side Hustle to Small Business. With each entrepreneur I meet, I’m blown away by the tenacity, drive, and conviction of these small business owners. In Episode 10, we met Jen Price, who had to pivot business models because of the pandemic. We spoke with entrepreneurs like Sean Furey in Episode 3 and Corey Washington in Episode 13, who are both working full-time jobs while growing their side hustles. I know that starting your own business comes with its own unique set of challenges and an exciting sense of ownership.
On this last week of Pride Month, we’re sharing the stories of four different entrepreneurs, all a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Though their businesses span across industries and states, they all have something in Wmmon: they’re navigating the challenges of starting a business while also navigating their way towards sustainable growth, success, and happiness as queer entrepreneurs.
But what are the challenges unique to this community? What is the purpose of assembling these stories in one episode?
Throughout our multiple interviews, we've gotten just a taste of the obstacles these founders have overcome and the joy they’ve experienced in shared community and customer support.
We’re excited to share their stories, their perspective on what still needs to change, and what their hopes are for the future.
Sanjay Parekh: To start off, we’ll take you to the nation’s capital. Andrew Roby is an event planner, army veteran, and founder of Andrew Roby Events.
Andrew Roby: I'm Andrew Roby, founder and director of Andrew Roby events, an event planning firm in DC.
Andrew Roby: Yeah, it's so weird how I started event planning because I'm an army veteran. I spent almost 10 years dealing with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, you know, in the army and teaching people how to defend themselves from that. So then transitioning over to the event planner is like polar opposites. But I started off really by helping a friend plan a birthday party, who needed a lot of help and didn't have anyone to really help them because it was a last-minute decision. And I somehow did it really well. And the people there were like, Hey, you should continue this or think about doing this and that literally started. And I did another event and that event bombed, like, I was so bad at trying to do events and I'm like, I thought I was really good, but I wasn't, but I stuck with it and, you know, learned a lot. The on-the-job training thing was definitely something that saved me, but, it is really been, what, 16 years now, since I've been planning events. So, I'm glad that I stuck with it because I absolutely love it.
Sanjay Parekh: As Andrew’s event planning business grew, he started realizing the lack of diversity in the event planning space. With this realization, he didn’t sit still. Instead, he started to take action.
Andrew Roby: So, I think there's a challenge, no matter what you do or who you are as a person. So, in the last two years, I have faced so much adversity when it comes to, one, being a Black person in the event space because, there isn't a lot of people that are Black in this industry that are high visibility, right? And then when you add on other things being, you know, people are being queer, especially being male. And it just adds on to how much people use to withhold opportunities for you to excel, even though you're qualified for that. So, you know, in the last two years I started an organization called the National Events Council. And it's 14 people spread across the United States that advocates on behalf of the LGBTQ community, black and brown people that are event professionals.
Because of the fact that, you know, when we look at the leadership within the event industry and the leadership is mainly with associations, right? And those associations are white facing. Right? Most of the people on those boards on those, on those councils are, are white people. And not to say that they're not qualified, but when you have associations and organizations that are membership based and have thousands of people that look like all of us, it behooves those organizations to have leaders that represent the people that are part of their associations, right? And we wanted to address that.
We also wanted to address a lot of the corporations that are planning events and are using event professionals, but using the same people over and over again, that don't look like me, that aren't in the same categories as myself and other people. And so that has been a difficult journey to travel on. But I feel like my life has been a phase where it's teaching me to be resilient. It's teaching me to be bold and courageous in this space and to help other people who are like me travel through this journey and get to where they should, get into the rooms that they ought to be in, have the opportunities that they aren't necessarily invited to have because of the fact that they may be queer, the fact they may be black, they may be brown, they may be Hispanic or something else. And so that has been really my passion, honestly, the last two years.
Sanjay Parekh: So beyond owning his own business, managing his staff, and traveling across the country to execute his company’s events, Andrew is working to challenge the status quo in the event planning industry. But how is the National Events Council doing that? And what are the metrics and goals that the organization is trying to achieve?
