When the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce was started in September 2012, executive director Jason Rae wasn’t sure how successful it would be.
A month and a half later, the Milwaukee law firm of Foley & Lardner was the first to join the chamber.
The Milwaukee-based organization has been growing ever since.
“That was kind of the turning point,” Rae said.
With its one-year anniversary, the chamber welcomed into the fold its 100th member, Miller Coors.
“I never thought it would have taken off as quickly as it did,” Rae said. “It really showed a need for a business organization focused on LGBT and allied companies.”
The LGBT Chamber of Commerce now has 470 members and puts on about 50 events each year. Half the members come from businesses in southeast Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area. A quarter hail from the Madison area, and the rest are from the Fox Valley area.
Many of the chamber’s members are LGBT-owned businesses; most are LGBT-allied.
Thus, the chamber’s mission is two-fold. First, it helps small businesses connect with each other. Second, it helps its larger, corporate partners attract diverse talent.
The two goals stem from a need Rae discovered when he formed an LGBT professionals group. A business owner from the Bay View neighborhood in Milwaukee told him he had a business that was seeking to double the number of employees it had and wanted to find an LGBT-owned or allied bank, contractor and marketing firm to help him do it.
“The line he used was, ‘I want to do business with those who share my values. Where do I go?’” said Rae.
Rae also encountered professionals who were trying to recruit talent and let them know that their workplaces are inclusive.
“We’re really focused on supporting businesses that have a commitment to pro-fairness values,” said Rae.
Of the events the chamber hosts every year, the most significant are its business-diversity summit, women’s leadership lunch and business expo. Other activities that members can take part in are networking events and educational programming.
The chamber’s plans for the future are simple: add members and continue to provide new and existing members with opportunities.
“Our goal is to help businesses make more money, reach more customers, and be as successful as they can be,” Rae said. “That’s out first goal. Our second goal is to provide innovative ways to get the tools they need to be successful.”
Rae also said that the chamber hopes it can work with local governments to promote diversity and inclusion.
The national Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce offers certification to businesses that are 51 percent or more LGBT-owned. The certification is free to any Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce member; all they need to do is apply. It provides additional opportunities to members because national and corporate partners often seek out members with the certification.
States such as California, Massachusetts and New York have already agreed to accept the certification in their diversity programs.
“We’re optimistic about opportunities like this in Wisconsin that we’re working on that will increase opportunities for LGBT business enterprises on the local level — to have cities, counties, local school boards and other local governmental entities accept the certification in their supplier diversity program and really show intentional inclusion,” Rae said.
For now, Rae is the chamber’s only staff member, although interns do pitch in when Rae can get them.
“I absolutely love it,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what it would turn out to be. I am so honored and privileged to get to do this work. My husband should get a fair amount of credit. I bounce everything off him. He puts up with me talking about it. It’s a labor of love.”