A local start-up is tackling transgender unemployment | Bleader

Monday, October 27, 2014

A local start-up is tackling transgender unemployment

Posted By on 10.27.14 at 02:30 PM

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TransTech CEO Angelica Ross works with an apprentice.
  • Courtesy TransTech Social Enterprises
  • TransTech CEO Angelica Ross (right) works with an apprentice.
"Why do most people use the internet?" asks Angelica Ross as she begins a presentation on freelancing.

Her audience, comprised of queer, trans, and gender nonconforming people interested in technology, is silent. "Facebook, Twitter, social media, right?" Ross suggests, to scattered nods around the room. "And those can be business tools. Social media, the internet, it's all a tool—and it can be used to invest in yourself."

Investing in oneself is a significant part of Ross's framework: as CEO and executive director of Chicago-based TransTech Social Enterprises, she is determined to help transgender and LGBQ people develop the skills they need to be financially independent. "We're not here to save anyone," Ross says in a promotional video on the organization's site. "We're here to empower."

That's what TransTech has set out to do. The start-up, which was founded in July, is dedicated to leadership and technology skill development for the LGBTQ community, with special emphasis on serving transgender people. Through an apprenticeship program with four current participants and its program assessment services for organizations working to build greater capacity for trans employees, TransTech is empowering transgender people to build their own careers, skills, and sense of personal value. TransTech and Ross have already received significant attention for their groundbreaking work, with upcoming presentations at Harvard University, Creating Change, an annual conference run by the LGBTQ Task Force; the organization even received an invitation to the White House to discuss the needs of transgender people in the U.S.

Outreach is a vital part of TransTech's mission, as well: "It's important just for us to be visible,” says Aubrey Schuster, administrative assistant and a longtime business management professional. "Visible to the world, and each other."

It would appear that TransTech's work is needed. While poverty rates are higher among LGBT populations as a whole when compared to their heterosexual counterparts, transgender people face particular challenges in the workforce due to transphobia, harassment, and systemic discrimination. One of the most recent major studies on transgender issues, conducted by the LGBTQ Task Force, found that 14 percent of transgender people are unemployed, more than double the national rate of unemployment. One in four transgender people are underemployed, and 90 percent of transgender people report facing "harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination" at work. Transgender people are also four times as likely as the general population to live in extreme poverty—that number doubles for black transgender people. Yet in spite of these harrowing statistics, Ross and the TransTech staff believe in the power of transgender people to achieve through technology. "Technology gave me independence," says Ross, and now she wants to allow others to achieve independence as well.

All of TransTech's staff members are well aware of the challenges of finding sustainable employment as a transgender person, having experienced it firsthand. The staff mostly identifies as trans or nonbinary, part of TransTech's commitment to "nothing about us, without us"—meaning that transgender people should have leadership roles in programming that is designed for their community. Ross worked for Apple for two years ("their business strategy is like no other"), and founded TransTech after working for Chicago House's TransLife Center as an employment coordinator. In that position she noticed that most employment assistance for the trans community was focused on resume building or interview training.

Still but there was little opportunity for transgender people to build skills to bolster their resumes. As a result, says Joey Grant, TransTech's head of communications and operations, the 120-hour apprenticeship program is "a little like a beauty school": apprentices work on graphic design, web development, and data entry projects for clients, with staff serving as guides and editors throughout the process. Through video training, discussion, hands-on work, and mentoring sessions, the apprentices develop communications, administrative, software, and coding skills based on their interests. According to current apprentices, the immersive experience has been invaluable. "We're using the skills and tools we're learning to build projects for clients,” said a current apprentice with a background in nonprofit outreach. "Learning these skills is going to make me more well rounded."

Now that the first round of the apprenticeship program is in full swing, and some critical fundraising is out of the way, TransTech is expanding; the staff is excited to build a client base and offer their services as an agency both for the Chicago community and on a national level. So far, their network is growing steadily—they've partnered with local Chicago Affinity, as well as national LGBT nonprofits like the LGBTQ Task Force. They're also hoping to build more opportunities for trans people across the country to participate in trainings online—however, Ross stresses the importance of building an apprenticeship program that allows for in-person interaction.

"Trans people are constantly receiving messages that they are not valuable, that there are very limited possibilities for them—that things are going to be hard," Ross says. "What I'm excited about is working with these apprentices on a face-to-face level, letting them know it's about showing up for every opportunity. It's exciting for them to understand, 'If I show up, and don't let my circumstances and challenges overwhelm me, I can find success.'"

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