Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series on how local small businesses are coping in the time of COVID.
There’s a Danish word “hygge,” pronounced hue-guh, it’s sort of a concept meant to describe the feeling you get whether alone or with friends, at home or out, that the moment is cozy, charming, or just special.
And you can’t really miss Mikko, the Nordic restaurant on the corner of 17th and R streets in the old gayborhood, a special place to many D.C. gays. Former chef to the Finnish embassy, a position he held for more than a decade, Mikko Kosonen opened Mikko almost two years ago. I sat down recently to chat with Mikko about all things Black Lives Matter, COVID, gay, and Nordic.
Just passing by, you’re immediately drawn to the color scheme. Reds, blues, whites, some yellow — all the colors of Nordic flags are there. I’m not a restaurant critic to be sure, but the food was fresh and fantastic, served by an upbeat and energetic staff. Mikko treated me to a salmon and poached egg sandwich followed by pancakes with a raspberry sauce. Each bite held little pieces of some Nordic heaven. The inside shop is full of Nordic products, from sodas to mustards to mints and candies. I bought a bag of children’s candy known as ‘Dracula Pillers’ or Dracula Pills.
Like any restaurant in the area, COVID hit his interests hard. In less than a week, he saw eight months of catering events cancelled. To make it work, he pivoted toward to-go meals and grocery items. “I never thought I’d be 50 years old and selling eggs. But here we are.” A government pandemic relief loan helped. He cut hours, but Mikko took pride in telling me that no one on his staff was laid off.
Slowly but steadily, catering requests are coming back. That’s the bread and butter of the business, if you will. Given his unique taste-of-home cooking, you can imagine Mikko is quite popular with the World Bank, the IMF, and a whole host of embassies. While I was sitting with Mikko, he was fielding text messages from the Austrian ambassador. Asked about the prospect of further opening up of city businesses, ‘knock on the voood’, Mikko said in a charming accent.
Given the Black Lives Matter movement, Mikko is aware of his privilege as a gay white male from a northern European country, you know, the kind of immigrant President Trump openly prefers versus those from “shithole countries” as Trump called them. Nevertheless he does have a perspective, gesturing toward the work going on at the now shuttered Cobalt, to the dry cleaners on the corner, “none of this would be possible without immigrants.” An important reminder to be sure.
Stopping by on a recent Saturday, every table was full, despite being a rather muggy D.C. July morning. When it comes to fitting in, Mikko was proud to be on 17th Street, and proud to show off his new outdoor dining tables, again with the Nordic colors and depictions of classic Finnish cartoon characters. He also had nothing but praise for his ANC commissioner Randy Downs. It was with his help that Mikko was able to secure more outdoor seating by converting the parking area out front, something he very much wants to retain post-pandemic. I think everyone would like that.
I’ve always preferred Dupont’s 17th Street to the more bustling 14th Street; 17th Street, that stretch of the old gayborhood between R and P street, is tree-lined, quaint, and just calmer. And the businesses, bars, and restaurants that occupy that stretch, like Annie’s or Floriana’s, just seem more authentic than their corporate counterparts a few blocks away. Mikko was happy to bring a little gay back to Dupont. He called his restaurant and 17th Street, “a perfect match for each other.” And why not — they’re both authentic, and charming. And just, well, hygge.
Fla. ‘Pride Leadership’ firm survives pandemic to face anti-LGBTQ legislation
‘Are gay leaders better? Of course we are!’
(Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a multi-part summer series of stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. All installments in the series are available on our website.)
Dr. Steven Yacovelli has spent more than 25 years delivering diversity training and developing LGBTQ leaders, but after surviving a nearly half-million-dollar loss during the pandemic, the “Pride Leadership” author and Top Dog Learning Group co-founder now fears legal repercussions from Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act.”
“I can go to a Florida-based client and potentially both the company and an employee could now sue me as the deliverer of the diversity training,” Yacovelli told the Blade. “That training is now potentially illegal because of the Act.”
Top Dog Learning Group is a diversity and inclusion consulting firm based in Orlando and has been delivering training, to include leadership development for the LGBTQ community since 2002, initially as Yacovelli’s “side hustle” while a corporate executive.
At the height of the pandemic’s economic crisis in 2020, Yacovelli said he lost nearly half of his business earnings in two weeks. They were able to survive and recover mostly due to his previous experience with Zoom and other virtual platforms.
But while they could increase their instructional capacity by going virtual, and grow through the crisis, the current impact of Florida’s anti-LGBTQ legislation now threatens his small business.
