LGBTQ Agenda: Out entrepreneurs work to break glass ceiling often seen in startups

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday June 14, 2022
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Jason Bellet is the co-founder and chief strategy officer at Eko, a company that uses artificial intelligence to detect heart disease. Photo: Courtesy Eko<br>
Jason Bellet is the co-founder and chief strategy officer at Eko, a company that uses artificial intelligence to detect heart disease. Photo: Courtesy Eko

In the United States, 16 states and three territories offer no protections to LGBTQ workers meaning, in other words, one can be fired simply because one identifies under one of the letters of the acronym, according to the Movement Advancement Project. On the other hand, 33 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia do offer such protections, sometimes explicitly, as is here in California, or through a broader interpretation of anti-discrimination laws based on sex.

Of course, it isn't just employment on which figures like that have an impact. LGBTQs trying to build the companies that employ others are affected by this as well. In fact, 37% of LGBTQ startup founders choose not to come out according to StartOut, a startup accelerator offering mentoring, education, and networking opportunities for young companies that happen to be founded or cofounded by LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs.

"Many LGBT founders choose to remain closeted while raising capital," according to a study by the organization, "when fundraising, 63% of LGBT founders came out to investors during the process — most in the early stages of discussions — but a meaningful 37% chose not to self-identify as members of the LGBT community, 12% citing concerns that it might hurt their chances to get capital, while 47% said that 'being out' wasn't relevant."

That may be changing following the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County. In that case, the justices voted 6-3 that a federal law barring discrimination on the basis of "sex" also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender status. While the decision interprets the reach of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, the ruling has been applicable to many other federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on sex. Among those laws are Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Pay Act, the Equal Credit Act, and section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which bars discrimination in health care and health care insurance.

Yet, studies conducted by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ think tank based at UCLA School of Law, show that 34% of LGBTQ workers have left a job because of the treatment they received at the hands of their employers. Fifty percent aren't out to their supervisors, while another 26% percent aren't out to any of their co-workers.

Those employment figures demonstrate the importance of coming out, not only to employers and co-workers but — for entrepreneurs — to potential investors, as well as clients.

For Los Angeles-based Jason Bellet, 30, co-founder and chief strategy officer for Eko, a privately held company using artificial intelligence to detect heart disease, coming out as gay opened up opportunities that he feels he might not have had before. But it was a process. Even after coming out 10 years ago, as he was searching for funding for his startup and, later, working with clients outside California especially, he said he found his behavior changing. In a sense, he went back into the closet.

"I wasn't overtly out in a professional sense," he said in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. Occasionally, he even found himself referring to his boyfriend as a friend. To be out, he feared, was a risk not only to himself but the company he was trying to finance.

"By hiding my sexual orientation, I found myself stepping partially back into a closet I had so proudly escaped," he recently wrote in an essay he published to his LinkedIn profile page. "My personal and professional paths had collided."

It's a problem many LGBTQ entrepreneurs face. And the answer for many of them is to leave states where they don't feel welcome. While it generally is an improvement for those individuals, it's a loss to the communities they leave behind.

"States with policies unfriendly to the LGBT community lost many, if not all, of their nascent growth entrepreneurs before they founded their companies," according to the StartOut study. "Later, when LGBT founders moved the headquarters of their companies to a new state, 78% moved to California, New York, and Illinois. This translates to over 1 million jobs lost for states unfriendly to the LGBT community."

Ironically, Bellet said he was never really subjected to overt homophobia. Being closeted "really was more of a self-inflicted lid, a proactive defense mechanism," he said.

As he began traveling around the U.S., and particularly in the South, he found that many of his clients had to put up similar or even greater defensive measures for their own protection.

"There are health care providers in certain parts of the country who provide HIV care to specialty clinics, because a number of the mainstream providers weren't equipped to work with them," Bellet said. Many of those clinics were unmarked to avoid drawing unwanted attention to themselves. Others had to deal with protesters, he said.

"They were doing remarkable work but they had to be unmarked and out of sight," said Bellet.

Being from California, and having come out while attending UC Berkeley hadn't really prepared him for the challenges faced by LGBTQ people outside the state. But as he continued his work with medical personnel in places where the ability to live openly is challenging at best, he understood more and more the importance of being out.

Now, he has positioned himself to be the gay mentor he didn't have as he was getting started. While he and his straight business partner were successful in finding funding for Eko primarily from non-LGBTQ sources, he said now he has a deeper appreciation of the importance of having LGBTQ mentors and investors.

"For me, had I seen other out and visible queer executives and leaders in health care it would have totally changed my approach," he said.

When he travels outside California to conferences and business meetings nowadays, he frequently arranges meet ups with other LGBTQ colleagues beforehand to help build networks they can all touch upon.

"There's an incredible networking element to it," he said. "It creates a shared experience."

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact Eric Burkett at e.burkett@ebar.com

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