Diversifying Your Network To Grow Your Net-Worth

If you’re an LGBTQ+ budding entrepreneur, this episode with Stefaan De Vreese can help connect you with the tools and confidence to forge your own path.

For this conversation, I was joined by Stefaan De Vreese, who is an LGBTQ+ entrepreneur doing a lot of work around LGBT inclusion. Stefaan’s business Titanology World is a growing online community, exclusively for business-to-business LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs. It brings together LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs who want to grow a thriving and self-sustaining business. We began with Stefaan sharing a bit more about himself, his background and his work.

‘I was born and raised in Belgium. In the last two decades, I’ve been building a lot of stuff. I’m a self-made man a little bit. I come from the corporate world, doing some freelancing, but also building some organisations on the side. I built a large basketball organisation here in Belgium and I’m a big basketball fan as well. In the last two or three years, since COVID hit, like many, I made a big switch because I felt like what I was doing wasn’t aligned to what I really wanted to do.

It is connected to my coming out story because I came out around the age of 36. COVID happened when I turned 40. So, it was like a midlife crisis combined with the coming out story, combined with trying to find my place in the community, in the LGBTQ+ community. I felt like what I did best was building businesses, helping people build their businesses, coaching people and putting that together and doing it for the LGBTQ+ community. That made so much sense. And that’s how I’m here right now doing exactly that.’

I consider myself to be part of the LGBT community myself because I’m an openly gay man as well as having a disability. I was interested to find out more about the types of opportunities Stefaan is creating. So, I asked, ‘When it comes to creating LGBT-led businesses, what are some of the opportunities you see that creating for people within the LGBT community?’

‘There are a lot of opportunities. I think a lot of people underestimate how powerful we actually are. If you think about it, we have gone through so much in our lives with all these struggles. But we overcome these struggles and we think in a different way. And that difference, that other way of thinking and being able to deal with these struggles make us more powerful. That’s a truly unique thing for entrepreneurs because building a business is tough. So, you have to have the resilience to keep doing it. I believe that’s an advantage that we have and that we have to tap into.

The opportunities are that we can build our own thing. We can build our own life around what we love to do. Something that we have not been able to do, like me, I’ve come out late in life. Before that I was doing stuff, but I wasn’t connected to who I really was. So, if you combine who you truly are to building a business to what you really want to do, that combination is super powerful.’

I’d agree with Stefaan because when I left university I worked in technology for many years. I enjoyed my time working in technology for companies like Accenture, the BBC and Deloitte. I got into diversity and inclusion in 2014 at the BBC with an initial focus on gender balance within technology. That’s when I realised that I really enjoyed working within diversity and inclusion. I felt it was much more of a meaningful career for me. Luckily, I managed to do that career switch within the BBC to go from tech into HR and diversity and inclusion.

I made the decision in 2018 to leave the corporate world and set up my own diversity and inclusion practice because I just felt like I just wanted to have more freedom over the way I worked and the clients that I worked with. I also had a number of creative projects up my sleeve like writing a book and launching this podcast. What Stefaan says resonates with me.

‘It’s something that people tend to forget pretty quickly. Everybody tells us not to do it because we’ve already gone through so much. So why would you do it again? But there’s nothing that is better than doing what you love to do. Nothing beats that. So, if I talk to somebody, like the other day I was talking to a person that is thinking about starting their own business. And yeah, but maybe it’s going to be difficult. She was a cook and she was thinking, “Maybe people don’t want me as their chef”. I said to her, “Just do it”. I mean, it’s something that she loves to do and everyone has their uniqueness. So yes, just do it. Life will change a lot for the better.’

It reminds me of a coaching client who introduced me to the ikigai concept. This says you need to do a combination of what you love, what the world needs, what you’re good at and what you can be paid for. If you can get those four things sorted, then you’re in a pretty good position because you’re able to combine passion, mission, profession and vocation all in the same thing.

