By: Baltimore Business Journal, Morgan Eichensehr

Betsy Cerulo said now finally felt like the right time to start an LGBT Chamber of Commerce in Maryland.

Ten, or even just five years ago, the LGBT business community seemed smaller and more fragmented. Some business owners chose to remain quiet about their sexual orientation and others advocated for legislation on gay marriage and workplace anti-discrimination. But Maryland has made a lot of progress over the past several years on this front, Cerulo said, and she and another business owner, Dave Imre, decided to see if Maryland was ready for an LGBT chamber.

And apparently, it was. Imre, of Imre, a marketing firm, and Cerulo hosted a meeting last March to see if there was any interest in the group. About 35 people showed up.

Cerulo, who owns her own business advisory firm, said she has watched local chambers pop up around the country over the years in places like Nashville and Houston. And she saw how the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commercebrought LGBT professionals together in Washington, D.C. But she realized there still wasn’t anything like that between Baltimore and Philadelphia.

She and Imre decided to try and start a chamber themselves, with the goal of uniting and strengthening the local LGBT business community. They started with an email and a meeting. And once it was clear that there was support for the, Cerulo said a 20-person planning committee was formed to figure out how to move forward.

“Our mission is to empower and promote LGBT professionals and business owners in the Maryland marketplace,” Cerulo said. “If all our diverse businesses and business groups win, ultimately, Maryland wins.”

The group now has a five-member board of directors and is gearing up for an official launch in June.

Membership dues will be based on individual or company need, Cerulo said, and the chamber’s website is being set up now to start receiving new members. Anyone, no matter sexual orientation, is welcome to join.

Cerulo said she has already been introduced to several new people and businesses in the local LGBT community and she hopes the community can keep growing. She said it’s also important to have a mix of veteran and new business owners in the group, so that the more established members can provide support and “help the next generation of LGBT businesses” grow and thrive.

“We want to build communities, to bring people together to celebrate and cultivate diversity in the business community,” Cerulo said. “By having this kind of organization, we’re going to be able to attract people who know there is a strong network of support here for these business owners.”

The chamber plans to host community events as well as educational seminars and webinars to discuss things like building up your business, smart financing, how to do business with the government, LGBT rights in the workplace, etc. Cerulo said the group also plans to work with state and federal government entities to collaborate and negotiate on pro-LGBT business legislation in the future.