LGBTQ&A: Zachary Wilcha

Independence Business Alliance's first executive director talks awards and improving diversity within the LGBTQ business community.

Zachary Wilcha

Zachary Wilcha

Zachary Wilcha is the first-ever executive director of the Independence Business Alliance (IBA), Greater Philadelphia’s LGBT chamber of commerce. We chatted about the organization’s recent award wins and how it is planning to improve diversity efforts within the city’s LGBTQ business community.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in the tiny town of Peckville, Pa., and made my way to Philadelphia for college and law school. I can’t believe I’ve been in the Philadelphia area for 20 years now. While I’ve been in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, I think I’ve been a pretty decent son, uncle, boyfriend, boss, and friend. I’ve also worked as a lawyer and fundraiser before becoming the executive director of the IBA. I love the city, and I love finding ways to give back to it. I’m on the Young Professional Board for Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia.

What are you doing when you aren’t conquering the world?
When I’m not working or attending an event to represent the IBA, you can find me compulsively reading, running much more slowly than I used to, playing tennis, or generally watching too much television. I keep up with social media and offer opinions and selfies there, which I count as normal human interaction with people I don’t get to see enough. I’m told that my delivery is very dry and deadpan, and people never know whether I’m kidding or being serious. I’m not always the most outgoing person in the room, but one of my passions is creating connections for people – especially when those connections are going to improve the city. I’m never the life of the party, exactly, but I’m the guy who talks to everyone, listens to what you’re saying, and makes you feel like you’re the only one in the room.

What has the job been like since being chosen as IBA’s first-ever executive director?
This job is incredible, and it was a dream for me to be chosen for it. I almost didn’t apply for it after thinking that I would have no chance. The last 10 months have been a whirlwind. I’ve met so many amazing people and have gotten to do some pretty great things. I’ve definitely had to find time to purposefully recharge, but as I always tell people, no day at my job is ever boring. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how hiring our great administrator Jess Gregan has made my workload easier and my days brighter. We’re an army of two!

What are the challenges?
It’s been the most challenging year of my professional life. Our membership is simply fantastic, and to be tasked with expanding it and providing more programming for it has been a welcome challenge. Recently, the IBA has undergone changes that have primed it to be not only a major economic force in the Greater Philadelphia area, but also as a continued empowering agent for the local LGBT business community. However, to do that, we have to make sure we have a seat at everyone’s table and let everyone, our LGBT brothers and sisters of all backgrounds, know that they are welcome at ours. I have always wanted to work in the LGBT space, and to be in a position where I can help provide opportunities, access, and resources to LGBT-owned businesses and our visible allies has been unbelievable.

What from your past experiences keeps you going today?
One of the myriad reasons I had trouble coming out many years ago is that I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like as an out gay man in the professional world. I wasn’t sure what kind of compromises I’d have to make or what kind of opportunities would be available to me. I knew I was going to have to find a way to be a leader in a world where I wasn’t sure I’d ever been meaningfully included. That I get to help LGBT-owned businesses and LGBT professionals write success stories while being a role model for others is beyond anything I could have dreamed when I was so fearful.

The organization just won two major awards last week at the national conference for LGBT chambers. What does IBA plan to do with the $5,000 Wells Fargo Foundation grant attached to one of the awards?
Yes, the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce graciously handed over two awards to us at their conference, and I’m very proud of both.The first was their award for Community Impact. I’m proud of this one because it represents the culmination of much of the work we do at the IBA in giving back to the community. Our community impact initiatives give us a new sense of purpose and drive that runs deeper than just helping grow local businesses. They gave us an incredible opportunity to create new programs and support ongoing efforts to give back to the LGBT community. As the IBA grows as an organization, we aim to infuse more of a spirit of philanthropy into everything we do. We know that we can only grow together as a community when we all work together as a community — giving back philanthropically only serves to strengthens these bonds further. Our PNC LGBT Business Award, our IBA DVLF Scholarship Award, our Business Integrity Award, and our Women in Business Program allow us to give back in meaningful ways.

And the $5,000?
As for the $5,000 grant, we applied for it with the intention of concentrating more on supplier diversity initiatives. With the help of the NGLCC, our board has been working on putting together a think tank of our LGBT business enterprise members who have been developing a program which will help LGBT-owned businesses recognize the value in business certification and offer a helping hand in navigating the process. As our city government and city agencies like the Philadelphia Port Authority move closer to including LGBT-owned businesses as a qualified class in contracting, we want to make sure that as many business as possible are certified as LGBT-owned.

Equity and access for LGBTQ businesses of color within Philadelphia is major concern in the community. What is IBA currently doing to address issues of diversity and inclusion as it pertains to LGBTQ businesses within the chamber and beyond?
Diversity and inclusion are integrated into every aspect of what we do at the IBA, and we know that we have a lot of work to do. As the executive director, I’ve been reaching out to the other minority chambers in town, such as the African American Chamber, the Asian American Chamber, and the Hispanic American Chamber, to develop ways that we can work together. We are about to trade memberships with the Hispanic Chamber and hope to do the same with the other chambers soon, as ways to cross-promote our events and show off how inclusive each of our chambers is.

As a white cisgender gay man in this role, what have you done to ensure that this doesn’t hinder your ability to fairly address diversity?
As a white, cisgendered, gay male, I know that one of the things that I must always do is reach out and listen before I take action. I know and understand that everything is intersectional. I’ve spent the year getting to know some of our members of color and having frank conversations about how we can be more inclusive. It is my hope that the IBA can be a safe, empowering space for people of all races, sexual identities, and gender expressions. We plan to offer inclusive programming that will appeal to our whole community. Our Women in Business program has made strides in creating an atmosphere of inclusion for our women members, and I know we can do the same for all segments of our community. Part of the challenge for me has been getting to know who these business owners are who aren’t receiving our benefits or who may not think they are welcome. Creating ambassadors from within our membership to reach out to all communities will help me do just that. PHLDiversity has been a wonderful partner, as well, in helping us strategize for the coming year on how the IBA can be representative of our vibrant Philadelphia LGBT community.

How do you personally strive to do this on behalf of the organization?
For me, personally, I try to walk the walk. I attend events put on by our other minority chambers and community partners to meet people and get to know them. If there are events for queer business owners of color, I get there as a supporter, not necessarily a recruiter. Recently the IBA signed on as a promotional sponsor for such an event at the Tactile Group offices. We will be working with one of our board members, who is a leader in the trans community, on an economic and employment initiative for the trans community in the coming year as well.

Outside of joining IBA, what do you personally think is the most important thing local LGBTQ businesses should do in order to thrive in the community?
To the extent that one can be, I think it’s important to be out, as a business owner or an employee. Work makes up a huge part of our lives. In order to be able to deliver our full potential we need to feel included and work in an environment where we can be ourselves. Out LGBT entrepreneurs have a better chance of being successful in running innovative, thriving businesses and can become more economically empowered since they can put all their energy into their business and talents. Hiding is exhausting and counterproductive. I’d also recommend supporting area LGBT-owned businesses and considering ways to give back to the community. Without public-policy mandates that include LGBT businesses, it’s up to our community to help one another out. LGBT business equality is a good thing, and it’s the right thing. Finally, I’d say that if you’re an LGBT-owned business and you find that the door is open for you, you need to burst on through it. But never close that door behind you. Hold it open and help the next people through it.