Rainbow Economy

Will young LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs’ community-first approach be enough?

Rainbow merchandise, films, shows, cosmetic pro­ducts, social events­­—you name it, they’ve created it. Three years after the Supreme Court struck down Article 377, a law that criminalised homosexuality, a wide variety of boutique enterprises catering to India’s LGBTQ+ community have emerged.

Following years of struggle, the community has found a place in the sun with fresh confidence brewing in the afterglow of the SC order. Some of that has spilled over to self-expression through work and enterprise apart from art which has always been the easier vent.

Companies set up by members of these communities for self-support and community building are blooming across the country. In their own way, these businesses are creating jobs for members of these communities and providing a safe space by offering scope for inclusion and awareness. From the business perspective, however, they still have a long way to go before they can flourish. Currently, these are boutique bubbles, vibrant but with a very small market exposure.

Clearly, an immediate gift of decriminalisation of Article 377 has been the desire among the LGBTQ+ youth to live closer to authenticity. This did not naturally lead these communities to the centre stage of business or employment, where they’re still the fringe, a noisy and vibrant one at that.

“It has only been a bit over two years that homosexuality has been decriminalised in India, which only means that the LGBTQ+ people don’t have to feel that they are punishable by law for their life preference. Economic empowerment, making a bold statement in business or being backed by institutional support may take a long time. The journey has just begun. We are hopeful but realistic. We are talking of molding mindsets. The next struggle is to fight for our rights,” says Anjali Gopalan, founder and executive director, Naz Foundation. The foundation has been a frontrunner in the struggle for decriminalisation of homosexuality in India and works for the welfare of marginalised communities.

Despite the odds, there are a few businesses that are making the most of this transition. A small but significant example is Mist, a Pune-based LGBTQ+ community enterprise that started its journey in 2009, long before the Supreme Court protection came around.

The company primarily manufactures rainbow merchandise—flags, banners, pouches and such, apart from hosting LGBTQ+ community-centric events and parties, and empowering LGBTQ+ members to use its platform to connect and share stories. It raises funds by selling merchandise and hosting events which are then used to support these communities. Mist’s founder Shyam Konnur is also currently raising funds through multiple avenues, including crowdfunding.

“Mist runs on a self-sustaining model for LGBTQ+ people. So far, we have not thought of scaling to a funded business and have not reached out to investors. But if we ever do, I do not think investors are going to be influenced by a founder’s sexuality. They would primarily be concerned about the business model and its profitability,” says Konnur, who also holds the Mr Gay India 2020 title. The investors, however, do not see any immediate reason to come forth and put their money in an LGBTQ+ business. “First, the start-up community mostly comes from privilege and is largely egalitarian which usually doesn’t display any discrimination on the basis of lifestyle choices. To an investor, a business has to draw interest because of its scalability and profitability. When it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, the size of the market is very small and it may still not gather funding interest unless there is scope for such community-centric businesses to scale and adapt profitable models,” says Sajith Pai, director, Blume Ventures.

Some companies have also made grants available through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. However, most of these activities have so far been concentrated in the month of June—the Pride month. Companies like Tata Steel and Johnson & Johnson have announced initiatives for their employees from the LGBTQ+ community.

Activists claim there is a lack of dedicated support. “It is almost as if the community does not exist before or after June. The fanfare of flags and festoons is a wonderful celebration but what really translates on the ground? Inclusion of transgenders, for instance, is a huge problem. They are still seen in the category of beggars or at the most, in the category of sex workers. There may be a segment among LGBTQ+ communities that has the financial privilege to celebrate pride through films and festivals, but the problem closer to the ground is grim,” says Anindya Hazra, a Kolkata-based transgender activist.

These communities continue to face hostility and financial inclusion has to come from the government to change the narrative of victimhood, she adds.

Globally, funds focusing on LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs are about a decade old and there are only a handful for the members to choose from. LGBT Capital, for instance, focuses on the LGBTQ+ consumer segment. Backstage Capital in the USA has an ingrained system of contributing 10 per cent of all its VC deals to women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ founders. The firm, backed by the Anthemis Group in the UK, has invested more than $4 million in over 80 companies led by under-represented founders. US-based Pipeline Angels Funding is another fund where business owners can pitch to a network of women investors through pitch summits several times a year. To be eligible for their funds, businesses must be for-profit and headed by a female, non-binary femme, or transgender woman.

“Some companies have finally started talking about inclusive workspaces and offering LGBTQ+ support funds through their CSR activities, but these are just token gestures. Nothing much has shifted in terms of hostility towards the community yet. It will take time,” says Joy Dhar, an LGBTQ+ entrepreneur.

Possibly because of the long time that the community has taken to get validated in India, many entrepreneurs have put a high premium on an inclusive culture. “Inclusion is the buzzword at Studd Muffyn,” says Mumbai-based Paras Tomar, a television anchor-turned-social media influencer who is also an entrepreneur. His presence on social media has earned him a community of fans which eventually pushed him to come up with Studd Muffyn, a ‘proud’ Indian line of beauty and self-care products. The products are targeted to both men and women and the brand identity is driven by Tomar himself.

“We do offer jobs to members of the LGBTQ+ communities, but it is not that we will stop someone who does not belong. That would be reverse discrimination. At Studd Muffyn, all are welcome,” says Tomar. So, how has he financed himself? “So far, there is no angel or seed fund that I have reached out to. There is no widely publicised fund in India, for that matter, which is interested in entrepreneurship in the LGBTQ+ community,” he says. “In an egalitarian world, an investor should only be interested in the business and not in the sexuality of the entrepreneur,” Tomar adds.

Beyond entrepreneurship, the other avenues of self-expression in the form of films, arts and writing are distinct beneficiaries of the Supreme Court verdict. “Entrepreneurship or not, there is a lot of vibrancy now in the LGBTQ+ community after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India. Sexual minorities are finding their voice and self-expression but how much of this translates into creation of opportunities for growth, we will have to wait and see,” says Harsh Agarwal, a Delhi-based filmmaker.

“The biggest mistake for the LGBTQ+ community would be to get trapped in the self-appropriation of flags and festoons. We need real solutions for practical problems and not everyone has the privilege to set up a business,” stresses Hazra.