SXSW 2017
The Muslim Startup Renaissance

It’s no secret that SXSW, the infamous annual Austin technology, music and film festival, is a meeting of international minds. From the various houses dotted around town hailing from Brazil, Germany, Japan and Great Britain, to the wealth of panels focusing on innovation from particular local clusters around the globe, this is a conference and a city which celebrates the international community and the power of looking beyond your regular crowd.

But with the current political climate in the United States painting foreigners, and in particular those of Islamic faith, as people we should – at best – deprioritise, this year’s SXSW has had a peculiar build up. Now that the festival is in full swing though, the international feel is still as strong as ever, and one panel in particular, ‘A Global Muslim Startup Ecosystem Emerges’, set out to champion the growth of innovation in Islamic communities, and, crucially, the opportunity within them.

Panel moderator Shahed Amanullah of Affinis Labs acknowledged the ubiquitous talk of hate, prejudice and negative identity around Muslims, before stating that this session would focus on what’s really going on behind the headlines, and show that Muslim consumers and innovators can contribute significantly to the wider world. He argued that religion can translate into passion, identity, values and ethics, making for businesses and wider organisations which not only contribute economically, but socially too.

Another speaker, Chris Blauvelt of LaunchGood, took a different route to the same conclusion by reminding us that it’s the Islamic world which brought us hospitals, universities, modern medicine and algebra. Out of the Islamic faith was born a wealth of global ideas and social-first concepts. But with 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today, Blauvelt admitted there wasn’t much to show for it: “How many Nobel Prize winners are Muslims nowadays?”

But with Muslims having a perceived negative impact on the world, funding and international networks are not as easy to access for those hailing from Islamic nations. Untapped talent, markets and ideas are going to waste due to in-built prejudices and political falsities.

So what is the hidden opportunity in Muslim startups? If you are not Muslim yourself, should you care about what is being made in a world that can feel so different from your own?

Shazia Saleem, founder of iEat Foods in the UK, told her story of becoming one of the first Western Muslim entrepreneurs in a market not quite set up for Islamic companies. With iEat Foods, she created Halal ready-meals, meaning British Muslims could enjoy shepherd’s pie, Thai green curry and pizza without compromising their values. She spoke about how creating a brand which worked for her audience meant writing a new rule book in entrepreneurship – for instance, she didn’t want to plaster the packaging with Islamic images for fear of losing the trendy crowd, but without signalling her product as ‘by Muslims for Muslims’, the assumption was that it wasn’t for her audience. Saleem spoke about the opportunity in addressing the modern Muslim audience – showing images of young Muslims who blend liberalism with their faith, she argued that very few companies were talking to this huge segment of the population.

And opportunities among Muslim consumers aren’t the only advantage to come out of this growing marketplace – there are swathes of entrepreneurs building companies of a ‘by Muslims for all’ flavour. Blauvelt’s LaunchGood is a crowdfunding platform for Muslim entrepreneurs, and it was the website behind the cemetery project in which $160,000 was raised to repair a Jewish cemetery destroyed by antisemites in the aftermath of the election. By injecting funding into the Islamic startup ecosystem, it’s not just self-serving enterprises that are created, in much the same way that VC money in Silicon Valley doesn’t only go to companies serving the States.

But as Abrar Hussain of Elixar Capital explained, there’s a long way to go in changing attitudes towards investing in Muslim businesses, and taking notice of what’s happening in this revitalisation of Muslim entrepreneurialism. We still have the picture of a white Western male in our head when we think about what an entrepreneur looks like, and not only is it those with the money and networks who are showcasing these unconscious biases, studies are showing people are even biased against themselves; it’s evident that it’s not just the non-Muslims that need convincing these archetypes are wrong. He believes that by investing in Islamic startups, he is helping promote different identities which in turn will help to re-design our mental images of what it means to create.

It seems that there is indeed a resurgence of Muslim startups, ideas and change-makers. But until there is a meeting of the minds from those who share not faith, but rather, ambition and purpose, we run the risk of continuing to miss out on this potentially world-changing population. And what a crime that would be.

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