In fall 2020, Nicki Hangsleben ’21 MBA submitted a concept in the Fowler Business Concept Challenge social venture track for a mentorship program for at-risk LGBTQ+ youth that she called SparkConnect. The encouraging response that she received from the judges prompted her to fast-track her idea.

“I was honestly surprised when I made it to the finals,” Hangsleben said. “All of the judges and panelists were very excited about SparkConnect (since renamed QUEERSPACE collective) and provided additional connections. The excitement that they brought reinforced the need and the energy behind this; that’s what I still find every day when I’m out talking about QUEERSPACE collective – people are really excited because there’s such a deep need.

QUEERSPACE collective logo.QUEERSPACE collective is an organization providing mentorship and resources to help guide and empower LGBTQ+ youth on their journey to adulthood. The organization’s first initiative, launched in time for Pride Month, is QUEERSPACE hangouts, an intergenerational mentorship program for LGBTQ+ youth that is designed to develop increased self-esteem and a greater sense of belonging, cultural identity, and pride through in-person and virtual 1-to-1 mentoring and group events.

To pursue the development of QUEERSPACE collective required some creative thinking on Hangsleben’s part. When she looked closely earlier this year at all the work that would be involved if she pursued her nonprofit idea full time, she consulted with her wife and decided to leave her corporate job in February.

Hangsleben still had an MBA to complete, though; with two young children at home, she wasn’t sure how she could finish her MBA and launch QUEERSPACE collective at the same time.

She reached out to Opus College of Business adjunct professor Mo Fahnestock, PhD, who gave Hangsleben permission to focus on QUEERSPACE collective as independent study with his advisory support for her final semester this spring.

“As a young person, I was fortunate to be surrounded by many LGBTQ+ adults, which provided an amazing foundation of support when I came out in my early 20s. When I started looking into resources available today for LGBTQ+ youth, I was surprised to find that of 5,000 youth mentorship programs across our nation, fewer than 1% offer any formal programming for LGBTQ+ youth,” Hangsleben said.

Hangsleben is using her MBA learnings and tapping into her previous work experience to ensure that QUEERSPACE collective gets off to a strong start.

One partnership the nonprofit has is with The Link, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works with youth and young families to overcome the impacts of poverty and social injustice. James Lewis ’02, housing and services division director for The Link, serves on the QUEERSPACE collective board.

“It takes a collective effort to support our youth. I am so excited about QUEERSPACE collective because it will help to meet a huge need in the young LQBTQ+ community,” Lewis said.

As community partners, QUEERSPACE collective and The Link will make direct referrals. The Link has a housing program for young people who identify as LGBTQ+, and also works with many other young people who identify as LQBTQ+.

Nik Katopodis ’92, secretary on the QUEERSPACE collective board, knows firsthand the need that the nonprofit meets. “As a now middle-aged gay adult I can say that I would have been grateful as a young, confused and very scared gay kid to have had an adult in my life whom I could be open and honest with about who I really was,” he said. “I hope that QUEERSPACE collective reaches and helps as many LGBTQ+ youth as possible. LGBTQ+ youth are in need all over the country, obviously not just in the Twin Cities. There are very few similar programs nationally that are specifically targeting this vulnerable and underserved youth population.”

Hangsleben’s ultimate goal for QUEERSPACE collective is to take the organization national or at least leverage other organizations to provide mentorship nationally to LGBTQ+ youth.

“My big vision is for all LGBTQ+ youth across this country to have at least one person who has their back, who is there to support them.”

Right now, she’s actively recruiting mentors. QUEERSPACE collective will have a booth at the Twin Cities Pride Festival in Loring Park July 17-18. In addition, Hangsleben has partnered with Red Cow and Red Rabbit restaurants on a QUEERSPACE cocktail, the Tickled Pink. The restaurants will donate $1 to the nonprofit from each Tickled Pink cocktail sold through June 30.

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