Pride Month provides an opportunity to lift up and celebrate members of our community who identify as LGBTQ+, and it’s also an important time to recognize the distinct challenges that these individuals may have overcome or are currently facing.
We spoke with three local entrepreneurs about their experiences as LGBTQ+ business owners in Sioux Falls and the exciting things happening in their businesses.
As members of the Startup Sioux Falls community, we encourage you to learn more about these businesses and support them—not just in June, but year round.
Good Night Theatre Collective promotes the arts as a safe space for all
The Good Night Theatre Collective (GNTC) is a professional theatre company in Sioux Falls about to embark on its sixth season in 2021. After being forced to cancel their season last year due to COVID-19, the company is thrilled to be taking back the stage this fall.
For GNTC, lifting up the LGBTQ+ community has been a priority since its inception. Marketing director Luke Tatge says the arts have long been a safe space for the community, and that’s an environment he hopes GNTC can continue to foster.
Tatge, who has been married to one of the company’s four co-founders, Bob Wendland, for almost 11 years, says being open about their identity and their views has never been a question.
“We’ve been a couple for so long, and we’ve never not been open, so we’ve been able to build a good community of people who love and appreciate us for who we are,” he said.
“Having those people around us who know us has created such a strong base of support.”
The company also makes an effort to lift up the LGBTQ+ community in their performances. GNTC seasons include a mix of established plays and musicals as well as original screenplays, many of which are written and directed by Tatge.
“I always try to make an effort to depict gay and lesbian relationships that are well-rounded and aren’t just side characters, and we’ve done that since our first show, ‘David and Lucy,’” he said. “Every one of my original shows has prominently featured a gay or lesbian character.”
GNTC is also known for their cabaret performances which have provided additional opportunities to highlight LGBTQ+ artists.
“We did a whole cabaret of LGBTQ+ writers and artists which was really great. We’ve never shied away from it, and it’s been really gratifying,” Tatge said. “Our audience skews a little older, but they’ve never complained, it’s never caused any issues with patrons and our actors are all really supportive as well.”
Tatge acknowledges that the arts space, in general, tends to be more accepting and inclusive.
“I think theatre has historically played a great role in providing a safe space for people in our community to create, perform and make magic happen and to feel safe doing so,” Tatge said.
“Because of the area of the country that we’re in, that’s not always the case, but I think it makes it that much stronger of a statement. Our audience may be more open-minded compared to the population of the whole city, but we have conservative audience members who come back again and again, and I think that's a good sign for the future.”
You can support The Good Night Theatre Collective by purchasing tickets to their upcoming pre-season show, “Reality Wives,” (written and directed by Tatge) or purchasing a subscription for the 2021-2022 season, featuring four cabarets and four shows.
Game Chest commits to improving the community around them
Wermers said the inspiration for Game Chest came from the need she saw for game stores that would be welcoming to everyone. She wanted to create a space where anyone who didn’t fit in or was struggling with their identity could come and feel at home. The challenge, she says, was location.
“We were trying to decide between here and Seattle, and in Seattle, we would have just been accepted right away, our politics and policies would have aligned and it would have been easy,” she said.
In 2017, they opened up the shop in Sioux Falls despite concerns about the inclusiveness of the community.
Since then, Wermers says things have been tough, but the safe space they’re providing makes it worth it.
“I would say the climate that has existed over the last few years especially has made it harder and scarier than it would have been before, but the people who are committed to equality—the allies and the other LGBTQ+-owned businesses—are stronger and louder as a result.”
She adds that as more anti-LGBTQ+ legislation crops up, she has felt even more committed to standing her ground.
“Especially now, we really make it a point to be a safe space for trans youth at our store. They need that now more than ever,” she said.
“I don’t believe I was put on this planet to lead an easy life. My husband and I have a unique ability to make people feel safe, we give people that place to feel safe and it would be selfish for me to leave and quit just because it’s difficult.”
Some of the ways Wermers works to make Game Chest a safe place include advertising all events as inclusive, prominently displaying rainbows and Black Lives Matter signs on the door and addressing discriminatory behavior at the source.
“Something I’ve learned, especially in this past year, is that people are going to say the wrong things, but the important thing is that the community around them can educate them and still be respectful and kind so that person has an opportunity to rectify what they’ve said.”
As a business owner, it’s all about listening to your customers’ needs, and Wermers says that’s been her number one priority from the start.
“Our customers are looking for a home away from home and a community validates how they’re feeling,” she said.
“We’re very aware that our customers want us to be a safe space for LGBTQ+ individuals and they want us to be a safe space for Black and Brown individuals—not just for our customers, but because we need to for our community. Our customers are just a zoomed-in view of the greater community.”
Learn more about Game Chest at www.sfgamechest.com.
Entrepreneur creates a new opportunity in the cannabis industry
For entrepreneur and chemist, Jared Nieuwenhuis, the challenges he faced as an openly gay business owner ultimately led him to switch industries. Now, what was initially a discouraging reason to make a change has led to a business with incredible growth potential.
In 2016, Nieuwenhuis started a venture called East Prairie Laboratories to bring soil testing services to rural South Dakota. A few years later, he also decided to run for election to the state house of representatives.
“Agriculture is a very conservative-minded industry, and a lot of the farmers and ranchers didn’t like that I was both gay and a Democrat, and it became difficult making the business work,” he said.
Farmers and ranchers in the area stopped sending their samples to East Prairie Labs because of their differing views, and Nieuwenhuis began looking for an opportunity that would allow him to build a successful business without having to deal with discrimination.
He ran for office in the 2020 election, and though he lost his bid for the house seat, the election results on Amendment A and IM 26 inspired a business pivot toward cannabis. Nieuwenhuis filed Cannabis Chem Lab Inc. as a domestic corporation in South Dakota in November 2020, and began preparing to test cannabis products, starting with industrial hemp. He’s currently participating in Startup Sioux Falls’ second CO.STARTERS cohort to prepare for the process of finding investors.
The Santee Sioux tribe in Flandreau allows him to rent space for his lab and partners with him for industrial hemp testing. However, the work on industrial hemp is just the starting point for Nieuwenhuis, who hopes to work with medical and recreational cannabis as well. While awaiting the results of the upcoming ruling on Amendment A, Nieuwenhuis and his newly-hired CEO, Matt Jorgenson, are working to prepare the lab to be able to handle all the necessary procedures.
Currently, it’s the first and only independent testing facility in South Dakota certifying industrial hemp and ensuring the safety of cannabis products. Nieuwenhuis hopes the company will be able to help South Dakota set standards and regulations that will promote utmost public safety.
“Nobody knows what South Dakota will require yet, but my hope is that they’ll come in and see what we’re doing to get a better understanding of it all and to help write the laws. In any field of science, if everyone’s not doing the same procedures, the results will be a little bit different. My hope is that by being the first lab in the state, we can help to implement some standardization,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Nieuwenhuis and Jorgenson are dedicated to building a business that holds cannabis producers accountable to creating safe, high-quality products.
“Most everyone wants to get into the production side of things, but we have a niche in that our specialty is compliance. We make sure the product is what it says it is, and we take credibility very seriously,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Learn more about Cannabis Chem Lab at www.cannabischemlab.com.
Startup Sioux Falls for all
As part of our rebrand to Startup Sioux Falls, we have spotlighted “Inclusive” as one of our five core values. We’re actively working to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is open and welcoming to all, but we know this is a work in progress. We welcome all feedback and suggestions as we continue on this journey.
Reach out to our team at www.startupsiouxfalls.com/contact.