Lisa Howe on boosting Nashville's LGBT Chamber of Commerce into a political and economic force 

Rainbow Coalition

Rainbow Coalition

Lisa Howe is the executive director of the Nashville LGBT Chamber of Commerce, a position she took after she herself was the victim of discrimination. A successful collegiate soccer coach, Howe lost her position at Belmont after making her sexual orientation — and the impending birth of her child with her partner — known to her team. "I was kind of the poster child for LGBT discrimination in the workplace," she says.

She's leaned on those coaching skills to help build the LGBT chamber into a business resource in Nashville. She spoke with the Scene about the chamber's mission.

What is the LGBT chamber, and what does it do? The chamber is 16 years old. It has really evolved from just a few LGBT business owners trying to make a few connections, into a business organization that impacts the growth of Nashville.

What is the chamber's most important mission? Every decision we make revolves around economic growth. Being able to measure and contribute to the economic growth of greater Nashville.

The chamber has worked with Nissan on their inclusion policies. What kinds of things does a business look to the chamber for? Nissan's pretty self-motivated, so it wasn't that difficult. We have lots of members who can provide resources. They're working to revamp their equal employment opportunity statement. We have several members who provided examples. They're working to expand partner benefits and trans-inclusive health benefits. We can help.

That happened just the other day, where one big corporation in a meeting said, "We're just going through the whole trans-bathroom issue, the gender-neutral bathroom issue." And a woman from Dell said, "We've been through that. Let me give you what we did and some things that changed the culture." Just really being able to share best practices for LGBT inclusion. It could be us or it could be a national resource that we have access to. So that's how we help with the corporate side and a culture shift.

When someone who is straight comes to you and says, "What can the LGBT Chamber do for my business?" what do you tell them? I tell them that we can help them make connections. We can help them build business relationships. If they're a small business and they're trying to become more inclusive, we can certainly help them with their policies and their culture. If they're just a business owner, they can come and network and get professional development. We're inclusive too [laughs].

Where I see that a lot is in retail and restaurants — I definitely see a lot of that. They want to reach out to the LGBT community because we have more discretionary income, and this is a great place to tap into that. If you want to show that you're LGBT-inclusive, and you want people to come to your restaurant, what better way is there to say that than to be a member of the LGBT Chamber? We were talking to a travel agent recently about joining.

Even when a straight person reaches out and puts their arms around the LGBT community, it's a very loyal group that wants to do business with you. I tell straight businesses: "Show people that you mean it, and you'll be rewarded."

Where do you think the chamber is headed in the next three to five years? I think that it's going to have a greater presence in Nashville and have a seat at the table when people are talking about policies, when they're talking about spending marketing money on conventions and tourism, when they're talking about economic growth. When politicians are running for office, I feel like we're going to have a seat at the table.

Do you think the chamber is going to have an active role in the fall elections and the mayoral elections next year? I think we will. I feel like it's in our mission. We've had a lot of candidates for judge come to our events so far. I do think that they will want a presence at our events, and hopefully the chamber will help provide a forum for people running for office.



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