Kai Yohman: Taking care of business


Are you a business owner? Would you like to start a business? Do you enjoy talking about business? Basically, what I’m trying to say is that the IBA, the Independence Business Alliance has a little something for everyone.

Also known as the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the mission of the IBA is to promote diversity, support LGBTQ businesses, develop leadership and collaborations and advocate for positive change for the LGBT business community. Through PGN, I am a member and have been to a number of great events and workshops held by the IBA. I took time this week to say hello to the new operations coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, Kai Yohman.


Let’s start with the 411 on Kai Yohman.

I was raised in a suburb just outside of Cleveland. I grew up with a twin sister and a single mom, and I had a pretty great childhood, but it was in a very sheltered and homogeneous community. The demographic was mostly white folks. I ended up going to a small-sized liberal arts school where I had my eyes opened a little bit. When I was 25, I moved to New York. I didn’t totally know what I wanted to do with my life as I was just beginning to explore my queer identity. In New York, I started working at the LGBTQ health center where, for four years, I worked with HIV positive folks who were experiencing severe barriers to access the support and care they needed to maintain, not only their physical health but also their mental, social and emotional health as well. That experience was also very eye-opening and helped me realize that what I wanted to do, both in my career and in my life in general, was to support and uplift and give power to folks who are not able to easily access those things because they’re members of communities that experience oppression and harm at disproportionate rates. That work now has looked like a lot of different things for me, from direct service to HIV positive people, to management of a drop-in center for folks who had been incarcerated and then on to more operational positions to support nonprofits, which all leads to where I am right now as the operations coordinator at the local LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce where we provide opportunities, access and resources to LGBTQ professionals and allies in the Greater Philadelphia area. My job is to manage a lot of areas, including membership, event planning, finance and facilitation and collaboration with other minority chambers of commerce that have similar mandates, ethics or missions.


Whew! I think that was the most concise and condensed history I’ve ever been given!

[Laughing] I tend to try to be intentional with the way I use my words.


Going back a little, I want to know about having a twin sister. Any weird twin things?

When we were very little, my mom says we had a secret language that we spoke in that no one else could understand. Other than that, we were very different growing up, and, to this day, she is a lot more extroverted than I am. She’s the type of person who walks in and immediately commands the room. She’s extremely loving and open and sweet, and you can sense that right away. So growing up, she was definitely more outgoing, where I was the quieter introvert who would spend my time hiding in bathrooms reading a book.


Are you identical or fraternal?

Fraternal. We don’t look anything alike. If you looked closely at us, you could tell we were related, but that’s about it.


Well, that erases some of the twin mystique! No parent trap action, I guess. So is your twin also part of the LGBTQ community?

She is straight but a wonderful ally. She and the rest of my family have really come a long way, and I’m very close to all of them.  I feel extreme gratitude for that because I know that many queer folks do not have a relationship with their families because of their identities. I’m so lucky because not only have they supported me as an individual, they have grown to be active in their support for the larger LGBTQ community. They’ve taken the time to be aware of the members of our community who experience harm at disproportionate rates, such as communities of color and specifically trans women of color. I have a lot of love for my family being so open to that. I also have two half-sisters, one of whom is queer and the other who is also very supportive. So my twin is not gay, but two of us out of four is pretty good!


When you were a kid, what was your favorite part of school?

As I said, I was very quiet, so I enjoyed anything having to do with reading and writing. I read voraciously; I would read the back of a shampoo bottle, whatever I could put my hands on.


What was your favorite book?

I loved The Boxcar Children books — the scrappiness of the kids and the idea of being able to be on their own and explore.


That’s why I liked “Pippi Longstocking” and “One Was Johnny,” which was also about a kid living alone.

Yeah, there were a lot of stories like that available that I also enjoyed. I was always curious about people who lived different lives.


When did you start to figure out your sexual orientation?

I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. Being queer was just not something that anyone ever spoke about there. It wasn’t super strict, but queerness was never mentioned as an identity or option. I didn’t really date in high school and didn’t really think much about my sexuality. I had a little secret relationship with the head cheerleader, but my first real girlfriend was in college. It was very natural; it was a friendship that just grew into a romantic relationship. At first, my family and friends wanted me to sort of choose and label my identity — was I a lesbian, was I bisexual, but I resisted it; I just was who I was. But now, I’m more cognizant about queer identity and what it means, so I now strongly identify as queer and a dyke.


I think labels help us identify each other and find community, but that’s just me! I actually have a button with a gay bar code that I sometimes wear.

That’s so funny. Yeah, now I feel so connected to the label “queer,” though I do know that language can sometimes be divisive or limiting, but I believe in the power of love and care that you can receive when you find ways to understand and embrace your identity.


Where did you go to college, and for what?

