What does it mean to be an entrepreneur?

Entrepreneur and business media has created a legend around the entrepreneur. For many reasons, this has helped – increasing the amount of people who choose this career and lifestyle is a great thing for our economies and society. The downside is that the narrative it espouses tells a tale of a successful solo entrepreneur facing all odds and coming out victorious with no less than billion dollar evaluation at the end. It paints the prototypical entrepreneur, often white, as a mythical figure of sorts.

This narrative is dangerous. I bet a lot of people give up because the emphasis is always put on the event – “the end result” – rather than the process of getting there.

I was always told this path would be hard but honestly, if I were to look back 3 years ago and be told what I would have to go through, I have doubts about whether I would have done it. It’s not what you think it is. It’s highs, lows and everything in between. I really believe that entrepreneurs are a type of people -with very specific DNA.

Like Steve Jobs said, unless you love it, there is no reason to be doing. It’s sheer insanity. You have to have the passion to put yourself through it.

I came across a short answer on Quora that sums this up and I liked it enough that I wanted to share it on my blog:

“Because all decisions are yours and THERE IS NO ONE TO PASS THINGS OFF TO AT THE END OF THE DAY – the day doesn’t end.  You have some amount of flexibility in WHICH hours you work, sometimes, but zero flexibility in getting sh!t done.

If you are not a person who gets sh!t done, you will fail.  Any opportunities (re: “luck”) will be worthless – because they are only opportunities.  You still need to ACT on them, and figure out how to maximize them correctly.  You have manage relationships, build your product, figure out your finances, keep your cash, figure out your competition (it’s not always obvious), build, manage and grow your client base, and figure out where the hell it’s all going – while maintaining your own health (physical, psychological and emotional).  Simultaneously.  And optimistically.  While a world of people are telling you you’re basically nuts.

You think that’s not a crapload of hard work?  This is why the e-myth is a myth.  There’s a lot of whitewashing (I have no idea why) on the struggles of entrepreneurship.  It is a hard, crazy mess – you do it because you have love, true passion, and vision for something that must arise on the other side.  That “luck” is friggin’ sheer force of will – you don’t see all the nos that happened before that amazing yes.

Robert Croak, creator of Silly Bandz, said it took him 15 years to become an overnight success.  THAT’s what starting a business is.”

Start Up Lessons from a Somali Gal- Part 1

I used the word “startup” and “somali” because no one really puts those words in the same sentence together. I’m doing it to make a point that we should see those two words together more often.I’m not entrepreneur because I’m Somali or highlighting it because I want to be known as such. I don’t care. All I know is that I love building things and want to live in my own truth and help others like me to do the same.

Here are a few lessons that I hope you can benefit from–either thinking about starting up or inside the trenches

1. In entrepreneurial world, the word “value” comes up alot. You are always looking at your “value proposition” or what “value” your start up adds. People will pay you for whatever they deem the value of your product and service is. Personally, I think that word is misused. It’s correct that people will buy what they  “value”. It’s important not to get  what we consider “value” mixed up with what is truly “valuable”. In this process, you makes “needs” and “wants” equivalent, so much so that people can’t tell what’s important and whats not.

Will a social enterprise solving massive issues of poverty be worth billion dollars like the evaluations we see on tech applications like Snapchat?

And if we really want to get down to it, much of what we consider “value” is indoctrinated into us.

The market doesn’t know everything and isn’t supreme, just like many people would like you to believe. Sometimes fulfilling demand is a better option than creating it–however, creating demand may be just  opening people up to a world they never new. I’ll give you a clear example of what I mean. The idea of the “American Dream” that so many people hold onto was a marketing scheme created by Fannie Mae(a failed bank) to get people to buy homes and get into debt. In other words, what a large people think is valueable, may not be so.

Therefore there is a limit to market research in some areas. I’m starting to undo some deeply rooted capitalist-based ideas and this is one of them. The market isn’t god. It doesn’t know everything.

