Businesses speak up against anti-LGBTQ bills, a conversation with LaNisha Cassell
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MARCH 13, 2023
Hello and happy Monday! Here’s what’s on deck in this week’s edition of Fearless:

  • A growing number of small businesses are speaking out against legislation at the Iowa Statehouse they say negatively affects the LGBTQ community. My colleagues Michael Crumb and Sarah Bogaards and I talked with a few of those businesses, larger corporations and industry groups and people affected by the legislation. We’re running an excerpt of the story below, but you can find the whole thing on the Business Record website.
  • In this month’s Leading Fearlessly column, BPC President and CEO Suzanna de Baca talks with LaNisha Cassell, executive director of the African American Museum of Iowa, about Sojourner Truth’s famous "Ain’t I a Woman?" speech and the role that women of color have played in Iowa’s history and present.
  • The Chrysalis Foundation has announced the speaker for its annual Inspired event. See who’s coming to town this fall at the bottom of the newsletter.

All that and more below!

I’m off for spring break next week, so Business Record Editor Emily Barske will take the reins for next week’s newsletter.

– Emily Kestel, Fearless editor

Business owners, activists call for more ‘economic pressure’ on anti-LGBTQ bills
Rallygoers at a protest at the Statehouse on March 5. Photo by Emily Kestel.
More than 60 Des Moines-area small businesses have recently spoken out against proposed legislation at the Iowa Statehouse that they say would negatively affect the LGBTQ community. They believe the bills would make it more difficult for Iowa to attract and retain talent by creating an unwelcoming environment.

Bills that businesses are speaking out against include:

  • SF 538, which would prohibit Iowa doctors from providing puberty blockers, hormone therapy or gender-affirming surgeries to a transgender person younger than 18. The bill has passed the House and Senate and is headed to Gov. Kim Reynolds to be signed.
  • SF 482, which would prohibit people from using school bathrooms and locker rooms not corresponding with their biological sex, but allow schools to provide accommodations, like single-occupancy restrooms. The Senate passed the bill Tuesday.
  • HF 348, which would prohibit school districts and charter schools from teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through sixth grade. The House passed the bill Wednesday.
  • SF 496, which would require school staff members who believe a child identifies with a gender other than the one assigned at birth to notify parents or guardians, unless the staff determines there is a risk of child abuse. The bill would also create a statewide "removal list" of all books successfully challenged in any Iowa school district. Any books on that list would require parental permission for students to access. The bill has passed a Senate committee.

The Business Record requested comments from lawmakers who support the legislation to ask why they feel the bills are needed and how the proposed bills would affect workforce attraction and retention, but none responded.

Activists call on business leaders to speak up

At a March 5 rally to protest the legislation that targets the LGBTQ community, Damian Thompson, director of public policy and communication at Iowa Safe Schools, called on small and large businesses to take a stand, and praised small business owners from the East Village and Valley Junction districts for speaking out. Since the rally, more than a dozen small business owners in Ankeny have also signed a joint statement against the bills.

"These bills are going to hurt our workforce and hurt our economy," Thompson said. "These are civil rights issues, they are human rights issues, and they are economic issues."

Thompson said he’d also like to see small business owners and representatives of bigger companies up at the Statehouse to talk about the effects the legislation will have on their business.

"It’s frustrating to see when we have corporations that want to be part of the [Pride festival], and want to have fun, but when it really counts and when people's lives are on the line, there's been not a peep from many of those roles."

Business leaders speak out

Felicia Coe, founder and owner of Cirque Wonderland, is the organizer of a group of more than two dozen Valley Junction businesses who are speaking out.

As someone who works in the entertainment industry, Coe said she’s worried about the attraction and retention of talent to a state that already isn’t well known for its arts and entertainment culture, if these bills become law.

Val Veiock, owner of Bing’s in Valley Junction, is gay. She said she’s speaking out because she wants to have basic human rights, and she wants to ensure others have them.

While she said she has received some backlash since speaking out, she’s "totally unfazed by all the haters," and said she’s also had an influx of customers that she’s never met before, thanking her.

Alicia Held-Morris and Jillian Lare of Morris Lare in Valley Junction said this is their first time publicly taking a stand as a business on LGBTQ issues, though said they have more quietly stood for other social justice issues, such as abortion access, before.

"We want our community, clients, vendors and friends to know that our studio is a safe space for them and their children, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Everyone is welcome through our doors, and you won't find judgment or discrimination here," they said in a statement.

