Equalizing the Economic Playing Field: Richmond’s Business Alliance
The LGBT community in Richmond may be a series of islands, but one thing that binds every person in town is hope for success. LGBT businesses and their allies can face unique challenges when integrating into the larger community, but The Richmond Business Alliance aims to change that.
Justin Ayars, President of the Richmond Business Alliance (RBA) and owner of 2113, came into the group over the summer of last year. The RBA had been around for a bit, but it had started to fizzle, and Ayars saw the group as a chance to unite the community he cared about. Ayars said he saw “a need for a business networking, professional, developing, social, and education group with an LGBT focus.” Ayars said the former incarnation of the RBA was more of a social group and he wanted to see the operation grow.
Members of the RBA
After participating in a general interest meeting, Ayars started to gather bright minds around him to help build the RBA into a reputable organization that could help connect and expand LGBT businesses and their allies. Ayars modeled the group off of other successful LGBT business groups, like HRBOR (Hampton Roads Business OutReach) and the Richmond Business Guild, with the hope to emulate their past or present success.
RBA meetings are still part social gatherings, opening with a solid 45 minutes for folks to mingle and share contacts, but now Ayars hopes to bring other important business aspects into the fold. “Education has always been a big focus in my life…. as a small business owner, it didn’t matter how many degrees I had, or what textbook education I had,” said Ayars.
RBA meetings include a chance for members to share their own business expertise with the help of educating and enlightening. “In the real world, you’ll come against issues you could not have imagined. All the preparation in the world doesn’t give you real world experience.” This real world experience sharing makes RBA meetings a unique chance to grow as a member of the LGBT and business community.
February’s meeting was held at the GCCR, and New York Life Financial Services Planner Shauna H. Brown spoke to the group about the importance of end of life planning. Brown had been introduced to the RBA by Kevin Clay around the same time Ayars came in last summer. A straight single mom, she’s not a member of the LGBT community per se, but she is one of the many allies that make up the RBA’s membership.
Brown giving her presentation
Brown has a background in social work, and this early exposure to the issues faced by the LGBT community gave her a particular interest in seeing them succeed. “(In the LGBT community), there are a lot of unmet needs, a lot of unknowns… so I wanted to eliminate that gap.” New York Life provide partner benefits, and while the RBA has presented itself as a chance to sell her products, she sees it more as a way to make impacts. “I’m not involved to sell, I’m involved to educate – if I can’t do it, I’ll network and find the right person with them.”
Brown’s presentation went over well; she took questions from other RBA members and gave some broad advice as to what to expect financially late in life. “I’ve connected with people, I’ve presented solutions, I’ve gotten clients from it… but I’m still breaking the groundwork and letting people know we exist.”
The RBA also prides itself on diversity, not only in sexual orientation, but in color and creed as well. Ayana Obika-Clayborne, co-founder of Gratitude Rising Events, joined the RBA earlier this year. Obkia-Clayborne has made waves with her Gratitude Rising events around town, even garnishing national attention for her “Dance with Dad” program which gives daughters a chance to reconnect with incarcerated fathers. The African-American lesbian is excited to contribute more to the RBA’s future. “Richmond has been pretty receptive (to the RBA)… it’s good for businesses to get new people in who may not be aware of what they do – it gets them some exposure.”
Obika-Clayborne calls herself a cheerleader for Richmond, and jumps on any chance to help improve the cities image. “I see this as a great organization that has its heart in the right place – merging LGBT businesses with those of the greater community.” She’s been helping Ayars work on future events for the RBA.
Bill Harrison of the GCCR Welcoming the RBA
The networking aspect of RBA meetings has been a great tool for Obika-Clayborne, and she hopes the small group can grow into a organization as diverse as the LGBT community here in Richmond. ”There’s so much division in Richmond, across all lines, so I hope that I will be able to encourage other women of color to get involved… Diversity is going to be the key to (the RBA’s) success, not just LGBT people, but also people who identify as straight.”
Public and private sector employees, non-profit workers, allies and LGBT alike, are all welcome at the RBA. “Anyone engaged in the local economy… anyone interested in promoting themselves, their organization,” Ayars said of folks interested in joining the RBA. It’s a group with an LGBT angle, but its very much about the economics of local impacts as well. “People who want to learn something, and understand LGBT business interests are not mutually exclusive from the greater Richmond economy.”
Ayars has worked hard to get the RBA to succeed. One of the keys to that success, in Ayars’ eyes, is keeping the group’s focus economic. ”Politics and religion; two things you never discuss at the dinner table – and that goes the same for the business community.” Keeping that division is an important part of the RBA, and what Ayars thinks will set the group apart from many other LGBT organizations in town. ”Republican, Democrat – it doesn’t matter, everyone’s money is green. There are already politically motivated groups with an LGBT focus, so we just want to keep it strictly business.”
So far, the biggest challenge for Ayars and the RBA has been getting the word out. Like any new group forming around a specific section of the population, reaching interested people can be hard. “Sometimes we feel like we’re beating a dead horse,” said Ayars on the progress the group has made. “but I have people coming up to me every month and asking me abut the RBA, so I think that shows we’re moving in the right direction.”
To get more information about RBA meetings, check out their website here. The March Meeting of the RBA is tonight at 6PM at Shockoe Bottom’s C’est La Vin. All are welcome to come and check out what the RBA can do for you, and what you can do for the RBA.
We need to stay in tune with what the community needs from us…I don’t want someone to hesitate on giving us constructive criticism.”February 1, 2017
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