The Real, Raw and Ugly on How I Got Started: My Entrepreneurial Story
I set up this blog because there are few people of color sharing their journey. I’m here to share my experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes I’ve made. I also want to inspire more people to take risks and do what they love. Most entrepreneurs I meet don’t look like me. Very few come from the same background and have gone through similar obstacles. I was encouraged by Kevin Dewalt, startup investor and advisor, to be open, raw and real. So I am. I wanted to thank my mentors Obaid Ahmad and Manu Sharma for being one of the most impactful mentors I’ve had since starting my journey.
I’m a black Muslim woman who fought tooth and nail to be who I am and to make the world adapt to me instead of adapting the world.
This is my story of how I become an entrepreneur, am blessed to be doing what I love everyday and hope to inspire you to do the same because it is possible.
I grew up in the projects. Drug dealers, gangs, violence, and crime- I saw it all.
My parents were immigrants from a civil war in Mogadhishu, Somalia, who came to Canada in the early 90’s. The public housing projects are where most immigrants settled while trying to figure out to survive in a new country. Like many young Somali woman, I was raised by a single mother. The all-too-pervasive but rarely spoken about topic in the Somali community is how many families broke down due to the transition from living Somalia to living in the “West”. Somali women were, and still are, the backbone of the community. They have single-handledly kept our communities alive in the diaspora and they are what prevented us from breaking down the way our country broke down. There is not enough thanks we can give to Somali mothers for what they did. None.
Like some who com from the hood, my mother provided for me so that I never ‘needed’ everything. I was so painfully oblivious to my social class until I went to university.
The world of entrepreneurship was hidden from me until I was 22. I found it kinda by fate. I don’t believe in accidents. I was rummaging through books at my library when I found a book called: “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs To Know” by David Bournstein.
It was like I went to heaven.
Why hadn’t anyone told me this was real? Like, I could do this as a real ‘thing’.
But you know why no one told me? Because nobody else around me knew either. This is a stark example of how privledge — access to knowledge and social capital — can help you, if you have it and harm you, if you don’t.
The traditional education system isn’t set up to produce entrepreneurs, but employees(nothing wrong with that) but, there shouldn’t be an assumption that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution is what is appropriate for most people. I wouldn’t assume that most people should be entrepreneurs, so why would anyone assume that everyone is made to work for a company? No one has a right to make that decision for anyone.
Coming from a Somali background, we are naturally entrepreneurial people. Being a digital nomadic entrepreneur means that I’ve only taken from the ways of my ancestors but this knowledge too was hidden from me most of my life. I was never encouraged to ask, know or seek. For Somalis(and most people) business means owning a small entreprise that provides income. Most people don’t think about starting a company to solve a ‘problem’ but that’s a powerful piece of knowledge kept hidden from most.
And it’s not only that we don’t know but we don’t know how. Building companies to solve problems falls into this category. Also, community mentors and figures are virtually non-existent.
There were no ‘black entrepreneurs’ where I came from. None.
One observation of Somali people a friend once noted is that, we do things when there is proof of success. What does that mean? If your friends daughter becomes a nurse and is successful, then that’s what you want for your daughters and encourage them into. There is no concept of “hey honey, follow your dreams or do what you love.”
From my parents perspective, that was horseshit and understandably so. How does doing what you love pay the bills? Very few people learn how to do what they are good at and find ways to produce income from that. Again, another practical piece of knowledge that people don’t learn. But it IS possible and that is what I want to emphasize.
Due to social cohesiveness, there is not much room for innovation in our communities, especially in our thinking, because there is no perceived need for it, at least from our parents generation.
Why innovate if you can keep doing the same thing over and over again and not rock the boat? Go to school and become a doctor. It’s worked for generations, why change anything? A bit of a tangent, but this is why much of the Muslim world is stuck in the middle of chaos: no one wants to move outside the familar.
So, by coming to this country, my parents sought stability where I was seeking something that allowed me to exercise my creative and intellectual pursuits, which was a privilege but something no one seemed to understand.
