Paul Conroy is creating community through inclusive storytelling
Running a business

Paul Conroy is creating community through inclusive storytelling

In honor of Pride Month, QuickBooks is spotlighting the LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs who play a vital role in creating an inclusive and vibrant small business community.

Name: Paul Conroy

Location: Atlanta, Georgia

Pronouns: He/Him/His

Business: Out Front Theatre Company

Out Front Theatre company

Tell us about your business.

We are a non-profit, professional theatre company that focuses on stories created by and important to the LGBTQIA+ community.

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started?

The idea to start Out Front began in the summer of 2014. I had recently left a position with a large theatre company in the Atlanta area and was trying to decide what the next phase of my career would be. I was in Chicago at the time and realized that almost every major city and market in the United States had a theatre company dedicated to telling LGBTQIA+ stories, except Atlanta. I saw a need and a void in the market and decided to start the process of creating a theatre company from the ground up.

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year?

In our first year we met some very intense pushback from a large religious organization that had issues with our mission and the work we were presenting. They asked their members to protest us and soon we were on the receiving end of over 60,000 phone calls, letters, emails, and social media messages condemning our work. Soon, the Atlanta Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security were involved as there was genuine concern for the safety of the staff and cast of the show. Ultimately, the show continued, and we had no major issues, but I learned very quickly that there are people all around the world who hate us for just being our authentic selves, and that they didn’t want us to continue with our mission. A happy outcome of this situation was that the show received unbelievable publicity and was a hit. The local community rallied around us, and no one involved with the show considered for a moment to not perform. The lesson I took away from it? If people were so passionate on both sides with what we were doing, we must be doing something right.

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner?

As a nonprofit business, we don’t have an owner. A non-profit is set up with a Board of Directors that oversees the governance and fiscal health of the company. While I am the Founder and Producing Artistic Director, there are major decisions for which I am not the sole decision-maker. For example, our annual budget. I work with staff and advisors to create a budget that I must present to the Board for approval. However, since it includes funds impacting my compensation, I recuse myself from the final vote. This process is wonderful; because there are checks and balances and discussions for anything major regarding the company, but it can also slow things down at times because several people have to be a part of the decision-making process.

What is an aspect of running a business that you needed to learn more about when you started? How did you learn about it?

I don’t know if there is one specific aspect that I needed to know about. The world of business, whether for profit or nonprofit, changes all the time and I think that’s a good thing. We are creatures of adaptation and when we get stuck in a rut of “This is how it has always been done,” I think innovation dies. I learn from those around me. I am just one person with one idea in a room at any time. The people I surround myself with are experts in their own fields, even though we all work for the same company, and I am constantly learning from them. This happens on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

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To create a business that is both a safe and brave space for a marginalized part of the population, and a sustainable business that employs members of that community, is vital.

How does running your own business make you feel?

I know most people probably say they feel proud, but I feel more a sense of responsibility in running Out Front. To create a business that is both a safe and brave space for a marginalized part of the population and a sustainable business that employs members of that community is vital. I guess, it does make me feel proud, but I honestly think I am simply the person that had the idea to start the company and that it is the community that fuels and sustains it year after year.

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome as a business owner?

Nonprofits consistently face challenges that for-profit businesses do not have to consider. For example, we cannot be certified as a minority-owned business because we are not owned. That small detail eliminates us from funding opportunities. Yes, we have pathways that for-profits do not have access to (grants and foundational support), but we face different tax codes that not all accountants are familiar with, or we deal with vendors who are not used to nonprofits. We are still a business in that we employ people, and we create a product—we just do not have stakeholders that make a profit. Explaining how that works to some people and companies is, sometimes, almost like translating languages that don’t exactly match up.

What are your proudest moments? 

It’s small things that make me feel best; when a transgender or gender-non-confirming person tells me that they appreciate our gender-neutral bathrooms. When a performer tells me that we are the only company that they feel like they can perform as their authentic self. When a community partner knows they can call on us to open our doors and give space for their programming. We don’t judge. With every show that we do I hope we can create a moment in time when the audiences and the artists can connect and know that for that one brief, fleeting moment we can collectively experience a story that brings us slightly closer together.

What are the next big plans you have for your business? 

We are looking at what being a theatre really means. As a center for the community and a place to tell stories, we are looking at how we can utilize our physical space to bring more diverse programming and patrons through our doors. In doing so, we will increase our earned revenue potential and open the door for additional support through both public and private funding. We are creating a second performance space that will allow us to present smaller performances and events outside of a traditional theatrical setting. Ultimately, we know that a theatre is a gathering place for the community to tell and experience stories; we are simply trying to think outside of the box of how we can best, and most authentically, achieve that.

What are three things that you feel have contributed to your success as a business owner? 

Understanding that it takes a team with varied skills to truly achieve success, knowing the importance and value in working with partners in the community, and accepting that my ideas may not be the best ones in the room and learning to listen to the ideas around me that might be better for the health of the company.

What challenges do you feel are unique to small business owners in the LGBTQIA+ community? Have you come up against any bias? 

As I mentioned before, we faced a huge backlash in the form of a protest during our first year. Other than that, we are lucky with where we are located. Being in the city of Atlanta, we haven’t faced much bias, but I have been advised to avoid certain terms when we apply for funding. The term “queer” is still polarizing—even to people in our own community—and some people find it offensive. Something as small as that can greatly impact funding that we receive. 

I think as a small, LGBTQIA+ focused nonprofit there are many eggshells that we walk on. Ultimately though, if someone has an issue with us as a business or as a community, I don’t want to work with them. We have the strength within our community and our allies to achieve anything we need to, and anyone who has an issue with us doesn’t deserve our time or energy.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs in the community? 

You have to be aware of what is missing and needed and wanted in a market and to know that, while you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you can improve the wheel and make it run on whatever road you want it to.

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What we do is not for personal gain, it is to make the world a little better and easier for people that come after us.

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going? 

I think about the impact we are making in the community. What we do is not for personal gain, it is to make the world a little better and easier for people that come after us. The looks and smiles on faces after a show, or the excitement when we start rehearsals, or even when someone comes into our space for the first time, and they see all the flags from our community proudly hanging in our lobby. That is why I do what I do. 

What’s your “power song” and why? 

I don’t think I have one song, but disco always gets my mind and heart racing. There is something so joyous and freeing about the genre, and I find myself going back to it time and time again.

To learn more about Out Front Theatre Company and support their business, visit their website or check them out on Instagram.

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