Stefaan agreed. ‘Even if you just want to be an accountant, that’s perfectly fine. The thing is, and this is a common thing in this current society that people believe and put a label on what we as LGBTQ+ people can do as a business. Some people think it should be around being a hairdresser or having a colourful cookie bakery. There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s putting such a limitation on what we can do. Then people that want to be an accountant feel like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this because I’m part of the LGBTQ+ scene. So, I should be a hairdresser,” or something like that. I know it sounds weird to say that, but that’s what I hear. That’s what I feel. That’s why I do what I do. To bring another message and to show and to help people build something else.’

I’ve definitely seen that unhelpful stereotyping that means LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs face when looking to find their niche. I asked Stefaan how he helps LGBTQ+-led businesses grow and put them on the map to create opportunities for them within the corporate work.

‘The way that I see it is we help people that are really good at what they’re doing, but they are stuck in just doing the doing. Get out of there, get out of the hamster wheel and create the space and freedom to actually enjoy having a business. I see a lot of people stepping into entrepreneurship because they have the skill in something and they’re really good at it. They start doing it, but they get stuck because they cannot really grow beyond that. What we do is we install the systems, we install the processes, but we also teach them how to create a better offer so they can charge more. When they can charge their worth, they can create that space to hire people and let the team do the work, become a servant leader, as I call it, and help your team run your business. This is our main goal these days. I say to them, “Look, I’ll help you go on a four-week holiday while your business is still running. And if you come back, your business will be even better off. It will keep growing even when you’re not there.” For a lot of people, that’s an image that they can only dream of because they don’t see how to get there. So that’s what we do in a sense.

Then there’s the combination with the corporate world as well. That’s that supply diversity. That’s also a topic that comes up. If you can build a business that can serve, that is the growth. A business that is growing and that has a size that can actually serve corporate businesses, then that’s an extra benefit that you can tap into the supplier diversity of the corporate businesses. I think that combination and helping people see that they can actually build a good big business. It doesn’t have to be a corporate business, but it can be a business that is big enough to serve corporate businesses while the owner can still enjoy what they do.’

Again, what Stefaan says resonates with me. The work that I do in my consultancy is working with corporates. We mainly work with companies that are typically more than 250 people. Our smallest client employs 21 staff. Our clients are from 250 to about 2000 staff mark, usually and we do a lot of corporate work. I like what Stefaan says about taking a four-week holiday. As much as I would love to go on a four week holiday, I think it’s quite a good way of testing to see whether a business can operate without a single leader. I’ve been on my own entrepreneurship journey over the last few years because I was a very good employee working for big companies like Accenture and the BBC and Deloitte. I’ve been on a really steep learning curve over the last few years on how to be a good entrepreneur. It’s a very different skill set. I’ve learned the importance of building a team and knowing your client inside out so you know what their problems or needs are. That helps package up the offering into something that’s attractive and people actually want.

Not many organisations think about the diversity of their supply chain. They don’t see how suppliers can help them with their own diversity and inclusion objectives. And I think very few organisations know how diverse their supply chain is really. They don’t know if they’re working with businesses that have been founded or are led by women. They don’t know if they’re working with businesses that have been founded and the chief exec is somebody from an ethnic minority background. And they certainly don’t know if any suppliers are founded by an LGBTQ+ individual either.

Stefaan asked me if I think that’s also part of the problem? ‘Where the businesses that are the suppliers don’t really put that in front of the corporate businesses, meaning they don’t really talk about it or they’re not really proud of it. Maybe that’s not the word, but I feel, I believe that an organisation that is LGBTQ+ led should be very proud of that and should show that. Not in the way that they have to throw around rainbows all the time, but at least so that the people that they work for understand that they are LGBTQ+ led and that’s okay. That’s something that can be even more powerful again.’

I agreed with Stefaan’s point. I think it goes back to authenticity and somebody’s ability to be open and vulnerable. And I think if you are a business founder or a chief executive and you can talk openly about your personal lived experiences, that can be really powerful. There are not many open LGBT leaders, but Tim Cook over at Apple, for example, talks very openly about being a gay man. And I think that that’s a good thing to do for himself, but also for the business, Apple.

