Rise and Grind: 10 Queer Southern Entrepreneurs Doing The Work

A image of queer southern entrepreneurs
“Don’t pay any mind to naysayers or people who don’t believe in you. Know that sometimes you will fail, but that is just an opportunity to learn and grow, don’t let it stop your hustle.” -Robert Garate and Jacob Cooper, founders of Garate Cooper, PLLC.

Compiled by Kelsey Gledhill and Megan Smith

In the words of Fleetwood Mac, sometimes, you just have to go your own way. Such was the case for Spectrum South. What started as a “what if” conversation over lunch one day quickly turned into a “well, why not?” Six months later, that pie-in-the-sky dream was a reality, and we couldn’t be happier…or busier. In the spirit of creating something from the ground up, we’ve curated a list of other queer southern entrepreneurs who have taken their passions, go-getter attitudes, and badass boss work ethics to a completely different level to make their work their own.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs htx people project.

HTX People Project founders Morganne Nikole (l) and Bria Lauren.

HTX People Project
Founders: Morganne Nikole and Bria Lauren

Identity: We identify as queer—not only as a sexuality, but as an attitude. A language. A demeanor.
Houston, TX

Tell us about HTX People Project.

Public spectators carry a body language that quietly wishes we were less black. Less woman. Less queer. Their shifts, often disguised by faint smiles and delayed hesitations, are meant to persuade us that our intersecting identities are not responsible for disrupting their flavors and societal norms. They prefer we quiet our voices and learn to behave—to only adapt “voice” for swallowing in place of speaking. Our authenticity, displaced among the margins, urges our inner truth to become courageous enough to be courageous enough. After all, we are not obliged to make oppression comfortable. Our Houston-based collective marries the soul-ship of art and activism. We nurture the heartbeat of film, photography, poetry, and storytelling to isolate and dissect the holistic scarring of race, gender, and sexuality. Through art, we create safe spaces for people to be  exactly as they are—without censorship, without fear, with love.

What inspired you to create HTX People Project?

Our voices were not accounted for. Our “kind” was not actively represented outside of minority spaces and we got tired of people speaking on behalf of an experience they can only assume about. We believe that no story is too small or invaluable to be told because each of us has a sacred narrative to live during our time here. The project started three years ago on the streets of Houston’s Third Ward. Bria would walk around with a tape recorder asking strangers a simple, “Tell me about yourself,” statement that would lead to hours of unadulterated conversation. From there, we ventured into documentary filmmaking. Our first film, NAKED, told the unpeeled story of eight black women and our latest release, c r e a t i n g s p a c e, captures the raw and uncensored voices of six black LGBTQ-identified individuals who proactively aim to challenge societal standards and conformist ideas.

Where do you see HTX People Project in the next three to five years?

Traveling the world with our work. Hosting liberation and free-thinking workshops to actively advocate equality and respect for all people regardless of pronouns, color, etc. We all deserve to be exactly who we are without apology or fear of what our authenticity can lead to. Once we peel back our layers of “drag” (word to RuPaul), we will discover that our differences aren’t as different as we once assumed.

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

Do not silence your passions. Do not silence your voice. Do not conform for the sake of their comfort. Do not filter your language to fit into their context. Wear yourself. No, it will not be easy. But yes, it will be worth it.

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?


A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Gustavo Huerta.

Gustavo H. Photography founder Gustavo Huerta.

Gustavo H. Photography
Founder: Gustavo Huerta
Identity: I identify as gay, and often times queer.
Houston, TX

Tell us about Gustavo H. Photography.

I’m currently based in Houston, working out of the Fifth Ward/Trinity Gardens. I work as a freelance journalist and fashion/portraiture photographer. I specifically enjoy writing about civil and social issues that directly impact minority communities. I also work with local models, boutiques, and designers by shooting the clothing they want showcased or to grow their portfolios. I do the work I do because I feel that there needs to be a voice for communities that are struggling. I want to be an outlet for those who need to speak out against the injustices happening. Being a person who comes from a similar background, I easily relate to the challenges they face.

What inspired you to create Gustavo H. Photography?

