I have a secret to tell you: The “gay mafia” is real. I know because I met them a few weeks ago.
In early August, the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) held its annual conference in Philadelphia. Targeted at both LGBTQ+ owned businesses as well as the purchasing professionals for many Fortune 500 companies, the event was a combination of educational sessions to run your business better to focusing on how to more effectively engage with minority vendors. The conference was strongly attended by many members of Central Florida’s Metropolitan Business Association (MBA), our local LBGTQ+ Chamber of Commerce (who awesomely won Chamber of the Year in 2017).
Why did I go? Because I just became an LGBTQ+ certified owned business this year. I’ve had my consulting practice, TopDog Learning Group, LLC, full-time since 2007. In that time I’ve never really had to advertise; all my clients have been referrals or word-of-mouth. I’ve heard of MBA and NGLCC, but figured I really didn’t need to join, as my clients tend to be Fortune 500 companies, rarely local organizations, so I never sought the certification. But I had a long-term, global pharmaceutical client ask me if I was a “minority-owned business,” and asked me to complete a form indicating as such. So I went through the process of getting LGBTQ+ certified.
I have to say I’m extremely glad I did. While I won’t say I’ve been knocking it outta the park with new clients because of being a newly-certified gay-owned business (yet!), the networking and support I’ve come to know as an entrepreneur has been stellar. I’ve been to a lot of conferences, including those focused on the LGBTQ+ population, but the NGLCC conference in Philly felt different. People kept sincerely asking how they could help you grow your business, connecting people with their colleagues if they saw a fit and generally wanting to really know what it is that you do for a living.
Beside meeting so many other LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs and procurement professionals from many cool big companies, I learned a huge lesson in why smart businesses have supplier diversity programs to be able to hire people like me: it shows their commitment to being inclusive. After working with them for about seven years, my big pharma client now gets “credit” within their business by showing they work with an LGBTQ+ owned business. This shows not just their LGBTQ+ employees that they are an inclusive employer, but for many companies, they are sure to share that with the external world as well (it also impacts their HRC Equality Index score). At NGLCC, global companies’ procurement peeps sat down and wanted to know what you could do for their companies to see if there’s a match (FYI, “procurement peeps”: The people in charge of hiring vendors to do work with a business and — if you have a business — THESE ARE THE GATEKEEPERS YOU WANT TO KNOW!).I was able to sit down with some major businesses to maybe get more work.YAY, GAY/ALLY MAFIA!
Which also led me to my second big “ah-ha!” moment: the concepts of “set-asides.” While federally being an LGBTQ-owned business isn’t within the definition of “minority-owned”(yet), most Fortune 500 companies do indeed count LGBTQ+ owned business within their supplier diversity numbers. Governments (federal to local) and inclusive businesses set aside a percent of their budget spending for minority-owned vendors. So getting LGBTQ+ certified makes me an attractive vendor (in addition to the rockstar work my consultants do as members of the TopDog “pack”).
The power of certification as a business is huge; it can easily separate you from the rest of the competition. For example, a close friend and colleague of mine clued me in on this strategy: The more you are certified as a minority-owned business the more potential work you can bid for. And my friend should know,she’s what’s called a “triple threat” in the bidding process: a certified woman-owned business, a disabled veteran-owned business and, as a transwoman, she’s LGBTQ+ owned certified. When she gets a client she counts in the three different columns as “credit” for a company or government’s minority supplier scorecard. Win-win!
Attending the NGLCC conference got me thinking about what I’ve seen — as an entrepreneur who is also gay — as successful traits for being a better LGBTQ+ business person and leader. Here’s my top five tips:
1.) Your most powerful business tool is the relationships you cultivate. It was obvious at NGLCC those who have been going for years have grown their business through relationships. But as our world becomes more connected, people still want to work with people they know and like. You don’t have to be someone’s BFF to do business with them, but you should build rapport, be nice, and take a genuine interest in them and what they need to be successful. Be mindful of how you’re interacting with people.
2.) But also don’t underestimate your competency in your field. I won’t hire a consultant just because they’re fun or they’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community: they have to be a rockstar and have a proven successful track record. Businesses want the same: they want competent vendors and employees that do good work. Don’t try and skate by in your work world just by being nice, you need to have substance behind that smile. If you’re not a rock star yet find ways to develop and grow.
3.) In today’s connected environment, be careful of your online presence. With every meeting (casual or planned) at the NGLCC conference I did my research on LinkedIn and Facebook. It’s a small digital world and as you progress in your career it’s amazing how interconnected we are. This is a huge advantage for some (again see #1 about rapport and relationships), but if you’re not delivering your best it can hose you (see #2 above), as it’s way too easy to share your displeasure for a vendor (Yelp anyone?). Also, you are your brand, whether you’re an entrepreneur like me or work for a company … what you do online follows you. Maybe watch those shirtless pics or excessive pictures with booze you’re posting: because your business relationships and potential clients / employers are looking.
4.) Keep your word. Building rapport (#1) and being good at what you do (#2) are excellent starts, but not the complete formula for success: you need to keep your word. In the leadership programs we create this is the common thread any time we talk about being an effective leader. Also known as having “integrity,” I’ve seen way too many leaders derail their leadership success by either not following through on what they’ve said / promised or they’ve acted against what they said / promised. I’m a big fan of the “underpromise … overdeliver” philosophy so I don’t paint myself into a corner where I’m not following through with what I say. Again with #3, when we don’t do what we says we would do word travels rather fast. Don’t undermine your brand with false promises.
5.) Be your authentic self. Some LGBTQ+ folks are uncomfortable being out at work, but frankly this is one of our most powerful tools. Being out — and being your authentic self at work — not only helps you be able to focus on doing good work on the job and not waste your energy hiding who you are, but it also helps others get to know and see you and our community and humanizes us. Plus: life’s too short to work in a closet or to have clients who don’t appreciate your authenticity. You be you while at work and beyond.
Finally, be a good gay and pay it forward. I jokingly say that there’s a gay (or pink) mafia, but it’s true.As a minority group we should be looking out for one another. So if you’re part of your company’s LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group (ERG), ask if your company has a vendor diversity program and if LGBTQ+ is factored in. If you’re a mid-to senior LGBTQ+ leader, consider being a mentor to a member of our community. And if you’re an LGBTQ+ entrepreneur, find ways in which you can partner with other LGBTQ+ organizations or business owners to create a win-win partnership. A high tide raises all ships, especially ones flying the Lavender Jolly Roger.
Dr. Steve Yacovelli is owner of TopDog Learning Group, LLC, a learning and development, change management, and diversity consulting practice based in Orlando. He’s also the Chief Inclusion Officer of LGBTInclusivity.com, a consulting group focused on LGBTQ equality in the workplace.