The statistics are startling: In the United States, being transgender doubles a person’s chances of living in poverty and triples the risk of being unemployed, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality. That financial setback is largely due to the difficulty of finding and retaining stable employment: Nearly one in three trans individuals report experiencing discrimination in the workplace, such as losing a job, denial of a promotion or being subjected to verbal harassment or sexual assault.
But what if those stats could be shifted in the tech industry, a booming sector that provides a growing share of jobs? How would you build a talent pipeline? Could a change there lead the rest of the economy to follow suit? Obsessed with these questions, Angelica Ross, a transgender activist, decided to find out. She started TransTech Social Enterprises, an incubator for LGBTQ talent, as a hub for trans people to work on freelance web development, graphic design and multimedia projects, while further enriching their tech skills at training academies. Ross launched her organization in Chicago and, after three years of iterations and the scheduled opening of additional branches in Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, N.Y., the network now includes 347 members. Last year, the company disbursed $90,000 in compensation for projects its members completed.
“The main mission behind all of this is to get trans and other marginalized people to realize that they are their own best bet, their own heroes,” Ross says. “They’re much stronger than the world communicates to them.”
Ross knows the importance of instilling this self-worth, because at one time she herself believed there were few paths to economic advancement for people like her. At age 19, she decided to officially make the transition to female. Her parents tossed her out, and she lost her job at a makeup counter in Racine, Wis. (Years later, she and her mother reconciled.) Desperate for work, Ross moved to Hollywood, Fla., where she worked as an escort and a model for an adult website. “At that time for trans women, especially those who were looking to get any transition-related surgery, there was a high level of trafficking into the adult industry,” she says. But then the website’s owner noticed her skill with computers and tasked her with touching up, cropping and resizing pictures. The experience made Ross realize she didn’t need to be working for anyone else — at an adult site, no less — to apply her technical skills. She left and founded TransTech a few years later.
Because she experienced firsthand the many barriers to success for transgender people, Ross made a conscious decision that TransTech’s programming be as accessible as possible. Annual fees are $99, but scholarships cover those who can’t pay. And there’s no formal curriculum, a boon to aspiring techies who might not have the time to complete an intensive weeks-long program. Ross, who now lives in L.A., describes the model she eventually settled on as akin to a gym membership. Much like the equipment that fills a fitness center, TransTech’s co-working spaces are stocked with their own tools of the trade: Macs preloaded with Adobe’s Creative Suite, and plenty of scanners and printers. In place of personal trainers, TransTech offers peer mentorship. Like lifting weights to build muscle, her members are developing technical know-how by learning from others in the space, attending workshops and applying YouTube lessons to real-life projects.
The tech training is often a natural fit, as LGBTQ individuals have long been plugged in to the web. “When trans people were really just coming out of the shadows, it was on AOL, Yahoo! chat groups, even Craigslist. These are places where we found community, found love, found job opportunities,” Ross explains. “Tech is just the catalyst for everything.”
And the types of jobs TransTech members pick up are often easier to fit into their lives. Frequent medical appointments and friction with disapproving colleagues make working in an office a potential minefield. But as freelancers, they have the flexibility to set their own hours and communicate with colleagues in whatever format they wish.
Ross believes the model she’s building at TransTech will eventually help serve those beyond the transgender community. Parents with infants or people with physical disabilities would both benefit from a looser conception of a workplace. “The tech industry’s policies are half of the solution,” she points out. The other half? Installing more transgender employees in leadership positions, where they can bring a different, and much-needed, perspective to a company’s decisions.
“The trans community is bigger and more valuable than companies usually acknowledge,” Ross says. “If you look, and especially if you look to TransTech, you will find a plethora of talent.”
This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.