Business

“I Watched Women and LGBTQ People Get Treated Differently, and I Was at the Crossroads.”

A panel of LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs talks about navigating challenges and bias, and their paths to success.

For members of marginalized groups, the challenges involved with opening businesses are more compounded than they are for most founders, especially in industries and localities with longstanding biases against anyone who identifies outside the hetero-normative binary. While the number of LGBTQ-owned businesses in the U.S. is growing year over year, many LGBTQ+ business founders report they’ve turned to entrepreneurship to escape non-inclusive or hostile workplaces. The silver lining is that these same founders are often able to create supportive, inclusive businesses and workplaces for the greater LGBTQ+ community and its allies. 

We talked to a panel of visionary LGBTQ+ business owners about their experiences: Eli Allison, founder of Repair Revolution, an automotive repair shop; Joy Hollingsworth, co-founder of Hollingsworth Cannabis Company and owner of Elio Wellness; Edward Holmes, UX designer and founder of Edward Holmes Design; and Elliat Graney-Saucke, founder of Elliat Creative and executive director of the Seattle Documentary Association. Beto Yarce, the executive director at Ventures, moderated the discussion. 

Beto: What was the moment when you said, “I want to start a business?” 

Eli: The automotive industry is a pretty misogynistic, homophobic place. I started my career working in the social justice nonprofit world. And, as happens sometimes in that world, I got burned out. So I decided to go to school and learn to work on cars. Then I got my degree, entered the industry, and faced a lot of discrimination and a lot of sexual harassment, and watched that happen with customers as well.

I watched women get treated differently, I watched LGBTQ people get treated differently and get taken advantage of, and I was at the crossroads. I thought, you know, I love what I do. I love fixing cars, I hate the industry. I either need to leave and do something else or create my own thing and do it radically differently. Disrupt the misogyny, disrupt the racism, disrupt the homophobia, and create a safe space for both people like me, who wanted to come work on cars, and for people that wanted to come to a shop and feel like they’re treated well and not taken advantage of.

“I watched women get treated differently, I watched LGBTQ people get treated differently and get taken advantage of, and I was at the crossroads.”

— Eli Allison

Joy: 2012. Three great things happened: Barack Obama got reelected, the implementation of gay marriage, and then cannabis got passed [in Washington]. Raft and I were right up here on Capitol Hill; it was a party, we were dancing, just super excited. And he said, “Hey, let’s do this cannabis thing.” Fast forward six months later, he came, did a pitch to our family and said, “Hey, I want to grow cannabis. Mason County — it’s the cheapest place where you can grow cannabis. Are you guys in or out?” Fast forward six more months, and he’d bought the land, and our family jumped into it. I haven’t looked back six years since. It was something that we wanted to do for our family. It was something that we wanted to do for generational wealth.

Edward: My background is in architecture—building design and architecture. I’ve always loved design. And people told me that mobile app design was very similar to building design, so I went to a quick boot camp for it, and got really interested in doing side projects. I started going to hackathons that focused on social justice, and essentially learned the ins and outs of mobile app design from there. I was able to spearhead my work on side projects into more work in nonprofits.

Elliat: For me, a lot of the people who have been my mentors and role models have been mostly in the nonprofit world and the arts. And I think, generationally, I realized that I really needed some different tools. And I think a lot of folks who are in the nonprofit world, there’s not always a business background for folks, and there’s a lot struggle within that. So, for me, I just really wanted to get smarter about stuff and not be afraid of the word “profit,” and try to move away from scarcity and figure out how to sustain myself. Going into for-profit felt like self-care. 

Beto: What is one of your proudest moments? Something that you feel very proud of, when you actually say, “This is the moment.” 

Edward: I think it was when I secured my very first contract, because I didn’t really expect to get a contract. I was really passionate about the organization. It was a community garden. I thought urban gardening was something that was very unique. That kind of fueled my passion into trying to design a product for them, and I just ended up designing a volunteer tool that they liked very much. So, one thing led to another, and I just automatically found myself having to learn a lot very quickly.

