GlovesWhen we think of LGBT rights in America, marriage equality is the first issue to jump to mind – the topic that garners media attention, spurs protests (both for and against), and gets public figures in hot water. Despite marriage’s prominence in the public discourse, it is not the only arena in which this historically oppressed group is currently gaining ground. LGBT people are fighting for equality in all areas of life.

But back in 2002, Justin Nelson and Chance Mitchell felt that the movement was missing something: where was the push for economic empowerment for LGBT people? That year, Nelson and Mitchell cofounded the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), an organization that aims to give the LGBT community a voice in American business.

“There have been a lot of great social justice advocacy organizations doing social justice work for many years,” says Nelson, who currently serves as the NGLCC’s president. “When [Mitchell, the organization’s current CEO] and I were sort of talking about what as the missing piece of the equality puzzle, one thing that we noticed was glaringly absent was the idea of an economic identity. People didn’t think of us job creators, as business owners, as part of the tax base, or as people who offered healthcare and employed other people.”

Thanks to their “Capitol Hill backgrounds,” Nelson and Mitchell recognized how important it was for the LGBT community to have an economic identity.

“Green is the universal color. Money moves hearts and minds,” Nelson says. “When people start to look at the LGBT community not as victims — or even when we look at ourselves not as victims — but really as entrepreneurs and an opportunity-driven community, it allows us to stand up and take a spot at the table not because we begged for it, but because we deserve it. We earned it.”

LGBT people play an important role in what Nelson calls the “small business engine that makes the U.S. economy run.” According to some estimates, there are roughly 1.4 million LGBT-owned businesses in America. It’s about time, then, for the LGBT community to claim the economic voice it deserves. “That’s why we did this,” Nelson says.

How the NGLCC Opens Doors for LGBT Businesses

As an organization, the NGLCC is involved in a myriad of initiatives: advocacy, lobbying, annual conferences, and legislation at the local, federal, and state levels, to name only a few.

“I think the easiest way that I can boil it down is the NGLCC is really a direct connection between LGBT-owned businesses, corporations, and government,” Nelson says.

According to Nelson, the NGLCC’s Supplier Diversity Initiative (SDI) serves as the “backbone initiative” of the organization, giving shape to every other action the chamber of commerce undertakes. Under the SDI, the NGLCC gives companies the opportunity to get certified as LGBT-owned Business Enterprises (LGBTBEs). All LGBTBEs are at least 51 percent owned, operated, and controlled by an LGBT person or persons. The NGLCC maintains a database of LGBTBEs that companies can search through when they’re looking for suppliers.

“The purpose of doing that is [the LGBTBEs] are able to now compete for contract opportunities with major corporations as part of these companies’ supplier diversity programs,” Nelson explains. “They’re able to compete in that diverse supplier pool. It’s not a guaranteed contract, but it gets your foot in the door with companies that otherwise you might not be able to reach.”

The NGLCC does more than maintain a database: it also helps LGBTBEs enhance their visibility through networking events and other modes of connection and communication. “We’re increasingly doing work around federal contracting. For the third year in a row this year we’ll host our Policy and Procurement Forum, and that includes a federal procurement fair and matchmaker meetings,” Nelson explains.

The NGLCC also promotes B2B contracting between companies within the organization. “A lot of our companies will find out that they’re able to find suppliers for their own organization by looking within the certified supplier ranks,” Nelson says.

In a recent legal victory, the NGLCC helped pass a bill in the California State Assembly that requires publicly regulated utility companies to add certified LGBT suppliers to their diverse supplier programs.

“We’re really attacking this at every angle to ensure that LGBT-owned firms have equal access and opportunity to bid on these contracts,” Nelson says.

The NGLCC Goes Global

Thanks to a recent $4 million grant, the NGLCC has been able to launch its newest program: NGLCC Global. Over the next four years, the NGLCC will expand into Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and other Latin American countries, as well as India, South Africa, Thailand, and the Philippines.

The idea is to go in and help create chambers of commerce or business organizations for LGBT populations in those countries, so that they can start doing business with one another and with multinational corporate partners that we work with,” Nelson says. Currently, the NGLCC works with about 140 multinational corporations.

NGLCC Global aims to foster strategic partnerships between LGBT-owned businesses in the U.S. and abroad. “For example, I may be looking at a strategic partnership and I maybe need a partner in Mexico to fulfill a contract for a multinational, and because of this program we will now have identified businesses with whom I could partner,” Nelson explains.

Tremendous Growth

Nelson says the NGLCC has experienced rapid growth since its formation a little over a decade ago. The organization saw 30 percent growth in attendance at this year’s conference. According to Nelson, the NGLCC has seen similar growth – between 20 and 30 percent – year after year, and he anticipates that the growth will continue. “If you think back 12 years ago, when we started this organization, we were really 50 people in a ballroom, and 12 years later we’re over 750 in Las Vegas,” Nelson says.

The NGLCC works with a number of affiliates in the U.S. and internationally, with 38 affiliate chambers in America and 14 others globally. “It really is a global movement,” Nelson says. “It’s quite exciting to see this web that’s being spun of connections — not just in the next state or the next town, but really in countries all around the world.”

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