Andrew Roby: So, we've decided to look within our network and figure out who are the people we know that we feel will help us in different categories. So, our council has DEI, you know, professionals that, you know, diversity, equity and inclusion. We have venue managers from literally high visibility venues, especially in DC. We have media people. We have other planners, caterers, like it's so many people in diverse sectors of this event industry. And some of the people introduced us to other people. And so we talked to them and we felt that they were a good fit and they became a part of the organization. And, and we've literally been fighting on behalf of the event industry to ensure practices are improving.
One of the things that we've done is we've started a venue advisory board, and you know, some of the venues is the International Spy Museum. We have the Willard Intercontinental. Big names that are in the venue space that have agreed to say, you know what? We want to make sure that at least 20% of the people that are our vendor teams or our employees are diverse and they're in leadership positions, they're in managers positions, to ensure that we're not just building awareness, but we're actually implementing sustainable actions that represent the people who are in the job force.
Andrew Roby: We have to start somewhere, right? And I think that, you know, the 20% is very digestible for people to look at and say, Hey, look, when I look at my team, is anybody black or brown, is anybody queer, is anybody this or that? And if not, that's the start, you know? And so, it's to take the steps necessary to change that. And then once that is changed, then what happens next? Right? It's, it's the diversity of our clients. It's the diversity of thoughts and how we view people and process things and how we use our influence to challenge other people within our communities, within our networks.
Sanjay Parekh: What do these metrics look like from a hiring sense? How can you actually work to increase representation in your own business? Andrew explains what representation means in his industry in his own words.
Andrew Roby: What we're saying is that diversity is huge. It goes beyond a black and white thing, right? It goes into queer owned businesses as well. It goes into brown owned businesses as well. So, it's taking accountability of that because you can't bring about change if you don't know what needs to be changed. And so, when we, you know, have these conversations, go deeper than just saying, okay, I'm going to hire a black owned business, but what are the other qualifiers of that black owned business? Are they queer? You know, and if they aren't, actually look for these business owners, because what happens is that if you're constantly using the same thing or you have that one single mindset to say, I'm just going to hire a black business to be diverse. Then you're not giving other people the opportunity to be showcased in a public sense, because what people don't understand is that when we get hired to do events, so when we get hired to do weddings, the marketing of that is huge. We use those photos. We use those experiences as case studies. We use it to be published in magazines and on blogs, but if you're not allowing us to be hired to do that, the representation isn't there. We can't say, Hey, we're a queer on business to a blog or to a magazine for publishing, and then expect us to have the notoriety or someone to find us. They're not going to find us as easily as if we were in that publication or that blog labeled as a minority owned business or labeled as a queer owned business. You know, so it's Google is our friend, but Google uses SEO to find people and to recommend people who are searching for particular things. And so that's important for us.
Andrew Roby: I'm hopeful, but I definitely want us to be able to shine. I want us to be able to grow. I want us to be able to work and collaborate with each other, but I want other opportunities like this. I think that, you know, being on a podcast. You know, like this is important and it allows other people to understand different sectors in this world and how we navigate. But at the same time, how we are really connected in a sense. So that's what I want for us all, just to keep, you know, thinking outside the box, think about how we can help other people that don't look like us, and just be creative, be imaginative, you know, in how we move and navigate from day to day.
Sanjay Parekh: Allison and Tiff White are business owners living in Tucker, Georgia. Allison owns a photography business called Familiar Roots Photography, while Tiff is the founder of Tiff’s Take Out, a weekly meal delivery service offering made-from-scratch meals. In addition to both being founders, Allison and Tiff have something else in common, they're married to each other. Here’s Allison.
Allison White: So, we met in 2009, at a working women's queer bar. It was called Bellissima. We both were, she was out with some friends, I was there with some friends. She walked up and I saw her smile and I just had to meet her. And pretty much the rest is history. I met her and then yeah, we had our first date the next night.
Sanjay Parekh: Early on in their relationship, Tiff took a break from her career working in fast-paced kitchens within hotels and took a job delivering packages with FedEx. She met Allison, they started dating, and Allison challenged Tiff with a question.
