When starting a business, you can often feel out of your depth—especially without the guidance and resources needed to build and focus on your next steps. If you’re LGBTQIA+, you might feel excluded from some of the other, more traditional networks where entrepreneurs source information.
Luckily, we have each other. One of the most important ways that LGBTQIA+ people gather resources and information is through peer-to-peer networks. If the traditional routes and institutions present challenges, we could look to our community for support. This is especially true for small business founders starting their journey and raising funds.
We crowdsourced the most burning questions from hopeful small business founders in the LGBTQIA+ community and took them to 3 queer business owners, who shared some invaluable advice and insights from their successful careers.
Helen Russell (she/her) is the co-founder and executive chair of Equator Coffees. She founded the company with her partner, Brooke Gray (she/her), in 1995.
How do you balance serving the community (keeping things affordable and accessible) and making a profit?
“At Equator Coffees, we believe that sustainability and profitability go hand in hand. As a B Corp, we’re committed to creating a business model that supports the wellbeing of our employees, the environment, and the communities we serve while also being financially sustainable.
“In terms of affordability and accessibility, we offer a range of products at different price points to ensure that our coffee is accessible. We often have a coffee that highlights a unique offering from a farm or cooperative group. We often sell these coffees pre-order only and they can cost $40 to $50 for a small bag. We know this type of offering is a special treat for coffee geeks, so most of our coffees are in the $16 to $20 a bag range, making them affordable while ensuring the people growing the coffee get a fair price per pound.”
Should I out my business as queer-led?
“When we started Equator, we didn’t lead with being queer-owned. We led with great coffee and a well-rounded wholesale solution. We found success and built our brand before coming out. But we started in the mid-nineties, when the climate was so different. It wasn’t always safe to be out, so it didn’t occur to us to lead with that. It didn’t even occur to us to lead with being women-owned. The coffee industry was so male-dominated that [that] didn’t always feel safe either. At trade events or sales meetings, I’d often be the only woman and the only gay person in a room.
“We made our way by having a great product and exceptional customer support. We were always doing things differently—and we think better—behind the scenes. Now we understand why visibility matters and, for the last 15-plus years, we’ve been out and proud and leading the way for the next generation of queer-owned businesses.
“San Francisco has always been a haven for queer people—it’s part of why we settled here in the eighties. With the current wave of cruel anti-trans laws being passed, we’re seeing the first queer—especially trans—refugees moving to California and the Bay Area from states that are no longer safe for them. At Equator, we strive to create a place that isn’t just safe for queer employees, but welcoming and supportive.”
Where do I turn to for money and fundraising advice?
“For the first 10 years, we bootstrapped the business—we put our small savings together and ran very lean with 3 of us doing most things (Brooke and I, along with our close friend and employee number 1, Maureen). We got an SBA [Small Business Administration] loan for the building we roast in. We [had] such a strong vision we didn’t want to give up any control of or equity in our business.... I’ve seen beloved coffee brands grow too quickly and disappear. We didn’t want that to be our legacy.
“Be humble about what you don’t know. I’ve surrounded myself with people whose strengths complement mine and Brooke’s. Make sure you have a great financial team and lawyer before taking any investment. Connect with other business owners in your area, see if there’s a queer chamber of commerce or LGBTQIA+ business social group. I’m a big fan of StartOut and community-connecting groups like that. The GGBA here in San Francisco has been a great way for us to connect with like-minded small business owners.”
I’m about to start a business with my partner—how do you keep a healthy work-life balance?
“If you’re in a partnership where you have complementary skills, running a business together can be meaningful and fun. Brooke and I have been working together for more than 30 years. We’ve maintained our professional and romantic health by focusing on different parts of the business and respecting each other’s expertise. Brooke is an incredible roaster, her palate is world-class and, when she talks about flavor profiles of coffee, it’s poetry I could listen to for hours. I’d never tell her how to roast, blend, or buy coffee. I am focused on sales, equipment, and people management. I’m out here giving interviews and going on podcasts—I’m spreading the Equator story. I’m also following up with sales leads and making sure our wholesale partners’ needs are being met. Brooke loves and respects what I do and appreciates me for it. We really admire one another, but neither one of us would want to trade places.”
What are some relevant things to consider in 2023 that you didn’t have to think about when you started?
“There’s a growing demand for sustainable and socially responsible practices. Consumers are increasingly interested in supporting businesses that prioritize sustainability, ethical sourcing, and community impact. We became B-Corp-certified in 2011. It shows we’re being held accountable. Consumers are skeptical—as they should be—so make sure you’re being authentic. They’ll sniff out if you’re green-washing—or rainbow-washing for that matter.”
How do you give back to the community?
“One way that we give back to the community is through our sourcing practices. We work directly with coffee farmers and pay them fair prices for their work. We have programs in place to fundraise for local nonprofits and offer fundraising blends with several of our chef partners. Our cafes are vibrant community hubs—we’ve had queer business mixers, regularly host running and cycling clubs, and even had a drag show. We source locally for items in our cafes whenever possible. Small businesses supporting each other is so important for a healthy neighborhood ecosystem.”
