How a Center supporter is changing the workplace for transgender people.

For nearly three years Jessye Zambrano tried to follow her boss’s orders to disguise her true identity. He was concerned that customers of the large fast food restaurant where she worked would be upset by her gender transition.

 “The only reasons I kept my job were because I loved to work—and I had to work,” the 32 year old said. “One day I came to work wearing makeup. My boss told me to wash it off if I wanted to keep working. I was so upset—I couldn’t stop crying in the restroom.”

Today Zambrano’s not only running a successful fast food restaurant, she reports to a powerful transgender CEO who runs her own group of restaurants that is helping to change workplace culture for transgender people.

Zambrano’s early workplace turmoil is all too common for transgender people. Ninety percent of transgender individuals have encountered some form of harassment or mistreatment on the job. Forty-seven percent of workers have experienced an adverse job outcome because they are transgender, including being passed over for a job, denied a promotion, or fired.

“The transgender community is an untapped pool of talent that experiences unemployment rates at twice the national average simply because of their gender identity, even though many of them hold college degrees,” said Drian Juarez, program manager of the Center’s Transgender Economic Empowerment Project (TEEP), which helps trans people develop professional skills, find employment, and thrive in the workplace.

“Many of our customers know we are mostly trans people. They will always see us smiling because, for the first time, we are happy to be at work.”

— Jessye Zambrano

Because Zambrano wanted to live and work as her authentic self, she found employment as a manager at another fast food restaurant: El Pollo Loco. Zambrano is one of seven trans women working at the Mid-City district franchise on Western Avenue.

“It’s incredible to work with other trans women because we treat each other like a family,” she said. “We give each other the respect we deserve—like everyday humans. Many of our customers know we are mostly trans people. They will always see us smiling because, for the first time, we are happy to be at work.”

Zambrano’s new boss is Michaela Mendelsohn, CEO of Pollo West Corporation, one of the largest El Pollo Loco franchises in the western region of the United States. Mendelsohn’s vision of a trans-inclusive workplace came from her own experience. The 64-year-old New York native transitioned eight years ago.

“I grew up at a time when we didn’t even know the word ‘transgender,’” she said. “I didn’t understand what I was going through—like wearing my sister’s clothes—so I kept it a secret in order to avoid being ridiculed.”

Before transitioning, Mendelsohn was married and raised three children. At first, her transition wasn’t easy for her family to understand.

“I was the type of man my daughters wanted to marry. I was the type of man my son wanted to be one day,” she said. “I realized they were losing more than I. I was moving into becoming my authentic self. They were losing a part of themselves.”

But after transitioning, Mendelsohn’s family slowly came back into her life. In fact, her ex-wife and three adult kids have become close with her new partner, Carmel. Together the couple have a toddler, Isadore.

Nowadays, Mendelsohn along with her grant partner, Bamby Salcedo, are working with the Center’s TEEP program and concentrating on getting trans people hired through educating businesses on trans issues, including the benefits of inclusivity. These businesses will then be connected with trans job seekers, many of whom will come through the Center. 

“Gone are the days when trans people will be relegated to the backrooms of offices and restaurants,” she said. “Trans people deserve to work at the frontlines. Let them be proud of their jobs, and let them shine.”

—Michaela Mendelsohn

With more than 40 years of entrepreneurial leadership experience, Mendelsohn also founded the California Transgender Workplace Program (CTWP) to promote the Golden State as the national model of a trans-positive employment environment. 

“CTWP is paving the way for trans people, especially those in the lower segments of our economy,” explained Mendelsohn. “The influence of trans celebrities, such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, is not trickling down to lower-income trans people, for whom there is more violence, poverty, bigotry, and suicide. And more so for trans people of color.”

In August Mendelsohn created the first-ever training program for transgender inclusivity in the workplace, which included a 12-minute video that debuted at the California Restaurant Association (CRA) annual conference. The CRA, representing a majority of the 96,000 restaurants in California, has volunteered to expand upon their reputation for diversity to become a major force in employing transgender employees. If her CTWP pilot program proves successful in the restaurant business, Mendelsohn plans to enlighten the hotel industry.

“Gone are the days when trans people will be relegated to the backrooms of offices and restaurants,” she said. “Trans people deserve to work at the frontlines. Let them be proud of their jobs, and let them shine.”

Mendelsohn has been a guest speaker for the Center’s Youth Employment Program, which hosts a weekly meeting for youth experiencing homelessness to meet and hear LGBT professionals talk about their careers. 

“I love working closely with the magnificent Center. I’m always referring people there, whether it’s to see a therapist, to get medical help with hormones, or to obtain legal assistance. The Center takes in the LGBT kids whom I’ve seen living on the streets, gives them an education, and gets them back on their feet. What the Center is doing is invaluable, and I’m proud to be working with them.”

For Marie Hernandez, finding a job was anything but easy. Even with more than eight years of professional experience, the 25-year-old couldn’t land a job no matter how many interviews she did. 

“I spent an entire year looking for work,” she recalled. “I became severely depressed because I was convinced companies were rejecting me simply because I’m transgender. Instead of judging me based on my abilities, they were judging me based on my appearance.”

“At my previous jobs, I was required to present myself as a man because my bosses had the power to enforce that rule. That’s their weapon against trans people: they will take away your job.”

— Marie Hernandez

One day she received an email about Mendelsohn’s visit to the Center’s guest speaker program. Meeting Mendelsohn face-to-face was life-changing; she hired Hernandez to work at the same El Pollo Loco restaurant as Zambrano.

“At my previous jobs, I was required to present myself as a man because my bosses had the power to enforce that rule,” says Hernandez. “That’s their weapon against trans people: they will take away your job. They don’t want to see us as models of success because they see us as lower class citizens.”

Mendelsohn also serves as an executive advisory committee member of the Center’s Transgender Job Fair, helping to ensure an enormously successful event on October 20 at the West Hollywood Park Auditorium.

“We selected Michaela to be this year’s keynote speaker because she represents the confidence, stamina, and determination necessary to be successful in life,” said Juarez. “As a well-known and influential trans activist, she will undoubtedly inspire others to never give up on building a bright future that sees no boundaries.”

 In addition to an array of companies looking to hire trans people, this year’s job fair will include a resume writing workshop, a mock interview clinic, and a photographer who will take professional headshots of job seekers who want to spruce up their LinkedIn profiles and other professional websites. 

 

September 15, 2016