Monday, August 25, 2014

HRBOR: Virginia's First LGBT Chamber of Commerce fIs Thriving

One thing that I remain very proud of is my role in founding Hampton Roads Business OutReach ("HRBOR") which remains for the moment Virginia's only NGLCC affiliated chamber of commerce.  Over the past seven yeas I served on the board of directors until I decided to not seek reappointment.  Through its networking events and visibility, HRBOR has opened hearts and minds.  Today's Inside Business carried a much deserved and very positive story on HRBOR and its work.  Here are excerpts:
It wasn't so long ago that there was still a social stigma attached to out and proud men and women in the workplace. If the public wasn't vandalizing your storefront or berating you publicly, they might at least spurn your business or speak about you disagreeably.

For seven years, HRBOR has been increasing local visibility for LGBT-friendly businesses, offering networking opportunities within the community and providing a business directory of LGBT and allied companies.

As a sponsor and partner in Hampton Roads PrideFest, [HRBPR President Carl] Johansen spent last week's seven-day celebration crisscrossing the region, visiting venues and events from Southside to the Peninsula and back again.

It's a trek, said Johansen, but it's also a testament to just how widespread LGBT acceptance has become.

"HRBOR has been in existence for seven years and I've been involved in all but the first," he said. "And in that time, I've seen HRBOR become more viable in the community and we've seen HRBOR become more and more a bridge for the LGBT community."

The proof, he said, is in the numbers.  After years of drawing crowds of 3,000 to 5,000, attendance at PrideFest has skyrocketed since 2012, pulling in anywhere from 17,000 to 20,000 people.

In that same time, HRBOR's membership has nearly doubled.

And these are not businesses or business leaders moving into the area, [Elena] Montello said. Most of her prospective members are men and women and companies that call Hampton Roads home.

Montello said she owes HRBOR's exponential growth to two phenomena: the growing voice of gay businessmen and -women, and the wider acceptance among heterosexual business leaders to identify as allies.

Montello, who is straight herself, said she was confused at first when she was asked to join HRBOR.
"I thought it was just a gay and lesbian business association and they said no, they opened it up to straight allies," she recalled. "Now that I'm a member, I've realized it was that opening up that has really helped."

There's no more prominent example than one of HRBOR's first partners, Tysinger Motor Co.
Mark Tysinger, president of the Hampton-based business that is now a HRBOR platinum partner, said it's not just about good business, it's about good ethics.

"Just in principle, we just agree with what they stand for," Tysinger said, "which is basically equal treatment and nondiscrimination."

Tysinger's company is one of HRBOR's more vocal proponents. The Tysinger showroom is often the setting of HRBOR's Third Thursday networking events, where members and prospective members have the chance to meet-up and tie-in with the LGBT and LGBT-supportive business community.

"I think they'd say we throw the best parties," Tysinger joked.   But Tysinger's name is no longer the only glossy logo posted on HRBOR's business directory.  Decorum Furniture, New York Life, SunTrust Bank, the list goes on.

[Johansen] he said he has one message for business leaders, LGBT and otherwise.  "Our HRBOR businesses are healthy. Our HRBOR businesses are strong. So, come out, be who you are and let's get to business."
Little did Christiana Flynn and I realize what we were starting when we began meeting over coffee back in the summer of 2006.  In May, 2007, we and the other eight original board members launched our vision and it continues to grow.   I have told readers early in the coming out process to get involved and, if there is no organization in their area, to start one.  That's what Christiana and I did and the rest is history.

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