Lots of entrepreneurs would like to pick Chip Conley’s brain. But when several dozen gathered in November to meet the founder of Joie de Vivre, a boutique hotel chain that he said had $220 million in revenue last year, their questions were not just about the nuts and bolts of running a company.
They also asked: How do you come out of the closet in your business? And how do you handle investors who might be uncomfortable with your vocal support of gay rights? Mr. Conley, 49, who came out four years before he opened his first hotel, the Phoenix, in 1987, recounted steering such investors to the Web site of Kimpton Hotels, a competitor that promotes its support for gay employees. Then he told them that one of Kimpton’s biggest investors was a former Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist. That example, Mr. Conley recalled, was enough to ease the investors’ concerns.
Mr. Conley’s talk was organized by StartOut, a new nonprofit networking group for gay entrepreneurs. The group, organized by a circle of friends in spring 2009, has since drawn some 1,000 participants to events in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.
Darren Spedale, an investment banker turned serial entrepreneur in Manhattan, came up with the idea for StartOut a year ago. Mr. Spedale, most recently a founder of A-List Global Media, a company that creates media and entertainment products for adolescents, noted that plenty of other groups had entrepreneurship associations – like Astia for women or TiE for South Asians.
“Why on earth isn’t there anything like this for the gay and lesbian community?” he remembers thinking. “It was a no-brainer.”
Screenshot from StartOut