AsylumConnect: Lose a Prize, Win a Startup

By Katie Sgarro C’15, Co-founder of AsylumConnect

Penn’s President’s Engagement Prize changed the course of my life. And I didn’t even win.

In the summer of 2014, going into my senior year at Penn, President Amy Gutmann announced Penn’s inaugural President’s Engagement Prizes competition. In the midst of a hectic summer in New York City, fellow rising Penn senior, Sayid Abdullaev C’15, approached me with an idea for the competition that would ultimately evolve into AsylumConnect. The idea was to create the first online, centralized resource database for LGBTQ asylum seekers in the U.S. It was ambitious, worthwhile, and novel—I was hooked.


This project was personal to both Sayid and myself. The initial concept for the resource database was borne out of Sayid’s personal experiences as a former LGBTQ asylum seeker who had struggled to find fundamental human needs resources upon his arrival in the U.S. For me, this competition came at a time when I was not publicly “out”—it challenged me to acknowledge my own truth so that others without such an opportunity could be heard. As we went through the application process, our passion for our project continued to grow at such an exponential rate that, win or lose, I couldn’t fathom a world in which AsylumConnect did not exist.

As semi-finalists for the competition, we were invited to interview with the prize’s selection committee. As we sat in the waiting room, suddenly the stakes seemed much higher than simply winning or losing a competition. I watched as my leather portfolio bounced in my lap to the rhythm of my nerves. I knew that this interview represented a rare opportunity for this under-funded, under-acknowledged cause to be heard by people with the power to change its reality. Sitting in that waiting room, all I could think about was the significance of doing our cause justice and the consequences of failing to do so.

During our interview, it became clear that the judges thought our initial proposal contained too many moving parts and would have been stronger if it was more focused. When we were notified that we were not selected as recipients of the grant, we were faced with two choices: abandon AsylumConnect or figure out a way to continue our project without initial funding. Thankfully, we chose the latter.

After graduation, we worked to refine our proposal to reflect the selection committee’s emphasis on feasibility. With this recommendation in mind, we decided to focus on delivering one primary service: improving and scaling the AsylumConnect catalog across the U.S., one city at a time.

Katie Sgarro, AsylumConnect Co-Founder & Co-Director at NYU
Katie Sgarro, AsylumConnect Co-Founder & Co-Director at NYU

In August of 2015, only months after we had lost the competition, our improved proposal won the 2015 Millennium Campus Conference (MCC15) Millennium Peace Prize. This prize gave us our first funding and the opportunity to launch the AsylumConnect global peace campaign at the United Nations. Since then, we’ve continued to attract much-needed awareness to both our organization and cause. In November of 2015, we tripled our funding as the winning team of the 2015 Business Today (BT) Impact Challenge. In February of 2016, we released the AsylumConnect catalog 2.0, with new search functions and improved visuals for the Seattle area. The catalog 2.0 has since received recognition from the state government of Seattle. To culminate our foundational year, AsylumConnect was featured at the 2016 Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) meeting.

Over this past whirlwind year, we have transitioned AsylumConnect from a volunteer initiative with a vision to an incorporated nonprofit startup making a difference. Our purpose has remained consistent: to help persecuted LGBTQ people find fundamental human needs resources upon their arrival in the U.S. Currently, the people behind our initiative reflect where we started: Penn. Our current team of 13 students and young professionals includes 6 Penn alumni, and our advisory team includes Fernando Chang-Muy of Penn Law.

We are currently preparing to scale the AsylumConnect catalog 2.1 to Philadelphia—the place where our organization was founded. Our long-term vision is to scale the AsylumConnect catalog to all major U.S. cities and ultimately, transform how LGBTQ asylum seekers connect with service providers in the U.S.

AsylumConnect is recruiting! Students living in Philadelphia are welcome to apply to all of our open associate positions and especially encouraged to consider the following positions: Volunteer Coordinator (Philadelphia) and Partner Relations Manager (Philadelphia). We also encourage all students to sign-up to volunteer for us on the ground in Philly. More information is available on our website at: (associate positions) and (volunteer positions). Please email Matt Noel, AsylumConnect Director of Human Resources, at with any questions regarding the application process.

Katie SgarroBio: Katie Sgarro is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a current MSMS Russell Fellow at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She is Co-Founder of AsylumConnect and BelieveAchieve.




Information sessions for this year’s President’s Engagement Prize will be held at CURF Fireside Lounge, room 200, ARCH Building:

  • Friday, September 30, from 3-4 pm
  • Friday, October 14, from 5-6 pm
  • Thursday, October 27, from 5-6 pm
  • Friday, November 11, from 3-4 pm

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