La Crosse-area businesses now have a way to connect with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and LGBT-allied professionals.

The LGBT Chamber of Commerce will host a happy hour informational gathering from 5:30 to 7 p.m. today at Bodega Brew Pub.

“The event is really about introducing the chamber to western Wisconsin,” Jason Rae, executive director of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, said. “We really want people to come learn more.”

The history of the chamber began about two years ago when Rae and some other professionals asked: “How do we connect with other LGBT professionals?”

After brainstorming some ideas, they decided to plan a happy hour. Forty people showed up.

A wide range of professionals such as attorneys, paralegals and professors came ready to network and the happy hours continued for the next couple months.

The gatherings were so successful that after meeting consistently for about a year the group started hosting focus groups that would allow for more serious discussions.

Many business owners approached the group with hopes of expanding and growing their business through LGBT professionals and it was then Rae realized the idea was a niche. Wisconsin didn’t have any LGBT-specific business directories and there wasn’t a simple way to connected them.

Nearly 100 businesses throughout southeast Wisconsin joined within a year of the chamber’s establishment and more and more companies from around the state are signing up.

“It’s been remarkable,” Rae said. “We’re really excited for their contribution.”

Since the chamber hit the ground running in 2012, they’ve traveled throughout Wisconsin connecting LGBT owned or allied businesses with one another through community events and hands-on workshops. The chamber focuses on helping both small and large businesses grow by providing educational training and networking opportunities.

“It’s really about trying to help these businesses get additional visibility,” Rae said. “So that they can grow and thrive.”

Members of the Wisconsin LGBT Chamber of Commerce receive a newsletter, legislative update and a listing in the chamber’s online directory. They also gain access to any and all events.

Molly McDonald, client and community relations director of PNC Financial Services Group in Milwaukee, said PNC has connected with more clients throughout their involvement with the chamber than they would have been able to on their own. PNC partnered with the chamber in a number of events throughout the year and was named one of the best places to work for LGBT equality from the Human Rights Campaign July 15, 2013.

“I think it’s a great investment,” McDonald said. “It’s growing tenfold every day.”

The La Crosse-area happy hour is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the chamber. The gathering will be casual and provide an opportunity for both businesses and consumers to connect with one another.

Sen. Jennifer Shilling will be at the event to discuss LGBT-related endeavors in Madison, as well.

“People need to understand that you can be pro-fairness and pro-business at the same time,” Rae said. “We want to be a part of this movement.”

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