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The Startup That’s Battling To Open Tech To Transgender People

The tech world is attempting to achieve gender parity but it’s left out the trans population that faces their own unique challenges.

The Startup That’s Battling To Open Tech To Transgender People
[Photo: Flickr user hackNY.org]

For decades, the term gender equality has focused on the equal treatment of men and women. Now in the year 2015, all genders are starting to come into focus.

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The trans community is slowly being viewed in a new light in pop culture thanks to small screen breakthroughs, such as Jeffrey Tambor winning a Golden Globe for his performance as the transgender character, Maura Pfefferman, on Amazon’s Transparent, and transgender actress, Laverne Cox, being nominated for an Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset in Orange Is The New Black,

But in the business world trans people are not nearly as visible. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 90% of the transgender people surveyed reported experiencing “harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination” at work. Transgender individuals are also twice as likely to be unemployed as the rest of the population, and are at a greater risk of poverty.

While more than a third of Fortune 500 companies prohibit gender discrimination, they don’t exactly provide the most inviting environments for transgender people. That’s why Angelica Ross, transgender CEO of the Chicago-based training academy, TransTech Social Social Enterprises, is working to empower and employ members of the trans community through apprenticeships in graphic design and web development, which allow telecommuting opportunities.

“When you are trans and you can’t even get your foot in the door because you are not ‘passable,’ and you can’t even pick up the phone and say, ‘this is Mary’ with a deep voice and not have them laugh at you, there are so many barriers to that,” says Ross. “But technology has totally leveled the playing field for someone like me. I can get on the internet and watch tutorials. I have the drive to spend five hours a day to teach myself a skill.”

A former show girl, Ross carved a new path for herself by teaching herself how to build websites. She then ran a creative design agency for 10 years before starting TransTech without any investments, donors or grants. Through a quick fundraiser, she was able to raise enough money to do a 12-week pilot cycle of TransTech’s apprenticeship program.

Angelica RossPhoto: via Trans Tech Social Enterprises

Ross says she knew there was a huge need for what TransTech provides, and this was confirmed when the organization received more than 40 applications, but could only accept two, due to budget restrictions. However, a handful of nonprofits have come to the table wanting to sponsor trans people to be in the TransTech program, making it possible for more apprentices to receive a weekly stipend. Ideally, each apprentice will gain the skills to earn 100% of their income as an independent contractor.

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TransTech currently has three apprentices and 10 independent contractors working with the company, and there’s no lack of diversity. “We have trans men. We have trans women. We have queer people. We have people who just consider themselves to be cis males and cis females that are straight,” shared Ross.

“I wanted to create an environment that’s similar to the work force without all the harassment and discrimination, a place where people know how to respect your gender identity. Let’s not fantasize about having a world of only trans people or only of LGBTQ people. Let’s fantasize about a world in which we all can co-exist, and where there is just talent that recognizes talent.”

Ross says the biggest misconception about members of the trans community is that they are mentally unstable and can only be entertainment, but notable trans figures across sectors are proving that this ideology is false.

“The way around this is being undeniable at something,” says Ross. “Having a skill makes you undeniable. Laverne Cox talks about this when she talks about going on auditions and going to acting school. She says, ‘I am doing the work so you cannot deny my talent.’ Transgender journalist, Janet Mock, has a master’s degree in journalism. You cannot deny that she has skill when she hosts her show on MSNBC. She is undeniable.”

Building on her self-taught nature, Ross is currently exploring ways to expand TransTech’s reach in her community and to contribute to telling a new narrative around trans people in business. Hollywood isn’t the only industry that can make a dent in trans inclusion. Later this month, Ross will be speaking at The Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco, where 1,000 LGBTQ women and allies are expected to rally in support of gender diversity in tech.

She shares, “What I would love to happen is to have people at the top of their game–straight, gay, cisgender, transgender, whatever–to volunteer with us as long as they have something of value to offer, and they see the value in our community.”

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