With Pride season well underway, there is no better time to celebrate LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, people paving the way for their community and creating space in traditionally cis dominant industries. With its infinite commitment to the representation of women’s voices, outlined in their new platform, The Hand-Book for Women, Keds believes that the more we’re able to share diverse stories and experiences, the more work we do to widen the scope of whatever it means to you to be a woman today. AllBright spoke to three inspiring queer people from the fashion, tech and service industry about how they got started, what they’ve learned and when the going gets tough, the changes they’ve made to not just survive, but thrive.
Helen Russel, founder and CEO Equator Coffees, coffee roaster, tea purveyor, retail operator, and coffee farm owner
Although she is “ashamed to admit it”, Helen was “pretty closeted” during the first few years of launching her coffee business 25 years ago. “I didn't correct people when they assumed my partner was male, or when they assumed we were business partners only. I regret this now, but in 1995 I felt we were facing such an uphill battle as a women-owned roastery in a hetero male-dominated industry that it felt like the only safe option. I had to get comfortable with the idea of not pleasing everyone, and even losing customers, if it meant being comfortable being myself. At the time I thought I was simply keeping my personal and private life separate. Now I realize how trapped in fear I was. I've used my experience to ensure my business now is never a place where people feel they have to hide any part of themselves.”
The business started as two small coffee carts that she opened with her partner, Brooke. “We were young and didn't know what we didn't know, so we did a lot wrong.” It was through opening these coffee carts the couple realized there was a huge gap in the market for transparent high-quality coffee and supportive wholesale roasters. So, they sold the carts (and a family heirloom ring) to finance their first small coffee roaster. Equator is now a 25-year-old company and has faced many challenges in that time, but, Helen says, “whenever we were faced with a challenge, I became even more driven.”
Her proudest achievement was winning the National Small Business of the year award in 2016. Equator was the first LGBTQ+ enterprise to receive this national recognition. “We were there in a room full of mostly white, (presumably) hetero men. I was beside myself when we were announced as the winners.” When it comes to the reality of being a business owner from a marginalized group, she says “there are doors that don't open and people that won't take you seriously. But I also recognize that I have a lot of privilege. As a white woman, many spaces are open to me that are closed to others. So, while I may have had to work harder than a straight white man, I know that it's my responsibility to support queer entrepreneurs of color, because they face even more barriers than I do.”
For Helen, the message is loud, clear, and important. It may be Pride season, but the commitment to supporting and learning from your LGBTQ+ peers must be a year round job. “The work never stops,” she says. “I have learned so much these past few years from the younger people on my team. I've made mistakes and had to relearn. The community is different than the one I came of age in. Women like me, steeped in second-wave feminism, have to get out of our comfort zone. We have to adapt to grow. Internal work and education is important for people within the queer community and even more important for allies.”
Hayley Sudbury is founder and CEO of Werkin, a UK based tech company helping organisations scale inclusion and belonging
It was while working for a large financial institution that Hayley looked around and thought “there aren’t any senior women above me, let alone any senior out women.” She left the corporate world to set up her own business WERKIN. The technology developed at WERKIN allows more LGBTQ+ professionals to be visible and supported in their careers, with the aim to change the type of people who are typically running these companies.
Creating WERKIN was a big leap for Hayley and one that coincided with a big personal leap of faith too. “My entrepreneurial journey is so strongly linked to realising I was gay and then wanting to create change [to address diversity and inclusion in business]. A big part was me accepting that I probably didn’t want to be gay - it wasn’t in my environmental framing of what was ‘good’ and ‘right’ in the world. It took a while for me to work through that. Everyone’s coming out journey is so different.”
Something she still struggles with is that tech is a male-dominated industry – particularly the investment community they were talking to in the early days. Hayley and her business partner thought carefully about how to navigate it. “There is freedom in living your truth and there is power in that too,” she says. “I had to decide, how I wanted to be publicly. I feel that my personal identity is intrinsic to the company I have built. A big struggle was that I’m an extrovert, but extremely private so I had to work out in my world – what does it mean to be open about my sexuality and for that to be ok.”
Hayley is British Australian and loves a party, so Pride is always a celebration of identity for her, but also carries an important political weight, and particularly this year when the fight for true equality is more vital than ever. Her championing of intersectional diversity in workplaces is something that exists long after the rainbow flags of Pride month have been taken down. She says, “large organisations are not the enemy, but we can help them be a better version of themselves.” Her aim is that WERKIN can play its part in creating a more equal society. “Everything we do aims to take [our users] to a better, different and more enlightened place.”
Hayley advises supporting any community by considering how you spend money with them. “Thinking about where your money goes and if it aligns to your values is powerful. Pride is a time to stop and realise, ‘I haven’t actually thought about black-owned or LGBTQ-owned businesses before – what am I doing to support them with the power of my own money?’”
As for self-care, Hayley says “I’m an entrepreneur so I’m all in and I’m OK with that. But it’s all about finding a balance that works for you.”
Rae Tutera is brand and client specialist at Bindle & Keep, a custom suit company based in New York that provides empowering services to the LGBTQ+ community
Many LGBTQ+ people are frustrated with the binary retail landscape and its lack of gender diversity and nuance. Not to mention its limited sizing. Rae’s approach as a tailor is to “hold space for these folks and help them design garments that celebrate their genders and their bodies.”
Rae credits their identity as propelling them to take the first step in forging a career as a tailor. “I sensed that there was a need for someone like myself - someone queer and trans who felt excluded from suit culture - to be working in this industry. They asked for an apprenticeship at Bindle & Keep, which, Rae says, “was willing to give my vision a chance”.
“When I first joined Bindle & Keep in 2012, I didn't actually know anything about suits, beyond having had one made by a tailor who couldn't quite grasp why I was asking him to make me a "men's" suit. I was afraid that I wouldn't actually be able to navigate gender and suits as a profession, and I was especially afraid that my clients might feel that the service I provided them was inadequate instead of affirming. I think my fear was justified, especially because it had to do with feeling like I might fail, and that failing could mean harming a client, a beloved member of my own community. But overcoming imposter syndrome isn’t something that can be ‘completed’, it is something I just have to practice every day.”
Rae’s deep understanding of the needs of her diverse clients has made them a go-to in LGBTQ+ suiting. Now, eight years into their role, Rae says their proudest achievement is “knowing that my work, perhaps even in a small way, contributes to gender euphoria and queer joy. I am an accidental business person, and I wouldn't want to be involved in business if I didn't feel it was based on my queer values, so I'd say my queerness fully defines me in that respect. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a queer person, whether they work for a queer business or not, who doesn't have a rolodex of queer businesses they'd recommend to you. Supporting queer businesses is a way of showing solidarity.”
As a queer, trans business person, does Rae feel their identity means they had to work harder to get to where they are today? “In my experience, I've consistently had to do more emotional labour than my cis, straight peers. I think queer people start doing this labour early on in life, and then find themselves doing it into adulthood too, which ends up creating more work for us while we're at work. That said, my whiteness has given me immense privilege as I’ve navigated this in the workplace.”
What advice does Rae have for people outside of the LGBTQ+ community to meaningfully show their support this Pride season? “Learn about the origin of Pride. If you've heard the phrase ‘the first Pride was a riot,’ my advice is to learn that history. Learn about Marsha P. Johnson, who instructed us that there's "[n]o pride for some of us without liberation for all of us." Know that Pride has radical roots and that the radical work for liberation is still being done, and the best way to be an ally is to support that work.”
To read more of the inspirational stories from the Power Issue of the Keds Hand-book for Women, click here.