“The largest takeaway for me was understanding how my triggers impact my self-talk and how they tie back to my core values/beliefs and fears. This has already given me tools to recognize moments when I’m being triggered, how those triggers are influencing my perceptions of the situation and the self-talk that goes along with that, and how I can make a conscious choice to believe other explanations (not the ones based in fear).”
Reflecting upon his multifaceted career journey from the IL Governor’s Office to the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois (LGBTCC) where he currently serves as director, Jerome’ Holston has significant experience engaging and elevating LGBTQIA communities. In this wide-ranging conversation covering the Pandemic to “The Great Resignation”, we discuss how leaders can elevate and create safety for LGBTQ+ communities at both a local and global level.
Learning Highlights from this Episode:
- How employers can build greater trust during “The Great Resignation”
- How LGBTQ businesses have weathered COVID, and what they need to succeed moving forward
- What needs to happen at the state, local, and company levels to promote and protect LGBTQ communities
Hear the Full Episode On:
About Jerome’ Holston
Jerome’ Holston is the Director of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois (LGBTCC), which serves as the premiere voice for nearly 50,000 LGBTQ+ business owners across Illinois. As Director, Jerome’ is responsible for leveraging corporate, nonprofit, and government partnerships to advocate on behalf of nearly 300 member businesses to provide them with access to networking, professional development, marketing, and advocacy. While at the LGBTCC, Jerome’ has been chiefly responsible for developing new programs and activities including the LGBTQ+ Biz Boot Camp, Chicago’s sole business cohort program for LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs. Additionally, Jerome’ led the LGBTCC advocacy efforts in 2020 to require the City of Chicago to study its engagement with LGBTQ+ owned businesses, setting the pathway for expanded opportunities for LGBTQ+ businesses to be recognized in the city’s supplier diversity program.
Prior to this role, Jerome’ worked as a fundraising consultant on capital campaigns that raised nearly $500 million, and as an Assistant to the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Office of Governor Pat Quinn. Jerome’ is a freelance writer and business owner, and has a passion for all things nonprofit, demonstrated in his current role as a Board Member with Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Chicago. Jerome’ was recognized by Crain’s Chicago as a 2020 Notable LGBTQ+ Executive, and WVON and Ariel Investments as a 2020 40 Game Changer. Jerome’ received a BA in Communications from Alabama State University and an MPA from the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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Jason Rebello: All right. Welcome everybody. So excited to be here with Jerome’ Holston, who is the director of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce in Illinois. Welcome Jerome’, happy to have you here.
Jerome’ Holston: Hey Jason, thank you so much for having me.
Jason Rebello: And again, I’ve had the chance to read your bio. We’ve actually been in some of the same rooms, given our cross section of work, but I’d love to give you some space to allow you to introduce yourself to our audience. Tell us all about kind of your journey and your role to the Chamber of Commerce in that leadership space.
Jerome’ Holston: Sure. So hello again everyone, my name is Jerome’ Holston. My pronouns are he/him/his, and again, currently I serve as the director of the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois. I am originally from Gadsden, Alabama, born and raised Alabamian, proud graduate of a historically black college and university, Alabama State University, which is located in Montgomery, Alabama. I graduated from there in 2010 with a degree in communications and then made the exciting journey to Springfield, Illinois. I tell people that I did… So I don’t… either Google maps was not a thing, or I did nothing to use it. I did not know that Springfield was three hours away from Chicago. I thought I was coming to the city and I was quite surprised. So, spent four years in Springfield working with the governor’s office there, doing some great work in terms of working with constituents, state agencies, and then also other senior leaders within the office.
Jerome’ Holston: One of my proud moments is being there when the governor signed marriage equality for the state of Illinois. So, a memory that I will always have with me. While in Springfield, I had the great chance of also attending the University of Illinois at Springfield. I received my Master’s of Public Administration and a certificate in nonprofit management while there. Through that program, I had the opportunity to take a fundraising class, which was so fascinating and so exciting for me and really sort of formed the way I wanted to approach my professional career in the nonprofit space. And so immediately after finishing graduate school in 2013, I started looking for an opportunity to transition to fundraising. And so, I found a great opportunity to work in strategic fundraising consulting, primarily working with organizations on capital campaigns, particularly in the religious space.
Jerome’ Holston: Spent about two and a half years there, working with again, local churches to raise significant dollars to impact their local communities, to build new churches, to invest in scholarships and really to make sure that their local religious community was taken care of for future years to come. After spending some time there, I have now landed at the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, where we are a statewide chamber advocating for nearly 50,000 LGBTQ business owners across the state of Illinois.
