LGBTQ entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas can tap into a growing support system thanks to StartOut, a non-profit that provides access to capital, mentorship and education to empower LGBTQ business leaders. The organization has six chapters across the country and counts 15,000 members in its national network. Last year, its Austin chapter became the birthplace of HackOut, the nation’s premier LGBTQ-oriented hackathon hosted in partnership with Techstars and Lesbians Who Tech.
We chatted with Beth Houtrow, Director of Membership and Operations, to find out how StartOut began, and why Austin is putting inclusive entrepreneurship on the map.
DIG SOUTH: How did StartOut initially begin? What do you think has contributed to StartOut’s growth since then?
Beth Houtrow: Almost every LGBTQ entrepreneur has encountered unequal access to key resources needed to advance their business, including a lack of visible role models, difficulty locating mentors, or being denied access to capital. This context inspired Joe DiPasquale, Bryan Janeczko, Darren Spedale, and Lorenzo Thione [a University of Texas alum] to found StartOut in 2009, beginning with networking and education events in New York and San Francisco.
Since then, StartOut has grown for a number of reasons:
1. The founders and Board of Directors of StartOut were and are very passionate about helping other LGBTQ entrepreneurs reach the same success they have enjoyed. They committed many volunteer hours to expanding the community from two chapters (New and SF) to six (NY, SF, LA, Chicago, Boston, and Austin).
2. There’s a real need for StartOut. While marriage equality exists in all 50 states, workplace equality does not. A person can still be fired in 28 states for being LGBTQ and more than half of LGBTQ people do not feel safe enough to be out at work. Being an entrepreneur is an opportunity for an LGBTQ person to not only be their true selves at work, but to also create an environment where diversity and inclusion is embraced.
3. The hiring of three full time staff and the launch of the StartOut Online Community (startout.org) in January 2017 has allowed us to reach LGBTQ entrepreneurs all over the country and even the world. Via our online community we offer:
- The AT&T Entrepreneur Mentorship Program – with a 99% recommendation rating from both mentors and mentees!
- Investor Portal – exposing LGBTQ fundraising businesses to LGBTQA investors.
- LGBTQ Entrepreneur Global Network – a searchable directory to find all the right connections.
- Entrepreneur Forum – the place for LGBTQ professional networking 24/7.
- EIR Office hours – with serial entrepreneur Peter Sisson.
- Complimentary legal advice from global law firm Nixon Peabody.
DS: Why did you select Austin as a StartOut community?
BH: Austin was an ideal place to have a StartOut chapter. It’s has a wonderful tech scene and liberal and inclusive atmosphere which means that there was great potential to find members. In addition, while Austin is an open and accepting city, it’s in a state where LGBTQ people can still legally be discriminated against in the workplace. By helping LGBTQ entrepreneurs in Austin and surrounding cities to become business leaders, we believe they can make an impact in Texas by creating inclusive workplaces and by being respected community leaders.
DS: On a similar note, what made Austin an ideal place to launch HackOut?
BH: There were several reasons why we chose Austin to launch HackOut.
- Most of our chapters are on the coasts, so Austin is one of our more centralized locations. That was critical for the event since participants came from all over the country.
- We had great support from the community. HomeAway was an amazing sponsor that provided us with space for the event the entire weekend, as well as volunteer organizers, mentors, and judges. So many local organizations and business leaders lended their support to make HackOut happen.
- We had some amazing volunteer leadership that was eager to showcase Austin and the LGBTQ community in Austin.
DS: Can you share some success stories or great outcomes from the HackOut event?
BH: We had over 70 participants on 10 teams who built company ideas around issues including co-working, fashion, travel, food, and more. Some of the companies were LGBTQ-specific with a lesbian-focused dating app, an app that helps trans people find safe bathrooms, and the winning team, an app called SafeNight that helps match LGBTQ teens and young adults with safe temporary housing when they have been kicked out of their homes by their families. You can get more details on that team here.
DS: What other programs or resources do you have in place in Austin?
BH: Our Austin chapter hosts about 6 large networking and educational events a year. Last month’s HackOut was already our third Austin event this year. In January, the team hosted an event entitled High-Impact Entrepreneurs Changing the Diversity Game with Keynote speaker Vivienne Ming, and in March, StartOut Austin hosted a large networking event during SXSW.
DS: Has StartOut considered launching chapters in other Southern cities?
BH: StartOut would love to have more chapters in Southern Cities. Washington DC, the Triangle in North Carolina, and Atlanta are places of interest. We’re a non-profit with a small staff, so we’ll be revisiting chapter expansion in 2018.
Learn more about StartOut Austin here.
Image credit: Lesbians Who Tech