LGBT forum

Left to right: Liu Montsho, Seke Ballard and Roxanna Daniel at the Feb. 20 LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois event, "A Celebration of Black LGBT Business Excellence," held at Connect Gallery, 1520 E. Harper Court.

Three entrepreneurs representing construction, finance and business services discussed the sensitivities that accompany being out LGBT African Americans in their work at an LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois-sponsored forum Thursday night at the Connect Gallery, furthermore stressing the need for professional actualization through mutual aid in their communities.

"So much of the focus now is around diversity and inclusion, cross-cultural communication, being able to deal with employees and team members from all walks of life," said Liu Montsho, who runs the human relations firm 360 HR Solutions, 1655 S. Blue Island Ave., with her wife. "It's a benefit in that regard, because then they feel like they're getting a three-fer: We're a female-owned business, we're an African American-owned business, and we're also (LGBT-owned)."

She recalled teaching a workshop to a group of insurance executives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last year. They did not know their instructor was Black, and she recalled overhearing conversations among them had under the assumption she was not in the room as she was setting up.

"Those are the situations that remind me, when you talk about leadership, that those individuals individuals are quoting Peter Drucker or who are John Maxwell fans to the hilt are not expecting to hear from someone who looks like me about how to best run their corporation," she said. "I don't know that that's something I can get around, so I just learn how to manage it as best I can and have the show go on."

But Montsho said the small businesses with which she contracts are typically Black-owned. As a “serial entrepreneur,” Montsho said she understands what her clients are going through, especially when the short-term goal is simply being solvent.

"What we're trying to do is help them be self-sustaining, to develop the policies and procedures and practices that are necessary just to get them through the end of the year," she said. "We have, in our community, such a rich and interwoven religious element to everything that we do, and so those challenges can be tough to overcome. However, I'm more than up to the challenge.”

Seke Ballard, whose Good Tree Capital has given out loans to borrows in the cannabis industry in six different states and has an office in Hyde Park at 5118 S. Lake Park Ave., said his newly legalized industry is composed of "a self-selected group of people … more comfortable being on the margins" but said many of his investors are conservative.

"If that group of people were to have full transparency in terms of who I am, maybe that would impact their investment decisions," he hypothesized.

Roxanna Daniel of Taj Development Company, 10340 S. Western Ave., also noted the friction with which the Black community has historically approached LGBT issues — a consequence, she said, of ties to traditional Christianity and Islam — but at 58 years old, she observed that things have improved since the 1970s. As she put it, "The truth is that everybody has one of us."

She recalled her childhood at 47th Street and Ellis Avenue, coming to Hyde Park ("it was a safe space for Black folks") and the difficult process of getting the job that precipitated union membership as a butch, African American woman, enduring discrimination and racist, homophobic epithets at work.

"So today, as a Black-owned business, it's no longer a novelty. It's like we're here, and we're dealing with it and growing," she said. "My roots where on 47th Street, and everything was Black-owned. I grew up in a community where I bought my records from a Black owner, where we bought our newspapers (from) a Black-owned newsstand."

"That changed with the shift in integration. We lost our businesses. My children didn't grow up with that pride," she said. "It's changing, and it feels good as Black person to see us go back to the village that I grew up in."

Ballard illustrated that point when he discussed buying coffee at Sip & Savor, 78 E. 47th St., near his home in Bronzeville. A pound sells for $16 there, but it may sell for $12 at a Starbucks. But buying from a local Black-owned business matches his values.

"We've sort of gone through a period where I think we've forgotten the importance of shopping in our own communities and supporting our own community's business,” he said. “And if we don't do that, we really can't thrive."

He discussed his father’s expand his North Carolina lumber-harvesting business to surrounding states — which failed, he said, because banks rejected his applications for 13 different small business loans. The Federal Reserve has empirically proven that kind of racial discrimination is occurring.

A Black applicant, Ballard said, is 2.7 times more likely to be rejected for a loan than an identical White applicant; if approved, a Black recipient pays on average 180 basis points more in interest across all forms of debt financing. The implications for home and small business ownership are huge.

Rather than dealing with loan officers' biases "leading him to make a decision that is flat-out wrong … because he's foregoing someone who is credit-worthy to finance someone who is less credit-worthy," Ballard set out to build a model to evaluate credit worthiness exclusively on financial operating factors. He said his model allocates capital in a way that mirrors society’s racial demographics.

“That starts to have trickle-down effects for people," he said. "In my grandiose vision, in 10, 15, 20 years I've built a model that is superior, in terms of evaluating credit worthiness, and eventually I will run Bank of America out of business. Eventually, I will run Chase out of business."

Montsho said the benefit the 300-member LGBT Chamber, 3179 N. Clark St., brings is "the ability to support each other, because there is no way to know if we exist until we disclose to one another."

"There's such power in numbers when we collectively decide to shop with one another, to purchase one another's services, to recommend each other as businesspeople — we can leverage the power of our collective financial resources and help each other thrive," she said. "But that can't happen unless we disclose that's who we are."

In an interview before the discussion, held at Connect Gallery, 1520 E. Harper Court, attendee Terrance Miller said he is neither closeted nor particularly outspoken about being gay at his job at the Woodlawn Community Service Corporation, 6410 S. Ingleside Ave.: "It's always been need-to-know or you find out through association."

"But I've always been a strong supporter of our community, and I was just talking with the gentleman with the Chamber about wanting to do more relative to the LGBT African American community," Miller said. "With the changing times, I want to do something more than I have been. Like I said, I'm not waiving the flag, but I've not been hiding, either."

At the end of the discussion, attendee Channyn Lynn Parker asked the panel about "rainbow capitalism" — when businesses are more concerned with their Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index rating, which takes into account nondiscrimination policies, LGBT issues in diversity and sensitivity trainings, transgender-inclusive health insurance benefits and other issues — as opposed to "being authentically rooted in inclusion."

"Even when you think about organizations that are LGBTQ-centered, there is still a replication of harmful systems within those wards, because there's a lack of breaking in the exponential knowledge and experience of those who are from the margins," Parker said.

Montsho said "diversity" through a Black business lens can often be patriarchal and heterosexist; through an LGBT lens, it can be assimilationist, racist and sexist.

"What do we do about that? I challenge folks to be self-reflective and to really think about inclusion and justice in their totality — and not just in one's own group, " Montsho said, adding that she empathizes readily because of her intersectionality: "No matter what space I'm in, there's always a part of me that somehow is out."

"Think about who else there is. If we can provide those opportunities to the least among us, to those individuals who have a lesser chance than us," she continued. "If we advocate for them, we won't have to worry about ourselves, because that door will already have been kicked wide open."

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