Tiff White: We were visiting one of my best friends in North Carolina. And we went on a hike, and she was trying to get to know me. And she's like, what is your dream? And, so I said, my dream is to own a restaurant and to have a business; my passion is cooking. And she's like, huh. And she filed that away. And then while I was doing — we were in Candler Park — and while I was doing my, um, I started to deliver, I started to get back into the produce area of my life and I was delivering organic produce for this small business turnip truck. And I was getting back into the restaurant business, like knowing the chefs, talking to the chefs, getting them the best produce. It was getting my passion back. Because I was in the restaurants now, I was actually there talking to them and having a relationship with the chef. So, my passion was starting to come back and then we were just kind of hanging out with our neighbors and having cocktails and just talking about, I think that this concept would work, and I saw how much people struggled to cook, because we had a lot of friends that didn't know how to cook. And they were mothers, and they had no time to hang out with their family because they had to come home and cook, vice versa for the men. And same with the single people that we knew, like, oh, I can't stand cooking, I'm so sick of going out to eat, dat, dat, dat.
So, I'm sitting with my friend, Peter and we're on the porch. And I'm like, I think this would work. I think if I cook for people and just put it in a warm-and-serve. Then it would be so helpful. And then I could put a restaurant flair on it because I have a background in fine dining. I could put a restaurant flair to it that it wouldn't be so bland. And Alison was like, let's start doing that. You can do that and deliver, and just kind of see if it works, out of the kitchen for your friends. So, I started cooking for my friends and they started ordering every day. And so, I would cook it. I would cook way too much. So that's what I do too. I give too much food, and so they were enjoying it and they were loving it and she was like, let's do it. Let's make you legal. And it was really her pushing it.
Sanjay Parekh: While Tiff was building her business, Allison was also thinking about an idea for a side hustle.
Allison White: So, my background has always been social work. I've also always been a trainer of some sort, even when I was working at Chuck E Cheese at 15 years old. And so, I always have enjoyed to train and also do every aspect of my job. There has been sort of a social work aspect to it, with a sociology major and, right out of college, I was doing crisis advocacy work. I worked for the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center here in Decatur. And I did that for over eight years, and I ran a 24-hour hotline, and managed over 150 volunteers. And of course, after a while, I got burnt out. And with the passing of my mom, I decided I needed to do something that really made me happy. And so, I quit that job and I started to go to school to learn photography. I started taking classes, and then I started piecing together different jobs, so that I could keep learning. And then I started to nanny for a little while, which gave me great subjects to work on, for my photography and I've grown it since from there. And then I just started, you know, getting hired, doing it for friends and then as word of mouth traveled, I have quite a big client base that returns every year for holiday photos. I've done weddings. I've also started another side gig for weddings, with another photographer. Yes. And then through word of mouth I've been doing a lot of headshots. I also do photography for designers. Someone I'm working with very closely, um, and following her projects and her career growth.
Sanjay Parekh: While growing their individual businesses, Allison and Tiff have had the support of not only each other, but their community as a whole. Moving from Ohio to Atlanta, Tiff was met with a welcoming community of like-minded women.
Tiff White: I have the background in the restaurants and majority, not majority, but a lot of gay and lesbians are in my business. So that was helpful. But, coming out was difficult at my age. Because it wasn't accepted as much up in the Midwest. And surprisingly, when I came to this city, Atlanta, it was more acceptable. So, the small town of Canton, Ohio, it wasn't like there wasn't a lot of Pride. I have to go to Cleveland to have some Pride, Cleveland, Ohio. And I was shocked how out she was. Like we held hands going down the street. I would never have done that in Canton, Ohio — ever — back in the day when I came out. So, I do think it's changed for the better. Of course, we're going to have hiccups everywhere. But in my business, like I said, I never thought I'd be working in a kitchen that was geared towards minority woman, queer owned businesses. And that is amazing. That is amazing. And somebody had to start that.
Sanjay Parekh: While Tiff has the community in her kitchen for encouragement and support, Allison has had a different path to her side hustle. Working a full-time job while also managing her photography business.