I really believe truth to be big business and the tide will eventually turn where being the most profitable business means to do good. Not sell shit food to people and some how make billions of dollars doing it. There is evidence this is already happening ie 85% of Gen Y Consumers will only buy from cause-related products. And considering the fact that their purchasing power is about 400 billion, it makes quite the statement.

2. Just because someone gives you advice, doesn’t mean you should listen to them. Don’t take advice from people who aren’t where you want to be in your life. Just listen, smile and do whatever you were going to do anyway.

3. The best thing I studied was The Lean Start Up by Eric Reis. I really believe in the idea of just creating something, hearing back from your customers and reiterating. You learn faster this way and progress more instead of spending hours writing a detailed business plan.

4. Momentum is a great force. The only way to beat procrastination is through momentum. When you just start, things move at a faster and faster pace. The idea is to keep doing things everyday to keep the ball rolling.

5. When you feel stuck on a problem, the best thing to do is to assess the people around you. Often times it’s family, friends and your surroundings that are holding you back and not yourself. These people manifest as thoughts in our mind and won’t get out until you get away from them.

6. That being said, Ottawa is not a great place for a start up. This is a city that doesn’t like to support start ups until after the fact. It’s a city that accepts comfort-ability, and mediocrity as a way of life. There is a small, mutually reinforcing community that is tight knit. Lesson: If you feel the city you are in is suffocating you(I literally feel like that), maybe its time to move your start up.

7. Very hard to get people to support you when they don’t know what the hell “entrepreneurship” is. This is something that many people from marginalized, underrepresented communities struggle with. Knowledge is the greatest commodity and it’s the root cause of why communities fail.

8. The playing field is not equal

The big moment when you realized the field of entrepreneurship in North American is dominated by highly educated males, most often white. Then trying to explain that the playing field is not based on ideas but infrastructure and capital support. I don’t want to hear from socially privledge entrepreneurs and successful CEOs on being a women, being an entrepreneur when the reality of my life is completely different than the privileged many people are born with but refuse to acknowledge. No one in the entrepreneurial community will and can address topics of how does being colored affect your work? Just as there is employment discrimination because of your ethnic sounding name, skin color or faith, your dealing with those same elements when building a company. It isn’t a matter of just working harder but you actually have to work much harder to get yourself through the door.

Again, it comes down to resources and information is one of them.

You know why Snapchat’s owner turned down $3 billion dollars? He’s a rich white kid…waaaay before Snapchat…Not a big deal that most entrepreneur websites make it out to be. If you come from a black community and turned down $3 billion dollars, we’d be having a completely different conversation. The playing field is not equal and this case alone highlights the advantages and disadvantages that people from marginalized communities face.

9. Sometimes, there will come a time when you have to decide between being comfortable(and thinking that this is the “responsible” choice”) or following your gut and taking a risky choice. I’ve learned to always go with your gut.

10. You only get what you put into life. There is no reward for thinking, just doing.

Those are the top 10 ideas on my mind right now. Stay tuned for Part 2.

If you liked this post, follow me on Twitter @houseofassouan

Can We Have it All? Thoughts on High-Powered Muslim Career Wives and the Future of Somali Single Parenthood

This is a topic that has gone through my head far too many times. It’s hard to find the truth about what reality a lot of young, career-focused, or business-owners have about being Muslim, balancing kids and marriage, as well as the future of the Somali Parenthood.

Let me explain my story. Even if you didn’t come from my particular background(East-African, female, traditional value but grew up in a nontraditional household where the mother was the breadwinner and was educated in some of Western education), you will be able to relate.

Like many other women in their 20’s, I find myself soul-searching and excited about the possibilities of life. I’m currently working on my own start-up and my interests in life aren’t a secret from the thousands of people I have reading this blog.

I was reading this piece by a really edgy blogger I often read, Penelope Trunk–her piece: “Marissa Mayer becomes CEO of Yahoo and Proves women can’t have it all. 

