By Stacia Erdos Littleton
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – With Penguin City Beer now successfully coursing through the veins of downtown Youngstown, the opening of DOPE Cider and Winery right next door will no doubt further slake the thirst for those of us who would like to see Youngstown transform into a true destination spot.
DOPE is an acronym for Dwelling on Positive Energy. Hannah Ferguson says, as a new business owner, she has received plenty of positive energy and support from other female entrepreneurs, and from her LGBTQ community.
Hannah always has a smile on her face and her dog, Nova, by her side, as she did the day we met during the renovation of her new space. Hannah is proud of what she’s accomplished and a little stunned by it all – in a good way. She laughs as she tells me she’s been asked before what it’s like to be a “triple minority?” As a Black female business owner who also happens to be gay, she says she prefers to refer to herself as a “triple threat.”
Hannah grew up in Youngstown but says it wasn’t until she moved away to Kent for college, and then to Orlando for her MBA, that she found her “authentic” (her word) self. She came out to her family at the age of 21 and was surprised to find they had been supporting the “true” Hannah all along.
“I kind of always knew, but you know, how society was,” she recalls. “I grew up in the church so it was kind of like a battle for me throughout high school and going into college.”
With a supportive family, Hannah returned to Youngstown in 2014 and worked in education as an academic adviser before discovering her passion.
“The wine came as a hobby,” Hannah said. “I was battling depression. I needed something extra to do in my down time and not to get lost in my head.”
For guidance, she turned to family members who had been making wine for years. She began with her two favorites – shiraz and riesling before focusing on cider.
“After making wine for about five years, everyone was like, you should do this on a larger scale,” she said.
Fast forward and suddenly Hannah found herself the first Black female cider maker in the state and the second in the nation.
“People are amazing,” she says, smiling. “People will see the pride sticker I have and will say, ‘Oh you’re part of the community? You’re family. Let me know when you’re open so we can support you.’ I think people like to see someone who looks like them doing something unique.”
DOPE’s logo is in the shape of a heart and that’s because Hannah says everything she does is for the love of her city, her community, her family and friends, and her support system.
“It can be overwhelming at times, scary. But in the end I’m happy and thankful; it’s exciting,” she says.
Canfield felt like the right place for Pepe Parish and his husband, Cory, to realize their dream to invest as minority owners and open Orange Avocado Cold-Pressed Juicery six years ago. The healthful juice and smoothie shop is right next to a boutique gym. For the most part, Pepe says, he’s felt welcome in the suburban business community but admits it hasn’t always been easy.
“I think a lot of people live in a bubble and they don’t realize how many people among them are part of the gay community. And I think there’s still a lot people who are like, ‘I don’t need to know that.’ But it’s something about me I’m proud of.”
Pepe says every year he makes a Pride post on the business’ Instagram account. Every year, they lose about 10 followers. In the grand scheme of things, he says – not a big deal.
Pepe grew up in a small town and when he came out he says it was a little scary. And as I learned from most of those I interviewed, that insecurity is often hard to shake.
“I think that when you’re part of any marginalized community, you’re always feeling like you’re starting out a few steps behind everybody else,” Pepe explained. “So to be able to prove yourself in any way, even if it’s business-related or any aspects of your life, you feel you have a lot more to prove and you need sturdy ground to stand on before you can even try to attempt anything.”
Hannah also admits she sometimes feels a pressure to not let down anyone in her community.
“I feel like all eyes are looking at me right now. What is this triple threat going to do? Am I going to live up to the hype?” she asks rhetorically.
It has been a month since my interviews with seven successful local entrepreneurs who are also part of the LGBTQ community. When we spoke then, many expressed concern about the potential of the Supreme Court to overturn gay marriage. Now, with the high court recently rescinding Roe v. Wade, that concern has moved to the front burner, with one Supreme Court justice pointing to contraception and gay marriage as potentially under future consideration.
Josh Prest is the district representative for U.S. Sen. Rob Portman and is in a long-term relationship.
“Down the road, who knows what the Supreme Court will do?” he told me. “The ruling came out in favor of gay marriage years and years ago and I think that the big concern for the community right now is – will that stand?“
Joe Mineo of Joe Mineo Creative has been married for six years. His husband has a large PR firm in Florida.
“It’s a scary time,” he allows. “But we cannot live our life in fear. I refuse to do that. Those days are long over. And what I would say is, bring it on!”
Both say it helps to show people they’re not alone and are supported.
“I think the community needs to rally around each other and support some common goals. And whether you are a Republican or Democrat in this community, I think we all share one common interest – that we would want to protect each other. I would certainly hope at least.”