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Helping LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs towards economic recovery

Google promotes inspiring LGBTQ+ businesses in a forum which also featured helpful, free tools for entrepreneurs looking to further their businesses digitally such as Google My Business and the Primer app.



Barber and coffee shop Cooltura Hub in Guiguinto, Bulacan. / Photograph courtesy of Cooltura Hub

The LGBTQ+ community has been an important contributor to the development of society, though throughout history their contributions were erased and downplayed.

LGBTQ+ people are in every sector, including business. Many of them are able to put up their own companies, many of which are micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME).

These MSME are crucial contributors to the local and global economy. They provide employment opportunities as well as improve community livelihood, aside from serving as safe spaces, said Raymond “Ronn” A. Astillas, chair of the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

“The (LGBTQ+) community continues to make an impact and lead the way in several aspects of life, including entrepreneurship. Some of the fast-rising businesses I know are actually owned by LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs,” related Bernadette Nacario, Google Philippines country director.

Food for the Gays Café in Cubao, Quezon City. / Photograph courtesy of Food for the Gays Café

“I can’t emphasize enough how important they are not just for the economy but to the community. These businesses are the cultural centers of the Pride community where more LGBTQ+ individuals are accepted, respected and celebrated,” she added. “These safe spaces are where their deep friendships are born, happy memories are created and their great stories are told. To most of them, these are home.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which is ongoing for more than a year now, and the lockdowns have adversely affected many businesses, especially those by a marginalized sector such as the LGBTQ+ community.

Different dishes offered by The Food Episode. / Photograph courtesy of The Food Episode

Nacario said that the global technology company Google is helping out LGBTQ+ MSME with tools to digitize their businesses and promotions, among others. “They are part of our commitment to inclusive economic recovery,” she said.

Google hosted an online talk, Pride Conversations: Championing LGBTQ+ MSME, on 9 June featuring some of the LGBTQ+ MSME, upon the recommendation of the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce, to highlight their stories. The forum is available for viewing at Google Philippines’ YouTube channel.

Nirvana Hostel and Restaurant in General Luna, Siargao. / Photograph courtesy of Nirvana Hostel and Restaurant

Featured were Abby Biyo of Nirvana Hostel and Restaurant Siargao; Rui Mariano of The Fairygodbarbie House of Beauty; Amrei Dizon of Vitalstrats Creative Solutions; Jeoff Solas of Comercio Central, Cooltura Hub, and Fitness Army; Nariese Giangan of FFTG Café; and Sed Aguil of The Food Episode.


Nirvana Hostel and Restaurant Siargao

From Pampanga, lesbian Abby Biyo and her girlfriend only planned to spend a vacation in Siargao Island, a popular tourist destination in Surigao del Norte known for surfing, but they ended up establishing a hostel and restaurant in the wake of the pandemic.

Biyo put up Nirvana Hostel in the town of General Luna on 1 March 2020 and then opened a Kapampangan restaurant, the first one on the island.

“We really love food, me and my girlfriend. We really love cooking and we want to share this to the people here in Siargao. We’re representing Kapampangan but it’s Filipino food so everybody will love it,” Biyo said.

Their startup business suddenly experienced a major setback as lockdowns were imposed just as they were readying for the influx of tourists for the hot, dry months. But Biyo remained positive and grabbed every opportunity to build her business.

Jeoff Solas of Cooltura Hub / photographs courtesy of Pride Conversations

Her perseverance is paying off as they will be opening a second branch of Nirvana Hostel soon. She also helped establish Siargao Island Business Organization, which aims to assist the business community in the island.

Aside from contributing to the development of the island, the couple advocates for sustainable tourism and against gender discrimination among employees and customers.


Vitalstrats Creative Solutions

Amrei Dizon put up Vitalstrats Creative Solutions 17 years ago.

“I was two years fresh from college. I was a struggling, creative freelancer. I was designing brochures, merchandising materials, websites. I also edited music videos for indie bands and even student short films,” she shared. “One of my clients required me to issue an official receipt.

So, because of that Vitalstrats was registered as a business. It was actually an accidental business.”

“I’ve dreamed of having my own creative company but I definitely was not ready at 23 years old. I only had a year of advertising and production experience as an employee and only had P20,000 in savings. I did not have any industry connections.

Sed Aguil of The Food Episode / Photograph courtesy of Pride Conversations

So, initially I thought that no established clients would trust our humble agency,” she further said. “I’ve had so many thoughts of giving up because entrepreneurship is really hard. It’s hard to start a business but it’s even harder to survive.

