Making LGBT businesses relevant

Posted: March 3rd, 2017 | Elsewhere in LGBT News, Featured, News | No Comments

By Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

(Editor’s note: In January, we started our series on LGBT businesses [Vol. 8, Issue 1, or online at] and due to a few unexpected distractions and delays, we are just now returning to it. We expect at least one more article in the series and in future issues will be adding GSDBA member spotlights and a column focusing on small-business development to keep our finger on the pulse of this arena. Stay tuned.)

LGBT businesses have been around since the beginning of time, but in San Diego, it wasn’t until the Greater San Diego Business Association (GSDBA) was launched in 1979, that local gay and lesbian businesses could “out” themselves, albeit quietly, to their customers and each other.

While the name didn’t exactly explain it, the GSDBA is basically San Diego’s LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Chambers are organizations that are, according to Webster, “a local association to promote and protect the interests of the business community in a particular place.”

The GSDBA is an affiliate of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC).

The NGLCC, based in Washington, D.C., is sponsoring what is being touted as “the world’s largest LGBT business development event” in Las Vegas this August.

It calls itself the “business voice of the LGBT community” and its “What we do” web page gives the following list of its areas of focus:

  • diversity and inclusion — supporting and advocating for diversity and inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT)-owned businesses.
  • policy priorities — working to ensure implementation of pro-business, LGBT-inclusive policies at the federal, state and local levels of government
  • supplier innovation — a platform for connecting corporate partners with certified LGBT suppliers and an incubator for entrepreneurial success.
  • collaborations — proudly working with a range of organizations to ensure LGBT inclusion in business.
  • business resources — great discounts offered by various organizations and companies. Check back often for additional resources and offers.
  • NGLCC Global — promoting broad-based economic advancement and empowerment of the global LGBT community.

As an affiliate, the GSDBA offers much of this, with the support of the NGLCC, but on a smaller scale. In the past, most have known the local chamber for its popular business directory and its monthly business mixers.

But CEO Barbra Blake, who recently passed her original three-year commitment on the job while ushering in huge changes to the internal nuts and bolts of the organization, sees even greater change on the horizon.

Blake, who traces her history within the local LGBT community as one of the early leaders of the local AIDS Walk and San Diego Pride, said she thinks “it’s time” to redefine the operational and benefit model of GSDBA.

“I have the backing to change it,” she said. “As someone who has been an agent of change, that’s what I’ve done the last 25 years, start, save or close,” she said. “As I tell people the organization is 37 years old, I wasn’t brought to start it.”

After stepping into the role, talking to many who had recently left the membership and networking with current members, it became clear to Blake that the chamber had “suddenly became irrelevant, it became outdated.”

She blames the recession, which caused business owners to start cutting back on marketing expenditures and stop paying their memberships. She also points to advancements in social media and smart phones.

“That changed everything and has gradually continued to change things,” she said, adding that the forward movements in the socio-political arena also had an impact.

“When I talk to the older folks, like Jeff Keeny and Chris Shaw, they’ll always talk about how they were operating essentially in the closet and they wanted to be able to be themselves,” she said. “So that’s why [the GSDBA] was started.”

LGBT consumers over the years have also preferred to put their money and trust into a gay person’s pocket and business model than anyone else in the community at large; it just felt better and it still does.

That is why the GSDBA business directory has been such a successful tool for nearly four decades. The 2017 directory — which for the first time added “LGBT” to its front cover just last year — is still as popular as it was in 1980, but the new online version, which will be available the first week of March, makes it more accessible in today’s digital age. The hard copy directory will go to print by mid-March.

But despite the challenges we continue to face, especially with the current administration, times have changed; for the most part, LGBT businesses no longer operate out of the closet and their needs have shifted.

In keeping with this, Blake wants to continue moving the GSDBA forward and making it more relevant to our community and what she calls, “a broader array of members.”

And there is a larger goal.

Every quarter, Blake attends a meeting of all the area’s smaller chambers, hosted by Jerry Sanders, former mayor who is president and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. What she has found attending these meetings is, all the chambers are experiencing a drop in membership for similar reasons.

“As Jerry Sanders says, ‘If my members tell me they are joining for the mixers, I tell them not to join.’” Blake said. “So it’s a different day; the modern chamber of commerce needs to not only be involved in business issues, it needs to be involved in the economic health of its community.”

What is the solution? To start, less mixers and more member benefits. Blake said she wants to offer a “buffet of benefits” and so far, the GSDBA website has undergone a complete top-to-bottom makeover and offers members much more than ever before.

LGBTBE certification

One of the things the GSDBA is currently focusing on is getting its members LGBT Business Enterprise (LGBTBE) certified.

The NGLCC is really pushing the LGBTBE certification and they are the only organization qualified to do this and all their affiliates across the country are working to make this happen. Any LGBT-owned business can get certified, but the fees for certification are waived for NGLCC affiliate members.

Certification is beneficial to any LGBT business, just like certification for women-owned, minority-owned and veteran-owned works; it adds an additional layer to your cake and opens you up to federal, state and local opportunities that you may not have been privy to before.

Governments — and more and more commercial entities like SDG&E — are mandated to diversify their contracts and spread their dollars across a larger range of business interests.

You don’t have to be a large business to get certified or compete for these contracts, as smaller businesses are often required; and in many instances you can sign on as subcontractors or preferred vendors and get business in a myriad of ways.

Most importantly, it puts you on the radar of other businesses looking to partner for these and many other contracts and opportunities.

The GSDBA is offering workshops (the last one was Thursday, March 2, the day prior to publication) on a monthly basis to teach members how to get certified. Keep an eye on its website ( and your email for upcoming dates.

Small-business development

The Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which has offices in South Bay (at Southwestern College) and North County (at Mira Costa College) and in Imperial Valley, is also offering workshops for certification and are working with the GSDBA for members that may be unable to perform all the steps on their own, or are unable to get all the required paperwork in order.

The SBDC offers additional time and direction to help them on their way. They are also offering a free, four-module training program called “Let’s Work It,” starting March 30, that will help LGBT businesses become successful. To learn more, email

Our next article in this series will focus on the website and the many other ways the GSDBA is shifting its direction and offering more to its members. To learn more about the GSDBA, visit or email Blake at To learn more about the NGLCC, visit

—Reach Morgan M. Hurley at

Leave a Comment