The Phluid Project: The intersections of fashion and inclusion

| By Kaela Roeder

LGBT-owned businesses continually reflect the values we hold most dear at the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC): perhaps most important of them being a dedication to inclusion in all sectors of life. Rob Smith, the founder and CEO of the Phluid Project, is no exception to living up to those values!

Rob, a fashion expert and advocate, combined his two passions to create his company: a fashion brand, LGBTQ youth center, and, more recently, a business certification body for gender inclusion.

He had been involved in the fashion industry for years and spent his free time volunteering at a variety of organizations. In 2017, he decided that he wanted his professional life to consist of all of his passions.

“I was living two separate lives, one making money during the day and then one helping underrepresented communities at night. I wanted to do something different in my life,” he said.

From this realization, Phluid Project, an initiative to merge fashion and advocacy, was born. In late 2017, Rob opened a physical space for the company in New York City, which served as one part community center and two parts retail. The fashion section of his company is also gender-free, one of the first fashion brands to do so.

Rob also said while the brand is meant for everyone to enjoy, it was created with transgender and non-binary people in mind, who have historically had little access to an affirming space.

The storefront closed in January in hopes to transition to opening pop-up shops on a global scale. With the pandemic, those plans have stalled, but Rob said he plans to continue this project as the world becomes safer. While the store is now closed, the space was open for two years and was home to over 250 events, all centered around the LGBT community and education on a variety of topics, such as sex work, HIV, AIDs and mental health.

“What I wanted to do was spark curiosity in a very visible space,” he said. “People could walk in unsure of this idea of a binary system, and then they could leave understanding how there is space in between. My ultimate plan is to deconstruct constructs that have been created to
marginalized groups of people.”

Now, Rob has taken up a new venture within the Phluid Project called “G.E.T. Phluid,” a new certification program that helps companies establish policies and procedures to create gender-affirming spaces. Rob also presented this idea in our recent LGBT Sip & Pitch Program on July 31!

Having launched in January of this year, Rob has begun certifying the inclusive practices of companies and training businesses on the importance of that inclusion, especially on topics of gender and expression. There are two sections of G.E.T. Phluid - the training, and the formal certification program. The training consists of one-off modules that help businesses become more inclusive in certain areas, while the certification program is a more intense look at and alteration of company policies related to gender.

The operational certification program evaluates a list of gender-inclusive policies, such as restroom options, pronoun usage, dress code and other factors.

Sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression inclusion policies are known to increase LGBT job satisfaction, commitment to their employer, and health outcomes. Businesses that have these policies are known to outperform their competitions as a direct result of increased employee satisfaction and buyer consciousness.

Generation Z inspired Rob to create this program, as the group makes up 25% of the population 40% of spending power. In addition, according to the Community Marketing & Insights 14th Annual LGBTQ Community Survey, 85% of LGBTQ participants said corporations that support LGBTQ equality are more important than ever.

“They're very different,” he said. “They care about social impact, about each other, the environment.”

The Phluid Project also has a Verizon Media-sponsored job portal for LGBT job seekers to help individuals find inclusive companies to work for, and for employers to hire from a diverse pool of talent.

Being certified with the NGLCC has also helped Rob, he said, and he is proud to be a part of the NGLCC, while also funneling time and money to improve representation and access to LGBT people through his company.

“To me, it's a good thing to support queer businesses, but it's really important to support queer businesses that support the queer community,” he said.

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For additional ways to help you, your business, and the LGBT community during this time, visit the NGLCC COVID-19 Resource Hub for the LGBT Business Community.