By Andy Smith
Created in partnership with Edge Media Network
Since 2008, StartOut member Dennis Velco founded and has nurtured LinkedIn’s largest LGBTQ networking group from a concept to an international networking resource with over 43,500 members — that grows daily.
For Dennis, creating, cultivating and growing the group has been a persistent and passionate endeavor.
Velco’s global group welcomes gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT), Queer, Intersex and Questioning members, professionals and entrepreneurs, along with friends, allies, recruiters and diversity professionals seeking to connect, network and communicate to advance their careers.
A Persistent Pioneer
“I’ve been on LinkedIn since way before people knew what it was, when I was living in New York City 16 years ago,” says Velco, now based in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Back then it wasn’t as prominent as it is today. I put it on the backburner for a couple of years. As more clients began to mention it in casual conversation in late in 2007, I got more involved and did what most people do-I filled it out like a resume and began to prospect on it.”
As he became more involved, Velco began noticing other features of the networking service, especially the preponderance of collegiate alumni association groups listed on people’s profiles.
“I scoured LinkedIn searching for an LGBT Group and looking up very prominent (LGBT) community members. I found nothing,” he says. After several patient inquiries and a few months of back and forth, it turned out the site wasn’t hosting an LGBTQ networking group.
Velco contacted LinkedIn providing a strong case for an LGBT group on the site. Eventually, LinkedIn gave the green light, and Velco agreed to be the group’s owner and moderator voluntarily donating his time and resources.
He approached the project with fervor and a sense of mission. “I felt and continue to feel it is vital to have a strong open and out LGBT presence on the world’s largest professional networking site,” he says. “People are much more likely to be out on Facebook yet still hesitant to be out on LinkedIn.” At Velco’s request, all groups on LinkedIn offer the option to hide a group’s membership on public profiles.
Adding Members & Content
Once LinkedIn signed off, Velco jumped in with both feet, embracing the project, donating hours of time each day — including weekends — to building the group, taking a labor-intensive, trial-and-error approach.
“I would search LinkedIn and find profiles of people that had ‘LGBT, GLBT, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer and so forth’ in their listing and send them invitations to join the group. I’d have to be careful to weed out people who have ‘Gay’ in their names,” he says. “I then would send each person a personalized invitation to join the group.”
Building and maintaining this group has been a labor of love. “My past life partner thought I was crazy in the beginning of building it due to the amount of time and personal money I was investing in the group. The first several years I would spend anywhere from two to six hours a day combing the Internet for pertinent content to post,” Velco recalls.
“March 2018 will mark ten years that I’ve done this voluntarily,” he says.
In addition to writing pieces for the group, Velco searched international news sites to curate LGBTQ-focused, business-oriented pieces. “I would strive to stay non-political and avoid content that would alienate members,” he says. “I’d try to get global content because I didn’t want it to just be an echo chamber of U.S. and Canadian content. I can’t wait until LinkedIn gets automatic translations because I would like all members to be able to contribute, view and participate in their native language. I believe that being an English only site is a deterrent to many. Having such feature I believe would increase active participation.”
Nixing NSFW Content
Despite what a handful of aspiring members might think, LinkedIn is not an adjunct to Grindr or a Circuit Party Facebook page. Deflecting accusations of being sex-negative, Velco has spent a fair amount of time screening out applicants who submit genital images as their profile photos. As a business-oriented (rather than social) site, even shirtless pictures are verboten.
“Policing the group is important because while Facebook is banned at most businesses, LinkedIn is not,” he emphasizes.
“I hold to LinkedIn’s terms of service. I’ve had to moderate and get involved with spats and even had a stalker who ended up banned from LinkedIn for life. I’ve had blatant anti-LGBT content in profiles. Every single person in the group must be reviewed by me.”
Partnering with StartOut
Earlier this year, as StartOut investigated new channels for outreach, freelance Marketing Director John Graham reached out to Velco to see if the two groups could cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship, one that would boost StartOut’s member recruitment.
“I knew how large the LinkedIn group was and how it made sense to develop a partnership with him. It’s a large channel to find LGBTQ entrepreneurs and those who support them,” Graham says. “Dennis’ LinkedIn group has been one of the most effective means to continue growing StartOut memberships/registrations. It has been nearly 11 times more effective than Facebook.”
A divorced dad who shares custody of his nine-year-old son, Velco spent years in the military and as a busy corporate consultant, providing project management for Fortune 500 firms (such as Morgan Stanley) and Federal agencies (such as HUD).
Today he’s renovating a new home and focusing on his passion-a career as an artist, a fine art finger painter. (His artwork can be viewed at his online gallery HERE).
He’s had a chief executive staff of Trump(!) and Obama in the group, as well as executives from high-profile organizations around the world. “Knowing that people at that level value the group enough to have a representative be present makes me feel good. My time to date has been well spent.”
Nevertheless, Dennis and his passion quest continues.