February 21, 2019 at 11:15 am PST | by Scott Stiffler
Summit helps LGBT businesses reach new heights

March 14-16’s WBA summit focuses attention on issues facing the LGBT business community. (Photo courtesy of WBA).

Whether speaking to the niche concerns of our community or offering products and services whose consumer appeal casts the widest net possible, LGBT businesses are at their best when their owners are able to learn from peers, access available resources, and create new opportunities.

To that end, March 14-16, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (LAGLCC) will host this year’s incarnation of the annual Western Business Alliance (WBA) LGBT Economic Summit & Conference.

Founded in 1992 to further LGBT economic equality, the WBA’s current membership draws upon the collective knowledge of over 3,000 businesses from LGBT chambers of commerce and thought-leaders on the West Coast of the U.S., as well as Vancouver, British Columbia.

Longtime West Hollywood resident Marquita Thomas is Executive Director of the LAGLCC. In anticipation of their role as host of the summit, Thomas spoke to the Blade about the LAGLCC, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Initially known as the Valley Business Alliance, “The Chamber was created at a time when LGBT businesses — bars, in particular — faced persecution and needed to strategize ways to keep their doors open,” Thomas recalled. At the time, she noted, “Many LGBT chambers used names like ‘business alliance’ for safety.”

In 2006, the chamber “decided to take a bold stand in its identity” and became the LAGLCC.” Within the next year, Thomas said, the organization will once again undergo a name change, to reflect a contemporary spirit of inclusivity. Over the years, she observed, attitudes “have changed. But LGBT businesses still need support — and not only do they find that support at the chamber, but also find business owners who share their values.”

Changing times, and needs, are also front and center at this year’s WBA gathering, which, they note, will “focus attention on issues facing our business community and the LGBT community at large.”

From 2018: San Francisco’s City Hall, lit up in rainbow hues to welcome the Western Business Alliance. (Photo courtesy of WBA).

At the center of the summit will be a lunch confab whose theme, “Understanding and Improving the Effectiveness of Supplier Diversity,” explores ways to maximize opportunities for businesses owned by minorities, women, LGBTs, the disabled, veterans, and others who have been historically underutilized as suppliers.

“This luncheon,” Thomas noted, “allows small business owners to assess whether or not their business is ready for government and corporate contracts, find out resources available for capacity-building, and avoid pitfalls.”

Citing National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) estimates, Thomas said there are “about 1.4 million LGBT-owned business in the U.S.,” noting that less than 10 percent of NGLCC-certified businesses earn income generated from their work as contractors for state and local government — although 80 percent say they’d like the opportunity to do so.

Last week, our sister publication, the Washington Blade, reported that Nashville is became the first Southern city to recognize LGBT-owned businesses. The new policy, signed by Mayor David Briley, allows NGLCC-certified businesses to access the same contracts and economic development opportunities currently available to businesses owned by women and ethnic minorities.

NGLCC Co-Founder and President Justin Nelson, in a press release, praised the efforts of the city’s affiliate chapter, noting its positive effect on job creation. Co-Founder and CEO Chance Mitchell said, “We hope this executive order in Nashville will encourage more mayors to proactively include the LGBT community for the optimum social and economic health of their cities.”

As for the work of her own affiliate chapter, Thomas said the LAGLCC has made the championing of LGBT business-friendly legislation an important part of their mission. She cited a recent successes in that area, such as when 2015 efforts helped secure Governor Brown’s signing of AB1678, which “mandates LGBT inclusion in the diverse spend in the companies regulated by the California Public Utilities… We also advocated for AB53, which requires that national insurance companies doing business in California report their spend in diverse markets.” Reports generated from the passage of AB53, Thomas said, “has increased the spend in this industry from a few thousand to the low millions.”

Thomas said that, for her, one of the most consistent takeaways from having attended past WBA summits has been “seeing the impact LGBT businesses have” on industries, legislation, and economic growth.

Often, ideas for innovative practices and new forms of community outreach emerge from WBA groupthink efforts. Such will be the case, Thomas assured, from the summit’s “Break-Out Sessions,” in which experts lead group discussions meant to yield recommendations that can be taken back to the local communities of the WBA’s 21-city, 11-state membership — which includes LGBT chambers of commerce in Anchorage, Dallas, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tucson.

This year’s Break-Out Session topics include niche marketing to millennials, transgender entrepreneurship and freelancing, and fostering social and corporate responsibility.

“Innovation and diversity are crucial to growing a business,” Thomas said, noting these sessions “allow business owners to connect with an audience in ways that were not taught in business schools, as well as use their resources to help an undeserved segment of our community.”

From 2018’s WBA summit: Marquita Thomas, right, and Mark Leno, who was running for mayor of San Francisco at the time. (Photo courtesy of WBA).

Ray Parrish, WBA Summit Chairman, gave an example of how he’s already embraced the charitable aspect of a session addressing LGBTQ youth and veteran homelessness.

“If we accept that assumption, that the best way to address homelessness is to prevent it, I can tell you what my company does,” said Parrish, founder of InSight Consulting Partners. “We give to an organization called HEART L.A. [Housing Equality and Advocacy Resource Team] that, during, 2018, helped 195 people and their 123 animals remain housed. It’s what we as an LGBT small business can do on a local level.”

For more information about the WBA, and to register for the summit, visit wbasummit2019.com.

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