David Dresner | Crain's St. Louis

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

David Dresner

Background:  

Sleeve a Message offers custom-made, sustainable beverage sleeves and coasters. David Dresner also operates Crispy Edge, a gourmet potsticker company slated to open a new factory and restaurant in St. Louis' Tower Grove Heights neighborhood later this year.

The Mistake:

Not being true to myself.

Part of the reason you start a business, I think, is freedom – freedom to be who you are and kind of run the ship. And I’m definitely an openly gay, confident person. I’ve fought for gay rights. You can find that out by looking me up online. And I’ve always prided myself on being comfortable with myself. I almost saw it as an obligation to the gay community. Because, how can we expect straight people to be comfortable with gay people if we can’t be comfortable with ourselves?

But there have been a few times in business when I really hid that I was gay because I was in Missouri and I was very apprehensive about coming out. The mistake was that I hid being gay in very important business relationships. First off, it caused me anxiety. I hated that I couldn’t be open.

And it turns out I was wrong. In one case, the person totally respected that we had different belief systems and we were OK with that. At that turning point, I’d brought my boyfriend to work and I omitted that information to this key business partner who was there. But I let my conscience be my guide and it spoke loudly to me. I pulled the person aside and said, "I need to tell you something." He really appreciated that and it really helped us establish a stronger business relationship. And he said he knew because he’d Googled my name and saw my activism.

Most recently, I was faced with a very important business deal and I was thinking, "This person needs to know that I’m gay because I don’t want there to be some sort of backlash if we move forward." When I came out, this person gave me a huge bear hug.

The mistake was that I hid being gay in very important business relationships.

The Lesson:

I knew that there was a strong, cohesive gay community here, but I didn’t know how being gay would be embraced in Missouri. I was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t a big deal at all. The larger lesson is to face the stigmas in business. So whether you’re a minority or you have a mental illness or whatever, I would say face those head on. I think the mistake would be hiding it. Now, I feel it’s important to be transparent about your personal life in business, to be upfront about who you are just so you can get past it.

Another lesson is how important it is to establish a rapport in business. The truth is, I don’t look at business … and personal as separate. To me, it’s more of a blend. And, in order to establish rapport, which is very important to establishing trust, you have to have a harmonious relationship in which people understand each other’s feelings and ideas and communicate. I wish I would have been comfortable coming out earlier.

When I interview people for jobs here nowadays, because interviewing can be a very sensitive situation, I come out right away. I say, "I’m gay. We have people of all different creeds here and it’s a very accepting place." And then they open up faster. I think when you’re comfortable with yourself, other people will be comfortable with you.

It’s almost cliché, right? I think I go out of my way now to look at minority populations where there are stigmas and empower them to face those barriers. My big takeaway is business is personal and, no matter what, being yourself is truly most important. If you do face adversity as a result of being yourself, then it’s probably OK to let that business relationship go.

Sleeve a Message is on Twitter at @SleeveaMessage.

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