Hannah Krause, owner of Eden, is one of the 28 East Village business owners who signed on to a joint statement opposed to bills that "attack the basic human rights of the LGBTQ community."

"When you say you may not have the right to exist in the way that you do now, you might not feel as safe as you feel today, your marriage might not be acknowledged, what choices are you leaving someone?" she said. "Business leaders are going to move. Community leaders are going to move. Business owners are going to move. People just aren't going to feel like this is a place that they want to raise their families."

Geoff Wood, founder and president of Gravitate Coworking, said the bills seem to be in contradiction with the image that community leaders are trying to create. Wood said some members of his company moved to Iowa following the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, but have now moved to other states because of legislation that has been introduced in recent years.

"Those bills, not just this session but the past couple of years as well, have convinced them that this is not a safe place for them to be," he said.

Wood said he’s curious why large business groups and corporate leaders aren’t speaking out.

"Where’s the leadership from the chambers of commerce, the business associations?" he said. "Everybody is talking behind the scenes about how negative this is, but I don’t see people standing up publicly and making those statements."

In an emailed statement, officials at Principal Financial Group said a welcoming and safe environment for its employees and customers is critical to the company’s growth. "We place the highest value on being able to attract diverse employees and embrace diverse perspectives," the statement read. "Maintaining an inclusive environment ensures our ability to develop the products and services our global customers seek."

It went on to say: "Understanding and addressing issues such as those before our state and federal legislatures can take many forms, and Principal is engaged with policymakers and stakeholders to create the best possible environment for our employees, customers, and the business community."

Kum & Go on Thursday tweeted a thread calling for the protection of transgender kids, and said it lobbied against SF 482 and SF 538.

Some have already left the state due to it feeling unwelcoming

Ozzy Orozco, a transgender man who moved from Iowa in 2021, said it’s always been a struggle for the LGBTQ community in Iowa.

"But with this type of legislation being introduced and potentially becoming law, it’s affecting not only the workers, but also their families," said Orozco, 35. "So if there’s a ban on someone with a transgender child trying to seek medical care, Iowa is taking itself off the list of potential places to go because it’s potentially not going to be a friendly state."

Orozco said if businesses support their LGBTQ employees they need to step up in opposition to the legislation.

"Now’s the time to step up and be an ally," he said. "If that's part of your company’s values and you’re supportive of your LGBTQ employees, step up and show it."

Mandy McMahon moved to South Carolina with her husband, Sean, in 2020 for a job in nonprofit communications. She said that while she is a cisgender heterosexual woman, they no longer feel like they can come back to their home state.

McMahon, 32, cited not only the anti-LGBTQ legislation but also the school voucher bill that passed and was signed by the governor this year in the decision not to return to Iowa.

"There just doesn’t seem like a place for us anymore," she said.

Justin Sindelar is an Iowa native who grew up in Des Moines and Waukee and left Iowa after graduating from high school in 2017.

Sindelar, who is gay, works for Verily, an Alphabet precision health company in San Francisco. He said he doesn’t have any intention of returning to Iowa, in part because of what he describes as the state’s anti-LGBTQ environment.

"To be frank, a big reason I moved out of Iowa to begin with was for many of those same reasons," Sindelar said, citing legislation introduced in the Iowa Legislature in recent years.

Response from business groups

Large statewide business groups that lobby on bills at the Capitol have generally not registered a position on the LGBTQ-related bills, but they say issues surrounding inclusion are important to them and their members.

Of 29 bills that the LBTQ advocacy group One Iowa listed on its website as being anti-LGBTQ, business groups only registered on three of them. The Iowa Chamber Alliance and the Greater Des Moines Partnership registered against House File 190, which would have removed gender identity as a class from the Civil Rights Act. The bill did not survive the legislative session’s first funnel deadline.

The Partnership and the Iowa Business Council registered against House Study Bill 218, which would bar state colleges and universities from spending money on DEI efforts. The measure passed the funnel and is eligible for further debate.

The Chamber Alliance registered against Senate Study Bill 1164, which would allow people to pick and choose which laws they follow based on their religious beliefs, and prohibits governments from passing any law that would violate anyone’s religious belief. The measure failed to survive the first funnel. The Partnership registered as undecided on the bill.

