Timothy Rissel: On Board

Timothy Rissel

There are a lot of great things about the new remote work culture that emerged from the pandemic, like not having to wear pants, no more running after Septa busses to make it to work on time, and snack breaks whenever you want, but the downside is that many of us lost that sense of community and camaraderie we often find in the workplace. Some of my oldest friendships have been with people I met at work. 

One organization that did a great job of keeping us sane during that first year was the IBA, the Independence Business Alliance. The mission of the IBA is to “provide opportunities, access and resources to LGBTQ+ professionals and allies in the Greater Philadelphia area and to promote economic development, growth, diversity and leadership in our region.”

During the heart of the pandemic, IBA held regular virtual morning coffee check-ins and happy hours where we all had a chance to speak and give updates on what we were doing and how we were feeling. It became that water cooler that we missed as people spoke not just about business, but also indulged in the fun chit chat of current events. They became a de facto work family for many, and now that the veil has lifted a little they have continued their mission through a number of programs, grants and social gatherings. 

One of those new friends that I met through IBA is board member Tim Rissel, who sat down with me for a chat.

Hi Tim! Tell me a little bit about your beginning. 

I grew up in Coatesville, which is in Chester County, about an hour west of Philadelphia. When we were younger, we grew up in a very rural area, a few neighbors, and lots of cornfields around us. We were right on the border of Lancaster County. But we soon moved into the house that I spent most of the time growing up in. It was a little more suburban, cul de sacs on each end of the streets, we took the bus to school… it was a pretty good childhood. 

[Laughing] Cornfields evoke horror films for me. What was your scariest moment?

The scariest moment was when my older brother, my neighbor and some friends and I almost burnt down the woods behind our house. Actually behind all of our houses! I think it was one of those dumb situations with 10 year olds playing with matches and became a scenario where fire departments had to be called and whatnot. I was very young, I just remember running back to the house to get my brother’s inhaler because he was having an asthma attack. Then running back in the woods to help him out as our parents called for help from the proper departments. 

Oh wow. I had a similar thing when I was a kid where a small situation quickly escalated into something serious. It was indeed scary. 

Yes, it was, and because I was so young I honestly thought that we were all going to jail. That I was going to have to wear one of those little jail outfits. 

Tell me a little more about the family.

Sure, I have that one brother and we’re 21 months apart. He’ll be turning 40 in March and I just recently turned 38. My parents still live in Coatesville. My dad was self employed; he ran a company called Aqua Experts that does water treatment and filtration. My brother now runs the company, and my mom worked for Transamerica doing insurance. 

Did living with someone who did water treatment make you more aware of things like the problems in Flint, Michigan and other environmental issues?

Absolutely! My partner makes fun of me sometimes because of my concerns over the quality of the tap water that we are drinking and putting into our bodies. I’ll insist on using a water filter and he’s like, “It’s been treated, it’s fine!” But I grew up with a dad who performed water quality assessments in our house with a chemistry set. It was cool to see what is or can be in the water. 

I’m not going to ask, I don’t think I want the answer. So back to you, what were you like as a kid? And what did you want to be when you grew up?

I was very energetic, I loved magic, so I wanted to be a magician, and at family functions I would put on a little magic show for everyone. As I got older, that turned into doing drama and theater in school. I thought that that was the path I was going to follow until I got older and realized that the stage was not necessarily my comfort place. I’d do it to push myself out of my comfort zone, but when I went to Temple I realized that there were other things I could do in theater aside from being in the bright lights. There was directing and stage managing, all the other things that go into a production. 

I’m jealous, I always wanted to do magic as a kid, I just never had the dexterity for it, try as I might. What was a favorite moment in theater for you? And the biggest disaster? 

The best was under the banner of pushing myself out of my comfort zone; I did an acting role in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights festival. They were plays that were written by high school students and produced at Temple, and it was really wonderful to see a young playwright’s dreams come to life on stage. Another highlight was when I stage managed a musical, “The Last 5 Years” in a theater space off campus my senior year. It was a great moment and an incredible show. Biggest disaster? We had a stage catch on fire once, but I was not involved in that one! 

From what I understand, you pivoted to hospitality after college. 

Yes. All through college I worked as a waiter for a Stephen Starr restaurant, Jones, down at 7th & Chestnut. That’s how I was able to go to college and pay for books and rent, all of those things. After graduating, I wasn’t finding any work in the theater that would sustain me so I decided to look into restaurant management and hospitality. I thought stage management,  restaurant management, maybe there are transferable skills between the two. And there were, which allowed me to get my first restaurant management job about 6 months after graduation. I stayed in hospitality until the pandemic shut everything down. 

That’s a business where you see a lot of crazy things.

You see it all! Especially when there are celebrations and libations combined. For a period of time I worked at a concept that did nightlife on the weekend with a DJ and dancing, so I’ve seen a stiletto used as a weapon at a New Year’s Eve party, all sorts of craziness, both good and bad. I’ve also seen wonderful marriage proposals and joyous celebrations, and it’s fun to be a part of that as well. I remember one in particular on Valentine’s Day: the guy got on one knee in front of this beautiful woman and told her how there was no one else like her and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, and we were all watching and getting verklempt! I love those moments. 

How did you get involved with the IBA?

