Karibu Ramos was struggling with the nine-to-five grind. Being a trans and non-binary artist and entrepreneur, Ramos had worked at various Toronto non-profits for queer and trans youth but kept encountering misgendering and workplace discrimination from colleagues.

“I thought, ‘I’m doing okay as a millennial, I can pay my rent’, so I wanted to stick it out,” Ramos says. However, hearing from other people in the trans community who were also experiencing “things that wouldn’t happen to any Cis person in the workplace — ever”, Ramos, who identifies as they/them, decided it was time to become their own boss and make workplaces better for everyone.

Ramos had experienced homelessness and addiction in their teens, and was at the receiving end of physical, emotional and sexual violence because of homophobia and transphobia during their time living on the streets. They persevered, kicking the habit and finding employment. At work, however, the trauma continued, as they endured such micro-aggressions as colleagues refusing to use the correct pronouns and an executive director asking about their genitalia, which spurred Ramos to start an initiative that would help address the fact that trans folks are not being prioritized, retained or even hired.

The 27-year-old is taking those lived experiences to provide empathy and dignity to other underrepresented communities. That’s why in November 2019, they founded Elevate Equity, a startup that aims to help Black, Indigenous, trans and non-binary entrepreneurs become business owners, and to help mediate between organizations and the trans people they’ve hired. Once the company has a physical space, it will offer a co-working environment alongside a training centre.

Through Ramos’s past roles as shelter worker, case manager and program coordinator, they saw missed opportunities to prepare and motivate people to do things they felt proud of and could make an income from.

“Seeing it from the perspective of my once-homeless self, where all I really wanted was a place to live and some food to eat, to then being at a place of work where all I really wanted was to be respected for the person that I was and the work that I was doing, I thought ‘How can I bring those things together?” they say.

Focusing on respectful workspaces for the trans and queer community, Ramos applied for grants for Elevate Equity while taking on consultation work independently. So far, Ramos has co-created a teaching curriculum for the Scadding Court Community Centre in Toronto, and is working to build new BIPOC-focused policies for the trans-led peer support services at Trans Lifeline.

When COVID-19 hit in March, a lot of funding for Elevate Equity was put on hold. While the delay is frustrating, Ramos says the reality for others is even worse. “I know that trans folks especially are more isolated than ever,” says Ramos. “We rely on peer support, and knowing that we can’t go out there and do that work is more than heartbreaking — it’s soul breaking.”

The time, however, has allowed Ramos to develop plans for Elevate Equity and to begin research on the intersections of race, gender and employment, of which there is little data in Canada. Compiling that data is a tricky process, Ramos says, because many folks don’t feel safe enough to participate in studies, fearing loss of employment. Ramos is also refining the business plan for Elevate.

To guide Ramos with these business decisions is their mentor, R2 Communications’ founder Patti Ristich, as part of the 2020 cohort of Canada’s LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce (CGLCC) OUT for Business program. In the year-long mentorship, Ramos and Ristich FaceTime once a week, discussing innovative ways to expand market research and supporting their business plan.

“When taking on a mentee, I look for talent, a strong work ethic and an energy that I can tap into. Karibu Ramos has those attributes,” says Ristich. “Elevate Equity is more than a noble pursuit, it has potential to make a real difference in people’s careers and their sense of well-being and that’s pretty fantastic. I’m excited about working on a business model that will resonate with clients.”

It has been a winding path to starting their own business, and things are finally looking up. Their project for Sketch Working Arts was approved by the federal government’s Anti-Racism Action Program, to deliver anti-oppression training to community organizations.

“Resiliency factor is something that is very necessary,” they say. “When you get rejected a lot when you're trying to build something, you have to learn how to accept that and move on to the next thing. And I think being in survival mode for a long time really prepared me for trying to spin a positive.”

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