Dustin Miller, executive director of the Iowa Chamber Alliance, said it’s important for him when he talks to lawmakers about a bill that he can demonstrate a clear impact on the workforce.

"I want to go in when I’m advocating on a bill that it has a black and white impact on business and talent attraction," he said.

Andrea Woodard, senior vice president of government relations and public policy at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, issued a statement supporting continued efforts to be inclusive, but did not directly address the bills circulating at the Statehouse.

"We believe that Iowa needs to continue to be a welcoming and safe state for all as part of our ongoing efforts to attract and retain talent," she said. "The Partnership engages in issues impacting the workplace and is committed to ensuring Greater Des Moines remains a great place to live, work and do business."

Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council, said the goal is to position Iowa as the most welcoming and inclusive state possible.

"As we move forward, that’s going to be our focus with respect to our DEI approaches, really focus on what the business community can do for their companies, for their employees, lift up programs, continue to evaluate programs internally, and continue to lift up and provide an inclusive and welcoming environment for all," Murphy said.

That includes the LGBTQ community, he said.

Murphy said the IBC and its members are focused on what they can do internally, not so much on what’s happening in the Legislature.

"That’s what we can control, what our programs are, getting around the table to share what works really well. Those conversations are really valuable and really provide demonstrable action and change within the corporate climate," he said.

Officials with the Iowa Association of Business and Industry declined to be interviewed for this story. The Business Record also reached out to Wells Fargo, but it did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Activists told the Business Record they want more support of the LGBTQ community from big businesses beyond Pride month.

"Economic pressure is something that does change the tide," said Krause, the owner of Eden. "Sometimes approaching these bills, not from the standpoint of the morality of it but maybe the economic consequences of not being able to retain or recruit talent to a state that's not accepting of an entire community of people, I think that that's where our business community can really apply pressure and create change."

Ain't I a Woman?
In honor of Women’s History Month, LaNisha Cassell, executive director of the African American Museum of Iowa (AAMI), commissioned a video reading of former slave and evangelist Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech titled "Ain’t I a Woman?"
Now recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights discourses in American history, the speech is as relevant today as ever. The interpretive reading done by Abena Imhotep, Des Moines author, activist and executive director of Sankofa Literary and Empowerment Group, reminds us that the journey to advance all women’s rights is far from over.

I talked with Cassell, a Washington, D.C., native who has been at the helm of AAMI since 2017, to find out more about why she chose to highlight this famous speech, as well as to learn more about the AAMI and her own fearless journey.

Why is understanding history so vital? And more specifically, why is it so important that we observe Women's History Month?

Knowing our full history is essential to understanding our current societal systems. Commemorating Women's History Month helps to shine the light on not only the struggles women have had and continue to face, but also the contributions women have been instrumental in elevating our world for good. It's a reminder that women bring value to every conversation, initiative and solution.

You've just highlighted Sojourner Truth's iconic speech "Ain't I a Woman?" which was delivered in 1851 at the Women's Rights Convention in the Old Stone Church in Akron, Ohio in an interpretation done by local author Abena Imhotep. Why is this speech so important for all women?

Sojourner Truth's speech was delivered in Ohio the Midwest, like Iowa. It was powerful, timely, and undoubtedly home to similar beliefs about Black people and women during the era. She spoke of her hardships, those specifically endured by Black women. Her speech was important then and now because it shined a light on the obvious disparities of her day and maybe more subtle ones of today. It's a reminder to be attuned to what's happening around you. I chose this speech to bring attention to the continued plight of women, particularly Black and brown women. Many people today are surprised to learn that Sojourner Truth's native tongue was Dutch, which means the transcription was manufactured to fit a certain narrative of Black people and women at the time. That little-known truth is yet another example of the ways in which history is often distorted and stereotypes perpetuated. But the message remains the same and is relevant today. A common thread among people is that we want to be respected, have dignity and equality. For all of our progress as women, Black and brown women in particular, are still fighting for all of these things.    

What was a time you were fearless in standing up for the advancement of other women?  

I'm often called upon to be the Black voice for specific issues. While that can be empowering, I find that there isn't a lot of effort to intentionally identify other voices once one has been locked in on, as if my voice is the only voice – or one of few voices – of Black women or Black people. More recently, I've advocated for other women by providing lists of potential speakers to not only broaden networks, but to help amplify other Black women's voices and perspectives. It demonstrates that we are not monolithic in thought.