Kailangan matibay ang dibdib (You need to be strong). But the many years of repeated failures and challenges made us the strong and resilient company that we are now.

So, with the help of my life partner, TJ, who’s also my business partner, and our team that’s made up of unique individuals, the entrepreneurship experience has been very rewarding and I would not trade it for anything.

Dizon makes it a point to proudly declare she’s lesbian and ensures that the outputs of her creative agency are consciously inclusive and that her team remains open in discussing LGBTQ+ issues with each other in order to create more role models for the community. Even after being faced with liquidity problems when the pandemic hit, pivoting to the demand for digital services alongside the team’s willingness to adapt and stay creative helped them get through and recover.

To LGBT entrepreneurs and to the business community, Dizon said: “If you are an LGBT entrepreneur or an aspiring LGBT entrepreneur, let’s work together towards visibility, let’s create more LGBT role models in business.

“If you have a business idea or a good product that would provide value to an audience, I invite you to plunge into entrepreneurship. We’ve got your back. We’ve got a strong community here.

“If you are a business owner or a corporation, we challenge you to join the celebration and go beyond Pride Month. We would like to reiterate that let us educate ourselves and commit to SOGIE diversity, equality and inclusion by pushing to have truly inclusive programs and policies. Let us commit to Pride and support LGBT businesses not just every Pride Month but let’s commit to Pride every day.”


The Food Episode

Sed Aguil worked in advertising but ended up following his heart and pursuing his love for cooking, which he developed during the strict lockdowns last year. This led to the creation of The Food Episode, a home-based food delivery service featuring his best recipes such as Cajun butter steak and sriracha honey chicken.

Rui Mariano of Fairygodbarbie House of Beauty. / Photograph courtesy of Pride Conversations

“The Food Episode started out as a weekend hobby. It happened during the ECQ period last year. I was one of those people who actually struggled with the work-from-home set-up and so I wanted to have a weekend hobby as a way for me to cope with the situation. So, I began to go back to the kitchen and experimented more with the recipes that I found online. And then eventually, I realized that I found a new love for cooking,” Aguil related.

He continued: “So after that, I decided to post videos of my food online, and my friends would keep on asking me ‘Sed, send us food,’ and one day I decided it’s about time to share my love for cooking with my friends and so I sent them food. And most of the people were actually positive (about it) and actually they were the ones who told me that I should be starting a business online. So I was really scared at first because I had zero experience on running a business. But I knew that I had my friends’ support behind me. So, I decided to open my business a year ago.”

Being a one-man-team, Aguil would sometimes find himself exhausted from developing recipes, managing his social content, and being in the kitchen. Everything, however, becomes worth it when his customers compliment his dishes.


Food for the Gays or FFTG Café

In April 2020, culinary student Nariese Giangan and her girlfriend started selling pastries online which became successful that they eventually opened the Food for the Gays (FFTG) Café in Quezon City. Opening the Café was a huge risk as they used the last of their savings to put up the business. It was a dream business of the couple — Giangan handling the food and her partner handling the coffee.

They took the plunge and it paid off after receiving overwhelming support from friends, especially the LGBTQ+ community. FFTG Café became not only a place for good food like their Rainbow Grilled Cheesus Sandwich, but also a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community and its allies. It is Pride every day inside the café, which also features the works of LGBTQ+ artists.


Cooltura Hub

Jeoff Solas, a public relations and marketing practitioner with diverse business interests, opened Cooltura Hub in December 2020. The barber shop in Guiguinto, Bulacan, offers refreshments to its customers and another business evolved, a beverage shop called BreaTea, which opened in May this year. While being digital savvy worked in the favor of his business, Solas was challenged by having to stay put and limiting the reach of his business within their area. But ultimately, this gave him the chance to get to know his neighborhood better and even provide employment opportunities.


The Fairygodbarbie House of Beauty

Rui Mariano was working for the Amazing Theater Philippines, which stages lavish shows with transgender women as performers, when her business began. Being beautiful, she was frequently asked by co-workers about the beauty products she used. She became a procurer of such products and eventually established a business that sells beauty products, the Fairygodbarbie House of Beauty.

The name was inspired by her aunt, who raised her and who is also a trans woman. The aunt loved to dress her up as a child and called her little Barbie. Mariano said she created Fairygodbarbie in hopes to be of service to her fellow trans women during their transformation journey, thus being their fairy godmother. The one-stop beauty shop, which also caters to straight women, offers nails, eyelashes, spa, and facial services among others.

