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The gains made by the LGBT community within corporate America have been impressive in recent years.

A record 366 businesses achieved a top rating in an annual survey by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBT advocacy group, that measures corporate policies, benefits and practices for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers.

In another important signal, 379 businesses — from Coca-Cola Co. to Goldman Sachs Inc. — declared their support for same-sex marriage this year by filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court.

And there have been strides in C-suites at corporations like Nike Inc., Facebook Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and most prominently, Apple Inc., where chief executive Tim Cook came out last year in an essay where he wrote: “I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”

The achievements, however, of LGBT small-business owners and entrepreneurs have typically been far less chronicled than those made by other minority communities, even though they represent an estimated 1.4 million businesses nationwide.

In fact, small businesses run by LGBT owners are playing an increasing open role in economic and political arenas.

It can be seen with Brian Dingman, 48, co-owner of Juice Shack, which started 20 years ago as a shop specializing in blended-to-order smoothies and fresh-squeezed vegetable blends. Today, the Santa Rosa company operates seven locations in Sonoma County and employs 70 workers.

Juice Shack was recently named one of the top 25 LGBT-owned businesses in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Business Times, landing at No. 9 in the poll on the basis of the number of local employees. Two other Sonoma County businesses also ranked in the poll: Cowgirl Creamery/Tomales Bay Foods in Petaluma, at No. 5 with 100 employees, and the R3 Hotel in Guerneville, at No. 18 with 35 employees. To qualify, the business must be more than 50 percent owned by a LGBT person or persons.

The list itself is remarkable because it is the first time such a count has ever been done in the Bay Area. Around 20 years ago, the publication tried to create a list — such rankings are commonplace among business journals — but met great reluctance from LGBT entrepreneurs who feared the publicity would lead to customer backlash and threats to employee safety, according to staff.

But times have changed. The publication found a much greater willingness to participate in its survey, with some assistance from the Golden Gate Business Association, the first business organization founded by LGBT entrepreneurs.

“We’re telling the story in the mainstream press because it’s part of mainstream business,” said Mary Huss, publisher of the San Francisco Business Times.

A few businesses on the list cater more specifically to the LGBT community, such as a leather shop or tourism agency, but the majority seek to appeal to everyone, such as a real estate firm, a coffee roaster and a law firm.

Dingman, who owns Juice Shack with college friend Doug Randolph, said he appreciated the recognition that came with the listing, including an awards ceremony. While he doesn’t market Juice Shack as an LGBT-owned business, he is out in the community.

“Our main push is providing a quality, healthy product to our community,” Dingman said. “If people ask me, yes I will tell them ... but when I hire people and talk to them I’m not like, ‘Hi, I’m your gay boss.’”

Dingman does note it is much easier to operate as a gay businessman in the current environment as opposed to the one he left when he graduated from Healdsburg High School in 1985, looking to flee as fast as possible from the small town that had much less progressive views than today. “You didn’t talk about it and you hid all of it,” he said.

Now, he notes the rainbow flag flies at Sonoma City Hall as part of gay pride events in his new hometown. “It’s become so accepting it’s a non-issue,” said Dingman.

Still, he notes it is much easier to be an openly gay businessman in California than in other more socially conservative states. Those include ones with so-called “religious freedom” laws that allow for discrimination against same-sex couples.

Some businesses owners are much more eager to talk about their sexual orientation than others. It varies, but those in the tech sector are typically more outspoken than those in other fields, such as brick-and-mortar retail, said Paul Pendergast, a communications consultant who is a board member of the Golden Gate Business Association and a Sonoma County resident.

“The LGBT-business movement is very young,” Pendergast said. “We are taking lessons learned from our colleagues in the minority and women-owned business community.”

The key, he notes, is that all consider themselves as “businesspeople first, who also happen to be from the LGBT community.” The spotlight, however, helps put the focus on these businesses as key job creators, innovators and an important part of the tax base contributing to the good of local communities, Pendergast added.

While they may consider themselves businesspeople first, they can’t escape the policy and political hurdles that still stand in the way for much of the LGBT population in the workplace. Most notably, advocates are pushing for a federal law that would provide protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 29 states lack explicit workplace protections based on sexual orientation and 32 states have no safeguards based on gender identity. The federal bill, supported by President Barack Obama, passed the Senate in 2013, but has since been shelved in a GOP-controlled Congress.

“That’s probably the biggest one,” said Sam McClure, senior vice president of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). “There are places where same-sex couples can get legally married and also not have protection in the workplace.”

But there has been progress in other areas, especially in expanding opportunities in government contracts. The departments of Labor and Commerce as well as the Small Business Administration have signed a memorandum of understanding with the NGLCC to conduct outreach to certified LGBT business owners and identify barriers to contracting. The nonprofit group also helps certify a LGBT-owned business to make them more eligible for billions of dollars in contracting opportunities.

California passed legislation last year that required businesses regulated by the state’s Public Utilities Commission, such as phone and power companies, to give LGBT-owned businesses the same consideration in bidding for contracts that they provide to other minority-owned and women-owned businesses, an estimated $8 billion market. The business community was behind the bill. For example, PG&E already added LGBT-owned businesses to its supplier diversity program in 2012.

The NGLCC estimated before passage that less than 10 percent of LGBT-owned businesses contract with state or local governments. Advocates are now using the California law as a template for other states to adopt.

“This is what happens with inclusion. You open a door and people start walking through it,” McClure said. She stressed the California law was not “a quota or a set-aside ... but just a seat at the table.”

Meanwhile, the tables that Dingman are immediately interested in are the ones at Juice Shack locations. The company, which is not currently LGBT-certified, is remodeling its stores. The renovations will help as Dingman and Randolph keep their eyes on corporate competitors such as Emeryville-based Jamba Juice Co., and more importantly, Starbucks Corp., which acquired premium juice provider Evolution Fresh in 2011. Starbucks, however, announced last week it was closing its San Francisco Evolution Fresh retail location, one of the four test kitchens it operates.

“I’m sure their intent is to open them up nationally,” Dingman said.

To compete, Juice Shack is planning new items, such as more vegetable blends and a 16-ounce drink for those watching their weight that will be less than 140 calories.

Dingman said he is optimistic about the future, especially after surviving the near collapse of the economy in the fall of 2008 following the banking crisis, when people cut back on $5 to $6 items in the price range of his products. Juice Shack persevered because of its loyal customers, including many who used the beverages as a meal replacement instead of a treat, such as ice cream, making it more of necessary purchase, he said.

“I want to be acknowledged for the hard work I do ... and not judged on sexual orientation,” Dingman said. He noted that the success of Juice Shack ultimately comes down to the quality of the juices and its customer service.

“If we don’t have those two ... we can’t stay in business,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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