What message would you like to convey to our Fearless readers about the role women of color have played in Iowa and about the role of women overall in advancing our state?

Great things have happened in Iowa when Black women have been part of the equation. Historically, we've had an impact on education, politics, and wages and employment policies – and so much more. Black women bring resiliency to the table. We are accustomed to the "fight" of having to prove ourselves over and over, not being taken as seriously, or being overlooked. Women overall have the element of surprise in our back pocket because we tend to exceed expectations. We are more confident, better at self-advocacy, and have generations of role models that set examples of breaking down barriers.

Left: Business Record Forty Under 40 Alum of the Year Kim Butler Hegedus. Center: Disability rights advocate Judy Heumann. Right: Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson
In the headlines
Kim Butler Hegedus, executive vice president and chief lending officer of Community State Bank, has been named the Business Record’s Forty Under 40 Alum of the Year for 2023. She is also the co-founder of DSM Financial Executive Women, past chair of the Association of Business and Industry, board president of Variety the Children’s Charity, a board member at On With Life Foundation, and a member of the Des Moines Area Community College Foundation.

Longtime disability rights activist Judy Heumann died earlier this month at age 75. Heumann contracted polio as a toddler and spent the rest of her life as a quadriplegic. She became New York City’s first teacher in a wheelchair, and later worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations. She was also featured in the 2020 documentary "Crip Camp," and is referred to as "the mother of the disability rights movement."

Self-help author Marianne Williamson has announced she is running for president, making her the first candidate to enter the race for the 2024 Democratic nomination. In an interview with NBC News, she said she’s running to disrupt the status quo, and said, "I’m not challenging Joe Biden. I’m challenging the system." Williamson also ran in the last presidential cycle, but ended her bid in January 2020.

American women have gained more jobs than men for four straight months, pushing them to hold more than 49.8% of all nonfarm jobs. Female workers last edged higher than men on U.S. payrolls in late 2019, before the pandemic sent nearly 12 million women out of jobs, compared with 10 million men.

Ninety-nine percent of female entrepreneurs agree that the federal government needs to do better to support women-owned small businesses, according to a new survey by Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses Voices program. Central to that feeling of neglect are continued challenges in getting certified as a women-owned small business through the Small Business Administration.

The global economy could get a $7 trillion a year boost if there were more women in the workforce, according to a new report from Moody Analytics. Moody’s research found that if there were more women in the workforce and fewer roadblocks to their career growth, the global economy would grow by at least 7%.

Calls to boycott Hershey Canada have been circulating on Twitter, in response to the chocolate company’s International Women’s Day campaign, which features Fae Johnstone, a trans and feminist activist, alongside four other Canadian women. It’s the latest example of a company generating a strong reaction to a marketing campaign that touches on social issues.

Iowa is proposing spending $25 million on a series of child care initiatives it hopes will build and retain the child care workforce. Among the initiatives, a new pilot program will offer assistance to all full-time child care employees. The state’s proposal would also increase the number of low-income Iowans eligible for child care assistance and the amount paid through the assistance program.

Worth checking out
Why the gender pay gap has persisted for two decades (Time). Where there’s gender equality, people tend to live longer (NPR). More Black women run for office, but prospects fade the higher they go (New York Times). How will I pump?: When your first work trip after maternity leave is to Ukraine with President Biden (Wall Street Journal). The unsung heroes of the American economy: Grandmothers (Fortune).
Former gymnast to speak at Chrysalis Foundation’s Inspired event
The Chrysalis Foundation announced that the speaker for its annual Inspired event will be Rachael Denhollander.

Denhollander is a former gymnast and was the first woman to publicly accuse USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault in 2016.

Her experience is perhaps best known through the Netflix documentary "Athlete A," which chronicles the story of how Indianapolis Star reporters, gymnasts and legal teams put Nassar behind bars while exposing decades of abuse at USA Gymnastics. Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison in 2017.

Chrysalis’ Inspired event is its annual fundraising event, and has featured speakers including Angela Davis, Dolores Huerta, Laura Ling and Mae Jemison.

The event will be held on Oct. 31. More information will be available in the coming months.

Be fearless with us
At its core, Fearless exists to help empower Iowa women to succeed in work and life. We believe that everyone has a story to share and that we cannot progress as a society unless we know about one another. We share stories through featuring women in our reporting, featuring guest contributions and speakers at our events.

We are always looking for new stories to share and people to feature. Get in touch with us!

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