In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), whom conservative voters in a 2024 presidential election straw poll chose over former President Donald Trump for the second year in a row, signed the new law he dubbed the “Stop Wrongs Against our Kids and Employees Act.” It took effect July 1, despite First Amendment legal challenges.
The Florida law, though targeting the alleged teaching of critical race theory in public schools, also prohibits instruction that “compels” employees or students to believe privilege or oppression “is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.”
This legislation, and the popularly known “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed earlier, have served to decrease Florida’s score on Out Leadership’s 2022 State Level Business Climate Index, published amid a cascade of anti-LGBTQ measures pursued across state legislatures.
New York’s LGBTQ business climate ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row, earning 93.67 out of 100 points, while South Carolina scored last with 33.63 points.
Florida, ranked 31, and Oklahoma, ranked 49, lost points for their “Don’t Say Gay” bills among other anti-LGBTQ legislation.
“LGBTQ-friendly environments are business-friendly environments,” Todd Sears, Out Leadership founder, told Axios in June.
Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” also vaguely states that an individual shouldn’t feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” as a result of the training experience due to their “race, color, sex, or national origin.”
This “discomfort” ban worries Yacovelli as he facilitates difficult conversations in a currently accepting community.
“I look at this as a taxpayer and as a human who lives here,” he said. “But the good news is I live in a very inclusive community because of the Pulse [shooting] and for other reasons. We’ve got each others’ back.”
Yacovelli said his local government and representatives have been very supportive, “but it’s hard.”
The problem of capital
When he was between jobs in 2008, after having been terminated from an executive position without explanation (Florida is an “at-will” state meaning an employer can fire an employee without cause), he followed his friend and co-founder, Ruth Bond, to Paris where he had an epiphany.
In a Paris cafe, he saw a simple yet elegant logo for a French telecommunications company and decided it was time to design a similar, simple logo for his side-hustle and move it into full-time reality.
Years later, he now sees the comforting spirit of his “fur-daughter” Ella, a mini-Labradoodle who died from cancer last summer, in the friendly dog visitors encounter on the company’s website.
“2008 wasn’t a good time to start a business,” Yacovelli said. “But there’s never going to be a good time. You’ll always find an excuse not to do this, but put that aside. Whether it’s the economy, or your own limited finances – just put that all aside and just do it.”
Access to startup capital has been a historic problem for minority business owners. The Federal Reserve Banks reported in 2018 that limited access to credit was a “compounding factor that hurts the underlying health of minority-owned small businesses.”
Many, like Yacovelli, turn to personal funds to get their dream off the ground.
“I was self-funded,” Yacovelli said. “But on the advice of a friend, I took out one small business loan. And thank goodness I did, because I had an established relationship with a bank when COVID hit.”
During the height of the pandemic, the Paycheck Protection Program was administered through banks, limiting access to the survival funding, according to a Brookings Institute report in 2020.
Brookings also pointed out that closing the financial and other disparities could add millions more new small businesses to the U.S. economy and with them more jobs.
The National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce states LGBTQ-owned businesses contribute more than $1 trillion to the U.S. economy, and in 2015 more than 900 certified LGBTQ-owned businesses created more than 33,000 jobs across the country.
But pandemic challenges continue.
“In the years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ+ businesses have faced severe financial challenges and many are at risk of permanently closing,” Zack Hasychak, Director of Membership Outreach at the Human Rights Campaign, told the Blade.
To help LGBTQ businesses, HRC teamed up with Showtime to start their “Queer to Stay” initiative. For two years the partnership awarded funds to 30 LGBTQ-owned businesses across the country and has committed to supporting at least 25 businesses this round.
Applications are accepted via their website until Aug. 31.
The U.S. Small Business Administration is also shining a spotlight on LGBTQ-owned small businesses.
SBA Deputy Press Director Cecelia Taylor told the Blade about the Elevating Small Business webinar series in June that celebrated LGBTQ small businesses across the country while focusing on financial wellness and the importance of equity and opportunity.
“Equity is a top priority for me and for the Biden-Harris administration, and we believe all of America’s entrepreneurs deserve a level playing field, regardless of zip code, race, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation” said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman in a Pride month statement.
“During COVID, we’ve learned how critical equitable access is to surviving and thriving, and at the SBA we are working to build better connections to and for the 1.4 million LGBTQ+ owned businesses in communities across this country,” Guzman said.
Still, Yacovelli emphasized the need for the federal government to step up and make the process of procuring contracts easier.
“The federal government is the largest opportunity for contracts,” he said. “Yet, the process to get them is insanely hard. That’s a missed opportunity.”
Yacovelli said it took a week away from his business to complete a “dissertation-type application” only to have it “go into a black hole” without any feedback.