Eli: There are a lot of moments that I’m really proud of. I think there are a lot of failures that turn into successes when you run a business, and it’s important to remember that — that failure is the best teacher. But I’m proud of a lot of things.

I’m really proud of my staff. I’m really proud of how much integrity they have, and how even when they make a mistake, they’re very honest about it. They really live the mission of our shop, which is to have radical transparency and to teach and empower our customers. And that’s just important to them. And the fact that I found a crew that not only are amazing technicians, but also hold those values and want to make a difference and have that same social justice heart, I’m pretty proud of that.

I’m always proud when customers say, “I just learned more about my car in the last five minutes than I’ve ever known. I feel like I understand what you’re talking about. I totally understand why I need a thermostat.” And that is what we set out to do. That feels pretty cool.

Joy: I’ve got three moments. The first major hurdle was hiring employees. That was huge — hiring employees and being able to create a family environment where people could feel safe, could be who they were, and just create a fun place to work at. 

The second one was — my grandmother is turning 99 this year, and she is from South Carolina. She was actually the first black person to graduate from the School of Social Work from University of Washington. She got elected on the school board in 1978, and was the first black female to get elected to the school board in Seattle. And then her mother — they grew up on a farm where, unfortunately, that’s where our family were slaves in South Carolina — so, to be able to take her to a piece of property on land that we own, and for her to celebrate her birthday there. Knowing your history reveals your potential greatness. That’s what she always taught us, and that’s what we carry on through our business and what we do.

And then the third thing, and I’m not trying to brag at all — was being on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and having dinner with him and doing that event. That was the best thing ever, just because we had a shared meal. And to connect and just talk about food.

Elliat: Dealing with imposter syndrome is real. And just really believing that your skill sets are valuable to other people, and that other people will actually pay you for your time and knowledge. I feel so much gratitude for the opportunities that I’ve been able to have through cultivating community. Just in this moment, I’m really, really proud of the work that I’m doing over at the Washington State Arts Commission. And I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done with the National Performance Network in New Orleans. 

I’m also doing oral history projects with elders, and working with organizations that really center on cultural and racial and geographic equality. It’s really amazing when that can be your life’s work, when you’re really on your life’s path and everything is really in alignment. A lot of what I do with documentary and with video is witnessing people’s stories. For me, holding space for somebody else in their truth is something that I don’t take for granted. 

Beto: What is one of the biggest challenges that you face in your business, either in this moment or that you’ve faced? And then how have you overcome it?

Edward: I would say I’m one of the more junior people on this panel. So it’s just securing the client base — there’s a perceived lack of experience and whatnot. One thing I’ve done to overcome that is just networking; putting things out there in the universe and just talking to people. It’s like atoms—you can talk to this one person, and they say, “I know two people over here with a different matter,” and you know, things just bubble up from there and people get back in contact with you. It may not be right in that second. But maybe a few weeks down the line, or maybe even more. 

Eli: The biggest challenge since I opened is finding skilled technicians that not only are skilled, but also believe in the social justice model that we have. They’re two really separate things. So, that’s been incredibly difficult. And they say for every 10 technicians that leave the industry, one replaces them. And then, on top of that, less than two percent of technicians are women. And I truly want to have a space that has employees that are marginalized, that haven’t had a good experience in the industry, because I feel like there is a passion there, that there is an understanding for the work that we do and why we do it. And so that has been incredibly hard.

And then there’s the personal challenge. When you’re a business owner, it’s like having a baby. A lot of people compare it to that.  I worked a lot of 100-hour weeks. I still work some 80-hour weeks, and it’s hard to have that work-life balance. I feel very fortunate, and lucky to have the most amazing, supportive partner on the planet. Because I truly couldn’t have done it without her. Having people support you is huge when you start a business. 

Elliat: I think one challenge is just taking care of yourself when you’re hustling so much, taking care of your health. 

