Nothing is impossible — My work with AsylumConnect would have seemed impossible to me for the first 20 years of my life. Not just because I myself was a “closeted” LGBTQ+ person but because there were so few examples around me of what “success” looked like in the nonprofit startup or social impact field. Those around me were not looking at social entrepreneurship or nonprofit innovation as a viable career path. I am proof that it does not take an extraordinary person to successfully pursue a less traditional path. It does, however, take the willingness to honestly assess your priorities. Only you know what you should really be doing. Go out and do it.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jamie Sgarro.
Jamie Sgarro is a LGBTQ+ advocate and social entrepreneur. He is Co-Founder & Executive Director at AsylumConnect, a nonprofit organization providing the world’s first tech platform designed to facilitate the safe navigation of LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution. For his work in social impact, Jamie was named to the Clinton Foundation’s 2017 CGI U Alumni Honor Roll of social innovators, a 2019 Roddenberry Fellow, and to the Forbes 30 Under 30 Class of 2020 in Law & Policy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in a small suburban town in Rhode Island. My family was religious and I attended a Catholic boarding school for high school. In my school and wider community, there were no openly LGBTQ+ people. This lack of LGBTQ+ visibility would later evolve into my passion for AsylumConnect.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Growing up, I was (and still am) a huge fan of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. I played competitive soccer and the tenacity and work ethic exhibited by the USWNT players was very inspiring. Watching the USWNT organization’s success taught me the value of discipline, practice, leadership, teamwork and performing under pressure — all skills which I would later apply in my own professional career.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think of “making a difference” as filling a clear gap in services. A service gap can present itself at the individual, community or societal level. For example, if a local community lacks access to LGBTQ+ affirming mental health care, one could make a difference through pioneering an affirming mental health program to close this gap. To me, making a meaningful difference often requires a combination of innovation, resourcefulness and awareness of what already exists.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
In over 80 countries it remains illegal or fundamentally unsafe to live openly as a LGBTQ+ person. Same-sex activity between consenting adults is subject to criminalization in approximately 70 countries. 12 countries still impose the death penalty. As a result, every year, thousands are forced to flee their home countries due to persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The challenge for many LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution is that discrimination continues even in “safe” havens. Doctors, shelters, lawyers, and the wider social services sector can be unsafe and biased for LGBTQ+ people. LGBTQ+ asylum seekers especially often struggle to access legitimate local services and support, and face increased risk of detention, homelessness, and facing homophobic or transphobic behavior when accessing critical social services during resettlement. Out of options, many are forced to give up on their legal claim and face deportation to their dangerous home country.
To fill this information gap, our team at AsylumConnect has created the world’s first tech platform designed to facilitate the safe navigation of LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution. We use technology to instantly match queer and trans people fleeing persecution with independently verified LGBTQ+ affirming and immigrant friendly legal, medical, mental health and social services that can help. AsylumConnect’s free website and mobile app can currently match LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution with vetted safe services in 35 U.S. states, Canada and Mexico.
With AsylumConnect at scale, every persecuted LGBTQ+ person will know where it is safe to go for help regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, immigration status or income level.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My personal experience struggling with my sexual orientation, and later my gender identity, drives my passion for AsylumConnect’s work. After a decade of hiding my sexual orientation, I came out as lesbian at the age of 22. Five years later, I came out again about my gender identity and began my transition as a transgender man.
Growing up, being “out” as a LGBTQ+ person did not seem like an attainable path. At my religious high school there were no openly LGBTQ+ students or faculty, and we were taught in the classroom that homosexuality is a sin. I can still distinctly remember a monk standing at the blackboard, equating homosexuality to bestiality and necrophilia, and the resulting shame that washed over me. This caused me to vow to never come out.
Later at the University of Pennsylvania I met Sy, who shared his personal experience struggling to find safe resources during his own U.S. asylum process. Despite access to technology, upon arrival in the United States Sy struggled as a gay immigrant to know where it was safe to go for help to meet his basic needs, from finding legitimate pro bono legal representation for his asylum claim to LGBTQ+ affirming health care, mental health support, housing, and educational opportunities. Coming from a conservative background myself, the feeling of not being able to live authentically deeply resonated with me. During our senior year at Penn, we co-founded the tech nonprofit AsylumConnect to extend the world’s first digital lifeline to other persecuted and marginalized LGBTQ+ people.
As a trans person who grew up in a conservative environment, I remain personally motivated to ensure every trans and queer person fleeing persecution finds the safety to live authentically.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
As my own story began to intersect with those I encountered for my work on AsylumConnect, the organization became a chance for self-redemption and a rare opportunity to help ensure other LGBTQ+ people find the safety to live authentically. With this transformation, silence for me was no longer an option.
