Big Business

Chance Mitchell and Justin Nelson and the growth of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce

Irwin Drucker, a program director at IBM who is charged with locating GLBT-owned businesses for the technology giant’s supply chain, remembers what it was like before the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce made its debut in 2002.

”For three years, I’d been running the program with very little success,” says Drucker, who is gay. ”Looking for LGBT suppliers was like looking for a needle in a haystack. My ‘gaydar’ is only so good.”

With the start of the NGLCC, founded by two gay locals — Justin Nelson and Chance Mitchell — Drucker had a new partner in his search. Through an extensive application process, the NGLCC certifies businesses as being gay-owned. Today when Drucker finds himself hunting for a few GLBT-owned companies to join the IBM supply chain, he just makes a call to the NGLCC’s office.

It’s a chamber whose time is long overdue, says longtime D.C. gay activist Peter Rosenstein, who has also worked extensively in the non-profit sector. He had called publicly for such an organization just months before Nelson and Mitchell incorporated the NGLCC.

”They are two amazing young men,” says Rosenstein. ”They had a vision for this, very similar to what I wrote about. But they were willing to do the work and move this forward. They’ve been incredibly successful.”

From his own experience in the political realm, Rosenstein understands the important role chambers of commerce can play, particularly for the gay and lesbian business community.

”The incredible work they’ve done shows that the corporate community was ready to move forward on this as well. Clearly, it’s an issue whose time has come.”

From their offices on the edge of Dupont Circle, the NGLCC seems destined for colossal growth. In its few short years of existence, corporate powerhouses from Avis to Wal-Mart have partnered with the group. And from the gay community, hundreds of small business have become certified suppliers. That’s on top of the roughly 24,000 individuals who have become NGLCC members.

Being the first gay organization to ring the closing bell on Wall Street — with the help of NGLCC board member and the New York Stock Exchange’s first openly gay trader, Walter Schubert — the NGLCC has obviously made new inroads for the gay community into the business world. And when you want to make waves in the world’s richest country, it pays to be there.

METRO WEEKLY: When you closed the New York Stock Exchange on June 20, 2005, that must have been like the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce’s coming-out party. Tell me about that day.

CHANCE MITCHELL: It was the moment of arrival, without a doubt. It will definitely go down as the most memorable experience of my life.

JUSTIN NELSON: That might top the list of exciting things we’ve been able to do. Being the first gay organization to be able to stand up there — openly as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people — was amazing.

We didn’t really know what to expect. The trading floor is not known for its diversity. It’s known to be very conservative. We didn’t know if we’d be well received or not. About half an hour before you go on the podium, your logo flashes all over the floor, so ”National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce” is up everywhere. So we walk out onto this podium and it was amazing. It was like being the new baby panda at the zoo.

MITCHELL: They were probably thinking, ”A gay and lesbian organization is ringing the closing bell? What’s this about?” We could feel the buzz, the energy in the building.

When you go to the Stock Exchange for the bell ringing you go up to the Board Room. It’s this massive, massive board room — its table must seat, like, 50 people. It’s gorgeous. You’re there about an hour before the bell ringing for a kind of reception.

Then John Thain, [CEO] of the NYSE came into the room and gave a speech. He presented us with medals commemorating the event. Then he says, ”Follow me.” We go down a narrow stairwell. There is a guy who opens a door, you turn a corner and you’re walking out on the platform. You’re standing up there and the lights are incredibly bright.

It dawned on me at that moment, looking down on the trading floor, that people were gathering, looking up. I don’t know what they were expecting to see — maybe something out of a gay pride parade. What do gays and lesbians look like? We came out and I’m guessing they thought, ”Wow, they look just like everyone else.” I leaned over to John Thain and asked, ”Do they always gather like this?” They were up on balconies looking at us. We were a spectacle. He said, ”I’ve never seen them gather like this.”

Just a few minutes before we were ready for Walter to push the button to ring the bell, the lights come up, the camera, the video, and you can see yourself on CNN, CNBC, and it says ”National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce,” and you know it’s being broadcast. John Thain says during the countdown, ”Okay, get ready, 140 million people are about to see this.” For me, that was the moment that was almost overwhelming.

NELSON: Someone from the floor yelled, ”We don’t care what you do, we just want your money!” I thought, ”Should I be offended or not?” My philosophy is, I don’t really care what your means are, as long as the end result is the right thing to do. If you know in your heart of hearts that equality is the right thing to do, then that’s great and I’m with you. If you are someone who understands that here is a community, a segment, that offers tremendous opportunities for cultivating business — if money is your motivator, I don’t care. The end result is the right thing. If companies are doing this because they believe it’s the right thing to do, great. If companies are doing this because it impacts their bottom line, great. So long as the end result is the right thing. I think most of them are doing it for both reasons.

