Business Incubator Taps Into Muslim-Americans' Entrepreneurial Spirit
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, which controls so much of Syria and Iraq, relies on the Internet to recruit young Muslims. One group is trying to confront ISIS on that virtual battlefield. They're tapping into the entrepreneurial spirit in the American-Muslim community and the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley as well. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has this story.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Affinis Labs sits in a quiet neighborhood of northern Virginia, nestled behind single-story strip malls and a hardware store.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome.
TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm Dina. Nice to meet you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hi. Nice to meet you, too.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So this is a lab?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Laughter) This is a lab.
A startup lab, modeled after Silicon Valley's famous Y Combinator. Founded 10 years ago, Y Combinator brings young entrepreneurs to the valley to get their businesses off the ground. Affinis Labs wants to do the same thing, but with a twist. It's focused on nurturing Muslim talent. Shahed Amanullah is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and one of the founders of Affinis Labs, and he sees a business opportunity.
SHAHED AMANULLAH: If we leave that market untapped, then other people come in there with their vision and try to appeal to that same market. So it's a competitive landscape, and we're just diving in.
TEMPLE-RASTON: So are you competing against ISIS?
AMANULLAH: Basically, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TEMPLE-RASTON: That music is from one of ISIS's thousands of propaganda videos. The videos, coupled with an aggressive social media campaign, have helped convince more than 3,000 young Muslims in Europe to join ISIS in the past two years. And while the numbers in the U.S. are much smaller, U.S. officials tell NPR that as many as 40 young men from the Minneapolis area alone are either starting to make plans to travel to Syria to join the group, have been prevented from doing so or have successfully traveled there.
AMANULLAH: When people are looking or when they're curious about ISIS or trying to join ISIS, there are multiple different reasons, right? Behind each of those reasons is something that a business could go after to try to satisfy that need. There is a marketplace. ISIS is going after that marketplace with its own vision, and we need to go after that same marketplace.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In case after case, young people have been driven to join ISIS out of a sense of isolation. ISIS offers young men and women who travel to Syria not just a community, but also promises to provide them with a family, specifically Muslim husbands and wives. One of Affinis Labs' startups tries to address that with a Muslim dating site, and it grew, says Humaira Mubeen, out of an online community of Muslim hipsters called Mipsterz.
HUMAIRA MUBEEN: It was a bunch of proud Muslim-Americans coming together talking about a lot of issues.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Gender issues, politics, poetry, anything that seemed to be trending.
MUBEEN: One of the topics of discussion was always trying to get married, trying to find someone that was compatible to you and your Muslim and American values.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The discussion thread continued for a year and then...
MUBEEN: I jokingly said, like, why don't I make a website to connect all of you because you all seem really cool? It had a lot of people follow up and send me emails and ask me where they register, and I was like wait, this is a joke.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Then the joke became a business called Ishqr. Mubeen and four friends put together a website, and it has over 5,000 people signing up looking for love. Affinis Labs stepped in to help, and an app for the lovelorn should be available sometime this summer.
Quintan Wiktorowicz, a co-founder of the lab, used to be in charge of countering violent extremism programs at the National Security Council. And he says the government can't battle ISIS alone.
QUINTAN WIKTOROWICZ: For government, it's very difficult to get into these spaces. A, they don't build businesses; B, they don't always have credibility with Muslim audiences; and C, they don't always understand the very specific dynamics of identity that are going on at any given moment within Muslim communities.
TEMPLE-RASTON: ISIS is so effective, he says, because it's so nimble.
WIKTOROWICZ: They are the ultimate entrepreneurs. They develop, they deploy, they experiment and they iterate. And that allows them to move very, very quickly.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Affinis Labs opened its doors seven months ago, and their initial crop of companies is already out in the world. In addition to the dating site, there's LaunchGood, a faith-based crowdfunding platform for Muslims; there's LaunchPosse, which helps people start small businesses using their social networks; and Come Back 2 Us, which provides parents a way to reach out to kids who have already gone to Syria. It uses social media to convince them to come home. Again, Shahed Amanullah.
AMANULLAH: I believe that if we grow that to 100, 1,000, 10,000 companies, then you've now created an ecosystem that attracts young Muslims in a way far beyond what ISIS could provide.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Amanullah says this is just the beginning. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Falls Church, Va.
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