“It was for diversity training for 911 operators,” he said, stunned by why he didn’t hear back about his application. “Coach me so I can make the application better. It took us a week to get this packet done, and that’s a week I didn’t work on any client proposals.”
But despite challenges, Top Dog grew to exceed its pre-pandemic levels, making 2021 its best year to date.
“Are gay leaders better?” asked Yacovelli who literally wrote the book on “Pride Leadership,” which has been widely praised as influential by multiple business and political leaders. “Of course we are! We’re fabulous. I looked at my queer siblings in leadership roles and moving our community forward in areas of equality and justice. They exercise competencies all leaders could use.”
“You play with a lot of leaders in my business,” Yacovelli, a.k.a “The Gay Leadership Dude,” told the Blade. “You start to see patterns of behaviors for leaders that are crushing it and those that are crashing and burning.”
In his book “Pride Leadership,” Yacovelli combines academic insights gained though his doctorate in education and his years as a corporate leader to identify six leadership traits: being authentic, leading with courage, having empathy, effective communication, building relationships, and influencing organizational culture.
Yacovelli pointed out that the LGBTQ coming out process also involves using these leadership skills to navigate that tough line between being authentic and respecting the feelings and experiences of others.
“You have those difficult conversations. You’re having empathy for yourself and for the person receiving the news for the first time,” he said. “That one experience can be translated into leadership courage, and those traits are the foundation for a really effective leader.”
He stated that for trans siblings to live their lives authentically is powerful, and to channel that energy into a leadership role is using their “rainbow superpowers.”
“And we freakin’ need it now more than ever,” he added.
From early struggles to Obama’s White House, Black pansexual exec talks resilience, self-love
Williams’s advice to entrepreneurs: Do the research and make it happen
(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a multi-part summer series of stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. All installments in the series are available on our website.)
The road to loving himself as a Black gay man hasn’t been easy for a 38-year-old business owner who once worked as a communications expert for both the U.S. House of Representatives and former President Barack Obama.
When Marcus A. Williams, the principal consultant and owner of D.C.-based MW Consulting, sat as a child around the dinner table with his family, his mother told them their house was going to be foreclosed on.
Williams recalled how he admired the strength it took for her to calmly tell them where they each were going to stay until his parents figured things out. Fortunately, the phone rang with an 11th hour offer to rent a home they could move into immediately.
Williams never forgot that day at the table or that lesson in resilience.
“I grew up in a rough neighborhood with drug abuse and family members who were incarcerated,” Williams said. “To be able to come from that environment and go to Penn State and then start a business — I take that as a sign to my community that it is possible.”
As the owner of a full-service communications and Information Technology consulting firm generating gross revenues of $568,000 in 2019, Williams wants to show others that they can also beat the odds.
But a major problem historically for Black-owned businesses has been unequal access to capital.
According to the 2018 Small Business Credit survey, large banks approved about 60 percent of loan applications from white small business owners, but only 29 percent from those identifying as Black, meaning most Black small business owners who apply for loans are turned down.
This problem was exacerbated during the height of the pandemic when the Payroll Protection Program, intended to shore up small businesses through the crisis, was administered primarily through large banks that favored their preexisting clients, according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institute.
When Williams applied for a PPP loan, he was turned down without a clear reason. He was fortunate he could turn to the National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), which helped him secure grants and access to other programs that helped his business survive the crisis.
Cision PR Newswire reported only 2.3 percent of employer businesses in the U.S. are Black owned, and in the IT field specifically, Black and Latinx workers remain underrepresented in tech jobs by nearly 50 percent, according to Brookings 2018 data.
Additionally, Black LGBTQ adults are more likely to experience economic insecurity than non-LGBTQ Black adults, according to a 2021 report from the Williams Institute. Research by the Movement Advancement Project from 2013 points to discrimination and unsafe schools as two factors contributing to the disparity.
Williams told the Blade how he came to deal with these challenges to business and to his identity in his own way.
‘I am Black first ’
Williams recently returned from a trip to Ghana where he visited the former ports used during the transatlantic slave trade. The experience was a moving one for him, as well as insightful.
“We have been resilient since we were first captured and brought to this country to build it,” he said, acknowledging the strength he saw in his mother and his grandparents. “Resilience is an innate survival trait for us. It is what is in our blood from our ancestors.”
The experience gave him a deeper understanding of who he was and what that meant historically. He understood that for him and how he carried himself, his color was often the most visible part of him, and people made assumptions about him based on that.
“When I graduated [from Penn State], I wasn’t getting any job offers,” Williams said, adding he was excited to see friends do amazing things with their careers but wanted more for himself.