MW: If that was the moment of NGLCC’s arrival, what were the other milestones — conception, or the organization’s first big step, for example?

MITCHELL: A friend or ours had asked if there were any [gay] business organizations. That planted it in our heads. I think it was over drinks one day in May of 2002 that we came up with this concept of starting a chamber of commerce. Justin and I were just looking at the equality equation in general and it clicked that what was missing was the business angle. We were starting to hear about the economic buying power and employee movements, but what was missing was something coalescing around a small-business movement. It just became clear to us that what we needed was a chamber of commerce.

We got some key players together, but we still weren’t 100 percent sure on the viability of the concept. There was a lot of information we needed to gather on how do you start a national organization out of nothing? We didn’t have any financial commitment at that point, but it was something that Justin and I decided was so important that we funded the start up of the organization ourselves. Justin left his job and was working on this full time. I left about eight or nine months later from my [job at] WorldCom.

NELSON: We didn’t start this with the idea of failure. We started it with the idea of making it a successful entity. Though there were days we thought, ”My God, what have we gotten ourselves into?” We spent our life savings, retirement — we cashed all of that out and dumped it into this chamber.

MITCHELL: One of the first steps was to meet with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and seek their advice on how to start a national umbrella organization. They were very receptive. They actually gave us a book on how to start a chamber of commerce and that was really our road map.

One of our first obstacles was the incorporation of the organization. One of the first law firms we met with about this said, ”We can probably do it, but it may run $50,000,” which was very cost-prohibitive. But we found, just through the network, a local D.C. law firm who would handle the incorporation for us on a pro bono basis. We had things up and running in November 2002.

MW: What sort of obstacles did you face early on? What sort of reception did you get?

MITCHELL: The biggest obstacle was that I was 28 and Justin was 29. [Laughs.] People thought it was a good idea, but our youth was somewhat of a barrier. There was some question about whether we could pull it together, which was to be expected. It boiled down to, ”It’s a great idea, but can a couple of young guys pull it off?”

There were two things that were very important to us early on. One was having great office space. We found a law firm downtown that leased us space at 1001 Pennsylvania Ave. One of our first press releases was, ”The president and the Congress have new neighbors.” It was important for us as we rolled out the organization on a national level to have an address that was familiar to people.

The second was finding a key player from the corporate arena who would support us and really give us the credibility that we needed. The No. 1 pick was IBM. As luck would have it, Justin took a call [from them] one day. They wanted to fly to Washington and meet with us. They said they potentially had funding.

NELSON: There were some lean months before we got that call from IBM. Getting that call was probably one of the best days of my entire life.

MITCHELL: So we had a meeting [with Irwin Drucker]. We talked about NGLCC’s vision and our primary initiative of supplier diversity and procurement. That’s something they were very interested in. Over lunch, [IBM] made a commitment to us to provide some base funding to get us up and running. From there, corporate involvement started increasing dramatically.

MW: You hadn’t approached IBM in any way?

MITCHELL: No. I was ecstatic. There are a lot of things you can plan for, but there are a lot of things that happen by chance or circumstance. There have been so many things like that that have happened for us, things that have just been tremendous blessings for us.

MW: Though the corporate world has an obvious affinity for a business-minded group like the NGLCC, the larger gay community is often less enthusiastic about business. You can always hear grumbling at pride festivals that things have become too corporate. How do you address that?

NELSON: I think it’s because people have long held this belief that as a social-justice movement, a progressive movement, we can’t talk about economics and activism in the same sentence or somehow we’re soiling the movement. Part of it is this fear of talking about money, fear of somehow cheapening the movement. My belief is that we can’t not talk about it.

We’ve seen other groups do it. We’ve seen other groups that have been marginalized flex their economic muscle and make headway.

MITCHELL: I think people are seeing the value of working together to provide an economic voice. There will always be people saying things are ”too corporate.” Our approach is to listen to everyone and try to find some common ground where we can. But we’re really clear that our mission is to talk about business and economics.

NELSON: People should take heart in the fact that we’re being recognized as a constituency that’s being courted by corporate America. We’re largely a product of our own making. Say 10 years ago, there was this pot of disposable income that corporate marketers saw and said, ”You know, we really should be advertising to these people.” So they started dropping ads in here and there. What we’ve said as a community is, ”This is great, but how do you treat your employees?” So we’ve really been effecting positive change in corporate America.