I’d been at the restaurant FARMiCiA for about 7 years when I took a job managing the Cuba Libre in Washington, DC. After being there for over two years, a position for the Director of Sales and Marketing opened up in Philly, and though I enjoyed DC, I wanted to come back home. I got the job and I was attending a networking party for event planners. The IBA’s executive director, Zach Wilcha, was on the panel. We spoke afterwards, and he asked why Cuba Libre wasn’t a member of IBA. So the restaurant became a member and I loved the organization. In 2019, I joined the board and have been on it ever since! It’s one of my greatest joys. 

What makes the organization so special to you?

It’s an organization that’s truly making change in the LGBTQ+ community. Especially when it comes to giving our business members access and support that they might not necessarily get from the cis-het business community. I think that it’s such a wonderful thing since we have so many great LGBTQ+ owned businesses in Philadelphia. And we service a huge range from working with large corporations to the smallest one person business. We are a place where they can come to for resources and support. In addition to the networking opportunities, there are workshops and panel discussions and several special programs like TransWork which works to connect trans folks with supportive employers and promotes and supports transgender entrepreneurship. We do sensitivity training for businesses, resume building, and job banks. We have a Women in Business program, we do grants; there’s a lot that goes on. 

I also like that IBA works not to just help companies make money but to be socially conscious. And that there’s a big emphasis on diversity and supporting members not just with business issues, but as a whole. 

Exactly! Whenever I go to the events it’s like seeing close friends and family, [laughing] family that you actually enjoy being around! We truly care about you as a person and how you are doing and what you need. You feel like there are people who are there for you which is such a rare but great feeling, especially in this day and age. 

Let’s talk about your coming out story. 

Well, I was very closeted in school, though I found out later that all my friends were like, “Oh, we knew.” I knew that I was gay when I was about 11, but I didn’t come out until I was 17. I told my best friend, but she was the only one I told. My senior year I had my first sort of relationship with a 19 year old that I met online. I told a few other friends and then came out to my parents. I figured the jig was up at that point. I had been sneaking out to see the guy, very innocent, dates at the mall or a movie, but then he’d drop me off and leave. I didn’t want my mom to think I was being cagey because I was sneaking off to do drugs or something, so I finally told her. She was a little shocked at first, then a little silence, mostly because I think they didn’t know what to say, and then there was full acceptance. When I told my brother he was just like, “Meh, it’s cool. Whatever, it doesn’t change much.” 

And from that first casual boyfriend, I understand that things recently jumped to another level in your love life. 

Yes! My partner Travis and I got engaged in November! We’ve been together for 5 years and he proposed on the eve of our anniversary. We’d purchased rings, but a lot of our friends got married in the fall, so we’d decided to wait. I even officiated at one of the weddings which was fun, but anyway, I wasn’t expecting it on the night before our anniversary but it was perfect. I cried. 

That’s sweet. 

Yes, it sounds cliche but I can’t stop smiling. 

Nothing wrong with that. Okay, some random questions, what’s your favorite Motown song or favorite holiday song?

They’re one and the same, “That’s What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder. I have a collection of vinyl albums and the majority of them are Christmas albums. We have a record player and that’s always the first one I put on to kick off the season. 

What’s the biggest difference between Philly and DC?

DC felt a little lonely to me. It’s a very transient town, and it felt like a lot of the folks that I met were cycling in and out. They’d be there to fulfill a contract and then they’d be gone. And in the community, it could be very superficial. Often the first thing you’d be asked when meeting people was, “What do you do?” It didn’t matter if it was a professional event, social gathering or a date, that’s what people wanted to know and it was asked with the undertone of, “and how can it benefit me and does it fit my social or political status.” I loved the city, visiting the Smithsonian, walking around the mall, I’d take lunch and sit on the steps of some of the memorials and people watch, but it never felt like I was making honest or real connections with people.

I felt that in LA, where people would meet you and immediately try to assess, ‘are you somebody and what can you do for me?’ 

Yeah, and a friend of mine who’d lived there for several years warned me about it. He said, “Look, everyone you meet is going to ask you, ‘What do you do and where do you work?’ and if they don’t like the answer, you might get a droll, ‘Uh huh, that’s cute. Bye’ as they walk away”. And I had that experience! But since I was prepared, I just laughed it off. 

Tell me about being a wedding officiant.

One of my best friends was getting married and asked me to officiate. I’d done it before but for friends who weren’t really religious, they just wanted me to do the service. I am not ordained, but my friend Casey wanted me to do her wedding as well. It was beautiful. It was in Branson, Missouri at this gorgeous resort with cabins and whatnot. We did the ceremony on a hill overlooking the Table Rock Lake. The ceremony was under a beautiful chuppah that they borrowed from a friend. I was so incredibly proud and honored that they wanted me to be a part of such a special moment that I kept tearing up as I was trying to read, and as I looked up, so was her dad and everyone else. We were all nodding and crying! After the ceremony, her family started calling me “The Rabbi”. [Laughing] I tried to tell them that I wasn’t ordained, wasn’t an actual officiant but they still called me Rabbi regardless. It was fun. 

Did you grow up with Judaism?

I did not. My mom is Sicilian and my dad is German, so we grew up casual Christians. We went to bible school, but I think that was mostly because my parents wanted us out of the house! We weren’t big church goers but we went for the big dates, Easter, Christmas, etc. So I’m spiritual, but don’t really conform to any religion. But like you, I’m a big Christmas enthusiast. 

And I understand that you have something else to be enthusiastic about! 

Yes, I recently started a new role as Customer Experience Manager at the University City Science Center, a non-profit that’s dedicated to supporting, growing, and convening the startup ecosystem. 2023 is looking like it’s going to be a year full of new and exciting changes! 

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