To think about solving a problem means that you are free from that problem.
And this is where my story really begins.
Because I had a whole set of other problems waiting for me.
I was a rebellious kid. I was curious about life. Like, insanely curious. Growing up, I remember reading encyclopedias and atlases on my spare time. I just wanted to know everything about everything.
Then high-school happened. This is where my formation into a societal slave happened. I don’t think that my curiousity was taken away from me, it was put on halt.
I was a perfect student. Straight A’s, no absences, never got in trouble. But my curiosity, even as a child, always got me into trouble from time to time. It was something I could never ever shake. I had to try things. That perfectionism of being the best “student” came only because I had no other reality. This is, what I was told, is all there was to do — you go to school and climb the ladder. I was told to be ‘serious’ and ‘normal’ now because all of a sudden I was forced to make a decision about what I wanted to do for life at 18 years old.
I was suppose to become a doctor but I ended up having a breakdown in my last year and last semester in highschool. I just knew in my gut there was more to life that what I was being told.
In a bold move, I drop all my chemistry, biology, physics and calculus courses — and took a creative writing course instead. That essentially sealed my fate.
But the pushback I got from that was worse than anything I faced. It was like being thrown out into the wilderness because no one understood you or cared.
This one decision started a series of decisions to helped me become the entrepreneur I am today. Looking back, it’s the small decisions in moments of pressure that seems to have the biggest affect on your life. Sometimes you have to do what you feel compelled to do in the moment.
At 17, when I started university, I started to committ myself to personal development, regardless of where I wanted to be. I just knew who I wanted to be. There was an invisible hand guiding me that kept pushing.
I kept experimenting while doing this ‘university’ thing.
I could never hold down a job for more than 6 months and was never fond of rules — a special kind of stubbornness that can only be found in entrepreneurs. Most employers were never receptive to my ‘suggestions’ on how to do things better and more efficiently. And really, that’s all I was really trying to do — solve problems and improve things.
I was looked at as being abnormal. Like “Why aren’t you able to do this? Why can’t you just do what you’re told? Why can’t you stop questioning things?”
No one ever said, hey maybe you’re an entrepreneur, maybe you have a different DNA, maybe you are good at something else. No. Society’s default MO is: “If you suck at what we tell you to do, then you suck at life.”
And that is precisely what most people struggle with. Instead of looking for societal acceptance, they should really just should stop giving a shit and look only to their own happiness because society was constructed to make you feel like shit about who you are.
But I was expected to just do as I was told and stand in line. Bad idea for someone like me. That’s like putting up a ‘do not enter’ sign. It just begs me to want to try to see what’s behind there.
In university, I spent a lot of time skipping classes to reading books on psychology, business, marketing, self-help, spirituality and work on my businesses.
The average student studies about 24 hours a week. I was putting in 40 hours a week studying — just nothing to do with my classes.
So why did I go to university? Simple answer: I had no choice. I didn’t have the privilege to choose. This was the only path -I was told — to social mobility. If you come from the hood, you don’t get to choose. It’s a key to open a door to social mobility that if you are not white, you don’t get a choice to say no to.
How else do you elevate yourself when your community doesn’t have resources to push you up?
The myth of the entrepreneur who skips college to start a business only happens to white entrepeneurs for a reason. The system is built to help people like them to succeed. IF they fall, they can go live with their parents, who are most likely university graduates themselves and have done significantly well in the social ladder or fall back on their own education. Most immigrant parents are relying on their kids to support them after they get old. If we fall back, there is rarely a financial or social fall back that makes it easier for us and certaintly not one if we did not go to college.
If a white entrepreneur turns down 3 billion dollars(like the Snapchat founder), it’s because they can but it will make the news. If a black entrepreneur were to turn down 3 billion dollars, we’d be having another conversation entirely about the socio-economic realities of the community.
Simply put, it would never happen. This example clearly shows that the amount of socio-economic realities at play given the same situation for two entrepreneurs would play out differently due to their backgrounds.
