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Small business, big dreams: as the nation copes with an ever-tightening economy and the highest unemployment rate in a decade, many gay and lesbian entrepreneurs are finding happiness--and financial security--by going into business for themselves. (Gay-Owned Businesses).


Decorative painting and studio backdrops

Proprietor Erin Adams

Location Los Angeles

Established 1988

Like the human mind, Erin Adams's design company, Brainworks, has two halves that work together to form a greater whole. "About half of my business is decorative home painting," says the 44-year-old Los Angeleno. "Usually murals or old-world finishes: everything from Venetian plaster to wood-graining, marbleizing, and gilding." Her residential clients have included Lily Tomlin, Ed Asner, Vince Vaughn, Alyssa Milano, and Kathy Najimy.

Brainworks' other component is a film backdrop enterprise, stocked with Adams's ever-growing ensemble of painted milieus.

Adams is a living testament to the power of following one's dreams--and finding creative solutions to make those dreams come true. While she was a student at Otis-Parsons School of Design in Los Angeles in the mid '80s, she had the first visions of what would eventually become Brainworks. "At that time, I think everybody thought that art school was frivolous and silly and you couldn't really make a living off of art," says Adams. But she set out to prove her detractors wrong. She took a job painting sets and making backdrops for a film production company, which she then parlayed into a career in art direction. About 15 years ago she created Brainworks as a way to marry her artistic passion with financial success.

Adams says Brainworks is the sum of all of her interrelated training as an artist. "When I went to art school, my focus was on sculpture and installation," says Adams. "So really, what I do now is an offshoot of that. I'm working in an architectural environment, but I'm completely transforming a space. When I was an art director [in films] I transformed spaces, creating completely different environments within environments. I'm still doing that, but now it's in people's homes, so it's a more intimate setting and it's going to last a lot longer."

Born in the Seattle area, Adams grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif. She is dating, and she and her former partner are the coparents of two sons, Spencer, 15, and Jackson, 11. "What I do for a living is really great [for parenting] because I have a lot of freedom and independence. I can split and do kid things if I need to, or cram all my jobs into a one- or two-week period so I can take a week off when they're off school," she says.

The fact that she's "way out" as a lesbian is peripheral to her business, says Adams. "Almost all of my customers know that I'm gay if they know me well or if I have an established relationship with them," she says. "I have pretty intimate relationships with a lot of my clients, especially since most of them are regular customers. I think that there's a lot of presumed ideas about gay people being very creative, so in some ways I think [clients] almost expect an artist to be living a different kind of lifestyle, whatever that difference might be."


Cards, magnets, clay tile art

Proprietors Michael FitzGerald and Regan Morris

Location Toronto

Established 1985

You're shopping for a birthday greeting for Grandma, and your eye is suddenly drawn to a card featuring a cartoon in electric colors. But it's the slogan that grabs you: CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAG QUEEN.

Toto, I don't think we're in Hallmark anymore.

For greeting card magnates Michael FitzGerald and Regan Morris, collectively known as Clayboys, offbeat greeting cards are big business. Their sassy line can be found in more than 1,500 U.S. stores and throughout Canada, England, and Australia.

For Morris, 45, and FitzGerald, 50, romance preceded business. They met 22 years ago in Toronto: FitzGerald created ceramic tiles; Morris was an artist making his mark with a series of dark paintings reflecting the AIDS crisis. To offset this work, he often doodled on the side, creating unusual cartoon greeting cards for friends.

As Clayboys, Morris and FitzGerald pooled their talents and began creating lighthearted decorative ceramic tiles in 1985. Their whimsical horoscope-based tiles generated strong sales in Toronto and soon were selling in the States as well.

Three and a half years ago, Morris and FitzGerald expanded into greeting cards, depicting funny, gay-positive subject matter, from cross-dressing to feng shui. Twelve initial cards were introduced at New York and San Francisco gift boutiques, and the line was snatched up by a New York sales rep who placed the cards in gift shops across the country. The Clayboys card line now numbers more than 100 different designs. "It's nice to make people laugh," Morris says.

The popularity of the pair's greeting card line means that they now contract out their tile making, allowing them to remove the kilns from the building where they both live and work and to refurbish it. They've recently inked a royalty deal with industry bigwig Ephemera to distribute Clayboys magnets worldwide, and this promises to be lucrative due to the company's international client base. With a team of sales reps and foreign distributors to take care of its day-to-day business, Clayboys essentially remains a two-man shop.

