As the interim executive director at Stonewall Columbus and CEO of Pride Fund 1, Densil Porteous has very quickly found himself at the center of multiple Columbus institutions in flux. He's prepared to give.
Densil Porteous is a person who somehow manages to get the word happy into one sentence three times. As in, “I know I can’t make everyone happy, but it still makes me happy to see people happy.”
He’s relentlessly positive—but there he was, sitting in a meeting at a former job, waiting for feedback on work he had just presented to senior leadership. He sat back in his chair and clasped his hands together. He hadn’t said a word or made a face or even cocked an eyebrow, but a colleague told him to stop being so defensive.
“I’m not really sure how I’m being defensive,” he remembers saying. “I’m just sitting here.”
“It’s your body language.”
Porteous, like many Black men and women, knew exactly what was about to happen. It’s something a lot more people can recognize, too, right now, thanks to the national discussion on systemic racism and microaggressions endured by people of color.
“I know that I can’t get really upset, because the moment I show emotion, I’ll be that case of ‘the angry Black man,’ ” he says now. “I’m not here to do that. It’s a thing that I live by: I show up in these spaces, oftentimes when I’m told not to be there, because I need people to see there are smart, intelligent Black men who can sit in these spaces and do these jobs.”
Porteous is showing up in a lot more spaces these days. On June 1, the 39-year-old nonprofit consultant was named CEO of Pride Fund 1, a Columbus-based venture capital fund that backs early-stage businesses headed by LGBTQ entrepreneurs. On June 16, he was hired as interim executive director of Stonewall Columbus, the city’s LGBTQ community center. And on July 1, he was one of 16 people appointed by Mayor Andrew Ginther to serve on a working group that will come up with plans for a civilian review board to oversee the Columbus Division of Police.Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
“The funny thing is,” he says, “at the beginning of this year my plan was not to be working as hard.”
Pride Fund 1 is a new, $10 million effort started in 2019 by Columbus-based Loud Capital. It’s one of very few funds in its space, something “that not only supports the community, but empowers the community,” says Managing Director T. Wolf Starr.
Stonewall Columbus, meanwhile, is a 39-year-old institution that has been besieged by problems for the last three years. The arrest and Stonewall-assisted convictions of four Black Lives Matter protesters during its 2017 Pride parade brought into the open longstanding issues of race-based exclusion within a community that fights against barriers based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Stonewall opened the doors of a remodeled Short North community center a year later, but the building with three times as much space has gone underutilized. This summer, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the annual Columbus Pride festival was rescheduled from June to October and then canceled entirely for 2020. The event is the biggest source of revenue for Stonewall Columbus.
“There are big questions and big decisions to be made for the organization,” says board President Gerry Rodriguez. “We need strong leadership right now.”
Porteous, who also serves on the national board of governors for the Human Rights Campaign and the board of directors for the Columbus Foundation’s LGBTQ-focused Legacy Fund, jokes that the new positions officially make him “a professional gay.”
He says each offers the ability to help people be happy, which he believes is everyone’s basic desire. Needs abound, though, to help more LGBTQ people reach that state.
Fewer than 10 percent of venture capital deals go to women, people of color and LGBTQ entrepreneurs, according to Los Angeles-based Backstage Capital, which focuses its money on those underrepresented groups. And despite historic advances in LGBTQ civil rights—the latest was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that applies the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on sex discrimination to employment-related bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity—people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender still face higher rates of violence, illness, homelessness and poverty.
A few days before the announcement of his Stonewall Columbus appointment, Porteous spoke with local LGBTQ activist Tom Grote during a Facebook Live discussion. Grote asked Porteous to name his “superpower.”
“I said empathy is my superpower,” Porteous recalls. “That is what inspires to me to do the things that I do. To understand that it’s not OK to hurt someone’s feelings. It’s not OK to be mean. You are fighting for people because you want them to be happy.”
Working his way up to that three-happy sentence, he adds: “It makes me happy to see people happy.”
The conversation stuck with Grote. “I think empathy is one of the most important traits for a leader,” he says. “I’m incredibly impressed with what Densil has done. I’m also incredibly impressed with who he is.”
Porteous was born in Jamaica and grew up in New York. His mother died of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1995, and Porteous and two of his siblings moved in with an aunt in Atlanta.
He came out as a senior in high school despite family attitudes toward homosexuality that he says were typical in Jamaica, once tagged by Time as the most homophobic place on Earth. On top of that, HIV/AIDS was still thought of by many as a “gay disease,” and that disease had recently taken his mother. He didn’t speak with one aunt for eight or nine years. With others in his family, it was a subject to avoid.
It was at Kenyon College—and in Columbus during regular visits—where Porteous says he finally felt at home. He returned to Central Ohio at least twice a year while living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it’s the reason he came back for good in 2012.
“Central Ohio was the first place I felt like home. It was so welcoming,” he says. “I never had that feeling of home in all the places I’d been. I moved around so frequently.”