So at the age of 22, I published an op-ed, telling the AsylumConnect origin story and personally coming out about my sexual orientation. Since then, I have devoted my early career to building and advancing AsylumConnect’s work.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Some of the initial steps we took to launch AsylumConnect include:
- Conducted a thorough needs assessment to survey the current competitive landscape and identify service gaps for LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution;
- Recruited a volunteer team;
- Assembled an advisory board of relevant experts (drawing initially from the University of Pennsylvania’s networks);
- Launched a comprehensive pilot case study of our tech product (prior to scaling) to identify areas for improvement and confirm AsylumConnect’s potential to streamline the process of matching LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution with the vetted safe direct service providers that can help;
- Secured a fiscal sponsor to start accepting tax-deductible donations (before filing for our independent 501(c)(3) tax exempt status later on);
- Focused our initial fundraising efforts on student pitch competitions and grassroots donors;
- Launched organizational social media accounts and secured press to begin to spread the word about AsylumConnect among potential users, partners, volunteers and donors.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting part of leading AsylumConnect for me has been discovering user stories that illustrate the tremendous potential of our free technology. For example, we quickly discovered that in addition to those in direct need, attorneys and law students were also using AsylumConnect to efficiently locate verified safe resource referrals for their LGBTQ+ clients. We also realized that AsylumConnect has the potential to assist any LGBTQ+ person fleeing persecution, including those seeking asylum, resettled refugees, the undocumented, those under other forms of relief (such as SIJS, TPS, T Visa) and homeless or isolated youth.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I’m very passionate about AsylumConnect and our cause. While I like to think that typically this passion serves as a strength, early on in my role as the executive director of AsylumConnect this deep personal passion would sometimes lead to information overload for our volunteers and advisors. My presentations and written updates had become too long (think short novels) and time-consuming to digest. I quickly learned the necessity of streamlining my messaging to better fit the time constraints and objectives of different audiences.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
We have been fortunate to have a governing board of directors and advisory council dedicated to helping steer AsylumConnect towards a bright and sustainable future. Their areas of expertise, personal experiences and networks have proved instrumental in advancing AsylumConnect’s work. For example, a few months ago, our governing board generously matched donations and tapped their networks to make AsylumConnect’s 2020 end-of-year giving campaign a success. With their support, we were able to secure a total of 22,460 dollars through the campaign, exceeding our campaign goal by 25%.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Despite being an anonymous platform, we routinely hear success stories at AsylumConnect of how our technology has impacted LGBTQ+ individuals fleeing persecution. For example, recently we heard about a transgender asylum seeker in the Washington, D.C. area who leveraged AsylumConnect’s free confidential resource app to connect with much-needed affirming legal, mental health and local community support during their asylum process. They remain safely in the U.S. today.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Make a tax-deductible donation to AsylumConnect to help save LGBTQ+ lives: https://asylumconnect.org/donate
- Help spread the word about AsylumConnect by sharing our free website and mobile app on your social media and with your relevant networks (such as with LGBTQ+ people in need, contacts at the border and contacts in the legal community) to help ensure every LGBTQ+ person fleeing persecution has access to AsylumConnect.
- Legislators can help by ensuring policies take into account the unique challenges LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution face and raising awareness for global LGBTQ+ rights.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Look around — Today, I often speak with students who are hoping to get a social impact organization off the ground. Overwhelmingly, I find students are investing their time into redundant solutions. And my advice is always the same: “Look around and identify the service gap.” In hindsight, I attribute much of AsylumConnect’s success to its innovation. We discovered that the vast majority of funding for LGBTQ+ resettlement was focused on legal programs despite the fact that while LGBTQ+ asylum seekers do indeed need an attorney, they also need access to affirming medical, mental health and social services. And that we could use technology to fill this information gap in a scalable way that would change the system. Spending time on researching and really understanding your issue area’s competitive landscape, will help you to not only avoid duplicating what already exists but to ultimately, generate a more fundable solution.
- Start small, think big — Start with improving your own world before you broaden the scope. Often times, the most inventive and impactful ideas come from solving our own problems. Don’t be afraid to leverage your own personal experiences to identify any existing gaps in services as well as to assess the feasibility of proposed solutions. For example, the initial idea for AsylumConnect came from my co-founder’s personal experience coming to America as a gay immigrant and struggling to know where it was safe to go for help during his own asylum process.
- Focus on your weaknesses, not your strengths — Identify your weaknesses and then build a team that compensates for them.For example, I knew I had two glaring weaknesses as the co-founder of AsylumConnect: 1) a lack of hard technical skills, and 2) limited professional experience as a current college student. To address my lack of tech skills, I prioritized recruiting volunteer developers to build the first iterations of our product. Similarly, to address my lack of industry experience, I assembled a team of experienced advisors who brought invaluable expertise and connections to the organization.
- Take ownership over your “Why YOU?” — In the philanthropic sector, there’s often an expectation on founders to be open and vulnerable about your personal connection to your cause. Something I wish I knew before I started AsylumConnect is that for many, including myself, this story of personal connection can prove difficult to talk about. For me, this question of “Why you?” quickly became a practical problem. I went from being “out” as LGBTQ+ to virtually no one to being “out” to everyone on the internet, and being expected to be very comfortable “coming out” to strangers. I was not prepared for this transition, and my mental health suffered as a consequence. No one had warned me of this expectation.What I’ve learned is that you need to be your own advocate, and decide what you’re comfortable (and just as importantly, what you are not comfortable) publicly sharing. And that it’s ok to not divulge everything about your story, and that does not diminish your connection to your cause.
- Nothing is impossible — My work with AsylumConnect would have seemed impossible to me for the first 20 years of my life. Not just because I myself was a “closeted” LGBTQ+ person but because there were so few examples around me of what “success” looked like in the nonprofit startup or social impact field. Those around me were not looking at social entrepreneurship or nonprofit innovation as a viable career path. I am proof that it does not take an extraordinary person to successfully pursue a less traditional path. It does, however, take the willingness to honestly assess your priorities. Only you know what you should really be doing. Go out and do it.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
My biggest advice is to strive to be the person who you wish you had when you were younger.
For example, when I was growing up I wish I had more visible LGBTQ+ role models. Specifically, I wish that there had been broader trans visibility and more people were creating organizations that centered the unique needs of the TGNC community.
If you become the person who you needed when you were younger, I have no doubt that you will be able to fill a clear service gap and make a meaningful positive impact on our society.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to sit down with Chase Strangio, Deputy Director for Transgender Justice at the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. Chase’s work on behalf of the trans community is incredibly inspiring.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow @jamiesgarro on Twitter. You can also follow @asylumconnect on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!