Businesses in Australia can often be a straight man’s world, but there are LGBTI people pushing through to champion diversity and inclusion. Jess Jones and Matthew Wade spoke with a handful of queer entrepreneurs about the important space they’re carving out for themselves.

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Marita Smith (Milton Mushrooms)

Marita is the founder of Milton Mushrooms on the New South Wales south coast.

She started the gourmet mushroom growing company three years ago, initially as a side project and now as a full-time business.

“It’s a constant learning process to find out what works and what doesn’t,” she said.

Marita has possibly one of the most unusual jobs in the country, and she has a serious passion for it. She describes herself as a ‘science nerd’.

A sole trader, she runs the mushroom farm herself from a growing shed and a laboratory that’s built in a converted caravan.

She specialises in gourmet and uncommon kinds of mushrooms, so the growing shed is always a rainbow of colours.

The days are long for a mushroom farmer.

Marita gets up at around six to get started in the lab. Customer service and mailing out orders start in the afternoon, and she tries to knock off work in time for dinner.

Marita studied science at university, majoring in organic chemistry and molecular biology at ANU in Canberra.

Many of her classmates have since trained in different areas such as nursing and veterinary science.

“You have to have more skills to be employable than just a science degree,” she says.

Marita’s gap year before starting her PhD turned into three years, which she spent travelling overseas and working on organic farms.

“I met people who were living really simply but really well,” she says.

“A lot of them also had science backgrounds, and they were applying their knowledge to a problem I hadn’t really thought about before: how we can live in our environment and leave a minimal footprint, which I found really cool.”

When she returned home, she trained in horticulture, and learned that she loved it. While working for a local restaurant that grew its own produce, Marita took a course in mushroom growing to expand what the restaurant could grow for itself.

Marita says growing mushrooms is far from a get rich quick scheme, but she’s built a business where she can make a living from something she enjoys.

“It’s a bit of a niche,” she says. “It’s a bit sciencey and you’re providing fresh nutritious food for communities.”

The business thrives during the growing season of six to eight months each year, with down time over the winter. Marita uses this time to focus on writing, exploring, and her side gig as an academic editor.

Marita says she doesn’t make a big deal of being an LGBTI business owner, but most people in the community knows she’s gay and are accepting.

“It’s cool because I live in a pretty small town,” she says. “It was quite a big thing to be able to step forward and say I’m here, I’m queer, and this is what I’m doing.

“It is hard to live here. There aren’t many jobs unless you can create your own employment, so that was very empowering.”

Marita is also currently writing a trilogy of books for young adults. The first book, Convergence, comes out in May. You can check it out at www.kindredtiesbooks.com.

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Michelle Sheppard (LGBTI Jobs)

Experiencing struggles within employment as a trans woman played a large role in Michelle’s decision to establish LGBTI Jobs.

Coming from a 20-year strong corporate background she found that after ‘coming out’ as trans she wasn’t taken as seriously.

“People were coming out with rather discriminatory responses, and other companies I worked for were only bringing me in for tokenistic purposes.

“I remember one recruitment person telling me that in IT they could mainly place someone who was white, under 40, and male.

“They said for women it’s hard and as a trans woman I could basically forget it.

“But I thought, no, I’m not going to accept that.”

Michelle fittingly launched LGBTI Jobs live on International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) last year.

The business helps organisations to build more LGBTI-inclusive workplaces where diversity is recognised and respected.

It also helps lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex jobseekers connect with organisations that are actively engaged in LGBTI inclusion initiatives.

Unlike a lot of other tokenistic endeavours some companies may undertake to tick the diversity box, Michelle’s business actively engages with clients to ensure LGBTI people are not only being hired, but are also free from the fear of discrimination.

“I get in touch with human resources directly so that I can train them to hire trans or gender non-conforming people,” she said.

“Some groups give out manuals and information and they’re stereo instructions – things like ‘that’s what gay is’ – people walk out more confused than when they went in.

“But when I head along and meet with people everyone’s really responsive.

