In this three-part series, we explore some of the challenges LGBTQ2+ exporters face, how they can mitigate risks when travelling on business and offer tips to help them thrive in the global marketplace. This week, we meet a couple who not only share a life, but a business and find out how they found success on the world stage.
Travelling for business is one of the many perks of being an exporter, but if you’re LGBTQ2+, you could face extra challenges.
While Canadian employees are increasingly encouraged to be their authentic selves in the workplace, some 76 countries still criminalize same-sex relationships. Even in countries where such relationships are legal, a culture of homophobia lingers on.
“Acceptance can vary significantly in different regions of the same country,” says Billy Kolber, the New York-based founder of ManAboutWorld Business Travel Guide, a digital magazine written by gay men for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ2+) travellers. “Many, many factors go into the way people are treated. Whether you’re white, gay, a gay person of colour, gender non-conforming, we all face different challenges.
“I’ve travelled through 100 countries and never had a problem being gay, but that doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist. The point isn’t to give up travelling, but to understand the risks and, on the part of employers, to consider their responsibility to keep LGBTQ2+ employees safe,” he says.
The local laws and culture of an overseas market can also throw up roadblocks.
For these reasons, it may not be wise or safe for LGBTQ2+ business travellers to be open about their sexuality or to reveal too much about their lives—which can be especially difficult in markets where the local culture expects you to talk about your family and other personal details in the process of making a sale or building a business relationship.
The point isn’t to give up travelling, but to understand the risks and, on the part of employers, to consider their responsibility to keep LGBTQ2+ employees safe.
Paying it forward
Arnon Melo and Peter Hawkins are longtime business partners at their successful freight-forwarding company, MELLOHAWK Logistics. Based in Mississauga, ON, they spend their workdays facilitating shipments to markets around the globe. But when it’s time to head home, they go together. They’re also a happily married couple, having officially tied the knot in 2004 and celebrating 29 years together in total.
When they first met, Melo was a newcomer to Canada from Brazil and trying to figure out a career path. It was Hawkins who suggested that a customs brokerage and freight-forwarding course would be a good fit with Melo’s facility for languages and desire to travel. He was right. While attending Toronto’s Seneca College, Melo landed an internship for a German international freight forwarder. He stayed there for almost a decade, getting promoted to air freight manager, before deciding to start his own firm. Within four months, he was so busy that he asked Hawkins to join the company. MELLOHAWK began in a spare bedroom, quickly moved to an office, and then to an even bigger space.
“When we began hiring people, many of them were also Seneca College grads because we wanted to give them the same opportunity I’d been given,” says Melo.
Dealing in a global marketplace, they quickly realized the advantages of hiring employees from diverse backgrounds. “We hired people to fit the markets we had, including new Canadians from several different countries who could each speak two or three languages,” says Hawkins. “The best experience is people who have world experience.”
Diverse certification brings benefits
Without intending to, Melo says they had built “a mini United Nations” at MELLOHAWK. “When someone asked if we had considered being designated a diverse company, we thought it was because of our diverse employees. Turns out it was because our company is owned by two gay guys,” Melo laughs. “During the process, we had to provide letters of reference to say that we are truly, genuinely gay.”
Established in 2003 and a leader in supplier diversity, the Canadian Council of Chambers and Business Organizations (CCCBO) is the certifying body in Canada for LGBTQ2+ companies and is a trusted partner in making connections to the wider business community.
At first, the couple didn’t really feel they needed the diverse certification, as they were already an established and successful company.
“But in fact, this certification gave us access to a new level of clients we never dreamed of,” Hawkins says, adding, “We had no idea how many companies who move cargo mandate diverse certification in their supply chains. It has opened doors to us being included on bids—for example, some organizations make it a policy to have three companies bid on a project, one of which must be diverse-certified.”
To be eligible for diverse certification, a company must operate as a for-profit enterprise in Canada and be at least 51% owned, operated and controlled by Canadian residents who identify as LGBTQ2+.
Challenges for LGBTQ2+ exporters
“I don’t think about my sexuality as defining MELLOHAWK, but some potential clients want to know a lot about you. We have definitely lost business because we’re gay,” Melo says. “So, when I travel to different countries and people want to talk about my personal life, I’m always on the fence about how much to reveal, because I don’t want to go into that topic in a foreign country with someone I don’t know. I’m not sure how to handle that sometimes, although I’m getting better at it.”
Regardless, the partners say they’ll do business with every country that wants to do shipping. Says Melo, “Interestingly, we’ve done business with lots of countries that historically have had terrible records on human rights, but when they do business with us and see we’re a good company, it’s very eye-opening for them. Letting people see the reality is one of the ways we can change things.”
One example shows the lengths they will go to build bridges. Melo explains, “We have a Muslim client who asked if we would take in his 21-year-old son, who had left his university in Russia. He stayed with us for five months, then went back to school to study international business. He thought his dad was pretty cool for knowing two gay guys.”
We have definitely lost business because we’re gay. So, when I travel to different countries and people want to talk about my personal life, I’m always on the fence about how much to reveal.
Hawkins adds, “Our goal is not to make anyone uncomfortable, but I’m not going to be uncomfortable either. In our relationship-building, if we can be a bit of an ambassador for the world to understand that we have much more in common than differences, then we’re happy to take on that role.”
They also recommend becoming active members of the Canadian Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “The networking is unbelievably effective. It’s almost like a network of spies, how quick and efficient we are at arranging and sharing connections,” says Melo.
As members, MELLOHAWK was also invited to participate in Canada’s first LGBTQ2+ trade mission in 2018 to Philadelphia with Global Affairs Canada and other diverse-certified companies.
Melo adds that the Canada brand helps protect LGBTQ2+ exporters. “Canada is perceived as a progressive country, being very supportive of individual rights. There’s almost a reaction of ‘Oh, they’re Canadian, so there you go.’ As we all grow businesses internationally, we’re building that Canadian brand of positivity, inclusiveness and kindness.”
Recently, Melo was invited to speak to a panel in Brazil about the value of diversity and their experience as a diverse-certified company. “I was nervous because there’s still a lot of discrimination about being gay in Brazil, and this was the first time I publicly announced we’re diverse-certified. But the feedback was tremendous. Sometimes the more you talk about it and the more you show diversity, the more you help people come to a greater understanding.”
Having a supportive workplace simply makes people more productive, Melo says. “I’m happy to have a company where people feel comfortable to be who we are, whether we’re black or white or brown or gay or straight. We have people with different perspectives from all over the world who can work together. Once they know they’re accepted, they’re happy to go to work and they produce so much more.”
NEXT WEEK: Cleantech entrepreneur faces tough challenges abroad.