And the couple say the most fulfilling aspect of their business is that they get to work together. "It's a privilege to be able to make a living and have fun doing what you're doing." says FitzGerald. "But, God, to be able to do it with your lover too is amazing."--Jay Blotcher


Dog food manufacturer

Proprietor Steve Brown

Location Eugene, Ore.

Established 1999

From solar energy specialist to dog breeder to pet food entrepreneur, Steve Brown, head of a four-year-old company called Steve's Real Food for Pets, has had a career filled with surprises. And it all started with a dog named Charlee.

Brown was 13 years into a career in energy conservation when he and his partner, Chris Gelalich, moved in together and decided to get a dog. After a year visiting pounds, they finally found Charlee, a fuzzy, friendly, medium-size pooch that Brown says was the star of his neighborhood. "We'd go for walks, and people would stop me and say, `Where can I get a dog like that? She's just like a teddy bear,'" he says. The attention sparked an idea. Brown mated another pound dog with a Portuguese water dog and created the Charlee Bear dog: "a soft, nonshedding, medium-size companion specially bred and educated to give and receive love."

Ever the scientist, Brown had an interest in finding low-calorie, nutritional treats for the dogs he bred, and this would lead him to create and market his own: the Charlee Bear Dog Treat. Launched in 1992, the treat propelled Brown into the pet food industry. He and Zach, a dog from that first litter, traveled nationwide to promote Charlee Bear dogs and treats. By 1995, Charlee Bear Dog Treats were among Petsmart's best-selling treats.

But just as his new career seemed like it was taking off, Brown lost his company. He says a series of financial blunders, including overspending, led to his losing the trademark on Charlee Bear Dog Treats to Wixon Industries of Wisconsin. "I had a great product, great marketing, but there's a third part," he says. "I don't think money, and one of the leaders in the company has to." Brown notes that losing the treat company was devastating but didn't dampen his entrepreneurial spirit.

He returned to his interest in canine nutrition and developed an all-natural dog food, dubbed Steve's Real Food for Dogs, in 1999. By 2000, Brown scored venture capital funding and hired Gelalich on as national sales manager. Since then, the two have established Steve's Real Food for Pets (they sell cat food too) as one of the fastest-growing pet food companies in the nation, selling products in more than 500 stores and 35 states nationwide.

Brown, who says he's "out and proud" in dealing with all his clients, says his openness hasn't negatively affected his business. "There might have been some heavily fundamentalist Christian retailers who may have decided not to take our food," he says, "but that's their loss." He does, however, think being gay affects how he operates. "I never thought twice about creating my own breed or my own brand of food, because I'm not part of the establishment," he says.

At a suggested retail price of up to $7.29 for a 2 1/2-pound bag of soft food, Brown concedes that Steve's Real Food is expensive. Available in frozen and freeze-dried varieties, Steve's Real Food is made from flesh fruits, vegetables, meats, and finely crushed bone, all processed under rigorous quality-control standards. "All the ingredients we use are human-edible," the company boasts on its Web site. This raises the question: Has Brown tasted it?

"No," he replies after a pause. "But Chris has." He adds that during a recent promotion, several store managers at a natural-grocery chain fried it up and ate it. "If you like liver, you'd like it, and it's much better for you than a McDonald's hamburger."--Jessica DuLong


Puppet makers

Proprietors Scott Molampy and Will Mills

Location Brooklyn, N.Y.

Established 1985

Puppet makers Will Mills and Scott Molampy say that what they like best about their craft is the ability their larger-than-life figures have to touch people--whether they're audience members or corporate clients. "Puppets allow one to cross the many barriers and judgments that people usually project onto one another. The walls come down," Molampy says.

Mills, 49, and Molampy, 42, have been breaking down walls since 1985, the year they established Geppetto Studios, which creates costumes, puppets, and masks for video, TV, film, and live entertainment. Tucked away in a neighborhood of stately brownstones in Brooklyn, N.Y., the business has crafted giant puppets for numerous commercials as well as for film studios, music videos, and theatrical productions. Most recently, Geppetto Studios created 19 figures for Radio City Music Hall's production of Pokemon Live! But for Mills and Molampy, who are life partners as well as business partners, the work is not just a career but a philosophy.