Jerome’ Holston: Today, we have more than 300 members who we support with marketing, networking, professional development, and advocacy. Another great resource that we offer is access to the LGBT business enterprise certification. So many might be familiar with certification for minority, women, disabled, our veteran owned businesses, but there’s also a certification available for LGBT owned businesses. So one of our primary roles in Illinois, is to be the chief advocate in encouraging government throughout Illinois to start including LGBT businesses and their supplier diversity programs. And so, that’s also something that we are working on and an effort that I have been proud to lead now for the past four years.
Oana Amaria: As I hear you talk about your background, I used to work for the Department of Commerce for the Workforce Investment Act. So I can understand that drive to Springfield, Illinois, or even further down if you had to go all the way down to Southern Illinois. So I really appreciate that part of the story. What I really like as you describe just the breadth of the community that you reach and the impact that you have, there’s a lot of talk these days around the great resignation, and the fact that many people who may feel underrepresented, or underestimated, or unheard are leaving the corporate space and changing careers or starting our own businesses, or some of them are just leaving, with no plan in mind. And, I think that’s a very interesting place to be as a society.
Oana Amaria: I’d love to ask you if there’s any advice you would offer for those individuals who are making the move. And is there any advice that you would want to offer to employers on how to keep individuals? So I’ll start with the people leaving, and then I’ll ask you to follow up with what we would say to employers or businesses.
Jerome’ Holston: Sure. So first to those people deciding to invest into themselves and to move on, and some things that I would encourage you to think about, one is, don’t be afraid to take the journey. It’s definitely one that will be challenging, but all things in life are challenging. And so, invest in yourself if you’re going to be in that ride. Do you think about where you’re trying to go? And some things that you can do along the way to maybe help make that process a little bit easier. So, for example, I recently did just launch a new small business where I provide nonprofit board consulting. So knowing that was something that I’ve been wanting to do for the past year, one of the things that I decided to do over the summer was to complete a certificate in nonprofit board consulting from one of the leading organizations that provides resources and training on nonprofit board engagement.
Jerome’ Holston: And so now with that information, with that skills, I can now use that information into those credentials to be an advocate for myself when talking to clients. In addition, it’s one of those things that still remains true, connections and relationships are the true part of the game. So do not be hesitant about going to networking events, introducing yourself and letting people know what you’re looking for, and why you’re there really. Do not be afraid to use LinkedIn. Whenever I’ve been job searching or looking for new clients, LinkedIn has always been one of my favorite resources utilized, especially when you think about being in a job transition, LinkedIn is one of the best opportunities to use really in twofold. One, it gives you people that you can sort of identify by company and also by industry, by title. And so you can reach out to folks who are either working at the company or might be in similar fields, just to get some information on how to do this work better, how to be more thoughtful and a better champion when you’re going through the interview process.
Jerome’ Holston: So, really just gave you some great tips on how to make that transition. And then of course, just being able to also identify folks who are willing to be referral partners for you as you are job searching. We all know that at some point you’re either going to need a referral, or you’re going to need a friend named Joe to email someone and say, “Hey, my friend Jerome’ just applied I hope you can look out for him, and let your co-worker know the best resume.” And so, building relationships is really definitely a part of the game. And so, definitely invests into building some relationships, invest in gaining the knowledge necessary to make transitions, especially if you’re going to a new field that you may not have necessarily been working in on a day to day. And then again, just don’t be afraid.
Jerome’ Holston: It’s definitely a journey, it’s going to come with challenges, but a part of that relationship building is that you can learn from others about some of those mistakes that you can avoid along the way. So, those are some suggestions I would give to folks who are making transitions out.
Oana Amaria: And what would you say to the employers that should really strive to keep them? What advice would you give them?
Jerome’ Holston: Sure. So I would say for sure, begin the process now of trying to get feedback about where your employees are standing. If you aren’t already doing annual evaluations to get feedback from folks about their current feedback and status about where they feel, definitely that’s something that you should start doing, or find a way to start doing those, perhaps within the next quarter. I think often, perhaps one thing that you’re going to find, many people are leaving companies because they are not given the opportunity to work on the types of projects, or to access the type of leadership opportunities that they’re looking for. And so a lot of times, if you are able to listen and to be willing to adapt your culture, adapt some policies in some ways, you do still have the power to retain that great talent that you’ve invested in over the years.