“People will actually ask questions they’re concerned about, and I tell them to ask me any burning questions they may have so I can give them the rundown.”

Initiatives as simple as including gender neutral toilets and ensuring employees don’t misgender each other are what can make a major difference in the workplace.

And contrary to other LGBTI-inclusive initiatives that don’t include a review or follow-up process, LGBTI Jobs assures ongoing support where required.

“People are transitioning, people are coming out, people are open to these things, but the problem is that companies showing up on ‘inclusive’ lists aren’t conducting reviews or follow ups,” she said.

“I want to make sure we follow up – let’s help people transition, and in time really help them to hire a diverse training manager.

“Help them to develop something further.”

A lot of LGBTI jobseekers that come to Michelle and LGBTI Jobs have their own fears that stem from the discrimination they may have experienced in the past.

“They may have had trouble finding a job, or they may be worried about being misgendered,” she said.

“In the future I would love to see LGBTI Jobs as a way to run conferences and see organisations come together.

“I want to get a company that’s been completely vetted by trans women, and then the company will be able to post on our jobs board.

“We want the community to look at the jobs board and know it’s a vetted and trustworthy source of truth.

Outside of LGBTI Jobs Michelle has been an outspoken advocate for trans rights, with regular segments on community radio station JOY 94.9.

She was also shortlisted for the Broadcaster of the Year award at this year’s inaugural Australian LGBTI Awards and was listed on Lesbians on the Loose’s (LOTL) Power List 2016.

She believes inclusive and diverse workplaces are key to a business’ success.

“At the end of the day we have to leave our own personal things at the front door, but whether it’s religion, sexuality, or gender, we need a lot more training,” she said.

You can find more of Michelle’s work at www.mishsheppard.com.

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Kitty Obsidian (Curves & Claws Burlesque)

Kitty is the brains behind Curves & Claws, a growing burlesque performance group in Brisbane.

At just 24 years old, Kitty founded Curves & Claws and has been producing shows for almost two years. She’s long had an interest in performance art, sexuality, and burlesque.

Curves & Claws runs quarterly burlesque nights that are open to the public. They also hold performances for private events like hen’s nights, birthdays, and corporate events.

Many of the performers in Kitty’s shows are LGBTI.

Their acts range from traditional burlesque and cabaret to drag and genderfuck performances.

As a queer woman, Kitty says organising and performing in the shows is a huge confidence boost.

“It also gives me the confidence to showcase what I believe in, LGBTI rights and body positivity,” she says.

“We are in a society that degrades you if you’re not the ‘right’ body or the ‘right’ kind of queer, and Curves & Claws gives me a chance to challenge those notions to an audience who are entertained and might learn something.

“I’ve been bullied as a fat performer and derided as a queer woman, and I won’t stop putting on shows for other performers to have a safe place.”

Kitty, who also has a background as a model, loves that she gets to express her sexuality through her performances.

“The great thing about burlesque is it can be anything you want,” she says. “I take my personal experiences and put them directly into my performances.

“We push boundaries and explore sexuality but always in an entertaining and safe way. My performers’ safety always comes first, and the audience loves it.”

Kitty says creativity is key in burlesque, with each performer ultimately responsible for what goes into their own act.

“When I’m performing it’s 100 per cent me,” she says. “I’ve picked the song, the story or message, the choreography, everything. I’ve designed the costume and sometimes made it.

“When I’m producing a show, I’m picking the performers but they are the ones who’ve created the act from top to bottom. It’s so humbling to watch what they bring on my stage and to support them for their creative choices.

“I love it and I’m always honoured that they have trusted me to perform some crazy stunts on stage.”

Kitty currently has a day job in administration, though she hopes to transfer her skills into event management. She’d love to see burlesque become her full-time job.

“I want to take Curves & Claws to other cities around Australia,” she says.

“I don’t need bigger shows per se – we do well enough now – but to take it to other cities like Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide would be my dream.”

The Curves & Claws second anniversary show is coming up in Brisbane on May 26.

“I’m so excited for it,” says Kitty. “It’s going to be incredible.”

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