Changing Landscapes

‘This Is Who I Am’: On Starting Up as a Trans Founder

Jumping into a brand-new startup can be a game-changing moment for any entrepreneur—every stake across the board is raised. Add being openly transgender into the mix, and the stakes are even higher.

Jumping into a brand-new startup can be a game-changing moment for any entrepreneur. Every stake across the board is raised: founders have to consider their financial well-being, work-life balance, and a real potential for mental health struggles.

Add being openly transgender into the mix, and the stakes are even higher.

It’s especially difficult for transgender and nonbinary folks to earn a living: Over 31% of the population live in poverty, 11% are unemployed, and 23% have been fired due to their identity.

While these numbers may seem to suggest working for ourselves is a viable solution, other stats point to the extremely high entry barriers we face. For example, transgender youth make up 40% of the United States homeless population—meaning, for many, starting a venture is difficult at best, and oftentimes completely inaccessible.

Those who are able to take the leap, though—like Dibs Barisic Sprem, the transmasculine founder of Dibs Fitness—have to consider the visibility required of founders, and decide whether to transition openly, when or if to come out, and how to navigate entrepreneurial ecosystems post-transition. It’s not always safe for every trans person to come out, nor does it always stop at coming out once. Oftentimes, transitioning is messy and confusing. Barisic Sprem’s entrpreneurial journey points to how nonlinear the process of self-discovering a gender identity can be: they identified as lesbian before fully transitioning to their nonbinary self.

“It’s actually been quite a tumultuous journey,” they say.

While Barisic Sprem’s journey of self-discovery hasn’t always helped their career, there is a silver lining: Their open transition allowed them to “collect data for [themself]” that later played a key role in skyrocketing Dibs Fitness’ success.

“I think it’s a really powerful thing, the fact that trans people have an experience of being seen one way and then being seen another way amongst different groups,” they say, pointing to the upside of transitioning while working within one particular ecosystem. “It’s really important, [being able to reflect on] the way that I used to interact with women, and lesbians, and gay men, and seeing how they treat me now. I think it’s a little secret superpower.”

In fact, they used the “data” they collected to identify their target market: other gender diverse clientele who didn’t feel safe or seen in traditional gym environments. “[The journey of my changing identity] really helped me be inside [my] community to see what the needs are, and to know what I needed [for my business], and what I wanted myself, and [to] try to be that for other people.”

“It’s really important, [being able to reflect on] the way that I used to interact with women, and lesbians, and gay men, and seeing how they treat me now. I think it’s a little secret superpower.”

Still, operating a business takes some serious willpower, funding, and support. It’s unsurprising, then, to learn that 84% of queer-owned companies operate within queer-inclusive cities such as Sydney (where Barisic Sprem lives), Chicago, and even cities without queer-supportive laws, like New Orleans.

But what about those transgender and nonbinary people living and building brands in less accepting places? Such is the case for Azrael Gabriel, a creator, musician, and fashion designer who lives in Soldotna, Alaska.

“It’s just exhaustive,” Gabriel admits of transitioning openly as an entrepreneur in their small town. They’ve experienced firsthand how ostracizing transitioning can be—and the impact increases when also trying to run a business. “It’s hard to get other people to see that pain and suffering,” they say. They’ve been able to make it through—personally and professionally—because of their dedication to self-discovery.

"When you’re not cis and you’re not heterosexual, you do a lot of deep self-learning and introspection—to degrees that other people in society never have to." And the depth of self-reflection demanded for any gender non-conforming person surely mirrors the self-discipline required for launching a startup.

Now, Gabriel reflects their self-discovery in their work. This has allowed them to tap into the right audience, and translated into thriving business pursuits. “Hopefully,” they say, “people find enough of themselves [in my work] for them to either want it, or pay attention to something else I want to make.” So far, that’s been the case.

"When you’re not cis and you’re not heterosexual, you do a lot of deep self-learning and introspection—to degrees that other people in society never have to."

Bethany Pagels-Minor, a self-identified “nonbinary tech nerd” and freelance motivational speaker, has been able to thrive in their entrepreneurial ventures thanks to doing a similar kind of self-work: For Pagels-Minor, being “aggressive” with their identity has helped them advocate for themselves professionally. ”It’s just, like, ‘this is who I am.’ I’m gonna make sure everyone who I meet knows about [my identity], knows exactly what [my identity] is.” Now they consider self-advocacy to be one of the most effective tools in their entrepreneurial arsenal, “and it’s because I’m finally able to really represent myself as who I want to be.”

Pagels-Minor’s pursuits have also been helped by tapping into QTPOC community: “I found that [queer people of color] do [community building] amazingly well. We form groups, we form bonds. We actually follow up with each other, and I think that’s super, super amazing.” And once they started sharing more of their own coming out stories, they saw increased followers, paid gigs, and business growth overall.

Ultimately, though, entrepreneurial success is not entirely defined by growing returns for founders like Barisic Sprem, Gabriel, or Pagels-Minor, but by their ability to share their stories, connect with others, and give back to their community. “The older I get, the more my work becomes just a pure reflection of my experiences,” muses Gabriel. “There’s still so much work to be done.”

Does your identity impact your work? How?

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