Joel Diaz, former director of community affairs for Equitas Health, met Porteous in 1999 when he visited Kenyon as a prospective student from Houston. They’ve been friends ever since and have worked and volunteered together. Porteous was a member of the Equitas board until June.
Diaz calls his friend quiet—“often the most silent person in a meeting”—but action-oriented. His comments and those of other LGBTQ leaders illustrate the task ahead in rebuilding the organization. “I hope the Stonewall board will learn how to get out of its own way and let Densil lead the organization to what it should be: a true community center where everyone feels welcome,” Diaz says.
Erin Upchurch, who became the first Black leader of a Columbus LGBTQ organization when she was hired in 2018 as executive director of the Kaleidoscope Youth Center, says Porteous “has the vision to expand [Stonewall] into what it’s meant to be.
“Densil is a vulnerable, honest, wise and kind leader who brings with him the gifts of creativity and courage,” she says. “I trust him. And as a fellow queer, Black leader in our community, I have his back and look forward to leading alongside him.”
Porteous comes to Pride Fund 1 with experience as an adviser to businesses aided by Rev1 Ventures. He also has worked with Columbus startups such as TicketFire and Acceptd, and with startups focused on college admissions. He has worked at Kenyon, the Columbus College of Art & Design, Stanford University and Ohio State University.
“At one point in my life I said, ‘You know what you’re going to be, Densil? You’re going to be the dean of admissions at Kenyon College.’ I picked opportunities and sought things that I believed would help prepare me to be a leader in that space.”
He became versed in marketing, finance and IT and joined nonprofit boards to learn how organizations work. He’ll need his skills in all areas at Stonewall, where Rodriguez became board president in January and says he supports Porteus’ call for people to “hold us accountable.”
In his first month at the helm, Stonewall Columbus announced that it would not contract with Columbus police for security at future Pride events until the division enacts systemic reform. The center challenged its corporate sponsors to support the Black and transgender communities as strongly as they support LGBTQ issues. Porteous also issued Stonewall’s strongest statement yet about the 2017 actions against Black activists, calling the organization’s decisions “regrettably wrong” and part of a “sordid past” of inattention to racial inequities in the LGBTQ community.
Porteous applied to be Stonewall’s executive director in 2018 when its longtime leader stepped down and a member of its board was hired to replace her. He says he was “heartbroken—I’m not going to deny that,” but he continued his own work for LGBTQ organizations. He’s not sure if he’ll seek the position full-time—his contract runs through December—but considers this a “test drive” for the community, Stonewall and himself.
“In an organization or a community, the leader for that time shows up at the right time,” he says. “What we’re seeing in many of our communities is that leaders are showing up, and not from those traditional places we expect them to come from. We need to get comfortable in letting these new leaders lead us into the future.”
At the job where clasped hands were interpreted as defensive, Porteous says he felt like an outsider. He remembers looking around the table as no one spoke a word of support.
It wasn’t the first time he felt that way.
“When you are a gay Black man, you are always sort of an outsider within. When you’re Afro-Caribbean, not African-American, then you become once again the outsider within. For awhile, it was difficult to be Black in the LGBTQ community because you didn’t always feel welcome. I think I’ve always sat in that space.”
But Porteous says he will continue to sit and work and lead in spaces where he thinks he can make an impact.
“If someone sees me in the space, my hope is that some young kid will be inspired to say, ‘I can do that too.’ It’s that notion of just proving, showing up so people are seeing, ‘Oh, there are all these possibilities.’ ”
Densil Porteous says Pride Fund 1 is about showing investors LGBTQ companies are a good bet. “I think the industry hasn’t caught up with humanity.”
At the Pride Fund, are you looking to make money for investors or looking to support LGBTQ entrepreneurs? We are identifying companies that we think will be successful. It is about the return on investments, so we definitely want to make sure they will be successful ventures. That is something investors are expecting.
But if we are able to present good, strong investments that are in the LGBTQ vertical, then other companies will come along and say, “Yes, we will invest more heavily in the LGBTQ venture space because we see it’s OK. It’s safe. They are just as capable as anyone else.”
Research says less than 10 percent of investment deals go to women, people of color and LGBTQ people. Why do you think they’re so underrepresented? I think industry hasn’t caught up to humanity. Even in the VC space, this diversity of thought and perspective is slow to change. But it’s happening. It’s happening because more and more companies are putting themselves out there that are LGBTQ-owned or led.
If all you see are upper-class white guys who have gone to some sort of Ivy League school, that’s the traditional model. If people are seeing these different types of people in these spaces, they’re going to start to consider different types of people automatically.
At Stonewall Columbus and Columbus Pride, you work with many corporate sponsors. What is your message for them as the nation focuses more intently on issues of inequality and systemic bias? I recently communicated with our corporate sponsors and told them, if you do support the LGBTQ community, you’re supporting all lives in the community. You’re supporting Black lives. You’re supporting trans lives. I hope they lean into that. I hope that in this moment, they’re ready to be part of this change that needs to happen.
Bob Vitale is a freelance writer.