I was initially inspired by publications such as the New York Times, but, as I continued college, I began to be inspired by the very people who were teaching the courses. Dr. Gregory Selber, a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and Donna Pazdera, a lecturer who I learned from at the same university, both inspired me to continue pursuing a career in journalism. They’d both worked in the field for years and decided to teach at a collegiate level to inspire the next generation of reporters. I am proof that they were able to do just that! I’ve been working in photography since March 2013, but it wasn’t until the spring of 2016 that I found my desire to do more work as a photojournalist. Though I still enjoy working with local businesses and models to help expand their catalogs/portfolios, I want to explore more opportunities in reporting. A little mix of both would be ideal.

Where do you see yourself in the next three to five years?

Within the next couple of years, I hope to be working as a regional reporter for the New York Times. If I’m not there in the next couple of years, I hope that I’ve made enough connections to continue the freelance work I currently do now.

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

Keep up the work! Some days you’ll ask yourself if this is really worth it, but you have to remind yourself that it is! There’s no problem with taking a day off for yourself if you’re feeling exhausted. Stay grounded and surround yourself with people who continue to support the work you do. There will be lots of tears, but the days where you feel accomplished and proud will easily outnumber those. Self-care is very important, so never forget about that. You got this!

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?

I listen to a plethora of music so it’s hard to just pick one! I’d have to pick Cardi B “Bodak Yellow.”

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs FLAVNT Streetwear.

FLAVNT Streetwear founders Chris Rhodes (l) and Courtney Rhodes.

FLAVNT Streetwear
Founders: Courtney Rhodes and Chris Rhodes
Identity: Courtney (Lesbian) and Chris (Transgender Man)
Austin, TX

Tell us about FLAVNT Streetwear.

We co-run FLAVNT Streetwear, an LGBTQ clothing line based out of Austin, TX, but with an online store. We sell mostly graphic T-shirts and accessories that promote visibility and pride within the LGBTQ community by highlighting specific identities/sparking conversation. 15 percent of our sales go towards our fundraising partner—we are always partnered up with someone who falls on the trans spectrum and is seeking gender-confirming surgery. We have partnered with nine different individuals over the past 2.5 years and have raised over $15,000 total for those people. Our mission is simply to change the world and look damn fine doing it.

What inspired you to create FLAVNT Streetwear?

We both went to school for graphic design and have been artists our whole lives. We’ve been coming up with ideas and throwing them on shirts for as long as we can remember, but the idea for FLAVNT was born at Austin Pride in 2013. Chris wanted to create a shirt that said “Pretty Boy” and wear it to Pride because that was how he identified. When he wore that shirt, it seemed to resonate with everyone (he got compliments from people all over the LGBTQ spectrum, from lesbians to gay men and everyone in between) and we realized that maybe we were on to something. We took that shirt idea and put together the idea for FLAVNT and have been going ever since.

Where do you see FLAVNT Streetwear in the next three to five years?

We hope to still be changing lives—hopefully helping more people every year and breaking the $50,000 fundraising mark. Also, it would be great to be 100 percent custom with our shirts, so we could tailor them to our community and have even more of a brand instead of just a T-shirt company. We already manufacture our binders, so that seems like the next logical step. Maybe in 10 years we’ll have an actual storefront somewhere!

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs FLAVNT Streetwear.

FLAVNT Streetwear’s binder line.

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

The LGBTQ community can be harsh and hard to break into—but queer entrepreneurs deserve to make money and make their dreams come true just as much as anyone else. So don’t listen when people tear you down and don’t tear others down in order to try and elevate yourself or your dreams. Collaboration and supporting each other is what’s going to get us all where we want to go.

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?

We both said “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” by Shania Twain without hesitation.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Eric Edward Schell of Pride Portraits.

Pride Portraits founder Eric Edward Schell (r).

Pride Portraits + Eric Edward Schell Photography
Founder: Eric Edward Schell
Identity: I identify as a gay cisgender male who doesn’t conform to stereotypical masculinity.
Houston, TX

Tell us about Pride Portraits.

Pride Portraits stands for Photographs Representing Individuals Deserving Equality. Pride Portraits is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Our mission is to visually represent the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies one photograph and story at a time. Visibility and representation for our community is key to promoting the humanization of a community that is dehumanized every single day. Unfortunately, being a member of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum is inherently political—our existence is political. Which, in turn, means we need to be as visible as possible to be seen, heard, respected, and humanized in the incredibly heteronormative society we live in.

What inspired you to create Pride Portraits?

