Sebastian Rocca’s fight against poverty within the LGBTQI+ community 

by Mirabelle Morah / January 2022

Shifting Vulnerability into Value: Sebastian Rocca’s fight against poverty within the LGBTQI+ community

“I could also see that there were a lot of efforts being concentrated in lobbying and focusing on policies. Then I saw a new entry point to equality, which is an economic empowerment entry point”.  ⏤ Sebastian Rocca

Sebastian Rocca, founder of the award-winning social enterprise, Micro Rainbow (established in 2012) has been on a mission to tackle the issue of poverty which has been taunting members of the LGBTQI+ community to this day. Through poverty reduction programmes, mentoring and facilitating start-up capital, Micro Rainbow hopes to create more opportunities for the LGBTQI+ community in order to break the cycle of poverty by gaining economic independence and subsequently, challenging the stigma and changing people’s hearts and minds. 

Fighting against the odds 

Micro Rainbow was founded “somehow out of frustration”, Sebastian Rocca explained ⏤ to Liz Cross, a fellow social enterprise leader ⏤ during their fireside conversation at SEWF 2021. Sebastian had been advocating for the rights of the LGBTQI+ community at the UN for several years before realising that there was a rather narrow focus on laws and policies in the fight for equality and decriminalisation. 

“I see two trains going parallel, at different speeds. One is changing the laws, and the other one’s changing society”, he said.

And it is crucial to level these two movements up, considering the fact that in many countries, homosexuality is still criminalised and frowned upon. Multiple forms of discrimination and fewer opportunities for employment and education makes the LGBTQI+ community more vulnerable to disproportionate income distribution and socio-economic inequalities. Therefore, Micro Rainbow has set out “to support the LGBTQI+ people to become financially independent, in contexts where they are discriminated against”. Especially those who fled environments of discrimination and persecution.  

In 2017, the social enterprise created the first-ever housing scheme in the UK for LGBTQI+ asylum seekers. According to Human Dignity Trust, there are 71 jurisdictions in which homosexuality is still criminalised. And about 1,012 LGBTQI+ people claimed asylum in the UK in 2020 alone. Micro Rainbow’s safe houses provide LGBTQI+ asylum seekers with home and shelter while they go through the painstaking and dehumanising process of their asylum application. With their housing programmes, social inclusion activities and moving on programme, Micro Rainbow not only fills the gap in providing opportunities to break the cycle of poverty through economic empowerment but also, fill the gap of the scarcity of social enterprises that do so. 

Sebastian secured Micro Rainbow’s first social investor thanks to a talk he gave at SEWF 2018 in Edinburgh. And this got Micro Rainbow £250,000 worth of investment.  

Sebastian Rocca and Liz Cross, SEWF 2021
(L-R) Sebastian Rocca and Liz Cross, SEWF 2021

The power of economic empowerment and micro-financing the LGBTQI+ community

Like other groups that face systemic hurdles and oppression, Micro Rainbow believes that investment can shift vulnerability into value. One example Sebastian shared during his SEWF fireside conversation with Liz, was the story of a trans woman from Cambodia who had been shamed, rejected and abused in her community for simply being herself and doing her work. However, when given the chance and support to grow her business, she was able to give back to her family and the community. In return, this not only gave her individual agency but also elevated her social status in society as well as within her family.  

So, what that is doing is [that] not only are we supporting someone’s life to become more sustainable, and for her in this case, to be happier and have the means to live; but what we’re doing is also changing people’s minds and hearts”.  

The social enterprise model seems to be the best fit to achieve this, according to Sebastian. And the advantage of the social enterprise model compared to the much more conventional charitable model is that it is less dependent on the priorities set by its donors. The amount and availability of grant money or funding can be volatile depending on the socio-political climate at the time. So, I believe that creating more social enterprises with the focus on LGBTQI+ issues can make our movement more sustainable, and stronger”. Social issues are often put in clusters or broad terms due to a lack of resources to put towards each individually. Micro Rainbow has identified a need for housing especially for people fleeing persecution as well as a need to meet the demand for these services. The social enterprise model has allowed Sebastian, along with fellow entrepreneurs within the SEWF community, to scale up and grow their enterprise in order to meet the demands of their mission-led services. “It’s a model that can provide more resources and that can take care of our community better and can make us less vulnerable to external funding or shocks”, Sebastian points out. Liz rightfully added that entering into trade and creating one’s own revenue can empower one to make their own choices which in turn, makes them more resilient to favouritism and trends that “turn on and turn off the economic tap”.  

A variety of people and alternative ideas are what it takes to expand the social enterprise model 

The apparent lack of social enterprises aimed at solving social issues within the LGBTQI+ community shows that there are still socio-political and economic barriers that need to be overcome. Organisations often face difficulties in openly advocating for equality and other social issues. “So there still is a need for humanitarian relief in countries like Afghanistan, but there are many other countries where I believe a social entrepreneur or the social enterprise model could offer a solution”. Therefore, Sebastian wants to keep the conversation going and connect with organisations that are yet to embark on their social enterprise journey. 

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He specifically highlighted the power of visibility in the community and the importance of upskilling. Global networks such as SEWF, play a crucial part in spreading awareness as well as fostering relations between entrepreneurs and social impact organisations. For example, Sebastian secured Micro Rainbow’s first social investor thanks to a talk he gave at SEWF 2018 in Edinburgh. And this got Micro Rainbow £250,000 worth of investment.

Moving forward, what we need is “new people that have different approaches to LGBTQI+ equality that are not based on the charitable model to start the conversation and raise questions about whether or not the social enterprise structure is a feasible method to adopt in the fight against poverty within the LGBTQI+ community. And for those interested in stepping into the social enterprise world, Sebastian recommends starting small.  

By starting small, we were able to [not only] convince ourselves but also to prove to others that we had the skills and the ambition to make it work”.

For Sebastian, once trust and confidence were established, the right people and connections made all the difference, as prior to this, his social enterprise journey felt lonely and isolated. The most important lesson, however, is that while Sebastian prefers to prepare and plan ahead, he mentions that “it’s okay when the plan doesn’t go according to plan”. Despite being a cliche, this apparent paradox of seeing setbacks as an opportunity not only struck home with both speakers, Sebastian and Liz, but also provided a good closing message for SEWF 2021 participants, as regards their social enterprise journey.   

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Written by Tessa Porter

At SEWF, our goal is not to propose a set of rules but rather, we want to facilitate a conversation and promote a greater understanding of social enterprise, respecting the efforts of all of those who work towards sustainable and inclusive economic development. SEWF exists to grow the global social enterprise movement and to accelerate our transition to a new global impact economy.

Mirabelle Morah is the community and communications manager at SEWF