Jerome’ Holston: And so be open to a conversation, be open to some harsh criticism and some feedback because you are trying to grow, you are trying to keep these people here because they’ve done so much for your company already, and you don’t want to spend all that money now trying to hire new employees and to provide them with training. And so, be willing to listen and be willing to provide people opportunities to grow within the company in the ways that they’re asking you. I know right now we’re at a place where talking about COVID and being in the workplace, and how we show up in the workplace is a real hot topic at the moment in terms of in person or remote working. I think a lot of companies are setting some hard lines in place in terms of coming back to the workplace.
Jerome’ Holston: And so, I am hoping that we will see more companies be open and be flexible while really being able to listen to people say that, I need to be remote, or I need the opportunity to come to work in the morning and then go to the gym and go to lunch and then do whatever else I want and then maybe come back and work the rest of the day. I want to make the day, my own. I want to control my schedule, and I want to access these types of projects. So, be flexible, be willing to listen, and be willing to invest in the growth that you want for your company.
Oana Amaria: It’s so interesting, because in our sessions we often talk about out how to build trust. And I feel a lot of what you just mentioned is you have to treat people like adults that want to have purpose, that want to have meaning, that want to contribute. You know, we’re wired for that as human beings. And so, I love these suggestions around, be willing to listen, right? How do you protect the people that are willing to tell you the truth? because I think that’s super hard as we learn with a lot of clients that we’re working with.
Jerome’ Holston: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Oana Amaria: Thank you for that.
Jason Rebello: Absolutely. It’s so interesting this conversation, because I straddle this line between, now DI consultant and just kind of pure entrepreneur. So there’s always this challenge of helping large companies that affect a lot of people create spaces, so that diverse employees can show up and shine and be their great selves. While also, the entrepreneur side of me is at the same time encouraging BIPOC communities to create their own spaces, create their own businesses, create their own change, right? Empowering that kind of change dynamic, especially given the access to technology and things like that. In your role, you support so many of these businesses, I think you mentioned over 50,000 within the LGBT Chamber of Commerce.
Jason Rebello: How is that? How has this last year and a half been? We’ve heard so many stats around how women-owned businesses have been affected and even black-owned businesses and Hispanic. Are there some interesting insights you’d like to share about what the last year and a half has been for the LGBTQ business community specifically in Illinois? And then, how has the chamber been working to support them through the pandemic? And, even preparing for what I have been saying through the last year and a half is just, kind of new reality that we’re going to have to embrace, there’s no going back to the way things were before. I know that’s all lot in that question, but let me know if you need me to repeat it?
Jerome’ Holston: No, that was perfect. And I think, one of the things that I am sort of as a person who works at a chamber who is excited about small businesses and entrepreneurs, I think that’s one of the things, one of the bright sides that a person in my sort of space and yours sort of sees from the pandemic is that we are now seeing the immersions of so many small businesses and people who are like, I’m going to create my own opportunity. I had no choice. This is my time. And so, there are so many people who are seeing this pandemic as a chance to work for themselves, to invest in their families, to invest into their communities. And so, I’m so excited about the direction that we’re headed, and especially what this means for black and brown and LGBTQ communities as well.
Jerome’ Holston: In terms of what I’ve seen of the LGBTQ community, one of the hard things about us, is that there’s not always a lot of data on LGBTQ engagement. When you think about going to apply for a business loan, or, some of these other opportunities that are more economic are business metric related, few instances are you asked if you are LGBTQ. And so, a lot of that sort of happened throughout the pandemic as well. There wasn’t a lot of data collection necessarily in terms of how LGBTQ business owners were faring through the pandemic. But locally we do know a good amount of anecdotal information about how folks have fared.
Jerome’ Holston: We did see that for the most part, there were not. So a lot of our businesses who are in our membership are already small businesses that are 1 to 10 employees. And so, a lot of these folks were already small, already kind of nimble, in terms of team makeup and the structure. And so, we didn’t see where a lot of our LGBTQ owned businesses closed, but definitely a lot of them scaled down in terms of operations. And so, as you all know, there were a lot of instances where small businesses were laying off their employees so that they could be able to access unemployment. And so, we know that there were instances like that because the companies weren’t able to afford to pay employees during this time. And so, there was a lot of scaling back and sort of just temporarily laying folks off to sort of weather the pandemic.