He finally landed an interview with the CW network in New York in his field of broadcast journalism. His mother wanted to lend her hard-earned money to help him attend the interview, but he wasn’t certain this path was in his future.
After watching a friend die from cancer at age 28, he heard one of his “guardian angels” encouraging him to go for his dreams — a path that eventually led him to Obama’s White House.
He called this his “Janet Jackson ‘Control’ moment,” comparing the decision to take control of his future to the similar feelings the legendary pop star expressed in her breakthrough song and album. But he wants others to understand that path wasn’t easy.
His business struggled financially during the pandemic crisis, and though he was reluctant to take on more debt, he applied for a PPP loan only to be rejected. He grew desperate.
The NGLCC helped him access grants and programs that helped keep his business afloat, but he also had to rely on his mother to help him pay his bills – something his pride usually didn’t allow him to do, but he had to bend in order to survive.
“I am Black first and I want people in the Black community to see that and absorb it,” Williams said. “I’m not an activist out here trying to be a role model, but I understand that the more visible you are, the more you can be an inspiration to others.”
NGLCC ‘helps me feel comfortable in my skin’
Years earlier, Williams had traveled to Paris for his 30th birthday. While he was there, he had another life-changing moment about realizing how far he’d come and appreciating the journey and his many blessings.
“When I said to love myself more, it made me emotional and I cried for 15 minutes,” he said. “My soup got cold. They brought me a fresh one.”
Some Black LGBTQ people have reported challenges with their intersectionality, which can lead to feelings of disconnection from larger communities. The Williams Institute found only 49 percent of Black LGBTQ adults felt socially connected to the larger Black community.
This is in contrast to 62 percent of Black LGB adults who reported feeling connected to the larger LGBTQ community (only 29 percent of Black trans adults felt connected to their larger gender communities).
These numbers indicate the difficulties Black LGBTQ people can face when navigating intersecting identities. And for Black gay business owners, this can be an additional layer to deal with on top of running a business during a crisis.
Despite these challenges, Williams said during that moment of reflection in Paris, he moved to a new place of self-acceptance. But he also admitted that “one cry doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to be out and proud,” but it was a step in the right direction.
Williams said each time he told others about owning a certified LGBTQ business enterprise, it was a little easier, and he became a little more proud.
“The more I say ‘yes, I am LGBTQ,’ and the more I talk in focus groups about the challenges I face, the more it allows me to be more comfortable in my skin,” he said. “It’s not about if people can tell if you’re in the community, it is about your comfort in being able to say it. And that is another thing about how beautiful this process about being a business owner has been.”
Williams is extremely grateful for the mentoring he has received from the NGLCC, particularly from its Community of Color initiative and from being part of the inaugural entrepreneurial cohort.
He said having such initiatives shows NGLCC understands that LGBTQ business owners of color have special needs within the larger community and often need a little more help.
“That understanding is a level of respect and cultural competency that I encourage others to implement,” Williams said, for a moment donning his hat as a professional strategic communications consultant.
Williams’ advice to Black LGBTQ youth and others who are interested in starting a business is to do the research and make it happen, and to see failures as opportunities to develop resilience.
He also advises businesses seeking long-term economic recovery to have both minority business owners and consumers at the table as part of the conversation.
Black gay business owner shares joys, challenges, and the power of fragrance
Evolution Aura’s founder says ‘believe in yourself and make it happen’
(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a multi-part summer series of stories taking a closer look at how a group of diverse LGBTQ entrepreneurs survived and thrived during the pandemic. The series is sponsored by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. All installments in the series are available on our website.)
“Have you tried Prestige yet?” asks the luxury candle retailer Evolution Aura on its Instagram page, which features a gently flickering candle beside its elegant gold and black box. Both items rest prominently in the window corner of an apartment that promises to be rustic, chic, and relaxing.
The laid-back image with throw-back charm reveals much about this North Carolina company and its Black queer owner, Adrian Hill, the single father of a 12-year-old straight-A student and a self-described “fragrance connoisseur.”
Before starting his company initially as an e-business in 2017, he was in the fragrance department of a Nordstrom’s in Charlotte, a frequent haunt, after friends hipped him to Diptyque.
“The people there were good employees,” Hill said, adding they shared his passion for high-end fragrances. “A woman there told me to give Diptyque a try and to give my own line a try as well.”
Always one to “champion each moment,” Hill started Evolution Aura, which sells consciously sustainable products such as hand-crafted, soy-based candles while donating 20 percent of its annual profit to local charities.
