CLEVELAND, Ohio — A new report ranking business climates for LGBTQ+ business owners and measuring the impact of governmental policies on LGBTQ + businesses in all 50 states doesn’t paint an inviting picture of Ohio.
Ohio received a score of just 53 out of a possible 100. States were scored according to legal and nondiscrimination protections, youth and family support, political and religious attitudes, health access and safety, and work environment and employment.
While the state’s rank is easily a failing grade — it also shows Ohio is doing better — up four points over last year’s year’s study.
Out Leadership’s State LGBTQ+ Business Climate Index is specifically geared toward helping business leaders make equitable decisions about where to set up operations.
Related: Greater Cleveland LGBTQ + business directory: Where to spend your money to support LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs
Amanda Cole, the executive director of Plexus LGBT and Allied Chamber of Commerce, believes the reason why Ohio ranks so poorly is the inability to attract and retain LGBTQ business owners, regardless of whether they have a huge company or are just starting out.
“The overall climate toward LGBTQ inclusion in the state is really low. When there are House Bills going forward — like the Don’t Say Gay ban, or the ban on gender-affirming care — it’s hard for LGBTQ people to feel safe here, let alone to feel they can start, or keep, their families here when they are not going to be able to access quality education and healthcare for themselves or for their children,” she said. That is a huge reason why the state is not a welcoming business climate for LGBTQ entrepreneurs.”
Daniel Budish and Betsey Figgie are hoping their “informal incubator” at Studio West 117 will change the climate for new business owners in Cuyahoga County.
While the new multi-use development straddling the Cleveland-Lakewood border focuses mainly on entertainment, the business partners have reserved several storefronts along Detroit Road which will be reserved for LGBT entrepreneurs, or folks who are providing services to the community.
“We are really trying to provide opportunities for folks to get an amazing space that is affordable,” explained Figgie. “We are really trying to be as flexible as we can be in terms of rent, in terms of timing of payment and in the build-out of the spaces. We are really taking an incubator approach and creating an environment that is supportive of a new business owner.”
Figgie and Budish will make investments through their foundation to help defray costs for opening and operating expenses, like building out the space, security, tenant improvements, or just rent for a month or two to give people a longer run-up to insure they have a successful launch.
In addition to retail space, there are shared spaces, like a podcast studio, and a fully-functioning commercial kitchen which can be rented out, allowing business owners to have access to top-of-the-line equipment without having to invest in it, or the space in which to operate.
For someone like Dave Willet, co-owner of Stem Soaps, having an incubator environment for a new business is invaluable.
Willet and his husband, Steve Meka, both had corporate business backgrounds when they stepped away to form their company. Even with years of experience in corporate boardrooms, they still sought out the advice of small business owners to tackle the unknown of a start-up.
Now they host “The Edge” — a small artisan collective – in their Lakewood location, allowing makers to sell their products and build their brand in a space where collaborating together can help them to grow their business.
When “The Edge” artisans are ready to step into something bigger, Figgie and Budish will have a space for them at Studio West 117.
“We have always been cognizant of the need for additional resources for a community which can sustain small businesses and amenities,” Budish said. “The end goal is to have an ecosystem where spaces are available to folks who just have an inkling of an idea, or coming from The Edge artist collective where they have just had a shelf and are ready to expand to a larger retail presence. We are building the infrastructure for them to be able to work with the community partners we have relationships with now to help with the business plans or to help find some start-up capital.”
Willet said that with the right kind of community, small business owner will start working together and naturally collaborate to learn from one another. “We all have the same problems as a new business owner,” he said. “You build a mindset of ‘grassroots mentorship.’ Small business owners watch out for one another – they share things – there is that kind of mindset.”
Arianna Perez is the first small business owner to set up shop at Studio West 117. Her Barbercult salon is finding footing in a male-dominated industry. Perez is the first gay-owned, female-owned barber shop in Northeast Ohio.
Studio West 117 paid for the build-out of temporary space so she could start building up a clientele. As her business grows, they plan to move her into a larger, permanent location within the complex.
Since opening late last year, she has been able to add two additional barbers to the staff.
“To have this kind of safe space for the community is a really big deal,” Perez said. “To have this kind of space to provide haircuts for people from all walks of life who come in here means everything, but when we get the chance to provide haircuts for trans youth and let them relax and know they can be their authentic self and not be judged, then this becomes more than just a barber shop.”
Budish and Figgie are counting on other small business owners who launch their businesses there to have the same experience and spread the word that there are LGBTQ-friendly business opportunities in Ohio.