When Robbi Katherine Anthony came out as a transgender woman more than five years ago, she knew that transitioning to her correct sex was something she had to do.
“I knew it was the only path forward,” Anthony said.
But despite the internet’s universe of information, she found it discouragingly difficult to found useful guidance. The resources that Anthony could unearth were often biased or unreliable. She stumbled her way through the process, emerging with the confidence to launch a graphic design startup and to run for Spokane County Commission (she lost to a more experienced candidate some 40 years her senior).
It was through her bid for office that Anthony connected with campaign volunteer Patrick McHugh. After the election, the two wanted to keep working together and turned their attention to building a startup. Brainstorming over beers, they talked about Anthony’s challenges during her transition, figuring there must by now be an app to help others on that difficult journey. There wasn’t.
“This venture was something we needed to create — knowing that the need wasn’t isolated to myself — rather than something we simply wanted to do,” Anthony said.
And a landmark decision today from the U.S. Supreme Court could encourage more transgender people to embrace and act on their transitions. The 6-3 ruling states that existing federal employment law protects workers from discrimination based on their gender identification and sexual orientation. Before the decision, employees could be fired for being transgender or gay.
“This looks really favorable for the community,” said Anthony, who added that she needs to study the ruling carefully. “There will be more legal fights to be waged. More resources to update. More outreach to do. But today, we revel.”
Anthony and McHugh launched Solace in April 2019, and shortly after participated in HackOut — which is billed as the world’s largest and perhaps only LGBTQ-focused startup hackathon. Solace won first place prizes from both the judges and the audience. The Austin, Texas-based event got its start six years ago and draws entrepreneurs from around the globe.
The free Solace app, which went live in December 2019, guides people through the gender transition process. It shares information organized into three categories: medical, legal and lifestyle. Medical topics include hormone treatments and finding therapists, while legal issues cover changing your driver’s license or passport. Lifestyle tackles wide-ranging topics such as coming out to friends, adjusting your voice and tips on clothes shopping. Anthony and McHugh, Solace’s executive editor, do the content research and writing.
The platform includes a roadmap and progress bar to track and cheer the user’s journey. The startup also produced a book with all of the app’s information as a resource for educators, therapists and other professionals.
Solace is a nonprofit hosted by Spokane’s Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund while the team applies for 501(c)3 status. The fund has also provided $10,000 in support. Solace additionally raised $30,000 from a crowdfunding campaign that drew from donors internationally. Crowdbotics is doing the engineering for the platform.
“When I stopped and looked around at the potential, we know people who have wanted to transition their whole life,” said Sharon Smith, a trustee of the fund.
Smith was excited to support a local organization providing this resource not only to transgender people, but also their loved ones. Parents and family members — particularly when the transgender person is younger — have few places to turn for advice and information. Solace is available in two modes: one appropriate for adults and another suitable for kids.
“The potential for positive impact is phenomenal and limitless,” Smith said.
Anthony said she expects to reach 2% market share by the end of the year. Roughly 1.4 million adults (0.6% of the U.S. population) are transgender, according to a 2016 study by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Anthony is committed to keeping Solace available for free given its importance, and they might try a donation-based, Wikipedia-like funding model. The team is also developing a for-profit app called Bliss. This venture will help transgender users save money and financially plan for their transitions, which can cost $150,000. Bliss will offer a mutual fund of public companies committed to LGBTQ equality, as evaluated by the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign.
The startup is pursuing venture capital funding for Bliss, and Anthony and McHugh hope to release a 2.0 version of Solace this summer.
Anthony said that other organizations and resources often suggest there’s one right way to transition, while Solace provides wide ranging options. Her goal is to create an empowering, positive resource for transgender people, a particularly important consideration given the high suicide rates among the population. Research from the Williams Institute found that more than 40% of transgender adults attempted suicide over their lifetimes.
“The community is really special,” Anthony said, “and for so long we’ve been overlooked.”