After the Pulse shooting happened in Orlando, fellow Houston activist Brad Pritchett asked me and other community leaders to be part of a video where we’d talk about not being afraid to be visible and active in that year’s Houston Pride events. During the video production day, I photographed the other participants while I wasn’t on camera myself. A few days later, I was looking at my images while post-processing and realized that I had captured the entire LGBTQIA+ spectrum in one day. On June 23, 2016, I decided to post an event on Facebook inviting others to be photographed and titled it Pride Portraits. An overwhelming number of strangers showed up after seeing the event on social media. Since then, over 3,000 people have participated in the Pride Portraits campaign.

Where do you see Pride Portraits in the next three to five years?

Since acquiring my 501(c)(3) status, I have plans to raise enough money to be able to travel the country and photograph even more marginalized communities. The campaign started very grassroots and, to me, it still is grassroots. Others have told me that, at this point, it’s a national photo campaign. Maybe it is, but I never want to forget why I started this—to give people who otherwise wouldn’t have a platform to feel validated, visible, and represented. I’ve had people assume the campaign is too big for them because they are not a celebrity, nationally-recognized, or praised political figure. That’s not the case at all. The biggest thrill for me is when I’m able to create a platform for someone to come out to their entire family through their portrait and statement. I also got an email from a trans woman who, for the first time, saw her own beauty thanks to the photo I took. It’s moments like those—or when I read a statement so full of honesty and inspiration that I’m brought to tears—that made me start this campaign. If I had to pick a five-year goal, it would be to photograph the Obamas.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Eric Edward Schell of Pride Portraits.

Pride Portraits founder Eric Edward Schell (r) with Beto O’Rourke, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Texas.

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

My biggest piece of advice is to not let other people’s opinions get you down. In my case, photography is so subjective that I had to learn to not to take it personally if someone doesn’t like their photo. I take multiple shots of each person and I try to pick the one that reflects the time we spent together at the studio—the image that makes me think of them and how our interaction went. I also don’t view the campaign as a vehicle for vanity. I never want a Pride Portrait to reflect anything but who that person is. No extreme air brushing or other editing. That’s not what the campaign is about, it’s about showing who we are as LGBTQIA+ people and our allies. The photos to me are secondary, the statements are the focal point. However, that being said, I had to realize that when I’m personally photographed, I only like about one of 50 photos taken, so I don’t get upset when someone doesn’t love their photo.

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?

“The Best” by Tina Turner! If this song is playing, I can do anything.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Southern Fried Queer Pride.

Southern Fried Queer Pride founder Taylor ALXNDR.

Southern Fried Queer Pride
Founder: Taylor ALXNDR
Identity: I identify as queer trans/non-binary.
Atlanta, GA

Tell us about your business venture.

Southern Fried Queer Pride (SFQP) is a queer and trans arts and advocacy organization I co-founded in 2015. We uplift and build platforms for southern queer and trans artists and community folks with a DIY ethic. Our work includes two annual festivals, monthly programming, stage productions, a future publication, and more!

What inspired you to create Southern Fried Queer Pride?

SFQP started out of lack of spaces for queer and trans artists, people of color, and queer youth to organize under a radical spirit. It was also born out of a lack of pride in being queer and southern. A lot of disgruntled folks got together in 2014 to lay the foundation and in 2015, we had our first festival!

Where do you see Southern Fried Queer Pride in the next three to five years?

In five years, I see Southern Fried Queer Pride as a fully-recognized regional organization with multiple festivals, larger events, and fully-produced content. I also see us establishing a queer arts and community center here in Atlanta. Small steps lead to the big picture!

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Southern Fried Queer Pride.

Southern Fried Queer Pride held its first festival in 2015.

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

My advice for any queer person looking to step out on their own venture is to know your brand and what you stand for. I constantly see folks come out with projects and ideas that they can never back up with brand knowledge. Elevator speeches are key. If you can’t describe what you do in two to four sentences, you’re either doing too much or not enough.

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?

Hmmm. I think “Can’t Get Enough of Myself” by Santigold really gets me excited to do what I do. It’s a fun song about self-confidence, which comes in handy in the work that I do.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Lauren Marek and Carra Sykes.

LM+CS founders Lauren Marek (l) and Carra Sykes.

Founders: Lauren Marek and Carra Sykes
Identity: Lesbians
Houston and Austin, TX

Tell us about LM+CS.

LM + CS: We are a multidisciplinary creative duo based between Houston and Austin. Lauren Marek is a photographer and Carra Sykes is an illustrator, designer, and creative director. Together, we deliver creative direction, brand development, and visual narratives. Our mission is to create genuine work for clients and for ourselves.

