“I think my most skillful trait is the ability to pivot,” said Angelica Ross. “I believe that pivoting is a huge skill to have.”
Ross utilized her ability to change direction and forge ahead in every step along her path to become founding CEO of the creative design firm and training academy TransTech Social Enterprises. At the outset of her journey, she was fired from a day job after coming out to her boss and co-workers as a transgender woman. She says that her firing fell in line with a general message from society that transgender lives don’t matter. A 2011 report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 90 percent of those surveyed who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job or took actions to avoid it; 47 percent reported that they had experienced an adverse job outcome such as being fired, not hired, or denied a promotion.
“There’s also a message that you’re not valuable,” added Ross, “except for a certain category of value that you have as an entertainer — either as a sex worker, adult film star, or drag queen.” Like many other transgender people looking to support themselves, put themselves through school, or pay for hormones and medical expenses, Ross began working as a model for an adult entertainment website.
Soon, she had the opportunity to work behind the scenes editing and cropping photos and posting content to the website. She taught herself HTML, CSS, content management systems, and more, using Lynda.com. Ross began to realize that she didn’t have to do sex work or work in adult entertainment to make a living. “I began to think, ‘Okay, now I can run my own adult website.’ Eventually, I realized that I didn’t want to run an adult website. I actually just enjoyed building websites, managing clients, and working as a freelancer.”
Over the next 10 years, Ross built and ran her own successful creative design business. In 2013, she decided to get directly involved to help other transgender people find their professional calling and employment pathway, just as she had been able to do. She began working as a career coach and job readiness expert for the Trans Life Center project at the Chicago House and Social Service Agency, where she worked with both trans and cisgender workers — people whose gender identity corresponds to the sex they were assigned at birth — “dealing with mental health issues, conviction histories, lack of work histories, trauma, abuse, you name it. Some of the challenges were so big that they got in the way of the work and productivity aspect of the job.”
Pivoting from career coach to broader empowerment
“TransTech emerged as a solution out of the center of that storm,” Ross added. After experiencing frustration with some of the social work aspects of her job, she began brainstorming a different system for capacity building and skills training for trans workers, based more on individual accountability. “It’s not just about getting people a job,” said Ross, “because once you get them a job, they might have a hard time keeping that job depending on what skill sets they have and the types of challenges they have to deal with while on the job.”
Launched in July 2013 in Chicago, TransTech Social Enterprises seeks to empower, educate, and employ trans and gender non-conforming individuals facing barriers in education and in the workplace, as well as to reduce instances of discrimination against them. The organization uses a dual-empowerment model in which trainees learn basic data entry, typing, software, and creative design skills while also working on real, contracted projects with professional clients. Similar to beauty school apprenticeships, clients pay a reduced price in exchange for supporting trainees just developing skills for the first time. Trainees, and anyone from the LGBTQ community, as well as straight and cisgender allies, can become community, professional, or corporate members, gaining access to benefits such as in-person workshops, on-the-job training, and diversity consultations. After an initial pilot program in 2013, TransTech is currently training its second cohort of trainees in Chicago and Washington, DC.
Organizations like TransTech are few and far between considering the vast challenges facing the transgender community. The 2011 survey found that respondents were nearly four times more likely than the general population to have a household income of less than $10,000/year. More than a quarter reported a household income of less than $20,000/year.
Black and Latina trans women face particularly challenging economic circumstances — much of it stemming from the way that institutional discrimination toward people of color, women, LGBTQ, and trans/gender non-conforming individuals overlaps and intersects. “My parents always used to tell us you have to work three or four times harder than White people to get ahead,” said Ross. She often feels like people are standing on the sidelines watching TransTech, waiting for a Black trans woman to fail. “I’m a trans woman of color without a college degree who’s never done these things before, but I’m dedicated, I teach myself, I pick things up quickly, and I’m willing to be the main muscle behind this mission.”
Partnering with the White House
The wins are rolling in. In its first year, TransTech made over $100,000 in creative design sales. In July 2015, Ross was invited to speak at the White House during its first-ever LGBTQ Innovation Tech Summit. U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith introduced Ross, recognizing that “amongst and in our community, the trans community faces some of the greatest challenges for inclusion and economic inclusion.”
Since then, Ross has been working with the White House to develop an employment pipeline for trans people to be hired at entry-level positions there. Nonetheless, TransTech is still in search of more supporters and corporate partners.
“Once people started seeing the White House stuff … we have gotten a lot of people saying, ‘Man, that’s so cool. That’s so wonderful,'’’ said Ross. “But there’s still a gap between that and folks actually supporting our mission, whether that is through volunteering, donating, helping us to raise funds, or helping us to see what [we could be doing differently].”
She said that she’s open for TransTech to continue to pivot and evolve; the organization is not designed to operate with a one-size-fits-all approach. The pilot training session taught the staff valuable lessons that helped inform the design of the second year, with the current cohort helping to tailor the program even further.
Ross explained that equity is central to TransTech’s work. “We need for folks to have a fair stake in the game and that looks different for each person,” said Ross. “What we’re trying to communicate to folks about TransTech is that it is a tool that’s reflective of an individual’s value — and what happens when an individual enters into a collective with that value.”