We’ve all heard it before: community is key to building a successful modern business. But keeping these communities alive, engaged, and aligned with your mission is easier said than done—especially amid the social and economic upheaval of the past few years.

Take a look at the nightlife industry, which suffered more than most from the COVID-19 pandemic. Queer bars are fundamental pillars of the community, but they’ve struggled to stay alive in recent years. For example, there are now fewer than 30 lesbian bars in the US, compared with more than 200 in the eighties. 

One of those remaining bars is Henrietta Hudson, which has been a mainstay of New York’s nightlife scene for more than 3 decades. Originally opened as a lesbian bar in 1991, the space now welcomes all queer communities, effectively reinventing itself from a crowded nightclub to an inclusive lounge for the community—something that’s helped this business not only stay alive but thrive.

Maintaining a business for so long is impressive. But for queer-owned firms, it’s sadly not that common. According to a study in 2021 by the Center for LGBTQIA+ Economic Advancement & Research and the Movement Advancement Project, 64% of LGBTQIA+ owned businesses in the US are younger than 10 years old, compared with 47% of non-LGBTQ+ owned businesses. Very few queer businesses can boast a tenure as long as Henrietta Hudson’s (32 years)—just 17% of LGBTQIA+ owned firms are 21 years old or more, compared with 31% of non-LGBTQIA+ owned firms.

Below, Lisa Cannistraci from Henrietta Hudson shares some of the learnings that have helped her business stand the test of time. We also speak to Naj Austin and Ryan Lanji, founders of two separate community-centered organizations in Brooklyn and London, who share some advice for newer businesses approaching the daunting task of creating something for the long term.

The panel

Lisa Cannistraci (she/her): activist and owner of Henrietta Hudson, a lesbian bar in New York City that opened in 1991.

Naj Austin (she/her): founder and CEO of Brooklyn-based community platform Somewhere Good and the creator of former queer wellness hub Ethel’s Club.

Ryan Lanji (he/him): founder of Lanji & Them Limited, which runs Hungama, a queer Bollywood club night, and NDY Global, a QTBIPOC-centered fitness community based in London.

About the business

Tell us about your business.

LC: “Henrietta Hudson was conceived in 1991. I’d already been in queer nightlife for about 5 or 6 years. I was a bartender at the original Cubby Hole, which is now Henrietta Hudson. Now we identify as a queer human bar, built by dykes.”

NA: “Somewhere Good is a platform that helps you create hangouts in your city using AI. It’s this idea of serendipitous belonging and community while also supporting local businesses, which was always really important to me in terms of economic development. We’re using Somewhere Good subversively to bring people out of themselves, to have you gently put your phone down, to maybe talk to people and, in that, also get to know the world around you a bit better.”

RL: “I started my own company in 2021, called Lanji & Them Limited, within which I’ll be doing a fashion film or running a party such as Hungama. I also run NDY Global, which I started during the pandemic, which facilitates free fitness classes for queer, non-binary, and trans people of color in premium gym spaces.”

Key to longevity

What do you think is the key to longevity as a business so heavily focused on and engrained in queer communities?

LC: “Longevity really is about commitment. A lot of people want to own a bar—they think it'll be cool, right? But it’s a real commitment. I gave up a lot in my life to sustain Henrietta’s and keep it relevant and exciting and fun. I devoted my life to it.”

NA: “This is gonna sound on the nose, but I think it really is community. I’m reminded of the importance of my work when I’m with the people who use Somewhere Good. We have a physical location in Bed Stuy (Bedford–Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn) and it’s open on the weekends. People ask me: ‘Why are you always here?' ” And I’m like: this is the best part of my job. When I’ve had moments of fear or doubt or burnout, the thing that pulls me back is community.”

RL: “For me, it’s always being malleable. It’s having a company that under any pressure, obstacle, or situation can be modular. And so, Hungama, as an entity under Lanji & Them, could operate as an event, a collective, or a forum for consultation. I think the key to my longevity is that [the brand] never really was defined.”

Steps to remain current

What steps are you taking to ensure that your business remains current and addresses the changing needs of your customer base?

LC: “For the first 10 years, Henrietta Hudson was primarily—almost exclusively—a lesbian space, even though we welcomed all of the community.  Around 2012, when the young generation reclaimed the word queer, I saw the need to expand the space to include young queer kids, gender-non-conforming, non-binary kids. We pivoted to a lesbian-centric, queer human bar. I listen to the community and I let it assist me in making decisions.”

NA: “Conversations. The whole idea of people wanting to gather in their community with like-minded people is actually much harder to do than you think. Talking to people—they’re like: ‘Yeah, but if I want to find black trans-masc people, where do I go?’ I’m like: that’s a good point. Had I not had those conversations, who knows where Somewhere Good would’ve been right now?”

RL: “To stay current, it’s important not to become an obsolete format, to understand that people are there—whether it be an employee, an intern, or a consultant—to offer you abilities to extend the life of your business. I think there’s a lot of people who often get quite rigid or defensive about how they need to be in control. I always took a moment to listen and acknowledge the fact that I might not know what’s going on. That’s what always kind of kept the business afloat.”

Advice to entrepreneurs

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are building businesses from the ground up?

LC: “I’d say just be ready to make it your priority. Because, you know, it’s not about drinking and hooking up, owning a bar. There’s a lot behind the scenes, lots of nuts and bolts. Be ready to do a lot of work and figure stuff out. I had no experience owning a business when I opened Henrietta, but I taught myself as I moved along. You can’t make it about you. I didn’t want to own a bar. I was studying to be a clinical psychologist. And, one by one, my customers were just urging me to do it. It wasn’t planned. And 32 years have passed. It kind of happened by accident.”

