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LGBT small businesses getting a diversity boost with corporate vendor support

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September 02, 2015

LGBT small businesses getting a diversity boost with corporate vendor support
By: Marcia Pledger, The Plain Dealer

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CLEVELAND, Ohio – Gil Kudrin didn't have a business plan when he purchased with credit cards a bunch of white T-shirts and started printing his own designs.

For him, entrepreneurship started with a street vendor's license, business partners, an inventory of less than a dozen finished shirts and sales coming from a card table in front of a borrowed van.

That was 23 years ago, when Kudrin was on the verge of being homeless, with only a dream of designing work and printing T-shirts for AIDS organizations all over the country.

Now at age 57, Kudrin is a long-term HIV survivor who runs Nightsweats & T-Cells, a commercial screen print shop on the West Side of Cleveland that hires people with HIV and AIDS.

Kudrin is a fighter who knows a lot about defying the odds. He got the disease when he was 18. Earlier this year he beat the odds again, landing his first small contract with a Fortune 100 company. He credits a mix of quality products, perseverance and an LGBT supplier diversity certification that finally paid off after having it for four years.

"I believe that the greatest benefit to getting to our LGBT Certification is access," said Kudrin, who recently finished a job for Rockwell Automated's LGBT employee resource group.

"It will never close a sale for you, but it does get you a seat at the table and makes the playing field a little more level," he said of the new national business trend in certifications.

Little-known outreach efforts by the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce are now getting attention from the Small Business Administration to help mirror initiatives aimed at creating economic opportunities for businesses owned by racial minorities, women and disabled veterans.

The certification has been available for about a decade, but many didn't even know such a thing existed. LGBT Certification means that a business is at least 51 percent owned and operated by lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender individuals.

But increasingly more efforts are being made by the government and corporations to educate the public about how they're trying to expand their vendor pools by explicitly encouraging bids from gay, lesbian and transgender contractors.

Last year, the City of Cleveland partnered with Plexus Chamber of Commerce for businesses to register as an LGBT Enterprise.

Tuesday, the national leader of the SBA was in Columbus taking part in the 13th annual Mayor's Small Business Conference & Expo. For the first time, an entire day was added to the conference specifically aimed at LGBT-related workshops. Eugene Cornelius, Jr., who is in charge of 90 SBA offices nationwide, gave the keynote address.

He said it wasn't his idea to bring the "Many Faces One Dream," event to Columbus, the sixth city on a nationwide tour.

He was approached by Mayor Michael Coleman and Nationwide Insurance representatives, armed with information supporting the need to bring more awareness to Midwest cities like Columbus. The city is home to one of the largest Pride parades in the Midwest attracting more than 300,000 people.

"These are real and substantive businesses that contribute to the supply chain, but it's also an advocacy," said Cornelius, an openly gay man himself. "These are not new certifications. But to get the business community, the government and members of Congress to understand and appreciate the value of the 1.4 million (LGBT) businesses in our community is important. Why wouldn't we have a certification?"

Aside from LGBT certification and "Financing Your Business Expansion," workshops throughout the day included "What does Marriage, Equality Mean For your Business."

Natalie Rojas, manager of supplier diversity at the NGLCC, a 12-year-old advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., talked about a lot of positive strides. But also noted challenges.

"So if you're openly gay, unless your company has it's own policy, you can just be fired without cause for being gay," Rojas said.
California has the first law put in place that recognizes LGBT as a diverse supplier, requiring large utility companies to report how much they spend with LGBT contractors. SBA' leader Cornelius called the new law a huge step in driving change.

He said President Obama recently told him he'd like to see stepped-up efforts to bring more attention to LGBT certification with more forums like the one in Columbus, similar to efforts aimed at helping minority- and women-owned businesses compete for government and corporate contracts.

In February, the SBA announced a new LGBT initiative dubbed, "Business Builder."
"What sets the LGBT certification apart is that it's not government driven, it's been driven by the private sector," said David Perry, national LGBT outreach director for the SBA. "I think what the Fortune 500 companies did was look at their customers and say, 'Wow, we have a lot LGBT customers. We need to do business with LGBT businesses.'"    

Federal agencies and more than one-third of Fortune 500 companies are now trying to expand their vendor pools. Rojas with the NGLCC said she heard from the Democratic National Convention yesterday.

"To see the National Football League call us up and say we want to work with the LGBT community, is a highlight of my lifetime," Rojas said. "It's good to see this trend moving forward."

Nationwide, more than 700 companies have completed the certification process in the last decade while the national LGBT chamber has worked with corporations to recruit companies as potential suppliers.

A growing number of companies — including IBM, PepsiCo, ConAgra Foods, Marriott International and American Airlines — have recently started tracking how much they spend with LGBT contractors.

Frantz Tiffeau, Jr., director of Supplier Diversity at Nationwide Insurance, stood up in the audience during the Q&A period to encourage people to consider applying for LGBT certification. He said, companies such as Nationwide, a Fortune 100 company, is serious about having an extremely diverse supplier base.

Michelle Tomallo, co-owner of Fit Technologies in Cleveland is also president of Plexus, the state's only gay chamber of commerce. She was among two Clevelanders on a panel touting the benefits of being certified. One benefit of being a member of a local chamber is that the $400 fee is waived by the national organization.

Kudrin said he got his first small contract with a T-shirt specifically aimed at lesbian and gay employees, but he's encouraged by the experience and hopes to go after contracts that have nothing to do with the gay community. His company has done business with the Tony Awards for 15 years and has had contracts with Broadway Cares and Adobe.

At the same time, he said he's pretty sure that without the NGLCC and the local LBGT chamber, Plexus, his company would not have had access to a Fortune 500 company's supply chain – despite being in business for about 25 years.

"Being an open LGBT-owned business, we have faced many challenges on our own," Kudrin said. "No more ... we have community behind us now!"

Michelle Tomallo, Board President