Enterprising Women: Jenn T. Grace, professional lesbian

Who wouldn’t want the title “professional lesbian”? Treats like golfing with your wife in the middle of the week and attending your kids performances make Jenn T. Grace‘s job a total dream. She trains companies to reach the LGBT community as well as helping LGBT companies grow.

Her road to this dream job wasn’t strewn with rose pedals. Grace shares what she learned from her failures in order to make her dream a reality.

What do you do and why?

I call myself a professional lesbian. It started off as a joke, but it just stuck. In short, I teach straight people how to market to gay people and gay people how to market themselves. Ultimately, I strive to be a resource to any business or professional looking to market to the LGBT community, the caveat is the company must be authentic and transparent about their approach. They must have a genuine care for the LGBT community or I won’t work with them. I am not in the business of helping bad companies reach the good people of our community, in fact I want to protect our community from those greedy types of people.

I started my business because I saw the apparent need for business owners and professionals to really understand how to communicate with the LGBT community. Truly understanding what makes our community tick and how to communicate in an appropriate and professional manner is key. I thought knowing how to communicate was obvious to people, but I quickly learned it is not. This is something many people are working on, especially if they want to see success.

What did you do before you started your company?

I was bit by the entrepreneurial bug at a young age. I started a landscaping business when I was 17 and have had a few other failed business ventures since. In 2004, I began helping small business owners with their marketing needs and have somehow been tied into the small business community since.

How did you come up with the idea for your company?

In 2009, I took on the role of executive director for the local Connecticut LGBT Chamber of Commerce. In the five years prior, I was freelancing and helping small businesses better market themselves. However, in my four-year role as executive director, I wore many hats, but the few I enjoyed the most where helping member businesses succeed and market themselves better. The chamber gave me the opportunity to hone in my skills of understanding varying businesses on a deeper level.

As the chamber grew, my desire to help their businesses with their LGBT marketing grew. Understanding LGBT marketing was a skill set unique to me, not the position I was in, and I felt I would be more effective and powerful if I changed the direction of my business to focus on the needs of small business owners across the country, not just in Connecticut. Helping the LGBT community be better understood is at the core of what I do.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you received when first starting your company? What would you tell a young entrepreneur in turn?

My guiding principle in business has been, “It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” I like to dive in and get things done. If you wait around for someone’s permission to do so you’ll be waiting for eternity. While I would give this same advice to a young entrepreneur, I would like to share something I’ve learned over time that I think is more important. Find out what you like to do and do that. Don’t be complacent. Try a lot of things. If you don’t like what you are doing, switch directions.

As an entrepreneur, there is no one way of doing things. If you see your business model isn’t quite working like you had hoped, you are agile enough to pivot and go in a new direction. I am always revising the ways I am doing things because I need to be happy doing what I am doing first and foremost. If you have a client who is a pain to you, get rid of them. You have to take care of yourself first and do what feels right to you. Success will follow if you stay true to your personal mission.

What aspect of business ownership came as the biggest surprise to you?

When you are first starting out, you need to know everything. While you are bootstrapping it or budgets are tight, you need to be the salesperson, the bookkeeper and the janitor. As you grow and have the funds to support your venture, you can begin to hire people to help you do these things, which frees you up to focus on the things you love to do. Finding this balance was a bit of a challenge at first, but once you get in your groove, the sky is the limit.

What do you find most rewarding about owning your own business?

One word: freedom. Owning my own business allows me to do what I want, when I want, on my terms. Sure there are client needs and demands that can leave you feeling like you aren’t in control, but ultimately you are choosing them to be your clients and allowing them to have that control. I have the freedom to go golfing with my wife in the middle of the week when I want to. Or go to a school play for one of my kids without having to ask for someone’s permission. I wouldn’t give this lifestyle up for anything.

What resources would you recommend to someone who is contemplating starting her own business?

I would say the first step is to find a mentor who is out there doing it. It doesn’t have to be someone doing exactly what you want to do, but go out and find a lesbian who is successful that you admire and ask her for advice. Ask her what she wishes she knew when she started her business. I find the majority of people are open and candid when you ask them these things. Don’t reinvent the wheel, get out there and learn from those who know it better than you do. From there, you’ll be able to gauge if this is something you are cut out for.

What would you say is the single most important key to sustaining a business long term?

The ability to remain nimble. The bigger your business gets the more difficult it becomes to be nimble and make quick decisions. For long-term sustainability, the ability to shift when the market shifts or to identify when something isn’t working and pivot in a new direction are key.

What obstacles did you face in establishing your company and how did you overcome them?

My word of advice is to embrace your failures. Before pivoting and landing in my company now of being a professional lesbian, I had another LGBT consulting business with a business partner. It was really tough for me to come to the conclusion that I needed to close that business and admit that I failed. But the reality is that failure has taught me so much that I couldn’t have learned in business school. It ultimately shaped my company now in such a positive way. So when you are faced with an obstacle or something unpleasant, look at it as a learning opportunity and know that you will come out the other side just fine.

Learn more about Jenn T. Grace on her web site or through Facebook or Twitter.

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