What inspired you to create LM+CS?

LM: We are both creatives. We’ve been partners for five years. We work exceptionally together. We match each others strengths and weaknesses. WITH OUR POWERS COMBINED.

CS: Even if we aren’t hired as a team, we usually weigh in on each other’s work. We figured we should make it more official by having a combined website that complements our ability to work together.

Where do you see LM+CS in the next three to five years?


CS: What she said.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Lauren Marek and Carra Sykes.

LM+CS founders Lauren Marek and Carra Sykes were two of the creative forces behind the 2015 pro-Houston Equal Rights Campaign (HERO) project, “We Are Hero.”

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

LM + CS: You do you. Support other queer businesses. Let’s lift each other up and be kind.

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?

LM: Anything by St. Vincent.

CS: Currently, “Curious” by Hayley Kiyoko.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Garate Cooper, PLLC.

Garate Cooper, PLLC founders Robert Garate (r) and Jacob Cooper.

Garate Cooper, PLLC
Founders: Robert Garate and Jacob Cooper
Identity: Robert (Gay) and Jacob (Gay)
Houston, TX

Tell us about Garate Cooper.

Garate Cooper is a Houston-based general practice law firm with clients throughout the state of Texas. Problem solvers by trade, our mission is to transform the negative perception that surrounds the legal profession by providing an unintimidating and approachable experience for our clients.

What inspired you to create Garate Cooper?

After spending years working in stuffy and traditional law firm settings, we realized that the law firm experience needed a revamp. Clients want three things: expertise, communication, and to know that you care about their issue. So, we created an untraditional law firm where our relationship with the client always comes first. In the spring of 2018, Garate Cooper, PLLC will celebrate two years of dedicated service to our clients.

Where do you see Garate Cooper in the next three to five years?

In the next three to five years, we aim to see Garate Cooper continue its current growth, with additional lawyers and clients, while staying true to our founding principle of providing a small firm feel with big firm results. We have also invested our time and money into other independent ventures that we hope one day will grow us an empire (cue maniacal laughter).

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

“3.. 2.. 1.. Jump!” The hardest part is taking the initial plunge. You’re never going to feel 100 percent “ready.” Focus on your strengths and surround yourself with a “team”—you need a good lawyer (call us!), accountant, mentors that you can call on when you need them, and most importantly, supportive friends. Last but not least, don’t pay any mind to naysayers or people who don’t believe in you. Know that sometime you will fail, but that is just an opportunity to learn and grow, don’t let it stop your hustle.

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?

Robert: La Roux “In for the Kill (Skrillex Remix)”

Jacob: Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Heads will Roll (A-Trak Remix)”

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Neta.

Neta founder Dani Marrero Hi.

Founder: Dani Marrero Hi
Identity: Lesbian
Rio Grande Valley, TX

Tell us about Neta.

Neta is an online platform run by community organizers in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV). We create content like videos, podcasts, and articles to advance progressive narratives in our region. Some of the issues we focus on are immigration justice, LGBTQ issues, and abortion access. Our vision is to inspire young people in the RGV to act on urgent social and cultural issues and to challenge negative mainstream narratives about what the border region is. We see ourselves as a hub for information and stories about the progressive movement in the RGV.

What inspired you to create Neta?

We launched Neta about one year ago. There are many things that inspired me to take on this project, but one of the biggest factors was not seeing fair or substantial media representation of LGBTQ people in the RGV. It’s one thing when journalists call queer and trans people asking for an interview when there’s a huge story, like marriage equality and the so-called bathroom bill. It’s another thing to represent the LGBTQ community in stories that are not always about those tense political moments.

During highly politicized moments, we don’t have much control over our narrative and stories since the opposition uses sensationalized language to talk about us. It’s important for there to be consistent coverage about us outside of that scope so that we can have more fruitful discussions on what it means to be LGBTQ on our own terms and not on the terms of homophobes and trans-misogynists. It gives us agency.

So yes, we’ll talk about the bills and politics, but we’ll also create stories showing our happiness, our creativity, our big and little victories, and how we’re changing the world.

Where do you see Neta in the next three to five years?

I see Neta becoming a strong leading voice for the progressive movement in Texas. I also want people to know about the RGV the same way everyone knows about Austin or Houston. I want to stop saying I live “four hours South of San Antonio,” if that makes sense.