Another reason: something called “pattern-matching”. Investors tend to continue investing in what has worked in the past. Most VC are white entrepreneurs who fund other white entrepreneurs. If past predicts the future, who will they keep funding in the future?
“The odds are stacked against entrepreneurs who happen not to be white males: women-led social enterprise startups are 40 percent less likely to be funded than their male-led counterparts, even though they generate 15 percent greater revenues, according to an Emory University study. And minority-led companies are 35 percent less likely to receive venture capital financing than non-minority-led companies, it continues.
“Investors tend to go with what they know and look in familiar circles for investment opportunities,” SVN executive director Deb Nelson told VentureBeat. “Women and people of color often get missed.”
So, in 2012, I wanted nothing but to leave university. It was period in my life that almost mimiked my last year of highschool. I was breaking again but so much so that at 21, I ended up packing my bags, saying ‘screw it’ and left to live overseas on my own as a nomad for a bit.
I set out to Egypt about 1 year after the revolution, and that completely changed the course of my life. I arrived in 2012 after I picked up The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho with full intentions of going to Istanbul. I ended up there, like Santiago, in a divine foreshadowing worthy of an ancient folklore. I spent a few months living between Alexandria and Cairo.
I left to soul search, to figure out what I wanted and found myself in a very beautiful but difficult country that awoke my entrepreneurial spirit. There is something that happens when you travel. You get complete silence within your soul. It’s that silence that allows your heart to tell you what you truly feel. Until then, and like most grads, you are not thinking about what you want but what others want for you. Their voices drown out your voice.
I lived with the locals in both Alexandria and Cairo, so I was much more in touch with their lives. I spent a lot of time reflecting in a city that has had more famous, well-known people grace it’s shores than other city I’ve been to. A city that had essentially forgot it’s own greatness. I realized after seeing so much poverty and destruction that committing my life to entrepreneurship and economic development of lesser developed countries was to be my calling in life. Having never experienced seeing poverty to that degree, I wished nothing more than to help empower people, help them awake their inner calling and become self-sufficient so as to empower themselves and get them out of poverty.
For the first week I was there, I cried everyday. I lived in the “hood” in Alexandria in my first month but used to work in the richest area. Everyday on my commute to work, I saw both sides of Egypt — the rich and the poor. I saw men set up shop to sell food or newspapers at 7am in the blistering heat and would still be sitting there when I was done work.
I wasn’t afraid of going to the ‘rougher’ areas since I had come from the same type of ‘rougher’ areas myself. After a while, you get desensited to violence, gangs and crime. I met people all types of amazing people — the vast majority of whom were poor. I actually had a better and more fun time with the poor than rich. A lot of the rich I met were assholes who wanted to be Western and couldn’t understand why people like me(who were Western) would want to live and play where I did.
I met people who put in 12 hour days to only get paid $50/month. Few things can humble you like that.
When I came back from Egypt, I just knew: I was a true entrepreneur through and through. The moment I realized that, there was no going back.
I had to do this. All in.
I was as young as I would ever be in that moment. I had a conventional career I could have taken but I turned it down. How would I live my life as authentically as possible if I didn’t at least take a shot at this?
From there, I was the only entrepreneur I knew. Got rejected from every incubator, acccelerator, seed funding and innovation program I applied to.
I sold my boxing gloves, my old college textbooks and my smartphone for my intial round of seedfunding, also known as bootstrapping. I couldn’t afford office space, so I worked off my bed while working 12 hours shifts at my family businesses growing my own business at the same time.
I started about 4 businesses before I left. They all failed.
Actually, they didn’t. It was all experimentation. I didn’t even know I was starting a business. And I had no desire to stop.
When I came back to Ottawa, I started another 2 businesses that failed.
This is the point where I almost gave up. I decided to do what I alot of people do and get a job. Most people have this breaking point but I realized that with every major breaking point, to survive, you need to push through.
I came across 21 Golden Rules of Entrepreneurship by Jason Nazar as a last ditch attempt to convince myself that I could do this.