What we’re saying as a chamber is that it’s great that you’ve been marketing to us, we’re really happy that you treat your employees right, but you need to be buying back, investing in LGBT businesses like you do in other diverse segments, because your customers are your suppliers and your suppliers are your customers. It’s completing this circle of corporate diversity.

We should be very proud now that we’re a target market for a number of companies. Now, what they do in terms of not just talking the talk but walking the walk is what we have to do. To make sure that we’re not just being marketed to, but that the policies are in place, that they’re being good corporate citizens. Just showing up at a pride festival doesn’t mean that your corporation is supportive of LGBT causes. What you do the other 364 days to work for LGBT people and their families, that’s where the proof is.

MW: A good example might be Wal-Mart. The world’s largest retailer — which has been rising up the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index in recent years — has just joined the NGLCC. Despite efforts to be equitable to the gay community, Wal-Mart’s has a poor reputation with many social-justice organizations. There have been charges of gender and racial discrimination, abusive labor policies, among other things. Is that an issue?

MITCHELL: With the Wal-Mart scenario, we’ve certainly taken hits. There are probably five or six stories a day in conservative newspapers: ”Wal-Mart has joined the NGLCC.”

It’s creating dialogue in ”red state” America, places where perhaps that dialogue has never occurred. That goes a long way for me, growing up in a small town in Texas where Wal-Marts are everywhere, and perhaps the only thing more popular than church on Sunday is going to Wal-Mart afterwards. It’s really creating a dialogue. We’ve got to embrace that.

The second part for us is that while it’s great to have companies out there that are 100 percent inclusive and embracive of this community, we want to work with those companies that aren’t at 100 percent yet. So when a company like Wal-Mart comes to us, extending a hand, saying, ”Help us with our diversity,” it’s really incumbent upon us to say okay.

Despite the other issues, our particular interest here is that you are LGBT-friendly to your employees, customers and suppliers. It’s a mission that we felt good about taking on. We’ve got the largest retail chain in the world saying they recognize us as an important part of their revenue and their supplier base.

MW: Wal-Mart’s NGLCC membership seems to be getting far more attention in conservative corners than in the gay community. Do you ever worry that a political backlash might push a company to drop its membership in the NGLCC?

MITCHELL: It’s something we can’t really worry about. It’s a decision Wal-Mart must’ve thought through very carefully. They are moving to be more diverse, more inclusive, and that includes LGBT. If Wal-Mart employs 1.4 million people worldwide, think of how many LGBT employees this decision impacts — 70,000? 140,000? It’s significant. It’s important.

Sometimes positive achievements are less celebrated than the negative things. We’re looking at what’s happening with the conservative groups. We don’t take them that seriously. They’re trying to galvanize their membership. They know the boycotts are ineffective. But this allows them to throw their base some red meat. ”This is why you should continue to send your membership check to us, and continue to support the American Family Association and the Family Research Council.”

We’ll stay out of it until we need to get into the fight a bit. You have to understand the value of striking back if it really has no impact on what we’re trying to do.

MW: Chance, coming from small town Texas, what values were instilled in you? You both have some small-town history, careers that included Republican political jobs. How were your ideas about economics and being gay — the particular intersection represented by the NGLCC — formed?

NELSON: It was a traditional American family. My father is in oil and gas, and my mother was a small-business woman. I grew up with a small-business family background. An entrepreneurial spirit was instilled in me at a fairly young age.

I grew up for part of the time in Thermopolis, Wyo., and the majority of it in Casper, Wyo. We moved there when I was in seventh grade.

I came out here, when I was working on Capitol Hill [for Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.)]. I was there for about five years. In that time, I came out. I learned that you have to make a choice when your politics and your personal life have an intersection that perhaps is not the most positive for you.

I’m not a Sen. Thomas apologist, but he was not fire-breathing, anti-gay. He’s not [Sen.] Rick Santorum (R-Penn.). But there’s something to be said for your own values of making sure that you’re not productively working against the movement, so to speak. That was a choice for me. I had been a Republican growing up. I was a Republican at the time. I left that office and went to work lobbying. Around the time that happened, the Matthew Shepard ordeal happened, and I had a very public divorce from my former boss and the Republican Party. That was based on no one from the Wyoming delegation coming to the Capitol Hill vigil — not the congresswoman, neither of the senators. They had to send former Sen. [Alan] Simpson (R-Wyo.). I was really displeased with that.

