More than 200 LGBTQ+ business people and allies gathered in Montclair for a night of celebration and recognition at the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce’s (NJPCC) first gala and awards dinner, which is expected to become an annual event. 

At the event, on Thursday, Dec. 1, at the MC Hotel, leaders celebrated the accomplishments of the state’s LGBTQ+ business owners and advocates, and the actions the entrepreneurs have taken to advance the queer community’s economic development, inclusion and staying power within the state.

“The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce that you see before you today is not the same chamber that it was 10 years ago, or even five years ago when I first started,” said Stephen Blazejewski, president of NJPCC. 

“What has stayed the same, though, is our commitment to advancing economic opportunity for the LGBTQ+ and allied business community throughout the Garden State.” 

Since 2013, the NJPCC has provided business professionals in the tri-state area with LGBT Business Enterprise certifications, networking opportunities and a range of other business and professional development resources. This year, the group’s membership has tripled. 

NJPCC members, sponsors and other gala-goers arrived at the event dressed in elegant dresses, suits and other formal attire. As the crowd grew, guests met with one another for friendly conversations and networking opportunities. 

Before dinner, an open bar poured up fresh wine and cocktails, including a special featured drink called Smokey Mountain cider, which was served with a mini gay pride flag topper. Paired with the drinks was a large fruit and cheese platter. As guests mingled, they made bids at the event’s silent auction, which offered such prizes as autographed electric guitars, signed movie posters, designer bags and weekend getaways. 

As the night went on, seven different influential leaders were honored with awards for their contributions to LGBTQ+ business. The honor of Visionary of the Year was given to Gov. Phil Murphy for signing Executive Order No. 295 this May, an order that calls for the inclusion of certified New Jersey LGBT+-owned and operated businesses to be elevated among the state’s pool of suppliers so they can bid on public projects. Although the governor was unable to join the gala (he was attending President Joe Biden’s first state dinner in Washington), Jayne Johnson, director of the state’s Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging, accepted the award on his behalf. 

Other awards went to PSEG, for corporate partner of the year; Joanne Balady, founder and president of Balady Promotions, for outstanding member of the year; Joe Forte, of the Lawrence Township City Council and vice chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee LGBTQ+ Caucus, for community advocate; and Noah O’Hare, financial center manager for Spencer Savings Bank, for ambassador of the year. 

Two NJPCC Ally Awards went to Monica Martinez Milan, owner of Stumpy's Hatchet House in Greenbrook and board member of the New Jersey Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and Luis De La Hoz, regional director of community lending at Valley National Bank and chairman of the board for NJSHCC.

Peter Yacobellis addresses a full ballroom at the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce (NJPCC) Gala and Awards Dinner at MC Hotel on Dec. 1// NEIL GRABOWSKY FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Peter Yacobellis addresses a full ballroom at the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce (NJPCC) Gala and Awards Dinner at MC Hotel on Dec. 1// NEIL GRABOWSKY FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Peter Yacobellis, Montclair councilor-at-large and executive director of Out Montclair, addressed the gathering about the violence the queer community is often subjected to and the power citizens have to combat such incidents through thoughtful spending and voting.

“There's a lot of ugliness in the country and in the world, and we know where it's coming from and it’s not OK,” Yacobellis said. “It's hate speech and it's hate rhetoric, and words matter. It gives justification for violent acts in our community, and it's not OK. People are dying as a result of hateful rhetoric. So we have to stand up against it.” 

For the second year in a row, Yacobellis announced that Montclair Township has received a perfect score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, a national benchmarking tool that measures the policies, practices and benefits pertinent to LGBTQ+ employees. Yacobellis said all New Jersey towns should strive for that level of equality. 

“We talk a lot in this country about the power of our vote – and we all know how powerful and important our votes have been, particularly in the last six years, but it's also our purchasing power that can have a tremendous impact in terms of changing how we do things,” he said. 

“If we care about the LGBT community and equality, we have to make sure we're spending our dollars with companies and businesses that are friendly and supportive to the LGBT community – No Chick-fil-A, no Hobby Lobby.” 

At dinner, in between award-recipient speeches, guests were entertained with music by Daniel Shevlin, cellist of Well-Strung, the singing string quartet, and Lance Horne, Emmy award-winning composer and pianist. The duo serenaded the crowd with versions of popular songs, including a mash-up of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.”  

Comedian Julia Scotti delivered the main speech for the evening. The “America’s Got Talent” finalist, who performs stand-up across the country, shared her experience living in her transgender identity. 

“I’m very lucky,” Scotti said. “For one thing, I'm old, so I can get away with a lot of things that younger people can't get away with. And I use that power – my superpower – to talk about being trans, and it’s wonderfully liberating. 

“Given what's going on in the country today, the absolute hatred toward our community for some people, we can do one of two things. We can cower in a corner, or we could stand up and be loud and proud. I choose to be the latter.” 

Comedian Julia Scotti performs at the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce (NJPCC) Gala and Awards Dinner at MC Hotel on Dec. 1 // NEIL GRABOWSKY FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
Comedian Julia Scotti performs at the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce (NJPCC) Gala and Awards Dinner at MC Hotel on Dec. 1 // NEIL GRABOWSKY FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Scotti spoke about her journey to finding her moxie. From her childhood memories of bullies in the Boy Scouts to undergoing quadruple bypass surgery to living her truth as a transgender woman, Scotti left the crowd with inspiring words. 

“Throughout your time on this planet life will continually drag you into an alley and throw you to the ground, where it will proceed to kick you in the most sensitive areas of your body,” she said. “You have the tools within resilience. They might be a little rusty, but they’re there. Look for your teachers. Learn from them. Embrace the lesson. 

“Adversity was given to you to help you grow. So don’t fear it. Joy and love is everywhere.”  

Early in the evening, NJPCC announced that it had a goal of raising $10,000 at the event. By 8 p.m., the organization had met the goal with a $2,500 pledge from William Paterson University and a $7,500 donation from BCB Bank, the after-party sponsor. 

Before dessert was served, Andréa M. Garcia, vice president of marketing for NJPCC, announced a number of initiatives the organization has planned for the end of this year and the start of 2023, including a new podcast called 'Queer Business, Straight Talk' and a new women-focused partnership with the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Blazejewski also announced the launch of the NJPCC Foundation. 

The NJPCC Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit aimed at providing lasting impact and opportunities to LGBTQ+ youth across the Garden State. Individuals, families, corporations and businesses can donate to support the organization's three initiatives – the Nicholas Bissel Small Business Visionary Grant, which will be awarded to LGBTQ+ business owners who are seeking funding for a new program, project or innovation; the NJPCC Young Entrepreneur Scholarship, which will be awarded to LGBTQ+ youth needing support to become stable, secure and college- and career-ready; and the NJPCC Community Impact Fund, which will remove the financial obligation of becoming an NJPCC member. All three awards will be granted in 2023. 

The gala concluded with a roof-top after-party that ended around midnight. Guests were given swag bags to take home, filled with freebies from the event’s sponsors, information pamphlets and flyers for upcoming events. 

NJPCC leaders are looking to 2023 to continue to uplift the state’s LGBTQ+ business community. 

“At our grand launch party, I shared the story of how I discovered NJPCC through a Google search,” Blazejewski said. “And my dream is for the chamber to become a household name in the state, so that LGBT business owners, professionals and allies won’t have to rely on Google to know we exist.”