Jason Rae grew up in the small northwestern Wisconsin community of Rice Lake and didn't tell his family he was gay until he was a few years into college at Marquette University.
Now, Rae is traveling the state recruiting businesses to join the new Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, an advocacy and networking organization for businesses owned and supportive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Rae brings an impressive resume and unbounded enthusiasm to the job.
When he was a junior in high school, he spent six months as a page in the U.S. Senate and at 17 became the youngest person elected to the Democratic National Committee.
In 2007, when he was 21, Rae was appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle to the Governor's Commission on the United Nations, which promotes the U.N. and international issues in the state.
Since 2008, he's been a member of Fair Wisconsin and last year was named the organization's president.
In September, Rae was appointed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to the Milwaukee County Human Rights Commission.
Besides trying to build membership for the LGBT Chamber, Rae is working to affiliate the group with the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, founded in 2002 and which estimates there are 1.4 million LGBT-owned businesses across the country.
Q: How did your Wisconsin chamber get started?
A: Last October, a small group of us started Milwaukee Young LGBT Professionals group as a way to network with people and build a young professionals business community. It was purely social events and networking, but we started doing some focus groups and started talking to some LGBT small business owners in the Milwaukee area. One of the troubling things we heard from a number of them was that they didn't know another LGBT-owned business in the area.
Q: Was that surprising?
A: I assumed that there were some networks and association where they just knew each other and they all worked together. I was just blown away. So we started talking about what we do about that. How do we actually fix this problem? One of the things we heard from a bunch of them was that they wanted to expand their business and they wanted to figure out how they get resources from different LGBT businesses.
Q: And that led to the LGBT Chamber of Commerce?
A: It's a way to bring together both LGBT-owned and LGBT-allied businesses to really try and promote each other, network and bring people together. We're also promoting a pro-fairness and pro-business model. One of the things we heard from a lot of these businesses is that they didn't feel some of the current chambers and other groups and business associations actually represent their interest.
Q: Why don't they represent the needs of the LGBT community?
A: In some ways (they do) but I think there are specific needs to the LGBT business community that are different. I think when you look at domestic partner benefits and insurance and things like that, there are (things) a normal business association may not be addressing.
You look at some of them and I would mistake a lot of them as Republican organizations just doing the work of Scott Walker and others. Not that we're bashing the administration, but we want to come at it in a very different way.
We believe you can be pro-business but you can also support domestic partner benefits and promote marriage equality. It doesn't have to be business or fairness. You can have business and fairness together.
Q: With your political views, is it difficult talking about being pro-business?
A: I think for so long progressives have gotten a bad wrap that we're anti-business, and that's not the case. We want to grow small business. We want to help these places succeed and that's why we have this chamber. We see these businesses as a way to thrive and grow and create more jobs.
Q: Is your chamber going to be primarily focused on Madison and Milwaukee?
A: We want to create a statewide network. We want to work as one larger community and I think that really helps people out-state as well who feel isolated. They want to connect and they want to feel like they're part of a larger movement.
Q: Is the number of businesses in the state owned by the LGBT community about 10 percent?
A: That's one of the things we don't know. There's no network, there's no directory. The businesses are out there but we just don't know about them.
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