MITCHELL: For the record, I’m a Democrat. I switched parties after working on Capitol Hill [at the National Republican Congressional Committee] and seeing how the Republican Party was moving away from fiscal conservatism, and addressing ”moral” issues. I felt the party was kind of hijacked by some of the conservative right on some of their platform. So I switched parties. [But] working on Capitol Hill, I realized just how powerful business is in this town.

I grew up in a small town West Texas — Albany. It’s about 2,000 people near Abilene. Obviously, a very conservative area. My father passed on when I was 16. [He was] mostly in the oil and gas industry. We’d seen some good times and tough times. It was a small-business family. My mother was pretty much a homemaker. She’s retired now, but worked part-time as a school librarian.

I’d always been pretty business-oriented, ever since I was a little kid. I don’t read a lot of fiction for example. As a child, I was reading books about business, finance, real-estate — things that normal kids don’t read. [Laughs.]

Growing up, I didn’t know a lot about gay people in general, what it was like to be gay. The first exposure I had was the movie Police Academy where they go to the Blue Oyster Bar. [Laughs.] There are a bunch of guys in leather. Really, that was the only thing I’d seen.

I have three older sisters, one of whom is a lesbian, actually. She and her partner live in our hometown together. They have a house and two dogs and all that good stuff. It’s amazing the change that area has seen in the last five years. They’re very much accepted.

NGLCC Dinner 2005
See photos from the 2005 NGLCC Dinner

MW: Moving back to the present, you’ve got your national dinner coming up Friday. That’s accompanied by a two-day business forum. Tell me about these events.

MITCHELL: This is our third dinner. The first year was about 450 people. This year we’ll be over 500. The corporate attendance is very high. I think it will continue to grow.

Typically, we have an annual conference. We just had one in Montreal in July. We’ll have another national conference in Miami in May. But we’re also rolling out more regional events, more local forums.

These are matchmaking events. At the forum, we’ll have key supplier-diversity managers from our major corporate partners, to network with some of the LGBT business owners in the area, from the East Coast. It’s one-on-one time. It’s really about building the relationship with the corporation. It doesn’t mean that just because we certify you as LGBT-owned, now you’re going to get a giant contract for a million dollars. There’s still a business process to go through. This is a good opportunity to meet face to face and really establish those relationships.

MW: For people who won’t be at either of these events — especially for people who would have no interest — can you explain why the NGLCC is relevant to the entire GLBT community?

NELSON: First, we have put over $100 million into LGBT businesses this year alone. Corporate businesses have purchased more than $100 million in goods and services from certified LGBT suppliers this year. That’s up from $14 million spent during our pilot of the program in 2005. So there is tremendous opportunity for a businesswoman or a businessman that is LGBT to become part of a diverse supply chain. What does that mean? That means that this individual grows their business, they’re able to employ more people, they’re able to influence more individuals and they’re able to have dollars to put back into the social-justice movement. That’s important.

Secondly, the NGLCC has identified an entirely new grouping of activists. Many of the businesswomen and businessmen that I meet when I travel the country have never had a reason to stand up and be counted. In fact, they worry about the health and life of their businesses by being out. What this does is say that not only do we want to do business with you despite the fact that you’re LGBT, we want to do business with you because you are LGBT.

Finally, there is the impact it makes on Capitol Hill. We are putting an economic face on this community. In fact, we sat next to a fairly conservative, Republican staff person at the House Small Business Committee Roundtable. He leaned over to me and said, ”Why do the gays need a chamber of commerce?” I said, ”Why do women? Why do African Americans? Why do Hispanics? Why does anyone need a chamber of commerce? Because it’s about business. It’s about opportunity. It’s about creating avenues to increase revenues, to grow our businesses, to offer health care, to pay taxes, to be a part of this American small-business engine.” The look on his face was somewhat a mix of, ”I get it,” and ”Oh my God, I think they get it. I think they understand that business makes things happen.”

No longer are we just looked at as the social squeaky wheel, or a social-justice movement — we’re also an economic-justice movement. It’s important for people to start understanding that we employ people, that we have families that are dependent upon LGBT companies. That decision makers, whether they be in corporate America — on Wall Street, Main Street or on Capitol Hill — when they realize that LGBT people are also businesswomen and businessmen, it makes an impact. It will continue to make an impact on the decisions they make that are important to the lives of the constituents that we represent.

For more information about the NGLCC National Dinner or East Coast Business Forum, go to www.nglcc.org.

Editor’s Note: While interviewed separately, Mitchell’s and Nelson’s answers have been formatted to read as a single interview.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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