(Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a multi-part series of summer stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. All installments in the series are available on our website.)
Dr. Steven Yacovelli has spent more than 25 years providing diversity training and developing LGBTQ leaders, but after surviving a loss of nearly half a million dollars during the pandemic, the author of ” Pride Leadership” and co-founder of Top Dog Learning Group now fears repercussions from Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act.”
“I can go to a Florida-based client and potentially the company and an employee could now sue me as the provider of the diversity training,” Yacovelli told the Blade. “This training is now potentially illegal due to the law.”
Top Dog Learning Group is an Orlando-based diversity and inclusion consulting firm and has been providing training, including leadership development for the LGBTQ community since 2002, initially as Yacovelli’s “side hustle” while he was an executive. of business.
At the height of the pandemic economic crisis in 2020, Yacovelli said he lost almost half of his company’s revenue in two weeks. They were able to survive and recover mainly due to his previous experience with Zoom and other virtual platforms.
But while they could increase their teaching capacity by going virtual and grow during the crisis, the current impact of Florida’s anti-LGBTQ legislation is now threatening his small business.
In April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (right), whom conservative voters chose for the second straight year in an opinion poll on the 2024 presidential election over former President Donald Trump, signed the new law which he dubbed the “Stop Wrongs Against our Kids and Employees Act. It went into effect on July 1, despite legal challenges to the First Amendment.
The Florida law, while targeting the alleged teaching of critical race theory in public schools, also prohibits teaching that “forces” employees or students to believe that privilege or oppression “is necessarily determined by race, color, sex or national origin. ”
This legislation, and the popularly known “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed earlier, served to lower Florida’s score on Out Leadership’s 2022 State-Level Business Climate Index, released amid a cascade of anti-LGBTQ measures being pursued in state legislatures.
New York’s LGBTQ business climate ranked No. 1 for the second straight year, earning 93.67 points out of 100, while South Carolina scored last with 33.63 points.
Florida, ranked 31st, and Oklahoma, ranked 49th, lost points for their “don’t say gay” bills among other anti-LGBTQ laws.
“LGBTQ-friendly environments are business-friendly environments,” Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, told Axios in June.
Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” also vaguely states that an individual should not experience “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” as a result of the training experience due to his “race, color, sex or nationality”. origin.”
This “discomfort” ban worries Yacovelli because it facilitates difficult conversations in a currently accepting community.
“I consider this as a taxpayer and as a human who lives here,” he said. “But the good news is that I live in a very inclusive community because of the Pulse [shooting] and for other reasons. We support each other.
Yacovelli said his local government and representatives have been very supportive, “but it’s difficult.”
The capital problem
When he was between jobs in 2008, after being fired from a management position without an explanation (Florida is an “at will” state, meaning an employer can terminate an employee without cause), he followed his friend and co-founder, Ruth Bond, to Paris where he had an epiphany.
In a cafe in Paris, he saw a simple yet elegant logo for a French telecommunications company and decided it was time to design a simple, similar logo for his side business and take it to full-time reality.
Years later, he now sees the nurturing spirit of his “furry daughter” Ella, a mini-Labradoodle who died of cancer last summer, in the friendly dog visitors meet on the website. company.
“2008 was not the right time to start a business,” Yacovelli said. “But there will never be a good time. You will always find an excuse not to, but put that aside. Whether it’s the economy or your own limited finances, put it all aside and do it.
Access to start-up capital has been a historical problem for minority business owners. The Federal Reserve Banks reported in 2018 that limited access to credit was an “aggravating factor that harms the underlying health of minority-owned small businesses.”
Many, like Yacovelli, look to personal funds to get their dream off the ground.
“I was self-funded,” Yacovelli said. “But on the advice of a friend, I took out a small business loan. And thank goodness I did, because I had an established relationship with a bank when COVID hit.
At the height of the pandemic, the Paycheck Protection Program was administered by banks, limiting access to survival financing, according to a report by the Brookings Institute in 2020.
Brookings also pointed out that reducing financial and other disparities could add millions of new small businesses to the US economy and with them more jobs.
The National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce says LGBTQ-owned businesses contribute more than $1 trillion to the U.S. economy, and in 2015, more than 900 certified LGBTQ-owned businesses created more than 33,000 jobs across the country.
But the pandemic challenges continue.
“In the years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ+ businesses have faced severe financial hardship and many are at risk of closing permanently,” director of member outreach Zack Hasychak told The Blade. at the Human Rights Campaign.
To help LGBTQ businesses, HRC has partnered with Showtime to launch its “Queer to Stay” initiative. For two years, the partnership has awarded funding to 30 LGBTQ-owned businesses across the country and has pledged to support at least 25 businesses in this cycle.
Applications are being accepted through their website until August 31.
The US Small Business Administration is also shining a spotlight on LGBTQ-owned small businesses.
SBA Deputy Press Director Cecelia Taylor spoke to Blade about the Elevating Small Business webinar series in June that celebrated LGBTQ small businesses across the country while focusing on financial well-being and sustainability. importance of fairness and opportunity.
“Fairness is a top priority for me and for the Biden-Harris administration, and we believe that all American entrepreneurs deserve a level playing field, regardless of zip code, race, gender, identity of gender or sexual orientation,” SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas said. Guzman in a Pride Month statement.
“During COVID, we’ve learned how critical equitable access is to surviving and thriving, and at SBA, we’re working to build better connections with and for the 1.4 million LGBTQ+-owned businesses in communities. across this country,” Guzman said.
Still, Yacovelli stressed the need for the federal government to step up and ease the contracting process.
“The federal government is the biggest opportunity for contracts,” he said. “Yet the process to get them is incredibly difficult. It’s a missed opportunity.
Yacovelli said it took a week away from her company to complete a “dissertation-like application” to have her “enter a black hole” with no feedback.
“It was for diversity training for 911 operators,” he said, stunned as to why he hadn’t heard of her application. “Coach me so I can improve the app. It took us a week to complete this package, and it’s been a week since I’ve worked on any client proposals.
But despite the challenges, Top Dog surpassed its pre-pandemic levels, making 2021 its best year yet.
“Are Gay Leaders Better?” asked Yacovelli who literally wrote the book on “Pride Leadership”, which has been widely hailed as influential by many business and political leaders. “Of course we are! We are fabulous. I have watched my gay brothers and sisters in leadership roles and advancing our community in the areas of equality and justice. They exercise skills that all leaders could utilize.
“You play with a lot of leaders in my company,” Yacovelli, aka “The Gay Leadership Dude,” told The Blade. “You start to see patterns of behavior for leaders who crush it and those who crush and burn.”
In his book “Pride Leadership,” Yacovelli combines academic knowledge gained through his doctorate in education and his years as a business leader to identify six leadership traits: being authentic, leading with courage, having empathy, effective communication, building relationships and influencing the organization. Culture.
Yacovelli pointed out that the LGBTQ coming out process also involves using these leadership skills to navigate that difficult line between being authentic and respecting the feelings and experiences of others.
“You have these difficult conversations. You have empathy for yourself and for the person receiving the news for the first time,” he said. “That experience can be translated into leadership courage, and those traits are the foundation of a truly effective leader.”
He said for trans siblings, living their lives authentically is powerful, and channeling that energy into a leadership role uses their “rainbow superpowers.”
“And we need it now more than ever,” he added.