Setting up a business or going self-employed can give LGBT people a sense of liberation and freedom to be their authentic selves, shows a study of small businesses with LGBT owners.
The researchers from the University of Bath and Radboud University in the Netherlands found that negative experiences in the workplace prove a motivating force to start up in business.
“For some of the entrepreneurs we interviewed, coming out as gay and deciding to become an entrepreneur were closely linked to the concept of freedom,” said Dr Luke Fletcher from the University of Bath’s School of Management.
“They felt they needed to hide their sexual identity in their former careers, to avoid possible barriers and negative employment consequences, and believed that becoming self-employed would enable them to express their authentic self.”
In practice, the research showed LGBT entrepreneurs continue to navigate tension in the intersection between being their authentic selves and running day-to-day business operations.
Analysis showed that LGBT entrepreneurs felt they were battling stereotypes of entrepreneurs as masculine, heterosexual and male and that of a homosexual as feminine, weak and different.
Nevertheless, researchers found that some people gained a sense of strength and value in aligning their LGBT identity with their status as a business person, and viewed their sexuality as an asset.
Overcoming the challenges of coming out and being lesbian or gay in a heteronormative society had enabled them to develop their competencies, including emotional capabilities, empathy, and a social consciousness that they felt strengthened their entrepreneurial identities.
They were also able to see new markets and opportunities for their business that arose from aligning themselves with the LGBT community.
Others were uncomfortable with being open about their LGBT identity, feeling a sense of stigma or shame with being too ‘out’ in their business, particularly if they had experienced discrimination or harassment related to their LGBT identity in the past. They placed more importance on their identity as a business person and minimised the potential value that their LGBT identity could bring.
“People may feel their LGBT identity is irrelevant or shouldn’t be part of the way they operate their business. However, this can create internal tensions which may not be very good for their longer term health and wellbeing,” said Dr Fletcher.
In the study, led by Dr Caroline Essers at Radboud University and published in the International Small Business Journal, 11 LGBT entrepreneurs in small Dutch firms were interviewed, to explore how they cope simultaneously with the complexities of being entrepreneurs and sexual, and in some cases gender, minorities.
The study involved five lesbian (including a trans woman who identified as a lesbian) and six gay Dutch entrepreneurs. The sample was not meant to generalise the whole population of Dutch LGBT small business owners, but to provide in-depth insights into a specific group of individuals and how they experience their gender, sexual and entrepreneurial identities.
The researchers concluded that as patterns and similar themes emerged in the 11 interview findings it is likely that they had reached a sufficient sample.
The researchers say their findings point to the need for more tailored support for LGBT people in business. “Accessing LGBT specific networks, such as Series Q and resource hubs, such as the Federation of Small Business, can help LGBT entrepreneurs gain a sense of community, authenticity and confidence,” said Dr Fletcher.
“By building and sharing knowledge and experiences across the LGBT business community, we can empower and enable people and their businesses to thrive.”
It’s all about identity: The identity constructions of LGBT entrepreneurs from an intersectionality perspective is published in the International Small Business Journal.
LGBT is used as a broad umbrella term to include all those who are non-heterosexual or non-cisgender, the researchers acknowledge that others will also use other acronyms such as LGBT+, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA.