TWO TRUTHS ABOUT ME AND A LIE: Truths: 1) I would rather help parents with an LGBTQ kid on a Sunday afternoon than play golf. 2) I love when others do smart things. Lie: People often think I’m super religious. I’m not. I’ve just spent a good bit of time dealing with harmful religious teachings because that is the #1 hurdle to FULL LGBTQ legal and spiritual equality. SOMETHING I CANNOT DO WITHOUT: Our doggie door.
Founding a company on equality
BREAKING AWAY FROM DISHONESTY. The origins of the Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture brand include a series of events, all grounded in one key value: dedication to honesty. Mitchell Gold met Bob Williams during Pride Month in New York in June 1987. As they began dating, they discussed starting a business together. “My two best friends were a couple, and I admired them being able to work together every day,” Mitchell says.
After six years with Bloomingdale’s in the mid-70s, Mitchell left for a company called Lane Furniture. Though the job was a step up, it required him to move to Hickory, North Carolina, and the experience was not a positive one. “I had to be closeted. When I lived in New York, I was out. Moving down south, everyone knew I was gay, but I wasn’t out about it, even though Bob and I lived together,”
Lane Furniture’s CEO invited Mitchell and other managers to dinner one night in 1988, and Mitchell brought Bob along. At the next dinner event, Mitchell was specifically told not to bring Bob because their relationship made people uncomfortable. Mitchell says he realized, “I can’t live like this.” He found the company’s culture of dishonesty difficult to accept. He had gone from taking care of people at Bloomingdale’s to an environment where managers bragged about making money off its employees from the cafeteria and vending machines. “We were going to start something and treat our employees with respect and care. That’s something other companies down south weren’t doing,” he recalls.
BEING GAY AND SUCCESSFUL IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. “We were a little dumb and naive to think we could set up a business in North Carolina just as an economic crisis hit,” Mitchell laughs. “I had no idea the economy was in a downturn. I was reading the Advocate, not business journals!” But both he and Bob felt they had nothing to lose.
When they needed to borrow a modest amount from a bank, Mitchell and Bob learned an important lesson about judging people based on appearances. “The CEO of the local bank was known to recognize talented entrepreneurs, and when we went to see him, I was scared,” Mitchell says. He looked like a stereotypical bigot, he notes. But he studied their application, noted their address on the form, and asked, “You two own a house together? Will you put the house up as collateral?” They said yes, and they had their loan in 18 minutes, without even discussing the projections page they had included.
“Where we lived in North Carolina, so many young LGBT kids are living oppressed lives because of religious beliefs. I want to be visible as a successful gay person.” He recalls seeing a pamphlet in the mid-90’s with a picture of a man sitting on the steps of a church with his head hung in shame, as if he were a sinner or deviant. “I want kids to know that the pamphlet was wrong.”
While Mitchell and Bob are no longer romantic partners, they remain dedicated to championing diversity within the company and keeping true to their founding values. “Bob has all these straight people working for him, and we learn different perspectives by having women like our new CEO, Allison O’Connor, people of color, and those with different backgrounds on the team,” Mitchell notes. That diversity allows the company to handle challenges thrown their way, and also allows Mitchell to transition to his next project: helping his husband, Tim Gold, launch his own dog training company.