The pair, who have been together since 1982, are devout Hindus who say their spirituality has a deep influence on their work. At times, however, their faith has clashed with their commissions. For example, a request to create a huge mock-up of a hamburger grill was too much for the longtime vegetarians. They passed. "The money is good," Mills says, "but there's no passion involved in these projects."

They recently found a way to unite their religion and work with Devaloka Productions, which they describe as the "sacred branch" of Geppetto Studios. Devaloka puts on puppet shows that bring Hindu teachings to life. One character, a 10 1/2-foot-tall swami called Babaji, tells Hindu parables at spiritual retreats, yoga centers, and sometimes even raves.

The pair also say that the past year's struggling economy is another reason they wanted to create Devaloka. Mills says clients "are really sitting on their wallets these days," so he and Molampy decided to switch to less commission-oriented projects. "We want to have a fresh look at things," Mills says.

Not that Mills and Molampy are turning their backs on capitalism entirely--they're now working on a model of Toys "R" Us mascot Jeffrey the Giraffe, complete with a 20-foot neck.--J.B.


Software design and implementation

Proprietor Jane Holloway

Location Washington, D.C.

Established 1992

Fears of being able to afford nothing but hot dogs to eat transformed Jane Holloway from a Luddite into a techie. After struggling for 10 years to penetrate the Washington, D.C., art scene as a photographer, Holloway went back to school in the early '80s and quickly got hooked on computers. Two decades and a graduate degree in information systems later, those worries are gone for good: Holloway is a one-woman software consulting business. Her client roster includes the Recording Industry Association of America, Maryland's Dyslexia Tutoring Program, and the Uncommon Legacy Foundation.

But even though doing technical work pays her bills, Holloway says people skills are the real key to her success. "I listen [to my clients] like a psychologist does," she says. "I ask questions and I don't have an ego problem. I don't mind being `wrong,' because I'd rather deliver a system they're comfortable with."

Though many of her early clients were for-profit companies, Holloway and her partner of nine years, Jill Eynon, who works as a corporate fund-miser for the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, share a fondness for working in the nonprofit sector, including the Mautner Project--a national organization dedicated to to lesbians with cancer and their partners. "As I got older, I wanted to give back," Holloway explains.

It's been 10 years since Holloway hung her shingle as a database developer, and today, she's planning expansion in both her business and her home life. After a decade of relying on word of mouth and referrals, she plans to ramp up her business by developing a marketing plan and hiring employees. But first she'll have to relocate her home office--the room that's being converted to a nursery for the baby she and Eynon are expecting in the spring.--J.D.


Hair salon and art gallery

Proprietors Shauna Raye and Lori Petrushkevich

Location Chicago

Established 1994

If you're a hip lesbian living in Chicago, it's a safe bet that you "get your hair did" at Karma Salon in the ever-growing north side gay mecca of Andersonville. Though its clientele also includes gay men and straight people, Karma's niche is lesbians. "Most of our gay women clients have never had a hairdresser that was a woman--a lesbian--to give them what they want," says co-owner Shauna Raye, 36. "They say, `I've finally found somebody who understands me and how I want to look.' They want to look sexy. They want to be able to go to a high-powered job without having to fuss a lot with their hair. And they want to go out to the bar later that night and be able to feel good about that too."

For co-owner Lori Petrushkevich, 42, Karma is a continuation of the family trade. Petrushkevich's grandfather was a barber, and three of her siblings worked as stylists as well. Eight years ago she approached Raye, who at the time had a steady gig doing TV talk-show host Jenny Jones's hair, about opening a women-oriented salon.

But Karma's staff and its patrons say it's much more than a hair salon: It's a social gathering place and a venue for struggling artists. Every two months the salon's walls are decorated with new installations by local--and often lesbian--artists, something that only adds to Karma's ambience as a creative hangout for Chicago's gay women and those who love them. "I think being a gay-oriented business has definitely given us a tighter sense of community," says Petrushkevich.

Raye says she's proud of the salon's friendly, inclusive atmosphere. "This is what you get when you come to Karma," she says. "You get lesbian talk. You get women meeting each other in the middle of the salon, giving each other a kiss because their girlfriend looks so good. Or you have one big butch lesbian standing over her feminine girlfriend while she gets her hair cut, saying, `Don't cut it too short!' That's what you experience when you come to us. Karma is just a fun place to be. Plus we do damn good hair."--D.A.

Find links to Web sites for these gay-owned companies at
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Article Details
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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 18, 2003
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