As well as this brilliant piece on this topic in The Atlantic by first woman director of policy planning at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter “Why women still can’t have it all”.  Atlantic cover

They both advocate a very “old-fashioned approach to family life and having a career. One would say, our mothers were right all along but hearing this from modern Western women who come from very egalitarian societies is refreshing.

She makes an interesting case for woman to start rethinking about what success is and to take a close look at how our society prefers women who work 120 hours at a corporate job than staying at home and raising a future generation.

A lot of how we are socially conditioned as young women is to believe this premise, even as a women who practices Islam. Many of the parents, teachers and schools desperately try to make us follow a very traditional practice of putting family first and thinking that this will change the tide, but the demands of modern life have flipped traditional, conservative lifestyle around.

Even I, deep down, have been conditioned to believe that the exclusive focus of raising children and being a mother/wife is less desirable than a high-powered career.

Deep down through modern schooling, the idea of careers/work-life outside the family had been planted. The idea of women being the caretakers of the home was not only shunned but considered a downgrade from all the wonderful things that could happen if you decided to ‘full-fill your potential’ and “chase your dreams.”

Huh? Was this exclusive to having a family and kids? Why is fulfillment being framed in a context outside home-life with kids?

Growing up, I had a friend of mine who came from this type of traditional background but was raise and educated in Canada. When I say traditional, I mean, the father is the breadwinner and takes care of most of the financial issues and the wife is stay-at-home and raises the kids. This balance, in retrospect, though I scoffed at it and viewed it as women “giving up her dreams”, was probably the most pragmatic method for women to be have stable home lives.

But long gone are my days of believing that having a career is better than staying at home.

I’ve come to the conclusion that women can have it all but not at the same time.

What do I mean by having it all? Marriage, career/business, family and a happy life. This type of pressure is incomparable to any type of societal pressure men face.

It’s women, most often than not, who has to manage this complexity. I’m expected to do it all–and look beautiful too! Crazy!

What makes it more complex is the many young women(many from my community can attest to this) who never saw their father be the breadwinners, but rather saw all the emotional, physical and mental burden of finances and child-rearing heaped upon our mothers have to manage their own set of expectations. These expectations are made difficult by not wanting to share any financial responsibility with anyone! Deep down, it’s because we aren’t able to after having never seen a traditional home function as a traditional home. We can trust people, but not trust them too much. Lest they should leave us…right?

And what is worst is the inter-generational gap that has them raising their children in a modern, Western environment while holding on to very Eastern, traditional values of the way a young women’s life should be shaped.

And here’s a big secret not many people like to talk about. Regardless of how successful our parents say they’d like us to be, at the end of the day, they want a husband taking care of us and to have x amount of kids with your own beautiful home somewhere. Regardless of how big your ambitious, and how much they support you, they don’t really believe it deep down.

Raising women with high ambitions and goals is more of an exception to the rule than the rule itself. 

Although, it’s true what your parents marriage/life looked like may not have any semblance to yours, it does effect it. And this terrible cycle of emotional and psychological scarring makes it difficult for many young women to want to embrace security–and that also means a traditional family life. It’s not because we don’t want to, it’s because we can’t. We weren’t taught to.

And this can only be fixed through creating our own expectation of what ‘success’ looks like, release the baggage that our parents left us with and decide that having your own autonomy and career is great but it will clash with the traditional goals of raising your own kids. My solution is for young women to build their own businesses. Yes. And I believe everyone can do it. If one type of dependence(relying on  a man for financial support) is bothersome, should another type of dependence(depending on a boss for a paycheck) be as bothersome as well?

This will help you “have it all” according to what you decide “all” is. Although it’s an alternative route not taught to most of us, I believe it’s the most stable route to go.

The history of women, at it’s core, has been the management of expectations –which is a very terrible form of suffering because it requires you to look outside for validation and this is precisely why this conflict of women “having it all” has even taken place–because we are always looking to society to validate our choices. 

Let’s create our own choices and look to no one else to validate them but ourselves.