On occasion, one crosses paths with an extraordinary individual, who despite the hardships endured through childhood, overcomes life’s obstacles and becomes an inspirational role model for others. Her narrative demands that it be told.
I first met Yasmine Mustafa in November 2015 when she was a guest speaker at Start-up Day of the Close School of Entrepreneurship of Drexel University. She describes her history as “cheating the birth lottery.” She is certainly achieving success in spite of very difficult odds.
Mustafa’s parents are Palestinian. She was born in Kuwait. Her father, a mechanical engineer, came to Philadelphia in 1990 on a business trip and her mother tagged along, six months pregnant. Her brother was born while they were here, making him a U.S. citizen. Shortly after they returned to Kuwait, Iraq invaded their country, marking the start of the Iraq-Kuwait war.
While Mustafa’s family was sitting in a bomb shelter, two men from the U.S. Embassy entered to locate her little brother, stating they were there to extract all American citizens from Kuwait. Mustafa’s parents thought they were only there for her brother, but they said they were there to take her entire family to the United States. Mustafa’s family arrived in Philadelphia on Sept. 21, 1990.
Mustafa, who was 8 years of age at the time, started a new life, and needed to acclimate to a new country, culture and language. Her first priority was to learn English. Her father’s engineering degree was not recognized, so to support his family, he borrowed money from relatives in the Middle East and bought a 7-11 convenience store franchise. Mustafa’s first exposure to entrepreneurship was working in that store. After 10 years, Mustafa’s father decided his family was becoming too Americanized, and took her two youngest siblings back to Kuwait, leaving Mustafa, her mother and three other siblings in the U.S. He also took the family’s savings with him, placing those family members who remained in serious economic difficulty.
In 1999, Mustafa learned she was an illegal alien. When they were whisked out of Kuwait in 1990, the family was not told they only had a year to apply for asylum, but given the circumstances, they were then permitted to apply. When 9/11 occurred, the processing of applications of those individuals of Middle Eastern descent was halted. In 2006, she was finally granted asylum and permanent residency status.
Prior to gaining permanent residency status, Mustafa, her mother and siblings were always under the threat of being deported. For more than six years they flew under the radar. Because of her status, Mustafa couldn’t apply for a college scholarship; so she put herself through Temple University, working two waitressing jobs. It took her seven and a half years to earn her degree, graduating with a 3.8 GPA.
Mustafa decided to eventually become an entrepreneur and start her own company. She said, “Living on the margins with the fear of being deported at any time formed this desire to be my own boss and have more control over my life.”
After graduating from Temple, Mustafa joined a consulting firm that worked with technology entrepreneurs. Over time, she worked her way up to the level of partner. She eventually decided to leave to start her first company, “123LinkIt.” She grew the company and two years later, sold it to Netline in 2011. She stayed on as product manager for the company’s advertising services. It became one of the top plug-ins on Word Press.
On April 19, 2012, Mustafa became a naturalized citizen of the United States. She said, “It was a day I will never forget. I finally had the security of citizenship, was financially comfortable, had health insurance, and time off on nights and weekends. I no longer had to fly under the radar.”
Mustafa stated, “When I started my first company, I found that I had no technical experience and I had a lot of trouble communicating with developers. I learned about Girl Develop It, a nonprofit in NYC, where they teach you how to code. I was making a four-hour commute from Philadelphia to NYC for a two-hour class, so I went to the founders of the organization and asked if I could start a branch in Philadelphia. GDI Philadelphia grew to be the most active in the U.S., and now has nearly 3,400 members.”
Mustafa, like many millennials, is driven by a purpose, beyond just making money. She said, “I want to make this world a better place.” Mustafa was inspired to found her latest company “ROAR for Good” by stories of women who had been attacked on the streets of our cities, and wanted to develop a device that could call for help. The company developed and is marketing a product that can be worn as a piece of jewelry – a pendent worn around the neck, or the product can be attached to your clothing. If you are in trouble, you can press a button to emit a loud siren. At the same time a message and your location is sent to friends or family through your iPhone or Android. ROAR is working on adding functionality for calling 911 so you can get help from the police.
Dreamit Ventures, a startup accelerator that provides expertise and resources to early-stage companies, boosts ROAR as an alumnus and as a portfolio company. Karen Griffith Gryga, chief investment officer of Dreamit Ventures, said this about Mustafa, “Yasmine is just the type of entrepreneur that we seek for Dreamit. She has intense passion, a big vision, core executional skills and the fortitude and persistence to keep pushing forward through obstacles and adversity. She has that fine balance that is key to success of being driven in equal parts by the market data and feedback, and her vision and passion. We at Dreamit are so proud of what the ROAR team has achieved to-date and are looking forward to great success in the years ahead.”
I asked Mustafa, “What matters to you?” She responded, “I know it sounds like a cliché, but I want to make a difference. I want to have an impact. I want to know that what I am working on is going to change something for the better. Girl Develop It has done that. I save all the emails from participants who say that it has changed their lives. For ROAR, my goal is that it will have the same type of effect. One day, women will not have to worry about their safety, won’t worry about their dress or where they go, that the world will be a safer place because of what we are building.”
Entrepreneurs, Mustafa is your role model. She possesses the characteristics of successful people – the confidence to deal with adversity, a laser-like focus on her objectives, the ability to take risks and continue to move forward when faced with difficult obstacles, the willingness to do something new and different. She possesses an inner self-confidence to achieve success.
As I have written so many times in the past, there are those who see the world of possibilities and abundance, and those who see the world of limitations and scarcity. Mustafa is the former. She is driven to make a difference in this world, and is an inspiring example of what is possible.
About the author
Stan Silverman is a speaker, writer and advisor who focuses on helping businesses and organizations cultivate leadership cultures. He currently is a Leadership Catalyst for Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Stan is also Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Drexel University, a lead director on the board of Drummond Scientific and and serves on the board of Ben Franklin Technology Partners. He is the former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Stan can be reached by email or at his website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com.