I went to a small school called Wittenberg University that no one’s ever heard of and majored in sociology. There I had a teacher, Dr. Broh, who really helped me figure out what I wanted to do. It may sound corny, but she helped me embrace that what I really wanted to do was help people. I graduated in 2008 when the market crashed and was told immediately that I had to get a master’s degree, because jobs that used to only require an undergrad degree were now going to require a master’s. So I went and enrolled at Cleveland State and got a masters in sociology there.


It seems that you’ve either worked at or participated in some interesting places since then, like the Institute for Community Justice (ICJ). What and how was that?

I managed a drop-in center for those who’ve been incarcerated or affected by the criminal justice system. I loved that job. I’ve had a lot of different positions and dipped into a lot of different things, but the underlying mission is always the same. There’s a Toni Morrison quote I love, which basically says, “When you get these jobs that you’ve been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you’re free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower someone else.” It’s something I try to prioritize, no matter what I’m doing.


I saw an ICJ event that seemed interesting. The organization holds a holiday party for families of those who are incarcerated. People forget that it’s not only about the people behind bars, but also families are affected.

Yes, it affects everyone. Their parents, their children, their friends, their co-workers and communities, and as someone who has had family members and allies who have been incarcerated, I can appreciate the burdens. Kids especially are often not supported when their caretakers are taken away, so this program was really appreciated.


What brought you to Philadelphia?

I lived in New York for four years, and as someone who grew up in the Midwest, my eyes were really opened in New York. It was a really important experience learning about life and how big it is. But I would come to Philly to relax, and at some point, I realized, you know, I could live here and have a more sustainable way of life. I like that it’s on the East Coast and fast-paced, but more manageable than New York. I also like how significant and involved the queer community is here. I’ve felt very welcomed and supported.


What are some of the things happening with IBA?

We do monthly networking events called ConnX that have become really popular. The next one coming up is on Nov. 19, 5:30 p.m. at WeWork located at 1430 Walnut St. (2nd floor). The event is also going to be a clothing drive to benefit the nonprofit Career Wardrobe and is free to all. We are strongly encouraging attendees to bring a piece of clothing to donate. Our sponsor, KASHIYAMA the Smart Tailor, will be graciously providing beer and wine.
Our holiday party on Dec. 17 is always a big gala. It’s actually become the largest LGBTQ+ holiday gathering of its kind in the Greater Philadelphia region, and this year it will be held at the Curtis Center. We also have a subcommittee called TransWork, which is made up of trans and gender non-conforming IBA board members and community members. The group works to end economic disparity in the trans community by connecting employers and job seekers, as well as having workshops and events like our recent job fair for trans-identified people. On Nov. 12, we’re having one of our Lunch & Learn members’ events. This one highlights communication techniques for businesses. We do breakfast business workshops too. We also have a scholarship program and a ton of collaborations with groups like PHLDiversity.


You have a lot going on with work. What else occupies your time?

Moving to Philly has provided me with a much better work/life balance. With that time has come the ability to focus on and navigate some of the personal pain and trauma I’ve gone through, as well as an awareness of the hurt that participating in those cycles has caused. Philadelphia has a very strong community of queer people in recovery from different addictions and trauma responses. The steps I’ve been able to take here to continue to be the best version of myself have been transformative. I am constantly inspired and blown away by how folks in recovery of all kinds lift up, respect and love one another.


What things do you like to do for fun outside of work?

I like to nest! I’m a Cancer rising, so I love to just stay home and enjoy the quiet. I can be extroverted outside, so when I’m home, I like to just turn it all off and do some self-care. But on the other hand, I do love to be spontaneous and have off the cuff adventures.


What’s a recent adventure?

I went to Las Vegas for two days with no notice. The best part was going to the desert outside of Vegas and exploring the beauty of it.


What is the worst hairstyle you’ve had?

[Laughing] OK, I think, at one time, the mushroom cut was kind of in style, and I thought that it was working for me, but looking back at pictures of that time, it really wasn’t.


Your most unusual possession?

I recently got a lava lamp. It has glitter in it and is amazingly soothing.


What is the origin of your name — first and/or last?

I chose my first name, Kai, when I was 25 because I connected to it more and felt it was less gender-specific. My last name now is Yohman, but it was Jochmann when my ancestors came over from Austria to the U.S. in 1890. They changed it to Yohman then because no one was pronouncing Jochmann correctly. So technically, anyone with the last name of Yohman is someone I’m related to, and there aren’t many of us.


What genre of music would people be surprised to know you listen to?

I don’t know about surprising, but I was raised on Stevie Nicks, Bruce Springsteen and the Goo Goo Dolls. Not long ago, I went to a Goo Goo Dolls concert with my mother, and it was everything and more.