Allison White: Well, we've always had to have other side gigs to support these. So, I have a another now, it's full-time, but I was part-time, part-time, part-time with them. Because I was doing my photography and each time they asked me to increase my hours, I'm like, that's fine, as long as I can still do my photography. And it's out of DC. I work from home, and they let me be flexible with my hours so that I can still do my photography. So, we would not be owning a home. I would not be able to help her grow her business if I was not able to also have this other job. So, yeah, some things need to change because, it would be nice to have the ability — I mean, I don't see it happening right now with inflation — but the ability to be two women business owners and, not having to do other jobs to sort of keep us afloat. Right now, that's the way it is and that's how we dealt with it. But there are long hours, you know, I worked 40 hours a week or more with my other job, and then I have to find time for editing and taking shoots. So even though it's flexible, I still have to do the work. So, struggle is definitely something I'm used to. I've been supporting myself since I was 15 years old, financially. And so, it's just, I can always put things together to make it happen.
Sanjay Parekh: As two lesbian business owners living and breathing the entrepreneurial life within their careers and their marriage, what do they have to say about the proliferation of Pride Month and what more can be done to amplify queer voices?
Allison White: The more you can put it out there, the more we feel seen. The fact that you can go — before, it was just Target that had Pride stuff, now it's everywhere. So, I definitely love that. Now, do I think that there, do I hope that their business practices are matching up with their marketing? 100%, I hope so. I know that there are different organizations, like, for example, I'll use Macy's, they have chosen different vendors and artists. I have a bag that supports transgender rights. So, there are some people who are, some of these corporations that I know are making actual, conscientious decisions and supporting local businesses. And I think that's the other thing, too. I think that we are going in the same, the right direction. And I also think that it's important that people know or make a deliberate attempt to continue to buy from us or to use us because we are gay or because we are women. These are great things. I mean, just in general, we know that women make less than men, so we still have a long way to go, and we've come a long way. So, I think that there is this misconception at a general population that because we have marriage equality, that everything is fine and dandy, but there are still so many people killing themselves because their family doesn't accept them.
There are so many people that are on the streets because their family doesn't accept them. So, Pride is still very important and, you know, we don't come out to — yes, the rainbow stuff is fun to wear, but that's not why we're all showing up. We're showing up to show all the people, all the people from all these other cities in Georgia, where it's not normal, you know, or accepted rather, that they have a place to be who they are.
Sanjay Parekh: Luis Gramajo is a co-founder of Wunderkeks, an Austin-based cookie company.
Luis Gramajo: My name is Luis Gramajo and I am from Guatemala. Me and my husband are co-founders of Wunderkeks and we're an e-commerce business and we ship cookies nationwide. And also we are on a mission of being a safe space.
Sanjay Parekh: Wunderkeks has been growing exponentially since their appearance at South by Southwest. Their cookies were most recently a part of the Oscars gift bags! But when Luis and his husband, Hans, announced a Pride Month Collaboration with the Love Loud Foundation they experienced a backlash that took them by surprise.
Luis Gramajo: I remember that. It was May 29th that we sent out the email announcing that we were doing the Pride collaboration, donating funds, and immediately in two hours, we lost 10% of our subscribers. And for the first two weeks in June, we started receiving emails, comments, DMs, messages, everywhere. 'I hope you guys die.’ 'If I knew that you were gay, I would never buy your cookies.’ 'If you get these cookies, they're going to give you AIDS.’ And it was very scary. It was very, very frustrating for us, but we got to talk to Anthony Ramos from GLAAD he's the head of communications from GLAAD. Because we didn't know what to do. We were like, okay. I think that we did something really wrong. We are messing with our business, with everything that we were building. And we were, more than that, we were shocked. That that was happening again, because back in Guatemala, I mean, you can understand it, but here in the States where you feel free and you supposedly you are in a safe space and this happens, it was very shocking for us. And actually, what he said is like, don't worry. This is very common. Just get it together, give it a little time. And you're going to see that people are going to start coming around. And because I was telling him, look, I do want to do this. I'm not going to go back in closet. We're refusing to do that. We already went there and it's not fun. So, let's keep on going.”
Sanjay Parekh: This experience could have slowed down the team at Wunderkeks and put a dent in their Pride. A few days after the campaign was announced, customer feedback started changing.
