Building Networks

Business or pleasure? Steve Bustin looks at the LGBT networking scene

Anyone in business is always after one thing: more business. Those who own their own business are particularly keen to meet as many people as possible, spreading their nets wide in order to catch a regular supply of potential customers. This has led to the rise of hundreds of business networking events and organisation from Chambers of Commerce to business associations and breakfast clubs.

What has also emerged, however, is a growing number of gay and lesbian business networks, bringing together LGBT professionals for business – and increasingly, social – reasons. What underpins them all is the desire to create connections.

Simon Gage is one of the organisers of Jake, a gay professional network originally set up by entrepreneur and businessman Ivan Massow 12 years ago.

“Jake came about at a time before online networking,” says Gage. “It was quite hard to contact other gay business leaders, CEOs etc., and when there was still legal discrimination against gay people in the workplace that meant some people didn’t feel comfortable being out. Jake was designed to be a way for gay people towards the top of their industries to give each other support.

“These days you’ve got LinkedIn and LGBT networks in many companies so that role has diminished and Jake has evolved into a social event as much as a networking event. It used to be people in suits having conversations, swapping cards and moving on, like speed dating for business people. Now it’s an opportunity to meet people of like mind but from different fields. Business is no longer the primary purpose but business definitely does happen!”

Village Drinks is possibly the best known of the networks that brings together gay professionals. Often seeing more than 200 people at their monthly events, founder Neil Spring has seen Village Drinks serve both a business and social need. Spring started Village Drinks when he moved to London, as part of a desire to network with and build contacts in the PR industry, where he was working.

“I didn’t know anyone in London at the time,” explains Neil. “It occurred to me that it would be good to have an environment that isn’t a typical Soho gay bar but to be surrounded by likeminded people from similar industries, making social connections at the same time as building business connections.

“20 or 30 people came to the first event then someone suggested inviting gay bankers, lawyers and other professions and we realised there was a clear need here for guys to be able to meet to make contacts and friendships.

Village Drinks now differentiates between business and social events and even political events, allowing people to come together around passions or interests, says Spring.

“The value of a network like ours (and we have a membership list of 15,000) is that we bring people together in a forum they wouldn’t otherwise have, so they can find ways of working together plus have a social overlap.

“We have a lot of self-employed people coming who are looking for business connections but the people who come do tend to be more social in their outlook as they have to be prepared to walk into a room where they may not know anyone, although we have hosts to ensure no one is left on their own.”

It’s interesting to note that this move from pure business networking to a mix of business and social networking is a common feature in most of the LGBT networking groups, with many of them changing from groups for “business” to groups for “gay professionals”. So are they really just groups for husband-hunting and “fruits in suits”? Simon Gage from Jake thinks not.

“Yes, we’re aimed at gay professionals rather than gay business people but – without being snooty – the people who come to Jake events tend to be at a certain level. We have had a Jake wedding and people certainly do make friends as well as contacts there but it’s not a high end knocking shop! It’s also not as ‘suity’ as it used to be. We don’t have a dress code and encourage people to come as they are; they go to work in jeans and trainers, so why change into a suit to come to a social?”

Another organisation that has moved from its original positioning as running LGBT business networking events is Radius. Rather than moving the focus to social events for gay professionals, however, Radius has extended its audience to encompass “diversity and inclusion” rather than just LGBT people, as joint founder Patrick Voss explains:

“Radius is now a network that focuses on selling the business value of diversity and inclusion. We did start with an LGBT focus and we still have a core of LGBT individuals and businesses but we now have people attending from a wide range of backgrounds, so we help our members engage with those with whom they might not typically be able to engage.

“The change in our focus and membership happened because when we were talking to organisations, LGBT is only one aspect they want to focus on, so bringing together a wider range of people and individuals seemed like a stronger idea. It’s giving attendees exposure to different people and organisations – and perspectives.

“I’m also not sure people consider themselves part of an LGBT community in quite such a black and white way as they once did, socially or in business. They simply want to make connections with as wide a range of people as possible. From being an LGBT network we’re now a network for lots of different people. It’s about a broader inclusivity.”

Where to meet other LGBT professionals:

Radius: radius-business.com
Jake: jaketm.com
Village Drinks: villagedrinks.co.uk
Gay Women’s Network:gwn.org.uk
Vocal Social (Brighton): vocsoc.polari.org
Manchester LGBT Professional Networking: Manchester LGBT Professional Networtking