This story was originally published in and is part of “OUTlook: Finding Solutions for LGBTQ Labor and Workplace Equality.” It is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Jared Sizemore sits at a desk in Music City Creative’s 3,500-square-foot warehouse space just south of downtown Nashville, Tenn. where he oversees the organizational strategy and day-to-day operations at the fairly young print shop. A rainbow flag hangs on the wall behind him and the popular phrase “y’all means all” has an especially important tie to the company’s success. 

In 2020, he left his job as marketing manager at a golf course and country club in Kentucky to join longtime friend Steven Romeo on growing Music City Creative (MCC) as a mix of e-commerce and business-to-business custom merchandising. 

Romeo was named an LGBTQ Artist Champion of Change in 2015 by the Obama Administration and started the nonprofit The Change Project in Birmingham, Ala. They then launched a business traveling the country, selling merchandise at events like Pride festivals and LGBTQ conferences. As these events came to a halt in 2020, Romeo discussed the idea for a new business model with Sizemore – one that would focus more on the internet and be direct-to-consumer. 

Music City Creative founder and CEO Steven Romeo (they/them) prepares a shirt for printing. They use a process called discharge printing that removes the shirt’s color and replaces it, instead of putting ink on top of the shirt. Photo by Adam Roberts

The two started working in a converted 400-square-foot studio space that was part of a city project that built “maker spaces” from older public housing units.  

One day in August, while testing a rainbow “Y’all Means All” on a simple black t-shirt using a process called discharge printing, they decided to make a TikTok video. The mobile app was still fairly new, and Sizemore recalls only having a handful of followers at the time.

But what they were doing quickly got some attention and the video went viral. 

“The cool thing about discharge printing is when it gets hot, this chemical reaction happens so it kind of goes from a very dull print to something more vibrant,” says Sizemore. And that’s exactly what viewers saw with the rainbow print. 

The day after posting, Sizemore and Romeo woke up to 25,000 views, email requests and 130 comments from people wanting to buy the shirt. Sizemore quickly got the shirt on the website and by the end of the week they had close to $30,000 in revenue. 

Things didn’t stop there. 

They kept making videos, kept going viral and by December 2020 had opened a retail store and a separate production facility in Nashville. They’ve since pulled everything back into a single location but continue to do retail pop-ups, sell at events across the country and run a full-service business line from design to production for companies and nonprofits.

Jared Sizemore: For Jared Sizemore (he/him), Music City Creative’s COO, being visible is part of the company’s success. “We went viral for something that was inherently queer and inherently inclusive.”  Photo by Adam Roberts 

Community-conscious MCC finds and creates tools to build a diverse workforce

Just days before Qnotes talked to Sizemore, the Tennessee Senate passed a series of anti-LGBTQ legislations banning gender-affirming care for minors and prohibiting public drag performances. (The Tennessee House later passed companion bills on February 24.) 

It’s time like these that make the business and workplace model Music City Creative has created most important. Sizemore says that the company is focused on creating a strong, diverse and passionate team. “Our goal is to make MCC a place that works for everyone and helps others be the best versions of themselves.” 

From beginning as a small start-up, MCC has focused on ensuring a culture that cultivates the core values of sustainability, community support and social equity. 

One of the tools they use is an online job board designed to recruit queer workers. In April, when hiring a print shop apprentice and warehouse fulfillment associate, they went to the Everywhere is Queer website designed by Charlie Sprinkman. 

MCC had been listed on the website, designed as an interactive map of LGBTQ-owned businesses, for a while and were happy to promote jobs there when they started to grow. 

According to an interview in the Skimmthe website has been viewed over 135,000 times since launching in January 2022. Sprinkman created Everywhere is Queer after traveling 42 of 50 states and searching for ‘queer hangouts here’ or ‘queer spots here.’ He didn’t find much. While the map is focused on helping users find safe spaces, it also serves as a resource for the LGBTQ business owner, especially entrepreneurs like Romeo and Sizemore. A company can submit an application to be listed and then have access to a Google Sheet-based ‘job board.’ 

“We found Everywhere is Queer on TikTok, just like we were discovered by the world,” said Sizemore. At the time, Sprinkman’s project had just launched and only had about one hundred followers. “When they launched that option to put our hiring stuff on there, obviously we’re going to jump on it because we want to support them as much as they’ve kind of been supporting us as well,” he recalled. 

The impact of Sprinkman’s website has a renewed importance as these anti-LGBTQ legislations like the ones in Tennessee spread across the country. Last year marked the passage of the most anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender legislation in recent history. Sprinkman told Skimm that a number of businesses in Florida and Texas have popped up recently. “All I can hope is that we’re going to be able to support these queer-owned businesses in these states that are having horrible things pass,” he said. 

For Sizemore, being visible is part of their success. “We went viral for something that was inherently queer and inherently inclusive … that’s what people kind of know us for, are the two queer people who went viral on TikTok for making t-shirts.” 

Photo by Adam Roberts

Changing workplace culture

It is important to maintain that inclusivity for all their employees as well, and LGBTQ people have flocked to it. The majority of MCC’s eight-person staff identify as queer. Sizemore had experienced environments heavy with racism and homophobia in past jobs. Romeo spent a lot of time in the nonprofit space developing inclusive policies. Together, they knew they wanted to create something special with MCC – a place where all employees were heard and felt welcomed.  

“Everywhere that we can put that we’re a queer-owned business, we do,” says Sizemore. “Everything about Music City Creative – that is at the forefront.” 

Sizemore has given talks on what small businesses can do to be more inclusive and MCC has become a voice for the community. 

“Small businesses influence every part of the community, right? And so, if we are a voice for a community we have to sometimes, have to take a side, whether we think it is appropriate, or not. Us taking a side that is welcoming to others will honestly help our business. We will find those patrons who agree with us and who want to be involved with the things that we stand for.” 

Not surprisingly, the company’s busiest month is June, especially for their business-to-business line of products. Companies are now more likely to seek out queer-owned businesses when buying Pride month merchandise for their employees, and that’s a big step toward progress, says Sizemore. 

He feels strongly about companies being vocal about inclusivity. It shows they really care about the products they are using and about their staff. “Consumers are increasingly conscious of where they are getting their products.” MCC has also built an identity around only using sustainable materials like 100 percent water-based inks and garments that are third-party verified as sustainable and American made, that their suppliers pay workers an ethical living wage.

Another key to being part of the community is the company’s nonprofit partnership program. Throughout the year, MCC will do fundraisers or profit-sharing for different causes. For one of their most recent projects, MCC donated a portion of revenues back to an organization that provides access to those who cannot afford or access abortions. 

Shirts stating “Sex Work is Work,” “Reproductive Rights are Human Rights” and “Matter is the Minimum” have become a staple on their site and showcase the company’s outward stance on social justice issues. “We find something that we’re really, really interested in trying to help and then we’ll create a design or create a collection of designs and then donate money back,” says Sizemore. 

This involves the full team at MCC, too. Anytime the company makes a statement on social media, creates a new collection, or takes a stand on an issue, they get buy-in from the staff. It’s just another example of how inclusivity is showing up in the small but growing business and changing norms along the way. 

The full team even had input on developing HR policies and writing the company handbook. “We want to create policies that are forward-thinking and are right for our business,” says Sizemore. 

MCC starts workers at $17.50 an hour, considered a living wage in Nashville by, and staff get time off for therapy. That means that sometimes the product costs more and Sizemore says it’s important to be honest about that. 

“I send emails to clients saying prices are going up, or sometimes prices go down. But it’s all because we believe in eco-friendly printing, paying our workers an ethical living wage, creating an inclusive work environment, all the above.”

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