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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > Sink swim succeed

Sink, swim, succeed

Updated on: 18 February,2024 07:50 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Arpika Bhosale |

Queer entrepreneurs in India put up a resilient front in the face of bias and challenges. At the third edition of the Humsafar Trust’s initiative to nurture their dreams, they learn the tricks of the trade and find community

Sink, swim, succeed

Ashly Nelson, 33, in his room that doubles up as a studio space. Nelson is one among 15 recipients of the Humsafar Trust grants under the Dolphin Tank project. Pic/Satej Shinde

I’m a bit nervous. Please encourage me, na!” Ashly Nelson asks of a crowd of 20 who have assembled at Hotel Ajanta. The 33-year-old, who graduated with a fashion degree from Mod’ Art International, has run his label on Instagram since 2018. The claps and giggles he gets from the audience—fellow queer individuals and entrepreneurs—gives us a glimpse into the ethos of Dolphin Tank, a contrasting spin-off to its more cut-throat reality TV counterpart. If you swim in the waters here, you get the support and freedom you need to grow and play—much like a dolphin would in the ocean.

The third edition of this initiative by Humsafar Trust, held on February 14 and 15, saw over a dozen queer business owners from across the country come together with elevator pitches for their ventures. They were shortlisted from among 105 applicants—picked because of the uniqueness of their business idea and their established brand (no matter how small).

Agastya KanaujiyaAgastya Kanaujiya

For many, it is a first-of-its-kind experience, given that they have been running their businesses out of their homes. Some have owned a physical store for a few years, but still face teething problems. At Dolphin Tank, they have access to empowering and constructive feedback—tricks of the trade that can only be learnt through experience and mentoring. After they deliver their pitches, their peers advise them about what sticks, and what can be improved.

Nelson, who has lived with cerebral palsy since infancy, felt nervous and entirely forgot to mention the part of his business that deals with apparel, ranging from T-shirts with queer-positive messages, to printed cotton shirts—instead focusing on his bags alone. It’s the first time he’s spoken about in front of a large crowd.

The cafe Bambai Nazariya has an inclusive hiring policy, welcoming potential employees from across the gender spectrum, as well as those with special needs. Pics/Shadab KhanThe cafe Bambai Nazariya has an inclusive hiring policy, welcoming potential employees from across the gender spectrum, as well as those with special needs. Pics/Shadab Khan

It was Ashish Pandya, roped in by the Trust for his experience as a business development and sales professional, who advised Nelson to give potential investors a peek into his own life story. “Loved it [the pitch], but remember to share a little more about why you are doing this, your backstory. That’s needed alongside the description of all your products—not just the bits which are the highlight of your business,” Pandya says. 

Earlier that day, the Humsafar Trust signed contracts with the shortlisted candidates to ensure that they would keep up their end of the bargain and be accountable to the funders who will be sponsoring them through grants. “When I do receive my grant, the first thing I will do is pray. Then I’ll buy fabric to make bags. In the past, I bought only a yard of the few fabrics that stood out to me, but the grant will allow me to expand my range of bags. This money will also allow me to plunge into production and shoots with models wearing my creations. I intend to use all this content for an app I plan to launch,” Nelson shares with excitement, “But whatever I have achieved over the last five years wouldn’t have been possible without support from my mother Mimi and sister Nisha.”

Marketing executive Ashish Pandya and Suhail Abbasi, co-founder of Humsafar Trust, take a break after the two-day Dolphin Tank initiativeMarketing executive Ashish Pandya and Suhail Abbasi, co-founder of Humsafar Trust, take a break after the two-day Dolphin Tank initiative

Nelson has been running his label single-handedly, peddling away on his sewing machine. He tells mid-day that he is eager to implement what he has learned in the last two days, because he finally knows what to do and what not to. 

Suhail Abbasi, the Trust’s co-founder and chairperson, oversees this initiative which falls under its advocacy wing. “We decided to launch Dolphin Tank because a number of queer entrepreneurs constantly reached out to us for guidance about how to attract funding. This being the third edition, we’re still ironing out many teething issues as most of the young kids who apply are not necessarily business graduates,” he explains.