“Ultimately, the line was developed for the community,” Hill told the Blade. “We wanted to be a beacon of life in the luxury space for everyone to enjoy. A kid who doesn’t have a bed may see a bed as a luxury. It’s all relative to the person, and we want them to experience luxury in their own way and to the fullest.”
But starting a Black-owned business comes with historic challenges, such as having limited access to capital.
A 2018 Small Business Credit Survey found large banks approved about 60 percent of loans for white small business owners, but only 50 percent for Latinx owners and 29 percent for Black small business owners, meaning only a third to a half of Black and brown applicants were approved compared to two-thirds of white applicants.
“I didn’t get any financing when I started the brand,” Hill said. “Financing is the number one obstacle we face as Black small business owners. But I had a slew of people around me who believed in me. I took my mission before people who said ‘I believe in it.’ Those people light a different flame in you, so failure is no longer an option.”
The problem of unequal lending practices persisted during the pandemic, according to a 2020 report by the Brookings Institute, as the Paycheck Protection Program in particular relied on mainstream financial institutions to deliver loans to small businesses.
Larger banks tended to favor existing customers, leaving Black-owned businesses like Evolution Aura to turn to what Hill called “alternative networks” to help them survive.
“I’m very grateful for any help I received,” Hill said. “If it wasn’t for my community and investor support, we would not have survived the pandemic.”
Being an e-business initially may have also helped Evolution Aura, as his luxury candles most likely helped many escape the pressures of unexpected lockdowns. Despite the odds, in 2021 Hill was able to open his first brick-and-mortar store in Charlotte’s upscale SouthPark Mall.
Both the Washington Post and Cision PR Newswire reported earlier this year that the number of Black-owned businesses increased by almost 40 percent during the pandemic while there was a slight drop in the number of white and Asian-owned businesses.
However, only 2.3 percent of businesses are Black owned even though 14 percent of the U.S. population identifies as Black.
In addition, Hill experiences unique challenges as a Black business owner who also identifies as an openly gay man.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I had a coming out experience,” Hill said. “I was more of the effeminate one who helped change diapers and cooked and cleaned. Over time I just evolved into who I really am.”
But this evolution often adds a layer of economic challenge for the Black queer community.
According to Williams Institute data from 2021, Black LGBTQ adults experience greater economic insecurity than the larger Black population, with 56 percent of Black LGBTQ households qualifying as low income compared to 49 percent of Black non-LGBTQ households.
The study also found Black LGBTQ adults were more likely to be unemployed and to have a household income of less than $24,000 than Black non-LGBTQ adults.
Dr. Bianca Wilson, a senior scholar of public policy and one of the Williams Institute researchers for the study, told the Blade Black LGBTQ people in general fared worse than their non-LGBTQ counterparts in terms of mental health, income, and food insecurity.
“These differences are the largest among Black LGBT women,” she added.
The Movement Advancement Project reported these challenges were partly due to a history of unsafe schools, hiring bias, and on-the-job barriers to presenting authentically in the workplace. As a result, “LGBT people of color are some of the most disadvantaged workers in the United States – and face extraordinarily high rates of unemployment and poverty.”
However, despite the bleak data, Hill is amazingly upbeat and points to the successes of both him and his son despite their challenges. He considers community support as a blessing not only for his business, but for him as a survivor of sexual trauma and as a single parent.
“Fortunately for me, I have always had a very strong village of family and friends,” Hill said. “From the time I adopted my son, everyone rallied around and championed his undertaking. Even without a partner, there hasn’t been a moment I haven’t felt supported.”
Hill explained how it was important for him to express to his son and others that while things can start out rough, to keep focused on the “next chapters of your life” and maintain your journey.
Hill’s advice to future LGBTQ business owners, especially those of color, is to do their research and find support, including from organizations like the National LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce.
“The NGLCC has been monumental to my growth,” Hill said. “I definitely would say the minority business chamber of commerce, the Carolina Chamber of Commerce and the NGLCC all rallied behind me during the pandemic crisis to support my brand.”
This year, Evolution Aura celebrates its fifth anniversary, and Hill points out that small businesses like his are critical to the economy’s recovery. He stated they should be supported because they are best positioned to employ and support the local communities they are a part of.
“We are the ones that take care of our community,” Hill said. “And we hire from within our communities. Dollars spent here will go further in that effort.”
But most importantly, Hill points out that the sky’s the limit for LGBTQ youth, and they should let who they are shine as brightly as the candles he sells.
“Being LGBTQ should be empowering,” he encouraged. “Who you are is going to shine – and for every person that won’t support you, 10 people will. It’s just about believing in yourself and jumping out there and making it happen.”
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