It also probably helps organisations avoid falling into the rainbow-washing trap, where a lot of organisations say that they’re LGBT-friendly because they change their logo once a year to rainbow colours. But then at other times in the year, they do things that are not particularly LGBT-friendly or inclusive. I think that’s only been demonstrated recently by those brands that are sponsoring and supporting the World Cup over in Qatar, for instance. Earlier in the year, the logos were all the rainbow colors and they were saying how proud they are to support the LGBT community. And then they publicly support something like the Qatar World Cup in a country where there’s a record of homophobia.

So, there’s clearly a long way to go regarding supplier diversity. I asked Stefaan, ‘What do you see as the way forwards then for LGBTQ+-led organisations?’

‘Toby, we are building our own businesses here, you, me and other people from our community. I truly believe that the only way forward is to show the world what we can do and to show the corporate world that they need to take us into account or any minority for that matter. To build better businesses, just do it. Jump into entrepreneurship and create a network around you that can help you out. It’s very important that you’re not alone in this. Don’t forget, if you start entrepreneurship, it can be very lonely. That’s why a lot of people quit entrepreneurship as well. That’s also why I build technology because I want to provide that network around entrepreneurs so they can keep growing. And by building better businesses, by keeping on building those and by showing how innovative we are, how creative we are, how good we are at what we do, it will only become more and more normalised that supplier diversity is good for business. Not just for the ones that are supplying, but also the ones that are taking these services. So, for me, it’s about keeping growing in a sustainable way and just showing up and showing the world that we are really more powerful than you think.’

I wanted to know what Stefaan’s advice would be to any LGBTQ+ individual working in the corporate world and reading this who is thinking about becoming an entrepreneur and setting up their own business. What would he say to them about being out and proud in the workplace as they transition into entrepreneurship?

‘It’s what we said earlier. Try and find what you really like to do, what are you good at, and can you make money out of that? First of all, don’t quit your job immediately. Don’t jump into something if you don’t have a financial background in some way, because otherwise you will get very stressed and very frustrated pretty quickly because this is a long-term game. Don’t forget that but set the first steps. Start with something like a side hustle or even project work for an LGBTQ+ group, for example. Do some projects or do something locally that lifts you up. If that means you have to do the marketing for some of these events or the sales or whatever it is, at least you can find out, “Yeah, I like this and I like that,” and you’re still contributing to one of the organisations from your community. So that or a side hustle and try stuff out. There’s nothing wrong with trying 10-20 things out and not liking any of them until you find that one thing that you say like, “Yes, this feels so right.” Then you know this is what you need to do.’

That’s good advice. I didn’t set up my company until I had built up a bit of a financial safety net underneath me so I knew I would be able to cover my living expenses for a year if my business made no money whatsoever. I felt comfortable with that because it meant that it gave me a year to try and set up my own business. The worst-case scenario was that I would have to go and get another job somewhere if my own consultancy didn’t work out. But thankfully, it worked out really well.

Then in the space of three years, I’ve gone from working as an independent entrepreneur to now employing two people. So, building it like Stefaan says and building a team around you.

Before we wrapped up, I asked Stefaan the question I ask all my guests, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you?’

‘For me, it means that we grow and we build that team around us. We build that network even beyond the team. We build that network around us that aligns to our values. I cannot stress this enough that if you’re building your business, if you’re growing and if you want that inclusive growth, you can only build that network with people that are aligned to your values. Otherwise, what are you really doing?

I see that with business owners that just hire people all the time not even thinking about their own values and then hire people that are not even a fit. Or they take on business that definitely doesn’t align to their values and they get into situations, frustrations, discussions, all these bad things. And then there is no growth. There cannot be any growth if you cannot build a network around you from people that want to see you grow, that want to support you as an employee, as a business partner, as a partnership, whatever it is. For me, inclusive growth is that. Build a network that aligns with you. And this will be so much easier.’

Titanology World provides a unique way to learn and iterate a proven framework for operational growth so that you can finally see true freedom financially and geographically. Community member subscribers gain access to the Out & Proud Business Lounge with access to a network of subject matter experts that can help with growing a business.

So if having control over your life and becoming a role model within the LGBTQ+ community sounds interesting, visit the website or reach out to Stefaan directly via his LinkedIn page.

Diversifying Your Network To Grow Your Net-Worth - Mildon