State of the Chamber 2008

I would like to thank everyone for coming out tonight, especially our Chamber members and LGBT community leaders. I want to extend a special thank you to Dell and Esurance, our corporate sponsors, without whom none of this would be possible. I also want to recognize our 2008 board members for their commitment to this organization. The AGLCC has no paid staff and these board members take time out of their own businesses to help grow the entire LGBT business community. Our Vice President Erik Weidig with WAMU, Membership chair Ceci Gratis, Treasurer Amy Cook CPA, Tourism & Convention chair Edgar Gierbolini, Community Liaison Victoria Graham with Dell, Secretary Bradley Smith with WAMU, Economic Development chair Janet Lee with Corvis Investment Group, Publicity chair Michael Kirsner, and Alfred Engstrand with At Your Service Catering.

Tonight I have the pleasure of giving the 2nd ever State of the Chamber address. Last year at this time, in my first act as President of the Chamber, I spoke to the membership outlining my vision for what a strong Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce can mean for gay businesses, the LGBT community, and the city at large. That vision was focused on expansion… expanding our membership, expanding participation, expanding our community. And it gives me great pride to say that after 12 months of hard work and countless man hours by our board and volunteers that the state of this Chamber is indeed strong.

Last year, the Chamber celebrated its 10th anniversary, with Austin Mayor Will Wynn proclaiming June 19th 2007 as Austin Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Day in the City of Austin. Now we’re entering the second decade of this Chamber’s commitment to LGBT business and economic development, and as we continue to expand membership, participation, and community, we can now begin to do the real work of a Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce… the work that is so desperately needed in the LGBT community and Austin as a whole.

The first step in that work is to continue to reach out to the business community and diversify our membership. As a gay and lesbian chamber of commerce, we have the unique position of inclusion through exclusion. As a chamber, we are committed to the economic growth of our membership and the LGBT community… and I defy you to name any but the smallest of businesses that do not have any LGBT employees. Our focus on the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community demands that we welcome every business that facilitates economic opportunities through inclusive and welcoming employment practices… practices that are still not mandated by law. Our straight allies are welcome and necessary participants in our quest for economic equality and opportunity.

A diverse membership also means broadening the types of businesses that join our family. It’s shocking to me that a gay and lesbian chamber of commerce would have no hairdressers, interior designers, or gym teachers among its ranks! And while that does speak to the broad nature of who we are as a community, it is important that we make sure every gay and gay friendly business is not only invited to join, but finds it necessary to both reach the LGBT community and support its employees and customers.

Once these businesses are in the chamber fold, it is critical that we facilitate not just membership growth in numbers, but each individual member’s growth through economic development. Economic development takes many forms and with the newly created board position focused on our member’s growth, we are committed to both developing new programs and making sure the LGBT business community has access to the educational, training, and procurement opportunities already available to Austin businesses. By growing the LGBT business community, we also create economic opportunities for individuals within our community. A friend of mine recently graduated with a master’s degree and was seeking employment in his area of specialty. He interviewed with a firm in Lockhart and after a very positive but long three hour interview, he was told flippantly that people in the office often use gay slurs and insults with each other and asked if that would be a problem. Knowing that such a corporate culture would be demotivating at best, he moved on… eventually finding an even better job with a member of the AGLCC. Economic development for this chamber is more than just making more money. It is the process upon which we enact social change, making sure that businesses that create open and accepting environments are staffed with the best and most talented employees and rewarded with the business of our community.

We are also focused on outreach beyond the city limits to attract outside economic benefits for the Chamber and our members. The Tourism & Convention Task Force will work closely with the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau to help attract more LGBT conventions to Austin, that LGBT businesses are used as local vendors, that people moving to Austin can find the gay friendly resources they need, and that visitors to the City know where to stay, shop, and play. Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and we need to make sure we are at the forefront of our increasingly gay community.

But reaching the LGBT community is perhaps the biggest challenge. While Austin has the highest concentration of LGBT people in the South and 6th highest in the nation, our community is fully integrated within the culture of Austin. Without a designated gay district or community center, it is challenging for gay and gay friendly businesses to get the exposure they deserve. Often the most important service we provide to our members, the AGLCC has three programs designed to solve this dilemma, all three being nationwide firsts for a gay and lesbian chamber of commerce. Our most visible event, the Austin Pride Parade, is in its 7th year and is the biggest single LGBT event in Austin drawing tens of thousands of spectators downtown to participate and this year, in partnership with Equality Texas’s Pride Festival, it will be the capstone to Austin’s largest day of Pride in history garnering more exposure for our gay and gay friendly business members to Austin’s LGBT community.

Our quarterly magazine, Forward Austin, provides not only advertising opportunities for LGBT businesses, but also editorial and educational business content for the membership and the community overall. Since its launch last February, we have distributed over 10,000 copies of Forward Austin, driving unprecedented exposure for the Chamber and our members with every conceivable media outlet from TV to Radio, Print to Online covering this groundbreaking publication and spreading the message of economic equality. Presented at both the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Conference in June and their National Dinner in November, Forward Austin is without question the most impactful marketing device developed by a gay and lesbian chamber of commerce nationwide.

Forward Austin would not be possible without the financial support of our member advertisers, and I would like to take this time to recognize those 6 businesses that believed in Forward from the very beginning and have advertised in each of our first four landmark issues. Dell and Esurance, our corporate sponsors… Presidio Group Realtors… Cherico Creative… Uriel’s Light… and our most supportive advertiser, Capital Credit Union. Also special thanks to our volunteer editorial board and volunteer Managing Editor John Egan with Upword Communications.

But what makes reaching the LGBT community a unique challenge is that there isn’t just one community. We are a collection of overlapping cultures, banded together by a common struggle for equality and acceptance. Trying to represent all these communities within a single organization would be an overly-ambitious task at best. In fact, when I discussed the idea of our vision for a community-wide partnership driven by economic cooperation with the National Chamber council, I was met with surprise and disbelief. We may be perceived as one community, but we do not have a history of cooperation. Well I’m here to tell you that history is changing in 2008. The Pride Coalition, a partnership with founding members HRC, Equality Texas, allgo, TACT, OutYouth, PFLAG, and Atticus Circle, represents a landmark moment in this city’s gay history. Not only will it afford our gay and gay-friendly business members the ability to reach the entire community through the chamber, it will leverage the power of LGBT businesses and economies of scale to enhance the work of the organizations that represent all of our distinct cultural and social groups from political activism to youth services, people of color and transgendered, family, friends, and our straight allies. We will no longer be limited or defeated by our own political infighting or allow us to be self-sabotaged by not creating a culture of open and honest communication.

There is no question what a strong gay and lesbian chamber of commerce can mean to Austin. It is simply our obligation to see it come to fruition. For the city as a whole, we are the stewards of key elements of what makes Austin special and unique. And while the overall goals for the chamber are lofty, the steps we need to take to make it happen are very simple. If you’re a business owner, become a member. If you work for a small business, talk to your boss about joining. If you work for a large business, help us get them involved as a corporate partner. But perhaps the easiest and maybe most important step is that the next time you spend your hard-earned dollars, consider for a moment what that purchase could mean for the entire community. Becoming a customer of a chamber member is about more than supporting a single gay-owned or gay-friendly business. It is about ensuring that your individual slice of economic power is spent building a stronger chamber, a stronger gay community, and a stronger Austin.


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