In Minneapolis, a call for Somali entrepreneurs, and 'sharks'

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Shahed Amanullah, chief technology officer and co-founder of Affinis Labs.
Shahed Amanullah, chief technology officer and co-founder of Affinis Labs
Affinis Labs

Entrepreneur Shahed Amanullah couldn't help but see slivers of his younger self in the Somali-American youth he'd met over the years at Minneapolis mosques. They were passionate, innovative and wanted to go far in life.

"I've seen that. I've heard their stories," said Amanullah, co-founder of the business startup firm Affinis Labs in northern Virginia. "I've heard their pleas to just have a chance to prove themselves."

So he and his colleague got an idea: They'd invite Somali-American entrepreneurs to pitch their business ventures to investors. The contestants would have the chance to cut deals, as well as tap into the vast networks and expertise of the investors.

The result is a one-day startup competition coming to Minneapolis on Sept. 21. Five finalists will vie for a minimum prize of $25,000 in seed money.

On Twitter, it's been dubbed the Somali version of "Shark Tank."

But unlike the popular TV show, this contest, part of an initiative called Minbar Somali, is bound by a mandate to do good. The startups must support economic growth in Somalia. (Minbar refers to the raised pulpit in a mosque where the imam stands to deliver sermons; it offers a step up.)

To be eligible, the companies do not need to be located inside the East African country. A startup based in the United States could develop a new technology, such as improvements in refrigeration or clean energy, that could be applied to the economic development of Somalia. The deadline for submissions is Friday.

Amanullah founded Affinis Labs along with Quintan Wiktorowicz, a counterterrorism expert and former White House adviser to President Barack Obama.

Quintan Wiktorowicz, co-founder and managing partner of Affinis Labs
Quintan Wiktorowicz, co-founder and managing partner of Affinis Labs
Affinis Labs

They've launched startup competitions in places like Tunisia, Uganda and Kenya. But this is the first startup event they've planned in the United States, and Wiktorowicz hopes it will harness the ingenuity of the Somali diaspora.

So far, the feedback has been overwhelming, Wiktorowicz said.

"The interest level is probably higher than any other competition that we have ever run across the world," he said. "We're getting inundated with hundreds upon hundreds of emails and Facebook messages from the Somali community."

Entrepreneurship is often viewed as an elite pursuit, he said. People jumping in tend to be upper-middle-class or wealthy and educated with key connections.

The contest is a way to hook up Somali-American entrepreneurs who may not have those advantages with the tools they need to thrive, Wiktorowicz said.

The event sponsors, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the money-transfer service Dahabshiil, are putting up the initial $25,000 prize. But if the sharks like a given pitch, they might put more money on the table.

Wiktorowicz and Amanullah have visited Minneapolis' Somali community several times through their work with the federal government. Amanullah served as senior advisor for technology at the U.S. State Department.

Abdirahman Kahin, owner of Afro Deli, has signed on to be an investor.
Abdirahman Kahin, owner of Afro Deli, has signed on to be an investor.
Laura Yuen | MPR News

Decades ago, Amanullah created a number of startups in Silicon Valley. He developed the world's largest halal restaurant guide Zabihah as well as the online magazine Altmuslim.

Now Amanullah is well into the next phase of his career — helping other startups flourish.

He says it's a critical time to lend his support to Muslim American communities.

Reports of bias incidents targeting Muslims spiked this year following President Trump's attempts to ban refugees and travelers from several Muslim countries, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

By showcasing the hustle of Muslim entrepreneurs, Amanullah said he can push back against a common narrative that associates the community with terrorism, he said.

"We want to highlight this group of people to the world as a group of people to be admired for their passion, ingenuity and innovation, and not as a group of people be feared because one or two of them do something stupid," he said. "The narrative around Somali youth particularly in Minneapolis has been a travesty to the reality that I and Quintan know about the Somali young people that we've met."

The Somali community's entrepreneurial spirit is evident across the Twin Cities, in storefronts, ethnic malls and beyond. A study by Concordia University in St. Paul estimates there are up to 3,200 African immigrant businesses in Minnesota.

Abdirahman Issa Kahin, owner of the Afro Deli restaurants, is among the most visible Somali-American business leaders. Long lines out the door of his downtown St. Paul location prove he's fulfilled his vision of getting spice-averse Minnesotans hooked on sambusa, a fried stuffed dumpling.

Kahin tried out for the real "Shark Tank" a couple of years ago, in his quest to make Afro Deli a national brand. He didn't make the cut. But now he's signed on to participate in the Minbar Somali pitch event — as a shark.

Kahin said the reason was simple.

"I'm successful here," he said. "I'm here in the States. I got help from my city, from my government. And it's about time for me to give back to the community, and help Somalia and East Africa to be sustainable, to create jobs."

As a shark, Kahin said he's also eager to invest in a new business that might diversify his holdings and make him more money. He expects even bigger successes from the next crop of entrepreneurs in his community, including recent graduates from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

"We want to give that chance to young Somali Minnesotans," he said. "They are second-generation, and they understand business better than we do."