Brian Kelly, the founder of the New York City travel site The Points Guy, didn't think twice about coming out as gay. But nothing prepared him for having to report a homophobic predator to the police.
Kelly would frequently post photos with a boyfriend on trips--after all, traveling is his business. On multiple occasions, however, those images drew the wrath of one customer on social media. "My ex was bi-racial, so there was homophobia and racism combined as one," he remembers. "Your mind can tell you the words that they used. We had to file a police report."
Kelly, whose business generates revenue via advertising--and by taking a small commission on sales of financial products that it recommends--sees his company as an extension of his personality: "People get credit cards on my recommendation, so it's important to be authentic about who I am," Kelly tells Inc. He points out that a large share of his roughly 4 million monthly readers are politically conservative, and might not understand his lifestyle.
While gay pride month--in the U.S., it's June--has been celebrated in cities across the world for nearly 50 years, companies typically steered clear from the festivities. Participating could be construed as political, and businesses risk alienating both potential and existing customers. Today, however, Kelly is among a growing number of entrepreneurs who see standing up for LGBT rights as a moral imperative, even as they recognize that it could hurt the bottom line.
Indeed, today, you'll see many companies divert funds to gay advocacy groups or rent out floats in local pride parades. The Points Guy went a step further, partnering with the Canadian nonprofit Rainbow Railroad, which helps to free gay men in countries such as Chechnya from imprisonment, torture and persecution. The business has encouraged its readers to donate their frequent flier miles to the cause, and has managed to raise around $5,000 so far, helping 20 men escape the territory to reach a safe-house in St. Petersburg. It also changed its logo on social media to a rainbow, in homage to the LGBT flag.
"I don't see this as political," Kelly insists. "It's human rights."
For many entrepreneurs--gay, straight, or otherwise--the current political climate has made celebrating pride month more important than ever. President Trump has repeatedly caved to more to religious conservatives, many of whom view same-sex marriage as a violation of moral code--even though he promised, on the campaign trail, that he would stand up for the gay community. Just this week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on objections to gay marriage, in which a Colorado bakery had refused to make a wedding cake for a male couple. The shop's owner, Jack Phillips, claims that doing so would have violated his religious principles, though a local Colorado court had ruled that he had gone against anti-discrimination law. Last month, meanwhile, Trump signed an executive order on 'religious liberty,' relaxing Internal Revenue Service enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a law banning religious organizations from political speech or activities.
Sean Howell, the co-founder and president of the gay media network Hornet, felt particularly compelled to act after Trump's surprise victory in the 2016 election. "One of the unique things that has happened in the last 10 to 15 years is that we all get to champion the remaining civil rights issues," Howell says. "If it weren't for how the election turned out, I would have said we're marching through progress." He doesn't view standing up for gay rights as a political message, but rather a way of showing that he understands his roughly 20 million users.
Hornet is going directly to the source of hate: Alt-right religious organizations that condemn same-sex unions. Throughout the summer, the company plans to put up posters that feature gay couples near the headquarters for organizations including the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, and Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (The former responded with a billboard of its own, that reads "homosexuality is a sin." The second tells Inc.: "We are not the editors of the Bible. We have to adhere to what scripture says.")
"The fear that we have is that people are getting an unlimited license to now attack the victories that we've had," Howell says, referring in particular to a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex unions at the national level. "The spotlight can't simply be on Trump."
Taking a stand
The issues do not apply only to queer business owners, or businesses that serve the LGBT community directly, as Hornet does. Isaac Oates, the founder and CEO of Justworks, identifies as an ally to gay people, though he aims to serve businesses of all political affiliations across the country. Justworks charges clients including Casper, Grind and Reboot around $70 to $90 per employee to assist with payroll, benefits and HR administration. Although Oates wouldn't disclose sales, he notes that business has tripled in the last year, and that around 20,000 employees are currently on the platform.
"As an organization, we can't afford to have a political view, because the truth is that political lines are basically 50/50," Oates tells Inc., explaining that in order to grow, he'll need to appeal to a diversity of businesses and entrepreneurs. He concedes that supporting the LGBT community may lose him some future clients. Still, he says, "I believe fundamentally that it is so important for people to be able to be themselves. We do take a stance on LGBT issues, because that is who we are as a company," Oates adds. "If we lose that, we've lost so much more than a business opportunity."
To that end, Justworks rented its own float in the New York City pride parade this past weekend. Around 50 employees marched on Sunday, many of whom dressed up in drag.
For other entrepreneurs, demonstrating pride goes beyond the business, employees and even customers. They merely want to do their part to make the world a more hospitable environment for the next generation of leaders.
Matthew Cooper grew up in the Pacific Northwest--he moved between the Bay Area, Washington and Vancouver--in a very conservative family. For fear of being disowned, he tells Inc., he did not come out to his parents until he was 26. "Being inclusive in general is important to me, because that wasn't the environment I grew up in," says Cooper, who in 2013 launched a financial technology business, called EarnUp. The San Francisco startup has raised around $3 million in seed funding, helping lower-income Americans to manage their loan and mortgage payments in an app. To date, it has managed more than $1 billion in consumer loans on the platform.
Despite identifying as a gay man, Cooper questioned whether coming out publicly was the right thing for his business. Indeed, he knows dozens of gay or lesbian entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who--like venture capitalist Peter Thiel--have preferred to keep their sexual orientation separate from their business dealings. "It's one thing to be out on Facebook," Cooper explains. "There was a question, though, of is this actually fair to the company? Is this the right thing for our shareholders?"
Nevertheless, Cooper decided that he would come out as gay in the most public way he could: He penned an article, called "How to Come Out and Startup In Business," on the news website the Advocate. Here, he writes: "The energy to create and explore in my professional life emerged at the same time as it did in my personal life." The question of whether to come out, then, was no longer a choice. It was part and parcel of his startup.
Of course, like Oates, the entrepreneur recognizes that his decision may lose him clients. EarnUp generates revenue from financial institutions and lending firms--traditionally conservative entities--that pay around $10 per month to give their customers access to the software. "It is possible that [my being gay] is a component of somebody not wanting to work with us," he says, explaining that normally around 8 out of 10 clients that he approaches will continue the conversation into the next month.
There's also the argument that an entrepreneur can be out and proud in private life, and to their employees, but that it doesn't need to be known to the world. As Cooper sees it, there's a certain irony to this. "I view that as coming from a place of privilege," he continues. "If you have the privilege to say 'I'm indifferent,' that may be totally true. But it misses out on the opportunity to think about the benefits you can give your staff, and the political dialogue that might be so hostile therein."
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the organization that helps LGBT people fleeing persecution. It is Rainbow Railroad.