Amrei Dizon of Vitalstrats Creative Solutions. / Photograph courtesy of Pride Conversations


Google helps

The forum also featured helpful, free tools for entrepreneurs looking to further their businesses digitally. These tools include Google My Business and the Primer app. Google My Business allows a store to be seen on Google Maps and Search, while the Primer app provides short marketing lessons for free.

“We hope that through this social media event, we can help promote and digitize their enterprises and encourage constant support and allyship from the broader public,” Nacario said.

She also shared that as part of their rebuilding efforts for the LGBTQ+ community, is giving $2 million to Outright Action International’s Covid-19 global LGBTQ+ emergency fund.

“This will help 100 organizations from more than 60 countries including the lesbian organization against violence and for equality in the Philippines. The grant aims to provide resources like food, shelter and job training for those in need,” she said. “To further support Outright’s advocacy for LGBTQ+ human rights globally, we’re also providing $1 million in grants.”

She added: “Aside from these, we strive to foster belongingness through our products. We are hard at work every day to make our products more inclusive and helpful. On Google Maps and search, you can now see if a local business has gender-neutral restrooms. This information is critical to help the community find safe spaces and give businesses the opportunity to demonstrate inclusivity.”


Call for companies for support and inclusiveness

Astillas called on companies for “solidarity that translates into concrete actions of acceptance, not just tolerance, which allows individuals to realize their full potential,” and “for building solid culture of belongingness so every LGBT employee, professional, worker, entrepreneur, policy makers, among others, feel safe and secure to express one’s truth.”

“We hope to reach the rainbow’s end, where such a vision of a diverse, equal and inclusive society exists in all forms, spaces and faces. However, our present realities seem to show a longer journey ahead. The battle is not over yet,” he said.

Abby Biyo of Nirvana Hostel. / Photograph courtesy of Pride Conversations

Astillas mentioned three strategies, which aim to help in achieving this goal. He called it the three “E’s,” which stand for “engagement,” “empowerment” and “ecosystem.”

“We need to intensify our engagement with all businesses every step of the way. No sector or industry is excused from pursuing their own diversity, equality and inclusion program. If we believe that no one should be left behind, we must be together then,” he explained.

On empowerment, he said, “The LGBTQ+ community, and businesses in particular, face multifaceted challenges in an environment painted with uncertainties due to the pandemic of stunted business operations and of structural impediments. The answer must focus on how we can creatively and dynamically implement measures and tools that will strengthen the capabilities of each individual and enterprise.”

Astillas said that it is time “to develop a rainbow ecosystem that connects the smallest players with the largest ones.”

“Major corporations have a duty to share their growth and success to the rest of the community. Every policy, program, initiative must contribute not just to a company’s bottom line but to those that likewise depend on a thriving and inclusive ecosystem,” he said.

He also challenged all companies to adopt and adhere to the Chamber’s five-point action agenda. Number one is the adoption of non-discrimination and equal-opportunity employment policies.
“It could be inclusion of SOGIESC-specific, non-discrimination hiring policies in your manual; institution of a firm-wide, executive-level diversity council or a working group with a mission that specifically includes SOGIESC diversity,” he explained.

Number two is the institutionalization of “internal education and accountability metrics, structure for social inclusiveness and education programs that can be put in place, employee engagement surveys, educational workshop, discussion and trainings.”

“Creation of an officially recognized LGBTQ+ employee group is also integral,” he added.

Third is the promotion of equitable benefits. “Company benefits on health insurance, parental leave, etc, that include same-sex partners or same-sex spouses must be pursued.”

Companies should also have transgender-inclusive policies and benefits, including providing transgender employees access to medical benefits.

The fifth is public commitment to LGBTQ+ equality.

“Your marketing and advertising campaigns to the LGBTQ+ community must promote visibility and ensure that you provide positive messages about the LGBT community,” Astillas said.

“Belongingness is so much important now. That’s why all aspects of recovery from the pandemic must be more inclusive. We still have a long road ahead of us in terms of equity, especially for our trans community but I’m hopeful that the future of our community will see better days and will have more vibrant rainbow flags which will be waived proudly by more allies,” Nacario emphasized. “So this Pride Month and beyond, please be an ally of the community in thoughts, words and actions. Encourage allyship among your friends and families. To win this fight, we need more allies who can champion and defend the community.”