Luis Gramajo: And two weeks after we started receiving emails, mostly from parents, thanking us for what we were doing, thanking us for the voice that we were creating, that, that we were speaking out. And because they knew that their son was gay, but he hasn't come out to them, but, like, giving him the Pride special edition cookies was a way to say to him, I'm with you. I support you. And you're going to be fine. And that's when we understood that that was our mission as a company to create safe spaces that do become that signifier of a safe space around our brand. So, every time that you see someone with a pink, bright box, eating a cookie with a sticker on their water bottle, wearing a t-shirt that says Wunderkeks, you know, that they're allies and that you could be safe around them.
And the message that we were delivering, we realized that it wasn't just having great cookies or a great product, but it went way farther. It went beyond that. And the message that we want to deliver now is the importance of having these conversations and why it's important to celebrate Pride still in 2022, because this is happening. It's not happening, obviously, it's not happening in Los Angeles in New York. Like these are little bubbles that this is very accepted that you're fine there. But I, and actually it did happen to us that we forgot because we were living in this bubble and when it got popped and we realized that it was still happening there and that 50 miles from here, it's a whole different story. And that's why we should celebrate Pride. That's why, I would say that most importantly, that's why straight people should start celebrating Pride with us, showing allyship, showing the support and showing that we could be safe around. Because, the times they have to change.
Sanjay Parekh: This turn of events changed how Luis saw the business and shaped the mission of Wunderkeks, to be a safe space for their customers and for the public in general.
Luis Gramajo: So, we're starting raising funds for our seed round. We started like a month and a half ago. We're raising $5 million. So, if you're out there and you have some money to spare… I mean, no, but, one thing led to another, we ended up having a meeting. With Jeff Berman, one of the founders of Ben and Jerry's on a Monday and just to pick his brain out, they are mission driven all the way. If someone knows how to deliver a message and how important that is, it's him. So, we were talking with him, we were just picking his brain. He loved what we were doing. He tried the cookies and he loved them, and we left it there. It was really nice to make him. Uh, four days after we received an email, saying that he would be very excited to be a part of our advisory board, because he felt like he saw himself in us when they were starting Ben and Jerry's and he saw the passion that we had, not only for the company that we were building, but also for the essence of the company that we have at creating safe spaces for him was very important, because of the times that we're living in. And he, he just believed in the mission that we have. So that's how we ended up teaming up with him.
But what he told us is that, he was like, I'm concerned because you need to be, you need to realize that both of you, to bring safe spaces to everyone, you are going to be put in an unsafe space and you have to be ready for that. And our answer was like, yes, we are from Guatemala. And we've always been in an unsafe space. So, we know what that is. And we already experienced it here last Pride, and we are ready to take it. And he was like, it's very important for you guys to tell your story now, because when you start telling your story, you are going to let people open to you and they are going to start telling you their story, because everyone has a different story. Everyone has a different type of safe space that they need. And we need to also, yes, we need to tell our story, but we need to listen to their story to see how we can help them. So, it's a very beautiful thing if you see the whole picture, because it's a very, very huge mission that we have, and we do want to change the world. And I think that it's doable and we just need to talk and, talk and listen. That's the key.
Luis Gramajo: I always say that being gay and being an immigrant, it's our superpower. It has been our superpower since day one that we moved here because we have worked twice as much to survive. We came to this country with Hans three years and a half ago. With no contacts, with nothing, but our two luggage bags and four dogs. We were sleeping in an air mattress for a month. And our dining table our TV table, TV stand, and our table for the farmer's market it was the same plastic table that we used to fold and put it in the car. And it's hard but I'm very proud of us because we did it in three years and a half. And we ended up teaming up with Tony Ramos, meeting Busy Phillipps, ended up in the Oscars bags and I need takes commitment and it takes, uh, we bootstrapped the whole thing. And it's hard.
Sanjay Parekh: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Side Hustle to Small Business Podcast. To learn more about Hiscox Small Business Insurance and how they support LGBTQ+ small businesses, visit the Hiscox Blog at www.hiscox.com/blog.