"In the physical world, a lot of people don't feel that safe, they're not as privileged as many others are to live their life openly."

The person I'd most like to have dinner with: Gandhi My life hack is: Tell more jokes

Sunali Aggarwal

Building a safe space for the LGBTQIA+ community in India

MAKING A POSITIVE CHANGE. If Sunali Aggarwal could change one thing about the world, it would be that everyone would live by the proverb 'live and let live'. As a woman born and raised in Chandigarh, India, she extends this aphorism to folks in the LGBTQIA+ community and to tolerance in general. "It's very basic, but it's relevant. Even though we say our country is free, for many people, that doesn't make sense because they don't feel free to express themselves. So, what does freedom really mean?"

This led Sunali to launch her latest enterprise As You Are, or AYA, a dating app and social network for the LGBTQIA+ community in India that offers a safe space to meet potential partners, discuss issues, and make friends. Creating a safe space in India, where being LGBTQIA+ remains taboo, is a crucial component of AYA. "In the physical world, many people don't feel that safe, and they're not as privileged as many others are to live their life openly."

The idea for AYA began in 2019, shortly after section 377 – consensual sex between two adults of the same sex - was decriminalized in India. While now legal, social attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community are still problematic, meaning many search online for their tribe. "When you look at these online spaces, they are often hyper-sexual. Grindr, for example, is not for everyone. Other spaces also assume that everybody is willing to come out, upload their photo, and talk about themselves. That's not how a lot of the Indian LGBTQIA+ community is. More than 90% are closeted, and many people also identify as bisexuals because it's considered safer."

AN ENTERPRISE BASED ON ACCEPTANCE. AYA is the latest project from Sunali, a serial entrepreneur who has worked as a UX consultant for several startups that often revolve around enabling better communication. While launching an enterprise aimed at a marginalized group has been difficult ("Investors in India just don't have the palate for this kind of project"), a career as a female entrepreneur in India has proved equally as challenging. "You feel that you need other people to validate you, and there's a sense that achieving something is very important because it often feels like lots of people are waiting for the woman to fail."

To combat the pressure she feels to succeed, Sunali has spent the past few years adhering to an ideology of 'test, learn, improve' when it comes to mapping out each startup journey. "I constantly have to bring myself back to rational thinking, but I've been a sports person all my life, so I know how to lose well. It's all good, as long as you play well. The idea is to build those tests in a rational and logical mode so I can identify when to continue or give up working on an idea."

Sunali's hope for AYA is that it will play a significant role in shifting social attitudes towards the LGBTQIA+ community in India. "It's about awareness, and that takes time. Soon, by which I mean in the next five years, we will see a lot of change, and I'm hoping for even bigger change beyond that. I hope my startup is a big contributor to that change."

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Presented with Pride Here is the first collection of one hundred incredible and inspiring LGBTQIA+ venture-backed entrepreneurs featured in this year's Gaingels 100.