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Lots of entrepreneurs would like to pick Chip Conleys brain. But when several dozen gathered in November to meet the founder of Joie de Vivrea boutique hotel chain that he said had $220 million in revenue last year, their questions were not just about the nuts and bolts of running a company.
They also asked: 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?
Conley, 49, who came out four years before he opened his first hotel, the Phoenix, in 1987, recounted steering such investors to the website of Kimpton Hotels a competitor that promotes its support for gay employees. Then he told them that one of Kimptons biggest investors was a former Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist. That example, Conley recalled, was enough to ease the investors concerns.
Conleys talk was organised by StartOut, a new nonprofit networking group for gay entrepreneurs. The group, organised 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. And they come to hear speakers like Conley, who serves on the groups 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. Spedale, most recently a founder of A-List Global Media, a company that creates media and entertainment products for adolescents, noted that plenty of other groups had entrepreneurship associations — like Astia for women or TiE for South Asians.
Why on earth isnt there anything like this for the gay and lesbian community? he remembers thinking.
In fact, the last decade has seen a flowering of affinity groups for gays in business. MBA candidates can get connected through Out for Business clubs at their universities and the annual Reaching Out conference, which brought more than 900 attendees to the Westin Peachtree Plaza in downtown Atlanta in October.
There are some 1.2 million gay-owned businesses in the US 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 organised in 2002 in Washington.
For too many years, Nelson said, the prevailing attitude among gay entrepreneurs in America was, Its OK for me to be gay, but I cant do it in my business for fear that it will ruin my company. That message, however, has evolved.
Its a sign of the enlightened times that we live in, said Patrick Chung, a StartOut advisory board member, of the proliferation of gay business groups. Chung works in Menlo Park, Calif., as a partner at New Enterprise Associates, a global venture capital firm.
StartOut has only one employee, an administrative assistant, who draws a salary. Spedale, the founder, sits on the organisations board, but it isnt his full-time job. The group doesnt have an official membership roster. There are no dues, although some events require paid admission. Its email list and its Facebook page have more than 1,000 subscribers.
This month, StartOut volunteers plan to teach teenagers about entrepreneurship at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a New York City non-profit organisation that serves gay youths. 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.
StartOut connections are already paying dividends for Brian Backus. When Backus attended the groups San Francisco kickoff event in August, he was raising seed capital for a new start-up, Kidlandia that makes personalised maps for children. In a crowd of some 300 gay entrepreneurs, he met Lorenzo Thione, a member of StartOuts board who had sold his online search start-up, Powerset, to Microsoft in 2008 and was looking for new investment opportunities.
They kept in touch. By the time Backus closed his first round of financing in October, Thione had jumped on board with a five-figure investment. Since then, Kidlandia has continued to grow, forging distribution deals with Pottery Barn and several multinational toy retailers. Its fantastic, Backus said. You end up creating an ecosystem where people can help fund each other.
Or maybe just find each other. In March, Emily Drabant, 28, who is completing her PhD in neuroscience at Stanford University, listened to a StartOut talk featuring lesbian entrepreneurs. At the end, she struck up a conversation with a panelist, Carol Nast, 60, the president of Enterprise Catalyst Groupa medical technology consulting firm. Nast volunteered to serve as a mentor to Drabant through the transition.
Brian Elliot, the founder of the Right Side of History, a non-profit social media platform created to promote gay rights that is to begin operating this summer, credits StartOut with helping him find Jeff Green, his third full-time employee. Green was introduced to Elliot by Gabe Zichermann, who runs the mentorship arm of StartOut.
A former vice-president with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Green was interviewing at Google when Elliot made him an offer.
Zichermann, who is chief executive of a mobile software start-up, BeamME hopes that support will continue to grow — because if being gay has its challenges, so does being an entrepreneur. The odds are stacked against you. When you go to a regular start-up thing, theres so much machismo, he said. You rarely get spontaneous collaboration among people unless they have the same enemy. Or the same interest.