NA: “I’d advocate for folks to build in a way that also honors their own needs. I feel like I’m learning that in retrospect and trying to catch up in that way. Take the time of like: ‘OK, where do I fit into this? This is the vision, but where am I in the vision?’ Not necessarily just servicing and creating the vision. As people who like to build with a fire in our belly and want to see something come to life, that part can get lost in pursuit of it and I don’t think that necessarily builds healthy businesses or healthy founders or leaders or teams. It all kind of starts to fall apart. And not building alone. Queer communities exist because we’ve all put time and energy into nurturing them and sometimes that gets lost when you start thinking about a business or organization. I’ve always taken the approach of building in public and in collaboration with others, and I think it’s made for stronger, better products that people love because—well, they were part of it.”

RL: “Don’t be scared to start setting out the foundations of your business in the future. Take the time to be like: ‘hey, I’m gonna project 10 years from now and see how big my business is and set up those infrastructures now.’ Open up that bank account, ensure you’re keeping track of everything. It might seem at first like you’re building an empire of popsicle sticks but, at the end of the day, you’ll realize that actually, you’ve got something so much more solid because you took the time to believe in it from day one.”

Pandemic challenges

How challenging has the pandemic been and what steps have you taken to ensure your business is resilient to future shocks?

LC: “When COVID hit, I closed 3 days before the mandate came down from the state. I took that very seriously. I closed for a solid 15 months. I never doubted for a minute that I was going to reopen that bar. I didn’t know what the strategy was going to be. I figured there’s got to be solutions, I just have to let them come to me. I’m fearless at this point. Answers don’t come quickly sometimes, and I’m OK with that.” 

NA: “I had a business shuttered due to COVID. It taught me you can’t plan for anything. I think that has almost released me a bit. Like, if it floods, it floods. You can’t spend time agonizing over the ‘what ifs’ because there’ll always be something you weren’t expecting. So, what we’re doing now in terms of resilience is thinking really critically about how to support people, thinking about our product from a perspective of people who are immunocompromised, which I think has been erased a bit. Thinking about what a world looks like from a disabled lens.

Role of marketing

What place does marketing have as a form of keeping your brand alive and around for the long haul?

LC: “When I opened Henrietta Hudson, the fax machine hadn’t been invented. We’d have to design the flyer, get it printed and use a physical mailing, but we couldn’t put a return address on it because a lot of people were closeted. That’s what we used to do, so now with marketing and social media—I love it.”

NA: “Somewhere Good is a very word-of-mouth brand, which is funny because I’ll be at the physical space and say, ‘Make sure to share with your friends,’ and people will be like: ‘No, I’m keeping this to myself!’ They’re protective of Somewhere Good, which is very cute, but we’re working through that.” 

RL: “You need to understand how the world sees. What will catch people’s eyes and guide them through a space? It sounds poetic but once you start thinking ‘When will someone need this? And where will they be?’ it makes marketing more of an enjoyable experience.”

Mental health challenges

What are the biggest mental health challenges to being a queer leader in business and how do you manage them?

LC: “It really helps to be sober. I pray, I meditate, I exercise. I have a really cute little dog that I take on hikes and stuff like that. If, at times, I feel like I need therapy, I’ll go to therapy right away. I call them tune-ups. And, you know, detaching. Which is hard for me, because I’m so attached to my business, but I have to work at it. This is the best experience I’ve ever had as an owner in the past few years. And that has to do with the team.”

NA: “Virgo moon, middle-child energy—I’ve always been in service of others. I’m learning in real time what belonging in the communities I’m a part of looks like for me. It doesn’t mean I have to be there every single day. Learning—that is a practice.”

RL: “Virgo rising, overthinking perfectionist who’s full of self-doubt here! I’m always comparing myself to other people or my impression of what other people might be thinking of me. Helpful in overcoming that has been my gratitude journal. And keep cool people around you. You really need to make sure that the people you have around you want to see you thrive.”

Queer business inspiration

Is there a queer business that’s inspired you in your journey that you’d like to shout out to? Who has inspired you along the way?

LC: “The queer elders that taught me so much about business, who are long gone. Stormé DeLarverie (she/her) worked as a bouncer at the original Cubby Hole. She inspired me to keep moving in this industry.”

NA: “Jameel [Mohammed (he/him), of jewelry brand] Khiry. He’s a fashion designer and a jewelry artist. The future is Black and queer and collective. There are people working towards that in small and big ways and it’s all important to getting across the finish line. That’ll be the fun part. Hopefully I’ll be retired.”

RL: “I’m really inspired by Joelle D’Fontaine (he/him), who runs At Your Beat Studio and is collaborating with Nike by running dance classes.”


For all 3 founders, building engaged communities is the common theme that has been fundamental to their success. For other business owners out there, while you’ll inevitably encounter obstacles outside of your control, staying true to your values (and the people who have helped you get to this point) may just be the thing that helps keep your business alive for the long haul.

Key learnings:

  • Lisa Cannistraci talks about the importance of listening to her community—and allowing them to assist her in making decisions. That’s what led Henrietta Hudson to open up to wider queer communities.

  • Naj Austin’s biggest piece of advice is that you can’t plan for everything. After having a business close due to the pandemic, she realized that some things are simply out of her control. What she’s focused on now is prioritizing the needs of her customers and making sure they’re supported and looked after.

  • Ryan Lanji stresses how pivotal it is to allow others to help you, like employees or external consultants. Don’t be too afraid to relinquish control.

Note: These conversations have been lightly edited.