And for people like me, you either do it or you don’t. My decisions weren’t just for me, but would determine the course of the next generation of my family.
Why? When I graduated, it was 2012. 4 years after a recession that shook the world. You know what the statistics were for the average student?
71% College graduates in the class of 2012 who had student loan debt $29,400 Average student debt per borrower 6% annual increase in student debt at graduation from 2008–2012 41% college graduates who say their job dont require a college degree
(Source: The Institute for Collegee Access & Success, Gallup)
This meant that world had effectively changed, there were new rules to be played by and if you didn’t adapt, you were done for in the future.
And I hope by me talking about this, people realize that this is a path you can take and you should take for the sake of your future.
Did my parents com half way across the world thinking that the global landscape would change things? That global competition and technology would change things? That jobs would be outsourced? That traditional careers would slowly become a thing of the past?
No. They didn’t.
And this society, my upbringing, the people around me were running in circles than taking the time to sit back and think: “Is this even working for me? Is all this even worth it? Why are we putting ourselves in debt? Why are we chasing something that is running from us? Is getting money all there is to life?
Is surviving all there is to life?
By the 7th business, my persistance and faith paid off. I took off once I committed myself entirely to learn and build- it was a small magazine for social changemakers called Disrupt , that relaunched as a digital media company Think Disrupt, that grew to have a loyal following.
My 8th business, a boutique digital marketing firm went full time after 3 months once I started committing myself to the practice of business, having faith and trying to improve 1% everyday. Alhamduillah. We’ve worked from inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations to non-profits organizations to small business entrepreneurs around the world helping them with their digital strategy, marketing and business development.
Finally, things started to come together. Alhamdulilah.
In total, I’ve started a business in: — real estate investment consulting — personal development seminars — magazine publishing — online and offline marketing consulting — buying and selling used books — spoken word workshops
That’s an exhausting list to think about but a lot of experience to boot. The hustle never stopped.
All this inevitabilty led me to own a successful business at 24, today, that allow me the freedom and flexibility to work on projects I’m passionate about. Alhamdulilah.
What kept pushing me?
It’s a special kind of crazy, the type of persistence that would make anyone quit. I was a lone soldier and absolutely bent on making the world adapt to who I was before I would ever let it change me.
Every person has an intimate understanding of their own potential; the problem is most of us had that potential deliberately taken from us so that society can mold us into what it deems ‘acceptable’. The only way to get that deep understanding of who you are is to deliberately focus on self-development and gaining a deep introspective understanding of who you are.
Fail some more.
I’m blessed to have struggled to do this and I hope to be a trailblazer for other young people trying to follow the path of running their own business and creating positive social impact.
No matter how much society tried to mold me, I was that round peg that just would not fit in the square hole.
And if you are still reading this, you most probably are too.
So far, it has been a 7-year journey of self-transformation and commitment to self-actualization and a radical commitment to life design.
I started this blog 2 years ago to catalogue my experiences, thoughts and insights in my journey as an entrepreneur. I know there are millions of young people of color like me who want to create significant impact. Many of us have been held back due to societal, cultural or religious customs telling us who we should be.
I hope this blog gives you permission to the strong, powerful, empowered entrepreneur and social changemaker you know you were meant to be.
Sometimes, we all just need a little encouragement.
From one entrepreneur to another(or even if you are aspiring), you can do this.
In my experience forming, working and building start-ups of my own and others, I’ve realized 9 times out of 10 success is really about faith and persistence. Just stick with your idea or dream long enough, pivot when necessary but don’t ever give up. Reiterate, relaunch however many times you have to. You’ll get there. It’s not a question of if, but when.
I’ve been forced to build my own doors because many doors were closed to me. My journey in forging my own path has really been about helping others realize enormous potential within themselves and how they can better change the world by taking control of their own lives and building the solutions to the problems they see around them everyday.
But most importantly, we don’t need to look to others to do anything for us, we already have everything we need to transform our lives within ourselves, carve our paths and change the world.
Have the courage to try and just go for it.
Originally published at hodansibrahim.com on February 18, 2015.