“Pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” This phrase has become a tenet of American society, inextricably bound with our idea of individual success. The idea of bootstrapping, or improving one’s situation without any help, can be at once intoxicating and overwhelming.
I find this deeply unsatisfactory. The Great American Dream, after all, is rooted in the idea that you and I should be able to create our own destiny through the opportunities America can provide. While entrepreneurship is certainly no solution for many of the larger social ills our community is faced with, like workplace discrimination, it can and should be an answer to addressing the systemic frameworks that promote underemployment and cyclical poverty.
But for people without the necessary skills or financial stability to redirect their careers, successful entrepreneurship requires coordinated, intentional, support. Investing in LGBTQ entrepreneurs can achieve two goals: reducing poverty and revitalizing the American economy.
Combining highly targeted education and leveraging existing idea-to-seed accelerator programs and support presents an opportunity to significantly impact individual lives and communities.
The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) currently offers several programs that specifically serve our community, but many of us are unable to take advantage of these opportunities because of the existing barriers to entry. The Biden administration now has the opportunity to invest in our nation’s small businesses and queer and minority communities that have historically been underserved and under-supported by public and private industries alike.
Despite comprising less than 5% of Americans, LGBTQ people are more likely to live in poverty than their non-LGBTQ counterparts. In fact, 22% of all LGBTQ people in America currently live in poverty, compared to 16% of their non-LGBTQ counterparts.
This is not for lack of hustle: I personally know six different queer people who have founded micro-businesses to finance their transitions or supplement income. A quick Instagram search or pre-pandemic stroll through the Philly Trans Wellness Conference will show a multitude of LGBTQ micro-business and small business owners.
Entrepreneurship and building (or re-building) from nothing is the backbone of the queer community. We are far too used to finding or building our own support systems and families, and that ethos extends to our ability to carve our place in this world.
I live in a small college town with a population of around 7,000 people. Walking down Main Street, I pass the usual establishments: an alumni-owned swag store that’s probably been operating for longer than I’ve been alive, a bar named after the local college mascot, and the newly constructed school bookstore. There are also restaurants, offices, and even an independent game store, movie theater, and coffee shop. These small businesses employ family members, friends, high school and college students. They provide services our community needs to thrive.
In 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses comprised 99.9% of US companies. And in 2017, over 47% of the private workforce was employed by a business with fewer than 500 employees. As the pandemic drags on, minority business owners have reported less profit and financial support than their non-minority counterparts; two-thirds (66%) of all small business owners, nearly half of American employers, failed to make a profit in 2020.
The Biden administration has committed to strengthening small businesses and reducing poverty as part of the COVID-19 economic recovery. Reducing LGBTQ poverty through entrepreneurship can support both of those goals.
Removing barriers to existing SBA programs or providing early-stage funding is not enough on its own to ensure access or long-term entrepreneurial success. People must be able to afford to take a risk. Enabling low-income individuals to become entrepreneurs will require meticulous attention to detail, strong public-private collaboration, and equitable support and funding programs.
At an extremely high level, a coordinated “zero-to-launch” entrepreneurship program should involve the Department of the Interior, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Small Business Association. These agencies could then partner with organizations like Atlanta Tech Village’s pre-accelerator program, Syracuse University’s Institute for Veteran and Military Families, and corporate innovation accelerators, all of which are experts at training entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, local and regional nonprofits will be essential for reaching potential entrepreneurs and executing the program.
As a trans person who is the child of small business owners and teachers, and who now (very happily) works in corporate innovation and investment, we should start with the following:
- Help people to recognize their potential as entrepreneurs and the opportunity for small business ownership
- Provision of paid, skills-based training
- Low and no-risk funding opportunities
- Financial safety nets to replace lost and injected income as businesses work to become profitable
- Direct connections to mentoring and pro-bono or low-cost legal, tax, and other professional resources
- Institution of Interior, SBA, and VA agency rules directing a change to include low-income LGBTQ founders in 8(a) and similar small, disadvantaged, business programs.
- Provision of affordable, LGBTQ-affirming health insurance options for self-employed individuals and their employees
Rebuilding our economy in the wake of COVID-19 is an opportunity to reimagine American entrepreneurship and employment. Simultaneously investing in a community that has demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit and potential, supporting small businesses, and revitalizing the American economy seems like a pretty good place to start.
Landon Marchant is a veteran of the US Air Force, a graduate of Williams College, and global DEI analyst at ZX Ventures, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s international investment and innovation division. They grew up in rural Wisconsin and are the child of teachers and small business owners.