In the world of entrepreneurship, overcoming obstacles to achieve success is the name of the game. Just how many obstacles that path holds, however, is relative. For pan, bi, or queer founders like Emma McIlroy, the path tends to be a little more harrowing.
As co-founder and CEO of Wildfang, a trailblazing apparel brand that challenges conventional gender roles, McIlroy has emerged as a vocal champion for the queer community. Her mission is to foster greater inclusivity, open doors for fellow queer entrepreneurs, and support organizations that embody Wildfang's morals and values.
The Irish, lesbian, and immigrant businesswoman has high hopes of smashing the patriarchy while creating sustainable fashion products for a forever-growing gender-expansive world.
According to McIlroy, Wildfang encourages customers to boldly and unabashedly show up in the world as their authentic selves.
“Fuck the rules that have been set for you and fuck the gender norms of society,” she said.
The genderfluid fashion retailer recently marked its 10th anniversary, a significant milestone considering the number of startups that fail to last a decade. According to data shared on their website, 10 percent of startups fail within the first year of founding and more than 90 percent never make it that long.
Based on PitchBook's report, out of approximately $37 billion invested in US startups during Q1 2023, firms founded solely by women raised a scant $800 million, equaling a mere 2.1%. This alarming figure reflects a significant year-over-year decrease, marking a 53% drop from the $1.7 billion all-female teams garnered in Q1 2022.
“Particularly, you know, there's not that many women founders who managed to get any venture capital, there's even fewer that are queer,” McIlroy said. “The fact that we're still rocking and rolling is pretty good in itself.”
Venture capital funding is a rarity for both LGBTQ+ and woman founders, but by owning both identities, McIlroy offers a glimmer of hope through her startup success. As Queerency recently reported, only 0.5% of the $2.1T in funding for startups in 2022 went to LGBTQ entrepreneurs.
While some may argue that securing funding "is just business" and has nothing to do with gender or sexual orientation, both McIlroy's queerness and her womanhood can be focal points for investors. Because the majority of today's funders are straight and cisgender, founders like McIlroy can often feel like they're pitching a "queer brand" without necessarily intending to. Funders often can't see past the identity of the person pitching the idea.
“Wildfang is queering fashion and serves the queer community," but it's more than a “queer brand,” she said. “Every time I went to try to raise money, the straight white guy in the room would say, ‘It's a gay brand, right?’ And they would say, ‘Yeah, we don't think that's a big enough market and we're not going to give you any money.'”
“The secret of this game is not to quit. Because someday what you're working on, somebody else is going to turn around and realize how special it is and you're going to be in the right place at the right time.” –Emma McIlroy
She added that the same folks are turning around asking, “Do you know that 57% of Gen Z know someone with different pronouns? Do you know that more than 10% of American teenagers identify as something other than cis-het?"
“Yeah, I would kind of tell you that 10 years ago, and we were trying to have that conversation, but he kept telling me it was for three lesbians in Portland.”
Wildfang was seen as aspirational and unattractive in its early days, McIlroy said. Funders she originally pitched the brand to said things like “There isn’t a market for genderfluid fashion unless its just a few lesbians in Portland.” Despite initial speculation, Wildfang is now seen as a leading brand in the continuously evolving fashion space.
“My message to other queer founders is just, 'fucking get up every day and keep going.' Just choose to keep going and do not quit,” McIlroy said. “The secret of this game is not to quit. Because someday what you're working on, somebody else is going to turn around and realize how special it is and you're going to be in the right place at the right time.”
“Fuck the rules that have been set for you and fuck the gender norms of society.” –Emma McIlroy
A strong investment and hiring pipeline, a clear roadmap, and access to an accelerator can all massively benefit founders. However, according to McIlroy, the most impactful experience has been gaining entry into exclusive circles in recent years.
“I take [my privilege very seriously],” she said. “In the last year or so I've started to get into certain rooms I was never able to get into before I got selected for the Henry Crown Fellowship at the Aspen Institute,” she explained.
“This is a leadership program that's very focused on leaders who want to impact our community, and the other people in it are like the founder of Instacart, or the founder of Duolingo — some of the greatest entrepreneurs of my generation. They're incredibly good at what they do. I've realized in the last year or so–and not just through that program but through other networks and rooms–that there's a lot of back-scratching that happens for other folks.”
For most queer founders, that sort of backscratching network simply doesn't exist, and queer representation at the top level of corporations and startups isn't there. McIlroy is dedicated to opening doors for queer founders and queer people at large, to help them get the leg up that their cis-het colleagues already have.
Since Wildfang’s launch, they have contributed over $750,000 to worthwhile causes such as ProjectQ, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Tegan & Sara Foundation, RAICES, Girls Inc, and more. This year, they are taking their commitment to the next level by participating in the 1% PLEDGE, partnering with Pledge 1% and contributing at least 1% of their annual revenue to organizations doing vital work.
Wildfang is proud to partner with the “Looking Out Foundation,” a social justice and humanitarian organization founded by the renowned musician Brandi Carlile. By channeling the emotive power of music into actionable change, the foundation helps fund global causes.
In addition to their defined charitable causes, Wildfang and McIlroy aren't scared to step up during political unrest. In direct response to drag bans happening around the country, Wildfang will be hosting a DRAG-A-THON (taking place July 10-12). Wildfang is setting out to break the Guinness World Record for the Longest Drag Performance. This 48-hour glittery extravaganza will also double as a fundraiser to support Trevor Project’s legislative work and crisis support services for queer and trans youth.
In 2023 alone, 491 anti-LGBTQ+ legislative bills have been brought forth nationwide, according to the ACLU. Many of these bills, have included banning access to gender-affirming care and banning drag artists from performing on stages throughout the country.
"I think obviously there's a clear impact to the drag community, which is very painful for us because we have a lot of good friends in that community and this is obviously an attack on the LGBTQ community [at large]," McIlroy said. "But you know, I think it's a pretty specific reaction to the idea of reshaping gender norms, particularly masculinity. I don't think we're probably going to see a lot of women in suits get arrested. But I do think the idea of flexing and bending and widening the concept of masculinity is terrifying for some folks, particularly on the right."
The event will take place at Darcelle XV, Portland's legendary drag venue.
Queer joy, community, and the spirit of free speech and self-expression are at the heart of this event. According to a Wildfang press release, iconic queens and celebs from around the country - including comedian Cameron Esposito and stylist Stacy London - and local favorites like Poison Waters will be attending. It also stated queens from affected states such as Kentucky and Tennessee will perform.
The current world record for the longest drag performance is held by Australia at 36 hours, 36 minutes, and 40 seconds.
Click here for more information about the DRAG-A-THON and to purchase tickets when they go live.
Emma McIlroy, co-founder and CEO, Wildfang