A Conversation with Sheila Heaney on Transgender Awareness Week
By John Kregler, StartOut
As we come to the end of Transgender Awareness Week, we’re once again inspired by the stories of our trans founders and reminded of the work we still need to do to level the playing field for transgender entrepreneurs everywhere. For our final founder conversation, we spoke with the extraordinary Sheila Heaney.
Sheila Heaney (she/her) is a proud trans woman and serial entrepreneur who’s the founder and CEO of MBZ Parts, an ecommerce solution based in Merlin, Oregon which specializes in selling Mercedes-Benz parts. She grew up fixing cars and has a self-described passion for turning “trash into treasure” that subsequently led her to where she is today.
Sheila’s story is truly remarkable and demonstrates the power of becoming your own boss when faced with blatant discrimination in the workplace. Here’s what she had to say about the journey to get here.
How did you end up becoming an entrepreneur?
From my experience, most entrepreneurs that I’ve encountered came from a career that’s parallel to their founder industry. That’s not my story at all. I’ve alway been an entrepreneur in one way or another. I started by selling CDs, books, video games, etc. on eBay when I was 16, and in 2006, I had a full vintage clothing store set up. By the spring of 2008, I had grown my business even more but the economic crash eventually forced me to close down.
After some time had passed, I started MBZ Parts as a way to combine my entrepreneurial passion with my experiences in fixing up cars. I began by repairing classic Mercedes and shuffling them from the Pacific Northwest to the Bay Area and then began listing parts on eBay. The demand snowballed and one thing led to another to get me to where I am today.
How would you say your personal journey as a trans woman has impacted your entrepreneurial experience?
A lot of trans people have a similar story of survival. Many of us can’t rely on family for personal support, let alone financial support to start a company. There were a few points in my life when I was actually homeless and trying to get these businesses alive and running — all while fighting for my own life. At one point, I was let go from a job because I was trans and in that moment, I knew I had to do something. If I wasn’t going to be accepted for who I was at work, then I’d do anything I could to make sure I never worked for someone else again. By being our own bosses, trans founders can feel validated in a world where the odds are stacked against us.
With that being said, things are much different now compared to when I came out as trans in 2002. A lot has changed just in the last five to ten years and that gives me hope for the future. Meeting other trans founders and discussing the issues that most affect us has been comforting.
When did you first find out about StartOut?
I heard about StartOut a few years ago. We were starting to work on our current expansion plan for MBZ Parts and I looked for more business organizations that aligned with us. StartOut was consistently at the top of the list of LGBTQ+ resources during my research so I joined the community at the beginning of this year. I began attending more digital events this summer and connecting with other founders. I’ve loved the opportunity to network and I’ve even received some great advice from entrepreneurs.
Lastly, I just wanted to get your take on Transgender Awareness Week. What does this time mean to you?
When I was young, finding other trans people was borderline impossible and anytime I did meet someone, I felt validated. I could feel comfortable existing in the world because other people like me were also here. Surviving is a radical, life-changing thing for trans people — particularly trans women of color. Nowadays, you see more and more people coming out and saying to the world “I am here and I can do this.” This is truly what Transgender Awareness Week means to me. Shifting the ways cis people think about us is important, but ultimately this is about us supporting each other and finding support for ourselves.