I had a client this spring, it was the biggest contract that I had gotten this year, and I was really excited about it. And it was a total fail. But, you know, honestly, the work was not what I really want to be doing. And now I’m actually doing so much stuff that’s way more in line with my life’s work. I think a lot of it’s just being able to really know your worth, and to be able to ask for it. That’s actually really hard sometimes. For me, specifically, being female socialized, not being overly nice about things, figuring out how to have good boundaries, especially around contracts, and actually be able to sustain and support yourself. I’ve had some lessons around that..

Beto: How does your identity as part of the LGBTQ+ community play a part in running your business? How do you identify as a business owner in this community?

Joy: I was just talking to my girlfriend about this. I was like, “How do I identify?” You know, obviously, I’m lesbian. But in Seattle, I identify more with being black, just because in Seattle, you don’t see a lot of black people around here. And that’s the first thing that I’m assuming people see when they see me — as this beautiful black queen. However, I’m going to the Essence Festival next week with my family, because my mother is from New Orleans. And I’ll be mostly around people who look like me, and I’ll probably shift more towards identifying as being lesbian, just because when you shift your environment, sometimes your identity changes.

For us, as a business, we’ve been very strategic. When we first started, we didn’t want to come out as anything; we just wanted to be a business. And then as it moved on and shifted, we embraced being unapologetically black [in] the images that we were putting out on Instagram, or certain things that we were doing for advertising. And my brother has always been a big supporter of me being gay and he loves me, so he’s like, “Yo, you should do something for Gay Pride. We need to figure something out….

Our parents are super supportive — my grandmother, everybody — we’re super inclusive, so when I think about that, just from a business perspective, it’s taken us a while to figure out how we navigate this industry. Where we are is very dominated by corporations. It’s very male-dominated, and there aren’t a lot of people of color. So, we’ve been trying to figure out how we’re going to shift and do this really cool, big marketing campaign that’s very inclusive. It’s where you see cannabis — and it might not be what you normally see, which is usually, unfortunately, a female in a bikini. We want to shift that imagery of what [cannabis] looks like. 

Edward: For me, as a designer, empathy is exceedingly important. I have to see myself through the eyes of the user. And I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. When I think that being a doubly marginalized person, as a member of the LGBTQ community and an African-American, I guess the world sort of decenters my perspective. Which, actually, I think is an asset to the daily work that I do, because I have to step outside of myself. I have to essentially ease into myself from the users of the product. So, that’s something that’s been helpful in my work, which is a good thing.

Elliat: For me, being a queer business owner is really important, but the work that I do reflects my values. And centering cultural identity is really important. And the clients that I work with, the community projects that I work with, the different organizations — I’ve been really lucky to be able to have amazing collaborators and partners. It also definitely affects who I bring in as contractors, I’m mostly a solopreneur. It’s mostly just me, but it’s video and media and stuff, which is also a very male-dominated field. I love knowing tech things, that’s pretty badass. But if I’m going to hire, people are always recommending white straight dudes for doing camera — and I’m just like, I won’t accept those recommendations. I just think that there is a lack of opportunities for people who have different identities. 

“For me, being a queer business owner is really important, but the work that I do reflects my values. And centering cultural identity is really important.”

— Elliat Graney-Saucke

I did the pitch video for Brand|Pride recently, which is now in the top three pitch competition for NGLCC, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, coming up. And for that, it was really intentional, it was also produced by two other women and folks of color, and it’s a rad video. So, I think it’s just continuing to center who I work with…. 

Eli: I’m really gay. It’s a huge part of what informs the work that I do — my experience as a queer person and my experience as a non-binary person. Also, my experience of being socialized female and being seen as female in the industry for a lot of years. It all informs how I want it to be different for the customers that I serve. It also has meant a lot of barriers, a lot more obstacles in some ways. It also has meant the community rallying around my business. When I first opened, I opened in the SODO neighborhood of Seattle, and I was like, ‘Is anyone going to ever come to my shop? It’s SODO! I should be on [Capitol] Hill, but who can afford those rents?’ And people showed up, and continue to show up. And 90% of my clients are LGBTQ folks that just want to support an LGBTQ business, and so I feel a ton of gratitude from my community. And I’m going to keep being hella gay and proud.

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