Melanie Ampon, San Francisco’s first transgender electrology salon owner, does not regret the sleepless nights she endured to open her storefront in Nob Hill. She went into business to provide electrolysis, the FDA-approved permanent hair removal method, because she wants trans people to safely receive the gender-affirming care.
In San Francisco, small businesses can take months or even years to open, requiring registrations, inspections, ADA compliance, permitting, licenses and other city requirements. But because of an entrepreneurship accelerator program created in 2020 by San Francisco’s Transgender District President Aria Sa’id, Ampon said she was able to open Hearten Electrolysis in a rapid eight months.
“I had a logo design, but the (program’s) graphic designer was able to create brochures for me that I had at the Trans March this year. I had a business coach telling me all these resources, what tools to use to make sure I have a strong foundation for my business,” Ampon said. “It was a lot of information in a short period of time, but the people working with me were great… It really taught me a lot.”
When Ampon opened Hearten Elctrolysis, she joined the ranks of 1.4 million LGBT business owners, according to recent data from from the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. That’s 4% of the 32.5 million companies registered with the United States Small Business Administration.
The Transgender District was founded by three Black trans women in 2017 — Sa’id, Honey Mahogany and Janetta Johnson — and focuses on six program initiatives: tenant protections, workforce development, arts and culture, heritage conservation, cultural competency and land use. It is the first legally recognized transgender district in the world.
Sa’id said she designed the accelerator program to bolster resources for first-time business owners, using the network she built over the last 15 years as a nonprofit leader within the LGBT community in San Francisco. Access to those resources is what typically holds back trans and queer entrepreneurs, she said.
The entrepreneurship accelerator program is funded by the San Francisco Office of Economic and Workforce Development, Invest in Neighborhoods San Francisco and Daylight and Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, with an annual budget of $148,000 that allows it to fund webinars and provide one-on-one coaching, free business tax filing services, website design and seed grants of $10,000 to finance students’ business proposals.
A pilot class of eight students graduated from the program last year, including Ampon. Sa’id said three of the students from the February 2021 cohort have gone on to open their own shops, and the others are working on their business plans in the cannabis, fitness, food service and music industries. The next cohort of eight students begins its four-week bootcamp virtually on Tuesday.
Adira Rolle, who was in the initial class, used his $10,000 seed grant to build a website and to purchase trademarks for an e-commerce platform that sells health-conscious supplements and food products. A consultant from the Small Business Administration is identifying grants and bank loans to help him scale the e-commerce platform for a November launch.
“We really learned to keep our eyes on the prize, to ‘go for it’ despite our doubts,” Rolle said, “to jump in and learn as we go.”
Bionka Simone, another classmate, launched Snatched by Simone, a shapewear undergarments website, with the help of the program’s advisors. Now she aims to design her own shapewear, a step she said she is considering only because of the Transgender District’s support of the first phase of her company.
“I would like to work with manufacturers to come up with better shapewear, especially for pre-op women, because there is a need for that,” Simone said.
Ampon, Simone and Rolle knew Sa’id from her work as a trans rights advocate — a tie that helped them take the leap to apply for the entrepreneurship program. The applicant pool has grown to 100 applicants in its second cohort, Sa’id said.
Ampon believes she was able to take advantage of the accelerator program because she was ready to work long hours. Earlier this year, the electrologist was working at two different electrolysis salons by day and decorating her new space at night. Now, Ampon works full time running Hearten Electrolysis — and said her schedule is fully booked with customers for the next three months.
“Wow, I did this. With the help of the district, yes, but for the most part I did this,” Ampon said. “It was blood, sweat and tears, literally.”