Guest blogger – Dustin Craun, Founder and CEO of Life Beyond Borders
As we enter a new political era built on a combination of misogyny, racism, and fear-based politics, I think of an unlikely hero, Muslims in tech. Muslims in tech in the United States and around the world is one of the biggest stories not being told. Muslim technological talent, founders, and venture capitalists play a central role in the majority of tech ecosystems around the world. This is true of the tech ecosystems in the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Atlanta.
There are an estimated 300,000 Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area, and according to one study upwards of 20% of them work in the tech sector. According to research that we will release in the coming months via Ummah Wide, a digital media company I started to tell stories that transcend the borders of the global Muslim community, hundreds of Muslim founders across the world (the majority in the United States) have raised billions of dollars in venture capital investments for their startups and exits worth tens of billions of dollars. Despite these numbers, as well as the fact that Muslims make up large populations at every major tech company in the US, Muslims in tech still face discrimination on a daily basis. Even microaggressions, like questioning people’s faith or asking inappropriate questions regarding terrorism, have a profound affect on the Muslim community. Because of these discriminations, Muslims feel the need to hide their identity as a Muslim (even at the founder level), often times can’t find a place to pray at work, and Muslim women feel unsafe wearing and keeping on the hijab. Publicly hiding one’s Muslim identity can also take the form of people changing their names at work. Muhammad becomes Mo, or in the case of the owner of the NFL franchise the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan becomes Shad Khan.
At another level of the discrimination conversation has been the recent discussion around whether tech companies would help build the proposed Muslim registry being talked about by the incoming administration. With push from groups like MPower, and Color of Change the majority of major tech companies (excluding Oracle) have responded that they would not.
One of the craziest things to me about all of this, as someone who has lived in Muslim-majority countries around the world, is that for American companies, this is not a population they want to discriminate against. In fact, American companies are already making billions of dollars off of Muslims globally. Muslims today make up nearly one-quarter of the world’s population, and by 2050 (according to Pew Research data) there will be nearly 3 billion Muslims, totaling 30% of humanity.
With my company, Ummah Wide, we publish an annual story on the 50 top global Muslim Startups. This story has resonated so deeply with Muslims that it has been translated into six languages and republished around the world. The global Muslim market is one of the largest emerging economies in the world with current spending equaling $1.8 trillion dollars and expected to grow by 5.8% on average over the next 5 years, according to the research firm Dinar Standard.
A recent Mashable article about the United States based Muslim startups explores how “ignorance and fear are big obstacles for Muslim startup founders.” While this may be true for US-based venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and beyond who are missing opportunities to invest in Muslim company’s, Muslim startups are finding major funding around the world led by venture capital funds in Malaysia, the Gulf, and Singapore. This is a quickly maturing startup space with innovative young entrepreneurs as well as seasoned serial entrepreneurs building companies that are growing across borders and developing this global Muslim market. Recently US based Affinis Labs, joining with Elixir Capital (US), and MAVCAP (Malaysia), announced a $250 million dollar global VC fund targeting the Islamic economy. For Silicon Valley, the time is now to play catch up with global firms as the 500 Startups partner Khailee Ng stated recently about Muslim startups in South Asia, “I need to be very interested in investing in Muslim tech startups to be a good investor in this region…If anything, I’m just playing catchup.”
While there is growing investor interest, this is a complex, global emerging market representative of both local economies and diasporic populations who live across borders and whose reach can allow products to grow beyond traditional markets. To best articulate the scale of the emerging global Muslim startup ecology it is best to break it up into 4 areas:
- Muslim leadership is prevalent in global tech ecosystems
Muslims entrepreneurs play vital roles in regional startup ecologies around the world from Silicon Valley to Istanbul, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Bangalore, Singapore, Jakarta, London, Berlin, New York City, Casablanca and in dozens of other cities and startup communities. In Silicon Valley alone there are tens of thousands of Muslims embedded in every layer of the tech and startup community, including entrepreneurs with major exits like Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai, as well as major players in VC firms, like Mamoon Hamid, co-founder of the VC firm Social + Capital, Qasar Yunus, COO of Y Combinator, and Omar Hamoui, Partner at Sequoia Capital.
- Companies and startups that focus on Muslim majority populations and use Muslim-centric branding win
Companies around the world know the importance of creating products for and catering to Muslim markets. Uniqlo created a modest fashion line designed for the Asian market, Marks & Spencer introduced the burkini, and Dolce & Gabbana launched the abaya. Whether it’s creating modest fashion options, or developing advertising campaigns for Ramadan, this is, simply put, a market that can not be ignored by global companies. However, this isn’t new – local companies in Muslim majority countries go above and beyond to market to Muslims, like Careem for example, the Dubai based Uber competitor, who offered free rides to the Mosque in their cars during Ramadan in 2015. The US is the one that needs to play catch up.
- Muslim startups should focus specifically on Muslim consumers
This is the area we focus on in our 500 Startups article, where we look at Muslim-centric products that can be created by any entrepreneur, regardless of faith, who sees the global market opportunity. While many of these companies show the real potential for what companies in this space can grow to, it can also be one of the hardest types of startups to get funded. As of today, the largest companies in terms of investments and growth are modest fashion companies like Modanisa (Turkey), Hijup (Indonesia), and Fashion Valet (Malaysia), as well as Halal food companies like Saffron Road (US) and The Halal Guys (US). We believe a third major sector will emerge over the coming years in Islamic FinTech, with early stage companies growing in the space like our company Salaam Bank (US / Malaysia), Finocracy (Dubai), Investroo (US), and Ethis Crowd (Malaysia).
- Social enterprise products are rising in Muslim majority countries that use aspects of Muslim branding focused on western markets
There are also an emerging set of companies who are making an impact on Muslim majority markets where products are produced, branded, and sold in Western markets with positive representations of Muslim cultures and values. A great example of this is Port of Mokha, the coffee company founded by Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who is focused on transforming the coffee industry in Yemen, and who recently had their coffees featured at Blue Bottle. Other examples of this include the wide range of social impact companies focused on global refugees like Rumie and Techfugees.
If the tech community wants to stand for the values it preaches, it must take a collective stand against Islamophobia and racism broadly, while also recognizing the major role Muslims play in Silicon Valley and Tech ecosystems around the world. This can take many forms ranging from blocking government requests for data that could be used to police Muslim and other vulnerable communities. To companies conducting research and reviewing hiring policies with special attention paid to how interviewers are responding to job candidates who wear hijab or who are visibly Muslim. Tech companies must also make training on religion and multifaith dialogue a central part of their larger diversity training and discuss issues of Islamophobia in the workplace as a major component of this.
For Muslims in the tech ecosystem in the United States and around the world, the value we bring must not continue to be under-appreciated. In the political era we are entering Muslims in tech can play an important role in combating Islamophobia not only within the tech community but rather within society at large. To do this we must not be afraid to be unapologetically Muslim and have the hard conversations that are necessary for creating a more just, unified and inclusive society for all.
Dustin Craun is a social innovator, writer, digital strategist, community organizer, and educator. His writings on race, philosophy, and Islamic spirituality have been published in academic journals and popular publications.