LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs creating safe spaces for their communities to thrive

Business owners share how they are empowering inclusivity in their localities, all the while harnessing Verizon Small Business Digital Ready to grow their companies and drive positive change.

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This Pride Month, Verizon Small Business Digital Ready is celebrating the remarkable efforts of entrepreneurs who promote inclusivity for LGBTQ+ customers. By providing free courses, coaching, and networking opportunities, Verizon Small Business Digital Ready supports all business owners, including LGBTQ+ business owners, in overcoming their entrepreneurial challenges as they create safe spaces for their communities.

“Through my designs, I use intersectional storytelling to create a safe space for individuals to celebrate their identities,” says Shannen Garza Hakim, founder of Womxn on the Moon in Houston, TX. Photo credit: Shannen Garza Hakim

Pride you can wear

Being an Afro-Latina, queer business owner in Texas presents its own unique challenges. But being different is motivation for Shannen Garza Hakim, owner of the Houston-based jewelry boutique, Womxn on the Moon, which specializes in crystal, beaded and resin designs. Garza Hakim views her online store as a mirror where customers are reflected and celebrated, offering an experience she once longed for. “As a biracial person, as a queer person, there was no space for me to just understand what these identities meant,” says Garza Hakim. She vowed to create that space, combining her love of jewelry with her experience in advocacy work, in the nonprofit field. Her award-winning jewelry emphasizes sustainable design practices, and Garza Hakim features models of all backgrounds and orientations to showcase her work.

Garza Hakim hid her jewelry around historically Black areas of Houston as part of a scavenger hunt highlighting the life of civil rights activist Barbara Jordan, the first known LGBTQ+ woman elected to Congress. Photo credit: Shannen Garza Hakim

Garza Hakim was confident in her designs and mission, but when it came to building and engaging her online audience, she felt she needed a boost. She found it in Digital Ready. Garza Hakim says that Digital Ready courses taught her to focus her marketing on storytelling. Combining that new skill with her natural creativity, Garza Hakim devised a novel social media campaign: a scavenger hunt. The first person to follow the clues successfully found a beautiful message bracelet from Garza Hakim’s collection.

Her engagement tactics worked: thanks to the scavenger hunt, Garza Hakim’s Instagram account grew by 1,000 followers. “The types of aha moments you have when you’re taking the Digital Ready courses are definitely going to impact the amount of social media followers you have and the people that are engaging, because your strategy is stronger,” Garza Hakim says.

Ismael De Luna (right), owner and operator of Healing Cuts SF in San Francisco, poses with customer Richard Harem (left). “His contagious personality and occasional bursts into song make your time in the chair so much more than just a trim—it's a mood booster you didn't know you needed,” Harem says. Photo credit: Richard Harem and Ismael De Luna

Transformation through haircuts

Ismael De Luna was working construction in San Francisco when he began to feel the job was too physically taxing. De Luna, who was born and raised in Mexico, needed a change. To launch his next career, De Luna combined his skill at cutting hair, his side job, with a passion for helping people in need.

Healing Cuts SF, De Luna’s barbershop, has a noble goal: to create the best looks and provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ folks. De Luna began volunteering with Shanti, a nonprofit addressing isolation among those with HIV, and watched lives transform — recounting one instance when a client suffering from suicidal ideation was moved to tears by the transformation he received from Healing Cuts SF. “We were able to awaken a little bit of hope,” says De Luna.

Looking for insight to grow his business, De Luna found the free courses available at Digital Ready to be helpful. The course “Getting Certified: Paths for Minority/Women-Owned Businesses,” proved especially beneficial to De Luna as it offered tips on how to navigate state certification. The course, he says, will enable him to overcome obstacles during the application process, and this is key to unlocking more opportunities to grow his mission. “Having the ability to touch lives inside and out means more than anything,” De Luna says.

Rebecca Ferstle and Leann Cantrell, owners of Grindhrs Coffee & Community in Toledo, Ohio, are partners in life and business. Together, they provide coffee and warm hospitality for LGBTQ+ community and allies. Photo credit: Patrick Clark

Coffee that fuels community

Soon after Leann Cantrell and Becca Ferstle were married, Cantrell was deployed for active duty in the military. Despite the distance between them, the newlyweds found comfort in planning for their future. When Cantrell mentioned a dream of opening a coffee shop, the idea quickly ignited. The duo sketched out the concept for their cafe, which would also support LGBTQ+ folks in Toledo, Ohio.

The couple wanted to create a safe space that wasn’t centered around alcohol, since many queer spaces are bars. “People, when they're younger, can have a space that isn't a bar to go to, and to be able to just feel like themselves and not have alcohol be the center of it,” says Cantrell, a former licensed chemical dependency counselor assistant (CDCA).

After Cantrell returned from duty, Grindhrs Coffee & Community was born. Today at Grindhrs, the community is invited to wear pink every Wednesday as a fun homage to Mean Girls, a beloved movie in the millennial queer community, as well as partake in events and order drinks with names such as “Yass Queen'' and “You Betta Werk.”

Despite word-of-mouth success, keeping the company afloat has not been easy for the first-time entrepreneurs, but taking courses at Digital Ready helped them find new inspiration and think outside the box, Cantrell says. The course that most resonated for the couple was “Pay Yourself: Get Beyond Breaking Even.” Cantrell and Ferstle are now working hard to make their business profitable and put their salaries on the payroll.

As for the most rewarding part of operating Grindhrs, Cantrell and Ferstle agree that it is living their dream of creating a safe space for patrons and staff. “I don't think work should ever come first,” says Ferstle. “I think people’s lives should come first.”

Learn more about other entrepreneurs’ journeys and grow your own small business with valuable resources such as online courses, live coaching, peer networking and grant opportunities — all available for free at Verizon Small Business Digital Ready.

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