As American Muslim begin to celebrate Eid al-Fitr we also celebrate their contribution to growing this country’s economy. This article originally appeared in MBN USA magazine, and is written by Michael Verchot, Director of the Consulting and Business Development Center at University of Washington Foster School of Business.
Amid today’s challenges, native-born entrepreneurs are propelling American Muslim businesses and products into the nation’s economic mainstream.
“They are mining what’s unique about their experience and marketing it to the masses,” said Shahed Amanullah, co-founder and chief technology officer of Affinis Labs. Based in Washington, D.C., the award-winning social innovation firm tackles global challenges through entrepreneurship.
From Florida to Alaska, American Muslim entrepreneurs are building companies and contributing new revenue and jobs across business categories and customer segments. American Muslim-owned businesses are “everywhere, especially with the Internet,” says Nina Soerakoesoemah, creative director for Azizah. Headquartered in Atlanta, the 40,000-circulation print and digital magazine covers consumer, business and other issues involving American Muslim women.
Major concentrations of American Muslim-owned businesses are in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, Florida and California, according to databases such as Muslim Business USA. There are smaller concentrations in states such as Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas.
The data that exists, along with anecdotal evidence, indicates that the American Muslim business community is highly diverse. While many American Muslim-owned businesses are small, others are large and long established. Some target Muslim customers. Others provide products and services to the mainstream American economy.
The Internet and America’s universities are central elements of the new wave of American Muslim entrepreneurism. Young American Muslims come from a richer, more diverse mix of ethnic backgrounds than in Europe, Amanullah said. Many American Muslims who are the first generation born in the US meet at universities and form bonds regardless of the home countries from which their parents emigrated. As they reach out to each other and share their experiences, Amanullah says, they identify first as Americans rather than with their ancestral countries. As a result, they are creating unique opportunities to share American-based ideas with Muslims worldwide.
This newest generation of American Muslim entrepreneurs are leading the emergence of a unique American Muslim demographic, distinct from elsewhere in the Muslim world. This demographic has produced products such as the Burkini, the modest swimwear style that originated in Australia. Shereen Sabet, the founder of Splashgear, a modest-swimwear design and manufacturing firm is growing its customer base beyond Muslim consumers to other markets including Orthodox Jewish, Christian and other modest women, and to those with sun-sensitive skin. Selling solely on-line, Splashgear’s customers are in the U.S., Canada, the Britain and Australia.
Launchgood.com, which Amanullah says is the world’s largest faith-based crowd-funding organization, supports Muslim creativity and entrepreneurism. And Affinis Labs is partnering with Elixer Capital in Silicon Valley to raise a $250 million venture/investment fund for Muslim businesses. Halal Co. Inc.’s Saffron Road product line, now one of the United States’ fastest-growing frozen food lines, is one of the young entrepreneurial companies is also having an impact on what all Americans are eating.
American Muslims have also risen to the pinnacles of the mainstream corporate world. Dr. Mohamed El-Erian serves as chief economic advisor of Allianz SE, a global financial services provider. Shahid Khan owns the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL football team and auto parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate. Farooq Kathwari is CEO of Ethan Allen Global, the furniture manufacturer and retailer.
Yet, the social and political challenges confronting American Muslims raise risks and barriers for any Muslim-owned business.
“What happens in the overall community happens in the business community,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which focuses on improving civil rights for American Muslims. As anti-Muslim hate crimes, speech and discrimination have intensified in the past several years, those impacts have been felt by American Muslim-owned businesses.
At the same time, said Awad, “There has been an unprecedented outpouring of support to the American Muslim community that we have witnessed, by politicians and other Americans, that has definitely provided some security for many Muslim businesses.”
Indeed, 80 percent of American Muslims are satisfied with their lives despite the tension and turmoil, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. Among survey respondents, 70 percent said most American Muslims can get ahead with hard work. And 92 percent said they are proud to be Americans.
The question, then, is whether we can overcome today’s divisive climate to enable American Muslims to continue integrating into the nation’s mainstream, as other minority groups have done. Can we facilitate entry to markets, both consumer and business to business? Can we open access to capital? The threats are large and obvious, but trends hold positive elements and our history offers hope.
“Our country always has been one that welcomes people and gives them a shot at their dream,” said Awad. “We have success as Americans when we enable every community to not only survive but to thrive. Then we enable America to be a great economy in all ways.”
Research assistance for this article came from Rahel Nuguse.