Queer ally Deigo Miranda will receive a small grant under the Dolphin Tank initiative to help him purchase a expresso machine for Bambai NazariyaQueer ally Deigo Miranda will receive a small grant under the Dolphin Tank initiative to help him purchase a expresso machine for Bambai Nazariya

The learning that Abbasi seems most concerned about is being accountable to one’s investors. This is especially crucial in a cohort where creating a business plan and increasing output are not learnt skills. “We don’t expect them to make a profit, but they must show that they are expanding. In the first two editions, we noticed that there was confusion about the process, and many candidates only had a notion of the businesses they wanted to build. This year, we’ve been more careful in our shortlisting, picking only those entrepreneurs who have a headstart—whose business has some shape and form,” says Abbasi, who is a stalwart in the television industry, having worked with Sony TV for most of his career.

It is the lack of know-how, often stemming from being marginalised and less privileged, that leads to the shutting down of queer businesses, Abbasi reiterates, adding that Dolphin Tank is trying to bridge the gap between existing talent and necessary knowledge. 

Pandya, who had been guiding these 15 entrepreneurs for two days, has seen the ugly side of business. “The situation is, either kill or be killed. Irrelevant of where you fall on the gender spectrum, it is tough to make your way into any business. What’s more is that these kids are often fighting for space to assert their gender identity alongside learning the technicalities of running a business.”

At Dolphin Tank, they are given primers for tax implications, registering their ventures with the government, and how concepts like GST work. “It is all well to read books about how to expand one’s business, but we need to make them business literate in the ground realities too. Most don’t have an MBA degree and come from middle- or lower middle-class backgrounds,” Pandya adds.

One of the queer entrepreneurs present has been a recipient of the Dolphin Tank grant for two years in a row. Having worked in the corporate world for a few years, he quit it last year to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams full-time. He nurtures the hope to launch a mental health wellness space soon. Despite coming from a privileged social background and prior experience in the business sector, he is no stranger to the perception that investors can have of queer business owners.

“It is difficult for anyone to be completely out [of the closet] and be taken seriously by venture capitalists. You hear about investors being concerned, because they don’t know if a queer entrepreneur can manage their ‘social situation’ and the business. There are challenges like this, but being queer makes us so resilient that we prove to be ideal candidates. After all, we’ve seen more rejection than the average entrepreneur,” he remarks.

In 2022, the Mumbai-based inclusive consultancy firm Pride Circle published a report titled LGBT+ Entrepreneurship and Supplier Diversity in India. It surveyed 100 participants across the country. The report reveals that while 51 per cent of queer entrepreneurs were entirely out, 31 per cent were out to certain friends and family members, and 18 per cent were still in the closet.

Agastya Kanaujiya, a 31-year-old food connoisseur who received a Dolphin Tank grant last year, has been witness to the ups and downs of being young and entrepreneurial. “The seed money I got from the trust was little, but at least it was something. I rented a space in Airoli for Rs 10,000 and sold fast food. But I couldn’t sustain it for long; I was failing to break even,” Kanaujiya shares, adding that he has pragmatically shifted his venture to Ghansoli a few months ago, but the struggles continue. Much of the challenges he faces pertain to rental costs and the slow growth in the F&B industry.

Among the other recipients of the grant is Bambai Nazariya, a two-year-old establishment in Lokhandwala run by Deigo Miranda, a queer ally. Miranda is an exception in this regard—a cis-het entrepreneur who qualified for Dolphin Tank because his cafe is inclusive in a true sense, hiring trans persons as well as individuals with special needs. “I started the business with the money I earned from flipping burgers in my neighbourhood in Marol. My family—mainly my mother—helped and chipped in so I could have this space in Lokhandwala. I approached Humsafar way back, to help me employ people from the queer community,” he says to us, as Dolphin Tank heads to the cafe for a post-event bite.

Bambai Nazariya has become a safe space for the community—a development that Miranda is grateful for. “I’m trying to buy a coffee machine with the grant. It will help us to expand our menu, since people always ask for us coffee options, but we only offer filter coffee as of now,” he adds. He lets us in on the fact that the cafe has only been able to breakeven for the last two years, that the profits aren’t here yet, but that he is happy and satisfied for now.

He heads back to his busy kitchen. And the entrepreneurs—they’re hungry.

Amount lost to homophobia and transphobia in India’s GDP 

78 per cent
Queer entrepreneurs under the age of 35

Money matters

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