Businesses find new opportunities with LGBT certification

Dina Poist-Proto, left, and Dina Proto are the founders of Teazled, an LGBT greeting card company.

Dina Proto, cofounder of Teazled Greeting Cards and Gifts, which focuses on the needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, was looking for ways to grow the business she launched with her wife in 2011.

A friend suggested Proto consider having her venture certified as a women-owned business enterprise. While researching the process, Proto discovered the Supplier Diversity Initiative, created in 2004 by the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, which certifies LGBT businesses. The goal is to make connections with the country’s leading corporations and each other.

“As a new business owner, I thought certification might give me a foot in the door with regard to building relationships,” Proto said. “More than one-third of the Fortune 500 not only recognize but seek LGBT businesses for procurement and contracting, and as a certified LGBT business, you have the opportunity to meet key decision-makers within each company.”

Proto parlayed her certification experience into a legacy that will benefit Southern Nevada for years to come by founding a local affiliate chamber in 2014, the Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Nevada.

The state has about 125,000 LGBT residents, with more than 9,700 LGBT business owners who are missing the advantages afforded to them through certification, Proto said.

“Increasing awareness regarding the benefits of certification for business owners, as well as effecting legislative change to be more inclusive at the state, city and municipal levels, would all directly affect the economic opportunities for Nevada at not only local, but national and global levels,” Proto said.

Certification allows Proto to have a seat at the table to obtain procurement opportunities, she said. “That is good business. As Justin Nelson, co-founder and president of NGLCC, has said many times, ‘That’s a piece of the pie’ that Nevada should have.”

Founded in 2002 to be an advocate for diversity, inclusion and equality for LGBT-owned businesses, the NGLCC’s Supplier Diversity Initiative works to enhance LGBT businesses’ visibility.

“We’re the only LGBT-certifying body in the world, with 47 affiliate chambers in the U.S., and 11 global affiliates on five continents,” said Jonathan Lovitz, a senior vice president with the organization, which is based in Washington, D.C. “We do the legwork of advocacy, lobbying and creating visibility, while our local affiliate chambers work with us, growing business-development and networking opportunities at a local level.”

There are 1.4 million LGBT business owners in the U.S., with 909 certified as LGBT-owned Business Enterprises.

To qualify for certification, a business must be at least 51 percent owned, operated, managed or controlled by an LGBT person or people who are U.S. citizens or lawful residents; operate independently from any non-LGBT business enterprise; and be a legal entity formed and based in the U.S.

Business owners must complete confidential application documents, with a site inspection a mandatory element of the process. It takes 60-90 days for the NGLCC to process an application, and certification lasts for two years. NGLCC waives the certification fee ($400) and recertification fee ($200) for applicants who submit proof of current membership with their local affiliate chamber.

Among the 20 certified LGBT businesses in Nevada is Fresh Wata, an event-planning, design and construction firm in Las Vegas.

“It’s only been a couple of months, but I’ve already been meeting and connecting with other business owners, and (anticipate) additional opportunities,” said Tricia Costello, CEO of the company. “Now that I’m a member, I really want to see the Las Vegas chamber grow, and I hope to strengthen my relationships with the network.”

Gina Webb, founding principal and CFO of construction-management firm KMG Solutions, achieved certification status in 2014 and sees it as a way for the LGBT community to realize its economic potential.

“For many years, the LGBT community has been identified as a community concerned with health, social and political issues, so I am excited that we are now representing ourselves as a business community as well,” Webb said.

“The supplier-diversity world used to consist of women- and veteran-owned businesses. Now when I register my company in a supplier-diversity portal, there is an option to identify as an LGBT-certified company, and it’s exciting to see that this is becoming the norm.”

While Proto works at a grassroots level, the NGLCC is making strides across the country. Several states have enacted legislation to be more inclusive, including California, which in 2014 passed Assembly Bill 1678, which allows certified LGBT businesses to bid on public utilities contracts alongside women, minority and disabled-veteran business enterprises.

“Every time we have a major victory, we get a huge jump in numbers, with a 203 percent increase in certified businesses in California following the passage of AB 1678,” said Lovitz, adding that Massachusetts and Pennsylvania enacted similar statewide initiatives. “The NGLCC is also urging the White House to make LGBT businesses part of all federal contracting procurement as part of a broader push to ensure nondiscrimination in contracting at the federal level.”

Lovitz said the organization has memoranda of understanding with seven agencies, including the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In February 2015, the NGLCC and the SBA entered a historic partnership designed to bolster and support the LGBT business community. Dubbed the LGBT Business Builder, the agreement unites the expertise and resources of both SBA district offices and the NGLCC’s local chambers.

“We cannot separate the fight for civil rights from the fight for market rights and economic empowerment,” SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet said at the time. “This agreement is not about what we will do here in D.C., but what we will do together in all 50 states to help LGBT entrepreneurs grow their revenues and their payroll.”

In addition to the Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Nevada, the Lambda Business Association is working to promote diversity and inclusion.

Co-founded in 1991 by Terry Wilsey of A Answer on Travel/CruiseAholics, which arranges LGBT-friendly travel packages, Lambda formed through a business-networking breakfast for the LGBT crowd and supporters, although breakfast meetings have been replaced by monthly luncheons and other events.

The organization has more than 250 members.

“We focus on business networking and the related Lambda Smart Pages,” said Wilsey, who serves on the board. “(We) advocate for LGBT equality, with the current focus on our ‘T’ brothers and sisters. We (also) raise funds every month for charitable organizations.”

Wendy Kraft of Kraft-Sussman Funeral Services has been a member of Lambda for eight years and previously served on the board.

“As the only women-, Jewish- and LGBT-owned funeral home, we are culturally sensitive and welcoming to families of diverse backgrounds,” Kraft said. “As a small business, we strongly believe in networking, and word-of-mouth is critical to us.”

She noted that Lambda has a monthly luncheon the second Wednesday of each month at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada. The Center also hosts career fairs and provides other services.

“One of our goals for the career fairs is to engage employers who are welcoming and inclusive in their hiring processes for the LGB and especially T community,” said André Wade, director of operations for the Center. “We strive to increase outcomes for the LGBTQ community, and what better way to do so than through encouraging gainful employment?”

As the movement toward diversity and inclusion continues to build momentum, Southern Nevada will reap economic benefits next year when the NGLCC stages its annual International Business & Leadership Conference from Aug. 1-4 at Caesars Palace. The organization has committed to holding the event in Las Vegas every three years.

“It’s the largest LGBT business conference in the world, with our event two years ago leaving behind a $4 million footprint,” Lovitz said.

He noted that NGLCC member Nikki Barua, founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based digital-innovation firm BeyondCurious, summarized the mission of the organization and the advantages to certification.

“She said: ‘NGLCC certification creates visibility for LGBT businesses; visibility creates awareness; awareness leads to acceptance; and widespread acceptance ends discrimination. You can’t change hearts, minds and attitudes if you’re invisible.’ ”