Finally, I think Neta will be a turning point for some exciting pop culture representation for RGV residents. We actually have some big productions in the works this year. We’re collaborating with some amazing filmmakers and writers. Everything is still on the DL, but we’ll release those details publicly very soon.

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

Know your worth, be decisive, and always act like you belong— even if you feel you don’t. Keep a journal or list somewhere and write down your mistakes and lessons every day. It’ll help you improve and not waste your time and money making the same mistakes more than once. Most importantly, respect and honor your team.

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?

“Don’t Rain On My Parade” by Barbra Streisand.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Impulse Austin.

Impulse Austin founder Terese Rusher. Photo by Lisa Hause.

Impulse Austin
Founder: Terese Rusher
Identity: I identify as queer.
Austin, TX

Tell us about Impulse Austin.
Impulse Austin is a marketing company servicing the local LGBTQ business of this great city, including musicians, artists, and non-profit organizations. We provide digital marketing with tailored advertisements for our clients, as well as SEO and website solutions. Impulse Austin’s mission is to build community up from the inside out.

What inspired you to create Impulse Austin?

I have always dreamed of being an entrepreneur so that I can utilize my leadership and humanitarian skills. The venture came to me in September 2016 after watching the political race and debates. I had a sickening feeling of the results. I started asking if the political climate got worse, funding for nonprofits was cut, and discrimination increased, what I could do to improve and reverse the results. In October 2016, I decided on a marketing company that would leverage tools to increase visibility of local businesses. It’s really simple math—local businesses bring growth, jobs, enhance communities, prosperity, and independence. They’ve been snuffed out by corporations who snuff out democracy by funding political climates. I want to utilize marketing strategies to increase democracy and decrease inequality. It’s a new dawn of time! Impulse Austin theorizes that increasing awareness of local businesses increases profits. Our first step is to market LGBTQIA businesses.

Where do you see Impulse Austin in the next three to five years?

In three to five years, I see Impulse Austin employing several creative, passionate individuals who use our unique marketing strategies to create a more democratic and equal world!

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

My advice is to have fun. Don’t give up on your vision and get ready to work!

Just for fun, what song makes you feel the most badass boss?
“Am I Wrong” by Nico & Vinz.

A photo of queer southern entrepreneurs Bradley David Entertainment.

Bradley David Entertainment founder Bradley David Janacek.

Bradley David Entertainment
Founder: Bradley David Janacek
Identity: I’m a proud member of the LGBTQIA community as a gay man.
Houston, TX

Tell us about Bradley David Entertainment.

I started Bradley David Entertainment in 2015. I was three years into sobriety and knew I was ready for the challenge. I’ve always said if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards. I was turning 30 and decided to do a big birthday bash at the new Centennial Gardens at Hermann Park. This was the perfect opportunity to launch my company. The party was such a success and set the tone for my business. Over the next few days, planners immediately began calling to book.

Bradley David Entertainment is based in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, but we work all over Houston and sometimes out of state. We specialize in DJs, lighting, and photobooths. Our mission is to ensure our clients walk away with their guests saying that was the best party they’ve ever been to. For the LGBTQIA community, my mission is to ensure a complete level of normalcy, especially when it comes to weddings. My favorite question to ask same-sex couples is how they want to be introduced. They’re looking to me for formality and I always say, it’s your wedding, the fight was fought, and now you can just be you—whatever the title may be.

What inspired you to create Bradley David Entertainment?

My brother had been DJing for nine years before I was. I’ve always looked up to him and wanted to do what he did. When he became a fireman with the Houston Fire Department, I started right where he left off. I’ve always dreamed of being an entrepreneur, and seeing people laugh and have a good time is what makes me happy. When you walk into a room that was previously “just a ballroom,” to see it totally transformed by your efforts—from the lighting to the music setting—that’s a pretty cool feeling.

Where do you see Bradley David Entertainment in the next three to five years?

My dream is to have my business grow to New Orleans. I’d love to be able to go back and forth.

What advice do you have for other queer entrepreneurs?

Surround yourself with positive, successful people and leave the naysayers behind. What other people think of you is none of your business, unless they’re paying you.

What song makes you feel the most badass boss?

“Under Pressure” by Queen. To me, DJing is not just a paycheck—it’s my passion and I want others to feel the joy it brings me. This song is just a badass song in itself.

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