Coming out as transgender to family and friends can be wrought with conflict and anxiety. Now imagine what it’s like to come out at work.

A 2015 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality surveyed almost 28,000 transgender people based in the U.S., and found that “77% of those who had held a job in the year prior took active steps to avoid mistreatment at work, such as hiding their gender identity, delaying their gender transition (or living as their true selves only after work and on weekends), refraining from asking their employers to use their correct pronouns (he, she, they, ze), or quitting their jobs.”

That was five years ago, and while some things have changed, not enough has. The Supreme Court ruled in June that employers can’t discriminate against employees based on gender or sexual orientation. But weeks later, The Department of Housing and Urban Development floated a new regulation that would essentially allow homeless shelters to discriminate against transgender individuals--along with instructions on how to identify a transgender woman.

SupportBee’s founder and CEO Hana Mohan can attest to this. A successful tech entrepreneur in India, Hana lost the support of her professional network once she transitioned. Starting from scratch, she built a successful customer support ticketing software business that she manages to this day. (To learn more about Hana’s journey, read this article.)

The good news is that there are organizations out there actively working to help transgender individuals find equality in the workplace--including as independent entrepreneurs. One such group is called TransWork, a Philadelphia-based non-profit (and extension of the Independence Business Alliance, or “IBA”) that offers programs, mentorships, and other opportunities for gender non-binary professionals.

We interviewed Zach Wilcha, Executive Director of TransWork IBA who oversees TransWork operations, to hear more about what they’re doing and why gender non-binary individuals are finding opportunities in the entrepreneurial space. While Zach identifies as cisgender and plays a pivotal role on TransWork committee, the committee itself consists exclusively of trans and gender noncomforming people who oversee the organization’s direction.

Zach Wilcha

Tell us about TransWork’s goals, and how you’re meeting them.

TransWork is an initiative of the IBA, and is working to fill a critical gap for addressing un- and under-employment. The organization connects transgender and gender non-binary job seekers and entrepreneurs to a network of supportive employers and business partners.

It’s the brainchild of one of our board members, Marcus Iannozzi. He has wanted to do this for years, as he is a transgender business owner who felt that although these programs had existed before, there weren’t any that were running through LGTBQ Chambers of Commerce.

He thought that connecting LGTBQ-friendly corporations with job seekers who identify as transgender would have a bigger impact. Since IBA was doing so much work with LGTBQ business owners and entrepreneurs already, we thought this was a great way to get trans folks to consider entrepreneurship.

Right now we cover five counties in Southeast Pennsylvania, five in New Jersey, and one in Northern Delaware. Our hope is to expand over time; since we are connected to the National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, others can set up satellite TransWork groups in their cities. We’re hoping they’ll take the playbook from us to form their own programs.

(Read more about TransWork's mission and model here.)

While we’ve been focusing mainly on the employer side of this initiative for now, though we do offer an entrepreneurship program that connects transgender or gender non-conforming entrepreneurs with useful resources, like business planning sessions. Our goal in the next year or so is to engage those identifying as transgender business owners (or aspiring ones) with experienced mentors. We had so much momentum in March leading up to these programs, but the pandemic put a lot of things on hold.

What are the challenges that trans and gender non-binary entrepreneurs face?

The challenges are innumerable for trans people right now, and what those look like differ on a case-by-case basis. We have trans business owners, for example, who have been entrepreneurs their whole lives--but once they transitioned and lost support, had to start all over again post-transition to establish new networks and find safe spaces.

We’ve had transgender entrepreneurs who were so deeply marginalized in the workplace that they were driven into entrepreneurship--all because they couldn’t find a place of work that accepted them. They needed to have control over how their life was going to go, and being at the whims of others with authority was just not possible anymore. And some trans-owned business owners don’t openly identify as trans because they are afraid to do so.

What we have found in the employment space is that people have a certain idea in their head of who the trans job seeker is. In reality, we meet people of every kind of experience level possible who are looking for jobs…people who have become under- or unemployed because of their transition.

Even those who have always been confident about their transgender identification have run into a lack of support by family, and experienced homelessness or other setbacks that put them at a significant advantage to other job seekers. There's no one particular trans experience.

"What we have found in the employment space is that people have a certain idea in their head of who the trans job seeker is. In reality, we meet people of every kind of experience level possible who are looking for jobs…people who have become under- or unemployed because of their transition."