Jerome’ Holston: We did also see where, of course with that, a lot of people lost a lot of revenue, a lot of income. And so, that meant a lot of lost opportunities in terms of upcoming expansion and growth. We had a number of businesses who were in the process of either getting a new restaurant location or adding second locations or were about to remodel existing buildings, but based on losing revenue, were not able to move forward with these opportunities, especially for those restaurants where none of us were able to go out to dine in person and to enjoy these places. That business was definitely set back and is at this point right now, raising funds again to try to go after another opportunity to purchase and build again.
Jerome’ Holston: So, we know that the biggest is challenge really ahead of us for LGBTQ and all small businesses, especially diverse-owned businesses is really at this point accessing capital to move forward. And so, that’s where a lot of the lost opportunities were, was really not having capital. Even when you look at some of the grants that were made available from cities, states, and even corporates etc. Most of the grants while definitely understandable, were primarily focused on businesses owned by people of color and women, of those opportunities specifically outlined to inclusion for LGBTQ folks. And so, there were not a lot of grants available made for folks within inside LGBTQ to weather the storm through this time. And so, at this point it’s all about access to capital and really trying to connect people to those resources as we move forward.
Oana Amaria: That reminds me of this episode that we listen to with one of the capital groups we’re supporting through our living our values and it’s called, fundraising while black. And, it talks about just all the different hurdles of what it means to gain access. And so, that’s definitely something to reflect on and what we could do better to create this ecosystem. I wanted to switch a little bit on your end and ask, we talked about your journey, we talked about the experiences we have in the workplace and the communities that we impact. Is there something that you’re working on right now that’s really exciting? You mentioned starting your own practice, but is there anything that you feel really ignited on and would like to share with us?
Jerome’ Holston: Sure. So in terms of chamber wise, this is sort of a long-term always working on initiative. Earlier I mentioned the LGBT business enterprise certification. Right now, the certification is primarily recognized in the private sector. So, about more than two-thirds of fortune 500 companies actively include and recognize LGBT certified businesses and their supply diversity programs. However, across the country, there are very few states, counties, cities, that provide the same recognition and access for local LGBTQ tax paying business owners and residents. And so, one of the things that we’ve been advocating for was really trying to make that change happen here within Illinois. And we’ve been able to make some very slow progress, but of course, with the pandemic we’ve all been slowed down together. And so last year we were able to make some great progress in passing a resolution with the state of Chicago, where they held a study to determine how they currently, and in the past have engaged with LGBTQ owned businesses in terms of contracting opportunities.
Jerome’ Holston: And so, we’re in the aftermath of waiting on that information and next steps, and are excited about where that journey is possibly headed. There are a number of great cities already like New York, Orlando, Nashville, already doing some of this. And so, we are wanting to catch up. And then, another thing is really our statewide growth. We are a statewide chamber, but we’ve been headquartered in Chicago for 21 of those years. This is now our 25th year. And so, really excited about the growth, the outreach, and all these nuggets of Illinois communities that we’re going to be able to come into contact with, and the resources that we’re going to be able to provide to those local LGBTQ owned businesses. I think that’s also exciting because that means that we’re also going to become much more connected to different types of LGBTQ owned businesses.
Jerome’ Holston: I think especially as we get into more rural and downstate areas, we’ll definitely be able to see some more unique businesses perhaps more so than what we see here in Chicago. So I’m really excited about that. And then of course, finally you mentioned starting my own business. And one thing that I am excited about this coming up, I am currently working on a nonprofit board matchmaking event happening on November 4th in partnership with a company called LimeRed. It’s a great opportunity for nonprofits to sign up, to get matched with some local great talents in Chicago. And then, there’s also a great opportunity for local talent to sign up, to get matched with some nonprofits here locally in Chicago. And so I’m excited about all those great things.
Jason Rebello: That does actually sound really exciting and a great initiative. We’ll make sure we link that information in this podcast so people can participate. Keeping on what we’re looking forward to, just from a visionary standpoint, what is your hope and determination? I know this is kind of a generic question, but feel like the space will lend itself to the question. What do you hope for the future, for LGBTQ businesses and employees as it relates to what this period of rapid transformation that we’re in? It’s also with a lot of opportunity to continue to push the envelope and recreate the world, right? In a very real way. What is your hope for… specifically from the lens of LGBTQ businesses and people that are finding their ways in their professional careers? What’s your hope for what happens over this next decade? And then how can we, and inclusion champions like ourselves continue to help to push that vision forward.
