The National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce received funding from IBM (IBM ) and others in May, 2002, to serve as an umbrella organization for gay-owned and -operated businesses. BusinessWeek spoke to co-founder Justin Nelson about the group's goals. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation:
Q: Why is there a need for a gay Chamber of Commerce?
A:There are a lot of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups out there. But what we didn't have was an economic voice, a way to flex our economic muscle and say: "We're more than businessmen and women, more than a marketing base, we're also a supply base for other larger businesses."
Q: A lot of businesses market to the gay community, and there are already local gay chambers of commerce, aren't there?
A:We serve as the umbrella organization in Washington for about 55 state and local chapters. By speaking with a larger voice, we can flex our collective economic muscle -- similar to what you saw with the rise of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce years ago.
Q: How do you help gay-owned businesses?
A:Members will have access to capital from banks to help them grow. They will benefit from group purchasing power and networking. Even better, they'll be able to tap an estimated $80 billion in procurement contracts through our supplier-diversity program.
Q: How does a gay supplier-diversity program work?
A:Many big companies want to expand their supplier base and demonstrate their commitment to diversity but, in the case of the gay community, didn't have a way to certify that a business could actually be classified gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. We'll be handling that certification program and creating a directory of such companies.
Q: Just a few years ago, it hardly seemed possible that Corporate America would be thinking about finding gay suppliers. What has changed?
A:It's going beyond liquor companies and airlines and party promoters now. Face it, times are tough, and when you begin looking for people who are willing to spend money, it's hard to overlook the fact that gay people are big consumers, with high disposable incomes. But the trick for companies is that gay people also are demanding that if they buy from you, you need to give something back either in the form of recognition or opportunity.