How hitting rock bottom made this CEO the resilient entrepreneur he is today

In the first part of Queer Tech Montreal’s interview with Pholysa Mantryvong, Pholysa talked about his own story, and how he defined the main values that guide decision-making at his startup, Enkidoo Technologies.

In this second part, Queer Tech Montreal Blog‘s Jason Behrmann presents Pholysa’s experience overcoming hardships common to many members of the LGBTQ+ community, and how this perseverance has helped shape him into the resilient entrepreneur he is today.

The conversation between Behrmann and Pholysa includes words of advice for other aspiring LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, as well as Pholysa’s insights on how we can empower the LGBTQ+ community while advancing our own potential as leaders.

Here are Pholysa’s insights as told by Behrmann:

The continuing plight of Queer youth

We are right to feel pride from the progress of LGBTQ+ communities around the world. From Queer icons receiving national medals of honour, to the expanding recognition of LGBTQ+ rights, and now three openly Queer democratically-elected heads of state on record, we see society changing for the better. There remains, however, grave injustice throughout the world for the LGBTQ+ population, much of which still exists in our own backyard.

To this day in North America, while LGBTQ+ people comprise roughly 7% of the population, this group is estimated to comprise 40% of the youth homeless population. Half of young gay men will experience a negative reaction from their family when they come out and in 26% of those cases the youth will be thrown out of the home. Similar hardships exist in the school environment, where it is estimated that the dropout rate for LGBTQ students is 10 percentage points higher than that of their hetero peers. When caught in such dire circumstances, we observe that youth rejected by their families for being Queer are over 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. These sombre statistics remind us of our need to empower our community, and as Pholysa described during our interview, are challenges that undoubtedly affect members of the Queer Tech community.

Coming out and reemerging from rock bottom

At the age of 18, Pholysa felt the time was right to introduce his boyfriend to the family. He expected his coming out would be uneventful because his family was never hostile or openly homophobic to LGBTQ+ people in the family’s entourage. Pholysa soon found out that his parents’ acceptance of gays was relative and a whole other issue when it pertained to their kid.

This left him feeling cheated. Why after meeting all the social pressures from his family to be a good student in engineering and all around lovable kid did they reject him? He was overcome with feelings of extreme injustice upon being told to become straight or leave home. To him, the thought be being someone he’s not was not an option.

He soon found himself in a downward spiral, squatting in one friend’s place, then another; being poor students themselves, their means to help Pholysa were limited and soon ran dry.

“I was sleeping in closets. My friends didn’t have rooms, so they made me a bed; so I came out of the closet, and I go back to the closet – physically,” said Pholysa.

 Trying his best to continue school with no money, he fought bouts of starvation but soon dropped out because he was too hungry to focus on his studies. Without school or a place to stay, he began living a destitute life on the streets.

In the depths of despair, he felt worthless and lost all respect for himself. Tears fell in the audience as Pholysa described his attempt to end his life.

 He awoke restrained to a hospital bed.

This marked a second chance at life, a new beginning. His journey towards healing and resilience started by rebuilding his relationship with his family and completing his education. Now possessing unique empathy for less fortunate people in society, Pholysa devoted himself to philanthropic pursuits, which provided a period of growth and sense of fulfillment from the charitable causes he helped advance.

Lessons for other LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs

When asked whether his past hardships have helped prepare Pholysa for entrepreneurship, his response is “without question”. These life events built his enduring personality and provides him strength, enabling him to possess a thick skin that makes him resilient in situations of conflict and adversity. Overcoming homelessness and suicide has helped put his life into perspective, providing a refined ability to identify what is truly important — and what can wait until another day.

We asked him, “would you be in the same place today if you were not gay?”

With conviction, he said, “no”.

We asked Pholysa to share words of wisdom, wanting to know how us fellow Queer members can be leaders in business and empower our community. For him, these two initiatives are intertwined, where an individual’s efforts to empower our community is the means to become a leader. Indeed, the first step towards becoming leader as a Queer minority in business is to be active. Underrepresented groups need to push harder than the majority to become visible and gain recognition. A good way to break into the limelight is to join a community organization that is doing great work you believe in. We can follow Pholysa’s example, where he implicated himself in diverse causes that had significance to his life, like youth homelessness and unemployment, countering homophobia and promoting the arts and culture. There are ample opportunities for LGBTQ+ members to get involved and make a recognized impact.

If you cannot sell a cause, how would you be able to sell your own product? Or a company? So for me this was a pretty calculated ‘risk’. Try to start something new with a couple of friends, a cause. Make sure whatever it is, an event, a charity event, try to sell it to your friends.

We need to seize these opportunities.

Why exactly do philanthropic activities offer ideal opportunities for leadership? For one, community groups suffer from a chronic lack of funding and talent. These funding restraints present an opportunity because our commitment and contribution of unique tech skills and talents can really “move the needle” in advancing a community initiative. According to Pholysa, our philanthoropic activities will prove rewarding within a short timeframe, where we will see for ourselves how our tech skills and leadership drive can make a community organization flourish.

Beyond leadership, we all can gain additional skills needed for entrepreneurship by being active within our community. Learning teamwork is a given; there typically is no “boss” at the head of a community event, so everyone must learn to get along with each other to ensure the event goes as planned. The networking and visibility gained from prominent charitable events are also of great value. For Pholysa, the social circle he built from philanthropic initiatives helped him attract quality business partners and investors. A final unlikely skill of import is sales. As a leader in promoting charitable events, Pholysa learned how to fiercely sell a cause, which in turn taught him how to sell the vision of his company. It was only after being able to successfully sell several causes to others that he felt ready for entrepreneurship.

Image source -Todd Davidson/Illustration Works/Corbis 

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