Jerome’ Holston: So, for the workplace a couple years ago, I forgot who did this study. But I think it showed that somewhere between 49 and 51% of LGBTQ folks were still not out in the workplace. And so, that’s still a very significant of people who are not able to actively bring their authentic selves and voices to work. And so, when that is happening then we’re losing out on people, bringing their full brilliance, their full talents, their full capabilities. And so, that is really impacting how companies are able to move forward, to achieve success, to maximize opportunities for investors. And so, my hope is that corporations will continue to find opportunities to make space and to create voice for LGBTQ folks to be dynamic in the workplace. The more that we can do that, I know that LGBTQ folks can even add more contribution to how organizations are successful.
Jerome’ Holston: Of course, I hope that also happens for all BIPOC communities and women, that all these things happen that we can all show up, be brilliant, be awesome, and to be able to lend our voices to all the great things happening within our companies. I believe that it might have been the Human Rights Campaign study that found that 49 to 51% statistics, don’t quote me on it, but you can find it on Google. And then, in terms of businesses, other than that, I would add, I really just hope that they flourish and find success. I hope that all businesses recognize the impact, the certification and how certification can be a great tool in expanding the reach of your business. And so, I hope that any LGBTQ business listening today will look into a certification, and how it can help you get connected to a much diverse range of corporate and other small to medium-size businesses for contracting opportunities.
Oana Amaria: I’d love to just double click on that question really fast because we work with a lot of global companies. And some of the things that we hear is, well of course we believe in LGBTQ rights, but we work in Russia or we work in Egypt. And I think that’s a barrier that doesn’t necessarily have to be… both can be true. And so, what’s the suggestion in the context of certifications or advocacy within organizations to say, you can celebrate pride and create better policies and still have local impacts in countries that are… There’s a spectrum, right? So I’d love to hear, if you don’t mind sharing your thoughts on that.
Jerome’ Holston: I definitely do understand there are definitely countries and cultures where being inclusive, promoting pride, LGBTQ life, may not be the way of that culture, of the norms of those people. However, we know that they are LGBTQ folks, every single place all across this world and every single level of employment. So, we still have to be smart in terms of how we brand ourselves as a company, so that those folks who are still not out in the workplace, they still know that they can show up to your company and that they will still be able to be celebrated and that they will be able to work there in peace. Even if I showed up to your workplace as a trans person, and I didn’t want anyone to know, I would hope that I’m coming to a company that has trans inclusive policies and insurance that I could be able to access. And that perhaps on your social media, you’re saying, “We celebrate and support these people who are trans and non-binary to live a way that they choose to.”
Jerome’ Holston: I understand maybe not having internal activities or programs, because it may be something that in the norms of that place of that culture could be perhaps harmful to those employees. But, there’s definitely ways to again create those policies and to be an outward ally to those people, without putting anyone in harm of having their identity come to light with others.
Oana Amaria: I love that. So you’re saying that even if it’s just messaging or branding, it still means safety. It’s signaling that I’ll be safe here, right?
Jerome’ Holston: It does, especially again, when you support it with policies that can support that. So I do. And you know, I want to see it from the outside that I can come there and be accepted. And then for sure, I want to make sure that once I’m in, you have systems and policies in place that are going to keep me there as an employee. So, definitely being sure to have both of those, but yes, branding and messaging is definitely one of the most important parts. And of course also plays a big impact in terms of how local culture in communities can also shift and begin to change. When major voices are willing to say, “Hey, this is how we should be respecting people in our communities.” It helps local communities think how they look at society a little bit differently.
Jason Rebello: This has been quite the conversation, Jerome’. I appreciate you sharing your insights with us. Anything else you’d like to share before we conclude for today? Your last sign off.
Jerome’ Holston: So, I think a lot of times when companies think about a lot of the DEI work or JEDI work, there’s a lot of hesitancy because there’s a goal to get it perfect from the start. And we don’t want to do anything wrong that’s going to offend anyone, that’s going to get us in trouble. And so, I encourage companies to think about that a little bit. So we do definitely want to make sure that we have some very safeguards in place and that we fully thought about the impact of this. But a lot of this work I think is always going to be a journey. Culture is always evolving. The way we look at society is always evolving. So, I encourage companies to find somewhere to get started, and then to begin the journey from there.
Jerome’ Holston: There’s never going to be a perfect world of doing this work, but if you don’t do it, you’re always going to be missing out. And you’re always going to be missing out on your talent. You’re going to miss out on gaining new customers, you’re going to miss out on gaining new investors. And so, don’t be afraid to start the journey somewhere because you have the hesitancy to want to do it perfect. Find a place, invest in it, and begin your growth journey from there.
Oana Amaria: I love it. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure.
Jerome’ Holston: Yeah. Thank you, I really appreciate it.