"'What the hell are you doing making salad dressing?' It’s funny, but it’s something I really believe in.”
Jehan Agrama has worn many hats in her long and varied career as a Hollywood executive, a co-founding member of the LA chapter of GLAAD, an investor in LGBTQ start-up companies, and most recently as the CEO of Lemonette, a company that specializes in lemon-based salad dressings and marinades.
Each title and each cause has built upon the last, and has made her, not only a successful businesswoman but a tireless activist for unheard voices and people.
Agrama spoke with SDGLN about her career and life in a recent interview, and what emerged is a portrait of an intelligent, passionate woman who cannot and will not be silenced because of her gender, her sexual orientation, or any other label others might place on her in order to hold her back.
In the early 1980s, Agrama left her father’s production company searching for a new venture. She had considered teaching or going back to college to gain another degree, when she saw an ad for a local group that would be meeting to discuss and monitor gay and lesbian issues in the media.
“I thought that was really interesting,” she noted. “I had not been involved a lot with the gay community here because I had spent so much time working internationally.”
Agrama attended that meeting, and began a journey that would shape the representation of the queer community for decades to come.
Both Agrama and co-founder Richard Jennings were willing and financially able to take up the cause full time without the need of salary, and she recalls how those early days were spent in meetings to discuss a variety of issues in the community and how they were being addressed globally in the news, television shows, and on film.
AIDS and the Media
Their first great mountain to climb, however, was how AIDS was being covered, if and when it was covered at all.
“There was a lot of misinformation about AIDS at the time. All the legal and lobbying groups hadn’t done enough and even when a new law or policy was adopted, no one was enforcing them,” Agrama explained. “The group’s focus was really to work with and monitor the media. One segment on a national news broadcast is more important than most people realize.”
Agrama, Jennings, and other members of GLAAD, along with other similar groups addressing issues among marginalized communities, spent hundreds of hours in meeting with television executives, newscasters, and studio heads discussing everything from the words they used when discussing the LGBTQ community to the all too common and detrimental stereotypes that were being used.
“Some came easily, and some came kicking and screaming into the meetings,” she laughed, “but they did come, and we applied the pressure that was needed to enact changes.”
That pressure came in many forms and there were times when they would tell unwilling participants in these meetings that if the executives didn’t want to talk to them, GLAAD could always reach out to ACT UP and see what they might say.
ACT UP, of course, was a group that had splintered from GLAAD in 1987. Led by Larry Kramer, their methods were much more direct and aggressive than GLAAD’s, though GLAAD itself has never shied away from protest when and where it was needed.
“Thank God for ACT UP and Queer Nation,” Agrama said. “We used that strategy together, and their ‘Silence=Death’ demonstrations and signs were what we needed at the time.”
Turn of a Phrase
Agrama is proud of the strides that have been made since GLAAD was founded, and while she admits that there is still a long way to go, she is happy with some of the changes that have come into existence and that there is now an entire generation who might never have had to hear phrases like “avowed homosexual” instead of just “a gay man.”
By the time Agrama left GLAAD leadership, she had helped form a network of organizations globally working for queer rights, aided in the creation of a media handbook for representation of the LGBTQ community, and had been instrumental in creating the GLAAD Media Awards.
Investing in LGBTQ Businesses
Since that time, Agrama has applied her talents to a multitude of other organizations and has become a member of the Gaingels investing consortium, a group managed by David Beatty and David Grossinger that invests in queer start-up companies. Initially, they were solely investing in tech start-ups, but now they have expanded to clothing lines, health resources, and even companies that offer student loans at competitive rates.
It is just one more way that she’s helped the growing out and proud queer community of business owners.
“It’s an exciting group to be a part of,” she explained. “I’m an investor but I don’t have the time or wherewithal to see who’s out there. Who will be the next Lyft or Uber? To be a part of this explosion in entrepreneurship is incredible.”
Members of the consortium invest directly into businesses in which at least one member of the founders or executives is a member of the LGBTQ community. By strengthening queer businesses, Agrama and the rest of the consortium strengthens the global queer community as a whole.
She has proudly been a prolific investor in this project, and she says the returns run far deeper than the monetary paybacks of investing.
Investing in the Future
In recent years, she has settled back into her position as CEO of Harmony Gold, the production company her father, Frank Agrama, began decades ago. Interestingly enough, however, it was a lull in their production schedule and frequent lunches with her father that led her to her latest venture: Lemonette Salad Dressings and Marinades.
“It’s interesting because coming from such a political and activist background, people say, ‘What the hell are you doing making salad dressing?’” Agrama said, laughing. “It’s funny, but it’s something I really believe in.”
Addressing a Dressing
Agrama says after seeing her father drown his salad every day in the dressing, she decided to try it for herself and fell in love with the flavors that reminded her of her ancestral home.
“I come from the Middle East and lemons are like our mana there,” she explained. “Everything we make has lemon. The woman who started this is Armenian-American and she couldn’t find a clean dressing with lemon so she started making her own and soon her friends said they wanted to buy it.”
Tenny Avenesian’s Lemonette dressings and marinades have no gluten, no sugar, no oils, and no vinegar and not only was she won over by its flavors, she invested and became CEO of the company. The product is now available in 150 stores across Arizona and California, including stores right here in San Diego, and can also be purchased online.
The flavors like Lemon Garlic and Zesty Cumin sit differently on the traditional American palate, but she says that the response has been overwhelming, and she points directly to her father and his nose for business when asked about her involvement.
“He’s a self-made man who started over four times in four different countries,” she said fondly.
Looking back on the life on Jehan Agrama, herself, it seems the daughter and father share many of the same gifts. Her life in activism and business has created a tapestry of varied colors and textures that has touched the lives of more people that she may ever know.