Illustration by Max Fleishman (Licensed)
It's no secret that transgender people face many barriers in both education and employment: They are four times more likely to live poverty, and four times more likely to make less than $10,000 a year.
However, a black trans female entrepreneur hopes to change that.
Angelica Ross, 35, businesswoman and actress on the web series Her Story, founded TransTech Social two years ago, following frustrations and limitations at her previous job. She felt her work there was being co-opted by some of her colleagues and that she was tokenized in her role developing employment for transgender people.
Now, with TransTech, she has created a free-of-charge on-going training academy and apprenticeship program to teach trans people a variety of employable Web and tech skills, including social media management, web development, graphic design, and multimedia production. So far, more 250 people nationwide have accessed TransTech's online and in-person trainings.
However, Ross created TransTech not only to help trans people get jobs, but to also instill in them self-worth and value, which is something she has learned along the way.
Ross recalls being a younger trans woman and “accepting” that the only way she could survive or transition was by becoming an adult entertainer or a showgirl.
"My personal journey went from thinking all I had access to was sex work to 'I don’t have to escort, and I don’t even have to pose on these websites,'" Ross told the Daily Dot. “I can actually build the website. I don’t have to be exploited by another photographer. I can take my own pictures and exploit myself, put a paywall on it, manage my own website, make a business around that—and I did.”She said once she created her own adult website, however, she realized it was not what she wanted to do. “It was a high goal when I had no other options, and I was on the streets, but now I actually like designing websites. I like doing graphic design."
While putting herself through college selling real estate in the early 2000s, Ross taught herself HMTL, CSS, photography, photo retouching, and video editing. She then created My Zen Studios—which focused on web development and multimedia production—and got into freelance work.
The same creative and tech skills she taught herself, TransTech now trains its members in. Trainings are a la carte and accessible by members in either online and on-demand formats; some sessions are one-on-one and some are workshops of up to 25 members. "TransTech encourages members to create trainings, as our saying is, 'Every member has something to teach, and something to learn,'" Ross said.
“I can actually build the website," said Ross. "I don’t have to be exploited by another photographer. I can take my own pictures and exploit myself, put a paywall on it, make a business around that—and I did.”
Seth Perry, a 38-year-old trans man, is one of the startup’s greatest success stories. He has rebuilt an online course for a national LGBT organization, and has also managed TransTech's social media platforms. Perry was eventually promoted to the company's co-program coordinator, developing its current apprenticeships.
“It’s just been nothing but opportunity,” Perry told the Daily Dot about TransTech. “The more experience and time spent here, the more confidence you’re going to have in your abilities to go out there and get the job you want to get."
He’s also a digital marketing coordinator for SourceDigital—a marketing agency within the i.c.stars workforce development program in Chicago—but he says finding additional work has had its challenges.
“I still face a lot of problems in trying to get the regular 9-to-5 corporate type of job because of the way I look,” Perry said. “I don’t fully look male to everybody, and I’m a kind of a bigger person.”
“I feel like interviews are always kind of weird and like I’m being judged in a negative light," he added. "It just feels like there’s a lot of barriers within the LGBT [community], and outside of it, that come with trying to get a job.”
But Perry has been a social media star at TransTech, and Ross says the company has greatly benefited. “Without social media, we would not be where we are today, because the truth of the matter is, when it comes to donors and major organizations, we have very few people who back us,” she said.
TransTech has launched name-building campaigns across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. However, one of its biggest moments was the "In Our Own Image” trans community photo-shoot day—a campaign to build the stock photography library of trans people (and screenshots for LinkedIn profiles)—which was shared on Facebook.
As for donations to help with sustainability, TransTech has received a $10,000 donation from MillerCoors every year since its opening. The startup also received contributions from the Human Rights Campaign, which gave more than $30,000, and the Latin School of Chicago, which donated computers to the program.
Although the company is thriving, like any startup, it has its struggles. However, some of these challenges are specific to the marginalization and trauma trans people face on a daily basis.
Ross points out to her members she is not a social worker. She’s a businesswoman who also happens to be an informed advocate on the trauma the trans community faces. But she says some people fail to realize TransTech is still a place of business.
“We ran into some challenges because everyone wants me and [the company] to be this goodwill place that just pays people to give them a shot,” Ross said. “But when I’m standing here with a client who is expecting a deliverable, and expecting productivity, it’s hard to tell them that someone is having a mental health day, or that all these other challenges are going on. It's pushed us to a very challenging place to figure this out.”
Ross says there are many educated and qualified trans people who are ready for the workforce but have been locked out. And then there are others who might not have the experience (again, because they face extreme discrimination in the workforce and within society), but only need training and polishing to accompany their drive and know-how.
“In order for us to solve this issue with the trans community having equity and a stake in the game, there’s a responsibility of rolling up your sleeves that has to happen from everyone,” Ross said.