How can employers and other organizations help trans and non-binary professionals find equality in the workplace?

Job programs and hiring professionals need to give trans folks a chance. And we don’t mean hire one trans person and call it a day. That one hire should begin a process. Many trans people out there bring a significant history of employment and experience that would allow them to be in charge of projects. Don’t just hire a trans person to be a helper; have them be a significant contributor, a manager, or boss. Put them in positions of power.

We hope big corporations are going to do more hiring of trans people and gender non-conforming people. Aside from that, there are ways those big businesses can support entrepreneurship specifically. For example, bringing them on as vendors. Over half of the Fortune 500s accept LGBTQ-owned businesses in their minority spendings, and earmark dollars for those contracts. A great way to uplift trans entrepreneurs is to funnel money to their businesses.

"Don’t just hire a trans person to be a helper; have them be a significant contributor, a manager, or boss. Put them in positions of power."

Where have you seen transgender individuals achieve entrepreneurial success?

We worked with an incredible transgender woman who owns a printing business--she helps businesses that don't have in-house printing ability. She grew her business after connecting with corporations that were looking to award contracts to LGBTQ-run operations.

We also had a transgender man working as a registered nurse who needed a convenient way to carry around testosterone doses during his transition. He designed his own pack, and now sells them--including to diabetics who have to carry around insulin.

Many of these folks transitioned later in life, which certainly gives a leg up if you can establish a professional network that supports your self-affirmation before making the transition. But we’re here because that’s not possible for everybody.

Are you seeing a growth in the presence of transgender individuals in the entrepreneurial space?

A lot of transgender people have been pushed into entrepreneurship because they’ve been marginalized elsewhere.

I think the presence of LGTBQ jobs programs has grown, as has trans visibility in general. I think it’s such a strange juncture in our country’s history where things that were growing aren’t right now because of the pandemic. But my sense is that things are trending in our direction and will continue to do so.

But really, all the LGBTQ data is a black hole because it relies on self identification. These success stories are people who are brave enough to be out. It’s difficult to gather data when you don’t know where to find it.

As far as the HUD memo [mentioned in the introduction], it’s dispiriting. It shows how the formal mechanics of the law, when it comes to the Supreme Court, can only do so much. We need attention on jobs of course, but our community also needs to give attention to things like housing and public accommodation.

I think that, generally, a political statement we can all make is standing up for trans rights. The way that the IBA/TransWork is trying to do that is through economic uplift. And in doing so, we’re working to lift the voices of the most marginalized in many of our communities. Just this week we did a panel on how black and brown transgender, gender nonconforming lives matter in the business world. We want to further the conversation on how to make sure there are workplaces for trans folks that are not only trans-friendly and trans-affirmative, but trans promotional.

(For more information on TransWork’s upcoming virtual events, visit their events page.)

"A lot of transgender people have been pushed into entrepreneurship because they’ve been marginalized elsewhere."

What is your advice to trans and non-binary professionals who want to start their own business?

As somebody who runs a business organization, find the people who are interested in your success. Just know that for everyone you run into that poses a challenge, there’s a large LGBTQ business community out there that is rooting for you to succeed. Find your people.

Tap into the significant network of LGBTQ chambers across the country; they’re in almost every major city. There are community centers with LGTBQ-specific job programs. For example, In Philadelphia we have worked closely with the William Way Center , which has a trans resource center.

Also, you have to stay a little hopeful. I’m trying to stay hopeful about it. If you’re going to be doing this kind of work, you have to. It’s hard to do the work without it.

I want to add that entrepreneurship for transgender and non-binary people is not a lost cause. It's not that the hurdles are worse, they are just evolving. I actually find this administration’s awful reaction to everything as a sign of success, that this is something that they can’t stop. They can make the rules, but they are not going to stop trans people from succeeding in business. They can delay it, but we see clearly where this is headed. And it’s in our favor.

Zach Wilcha is the first Executive Director of the IBA, Philadelphia's LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Prior to his current role, he clerked for the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and worked as a Project Attorney, as well as with Habitat for Humanity. Throughout his career, Wilcha has been an active volunteer for political campaigns and various area community organizations. He graduated with a B.A. in International Relations from Saint Joseph’s University and a Juris Doctor from Villanova Law School. He is a native of Northeastern Pennsylvania and currently resides in Philadelphia.  

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