Em Chadwick and Kylo Freeman
Em Chadwick (she/they) and Kylo Freeman (they/them) are the founders of For Them, a queer- and non-binary-owned inclusive chest binder company that launched in 2021.
What should I prioritize: retaining customers or gaining new ones?
“At the beginning stages of a business, I believe retaining the right customers is more important than acquiring new ones. And, by ‘right,' I mean the ones with the highest need, who love your offering the most. When you have a business with 100 fans, you have a real business. Super fans equal organic growth so, from 100 super fans, you can grow something rich and engaging and with customers that really care about the problem you’re solving. Find that super fan, listen to them, build according to them, and you’ll keep them.”
How do you stay motivated and focused on the bigger picture?
“For me, focusing on the big picture—our vision, our mission, the ‘why’ we’re doing this—helps me stay motivated medium to long term. Building a business can be hard and so, on the days I lose focus, I check in on our community: our reviews, feedback—I remind myself of the positive impact we’re having and that puts fuel on the fire. I also concentrate only on the things that are in my control—as there are so many things that aren’t when you’re building from zero to one.”
What should I look out for when collaborating with another brand?
“The most successful collaborations come when both brands share the same customer, but with non-competitive products or services. There needs to be (an) overlap of core values and taste but, ideally, the products serve separate areas of life, so the decision to buy comes from different considerations. Finding a brand that’s laterally relevant—so the same customer but serving in another category—often makes for the most creative and interesting collaborations, too, because they tend to feel surprising!”
How do I get others outside of the community to take my business seriously?
“Focus on the opportunity, the problem you’re solving, and how you’re going to tackle it. A short and concise deck helps! I’m happy to support anyone in the community trying to pitch to outside investors or angels. I’m a venture partner for Resolute Ventures, connecting intersectional founders with venture-capital funding. In my experience, founders solving for the highest-need communities and problems (with the most potential) find it the hardest to access the capital to help them start and grow. I’m passionate about solving this problem.”
I’m a cis white lesbian but I’ve hired QTBIPOC to work on my team. What can I do to keep my staff safe and make them feel seen?
“Firstly, this is fantastic—both your dedication to a diverse and equitable team, but also thinking about how to best serve them and provide a good employer experience. Focus on creating an environment that enables employees to give feedback and feel comfortable enough to do so bravely. You can also seek external help from vetted sources—my favorite is a Black-woman-owned company, Blue Level Training, which helps you create this kind of discrimination-free, inclusive workplace culture.”
Do you have any cost-saving tips for branding?
“I believe that if you’re solving a real need for a specific customer or community, branding initially is less important. I’d recommend you spend as little on visual branding as possible until you know you have the right solution to the right problem for the right folx. You should wait to spend capital on building a conceptual and visual brand world around your offering until you have absolute clarity around what your company is and who it should speak to! Then you could engage an individual branding strategist that understands you, your customer, and your company, versus a big agency, which tends to be much more expensive. If you’re going to work with an agency, do your prep work to save time repeating learnings! Have insight, ideas, and tests to date, articulated, ready for them to catch up at light speed.”
In 2019, Kate Tamera (she/her) and co-founder Taylor McCaslin (he/him) launched tech company Euphoria, which has created a suite of award-winning health and fintech apps designed to improve the lives and welfare of queer people.
How do you set boundaries as a leader?
“With candor. I speak directly to express my boundaries. And it’s worth noting that being direct can still be done with kindness and tact.”
How should I approach crowdfunding when I’m still navigating the queer community?
“Crowdfunding works based on network effects. So you need to find folks willing to support you and help grow your network. I’ve generally found that the best way to grow a network is to say yes to—almost—everything that comes your way, show up authentically, and offer support wherever possible. From there, connections will grow, and those people will support you when you launch your crowdfunding endeavor.”
I work full-time but I’m considering leaving to pursue my side hustle. When did you know it was time to start your business?
“I made the jump as soon as I had 6 months of runway [money to pay yourself while the business is revving up] banked up. It was a risky move, but it worked. Trust your instincts. When the time is right to make the jump, you’ll know. You’ll be taking a bet on yourself, but that’s already in your DNA by virtue of being an entrepreneur.”
What should I consider when forming an inclusive team? Does that mean I should hire outside of the community?
“Folks’ lived experiences make better products, so be fearless in hiring folks with experiences outside of the majority. I’d hire outside of the community if the individual can match the needs of what you’re looking for and they possess tremendous empathy. Take each hire on a case-by-case basis and don’t tether yourself to too many absolutes.”
I’m a neurodivergent queer person with ADHD. How should I approach realistic goal-setting?
“Incrementally. Take one step at a time and break down big tasks into smaller goals. Every step is essential. And interim steps can include taking a day off to nourish yourself and rest when needed. Remember that. Writing things down or having a calendar or an app can also be really helpful.”
I’ve been offered investment by a non-LGBTQIA+ corporation. If I accept, would I be considered a sell-out?
“No. If you can turn that money into something that does greater good than if it stayed with them, you’re not a sell-out. You’ll get to a place where you can eventually exercise more discretion regarding your funders. The exception is that you should deny money from folks that conflict with your values. Never take morally sullied money.”