Transcript: From Solopreneur to a Movement

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our next session from solar panel to a movement in this session, we have a very special guest who we hope will inspire you with her story of sharing emerging voices. So our guest has been named one of Forbes 30 for 30 under 30 in media. And she’s also been named by CNN as one of the 25 most influential Muslim Americans. My name is Christina Quinones and I’m part of the Growth Marketing team here at WordPress.com. And first of all, I want to thank all of you for joining us today. And with that said, I’ll pass it to you, amani, to introduce yourself to our audience. Amani, I think you’re on mute. Hi, everyone, I’m notorious for keeping myself on mute, coincidentally, when our motto is Muslim woman, talk back so high, I’m so happy to be here. And Christi, I’m so excited to have this conversation with you today. I am the founder of Muslimgirl.com, which is the biggest blog in the United States from Muslim women’s voices and the biggest English speaking blog for our narratives talk about what’s happening to us in the world today. I’m also an author and activist and I run a Brandes consultancy and production company. Awesome, awesome. Yeah, there’s we’re going to dig into this, like how you’ve grown from where you were you started to where you are now. But just you might have touched on this a little bit already. But if you could sum up how would you describe Muslim Girl today? Like, let’s see. What’s your mission? What’s your purpose? What does it mean to you? Muslim Girl is definitely an online platform that is intended to reclaim our narrative in the media. It’s a way for us to democratize the media and allow our voices a fighting chance to be heard against all of the mainstream and established traditional media outlets that we have out there for us to really create a space, not only for us to make sure that our opinions matter and are heard, but also for us to build a community with one another and also to establish a space where we can have open conversations about our identities and the issues that are impacting us in our daily lives. That’s wonderful. And really, that’s so in line with our part of our mission here at WordPress.com com, which is to democracy, democratize publishing. So that’s amazing to hear. And so let’s start at the beginning. I’d love to hear more about your background, how you started MuslimGirl.com and what your vision was then and to what it turned into what you’ve built today. Well, it’s actually really crazy that we’re having this conversation now, because this year is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And I see Muslim Girl as being created in total reaction to that. 9/11 happened when I was just a child. I was super, super young. I was just in elementary school. And at that time, it really indoctrinated me into growing up through the height of Islamophobia and really one of the biggest onslaughts of being robbed of our narratives during the war on terror and especially being like a young Muslim girl born and raised in Jersey, growing up through all of that, where this was the only home I had ever known, I was like a complete outsider. And so years later, when I became a teenager, I realized, look, all of the issues that I’m now dealing with, navigating dual identities and also being a first generation American that lives this lifestyle and knows that it’s as my home, but also very much has grown up in a cultural household. The daughter of immigrants. I felt like there had to be other girls out there that were just like me that had voices and thoughts and opinions like me and each other. So I started listening girl when I was a teen out of my high school bedroom. And since then what started as just a hobby, as a reaction to a lack of our reflection of ourselves in the media around US has now grown to become a movement of its own. And I couldn’t be prouder of that. That’s that’s an amazing story. And so thinking about your journey thus far, and I’m sure it’s been a while since you’ve built it, but what would you say is the most surprising or have been the most surprising things you’ve encountered along the way from, like you mentioned, starting it out as a hobby, as sort of a way to connect with others, to creating what is essentially a platform to showcase other voices and connect the world at large? I mean, I really think that’s the most beautiful part of it. Right when I started Muslim Girl, I had absolutely no resources at my fingertips, obviously, and all I had was social media and the internet, and I launched it on the one platform that I felt comfortable with and knew that could empower it, which was WordPress. I made it easy for me to do that. And it was really about being resourceful and using Twitter, Facebook to really get our voices out there. And I think one thing that has really surprised me over the years is just how naturally and organically something like this little blog that I started because I needed it has over the years very consistently turned into a space for so many other women from different backgrounds, not just from the Muslim religion even, but different walks of life that have found sisterhood through it. And I think that’s the most exciting part, is it really has melted a lot of those borders for us to be able to find and connect with one another and also the limitations of the conversations that we’re able to have. So tell me more about that, because that, I think, is one of the things that’s most challenging for a lot of people who are trying to get their voice heard, get their stories out there. How did you how did you go about connecting to your audience in the first place? How was that changed? And what is your strategy been or if not strategy, your approach strategy. Has 1,000% been staying authentic to our voices very early on? You will not imagine how many people try to really dictate what we spoke about or how we spoke about it. Shouldn’t we be talking about this or you should be talking about that now? We wanted to completely throw that out the window. We decided to just focus on ourselves and really focus on what it is that Muslim women want to talk about, not to pander to other audiences, but truly to do so on our own terms. And I think a lot of people found that very refreshing. And it also allowed us finally an outlet for us to be able to say what we have to say without being censored or without having our words twisted or having to conform to a certain narrative. And I think that that has been something that very naturally has had an amazing return on it. I mean, also very early on, a lot of people were saying, why does it have to be Muslim girl, whereas Muslim guy, why can’t it be both boys and girls? And we’re just very much stay true to our mission statement. We knew exactly what it is that we set out to do and we stuck to that and made sure to do it to the best of our ability. And I think that very naturally, it allowed us to Excel in that space and really establish ourselves in a way that has allowed people to recognize us as really an institution that can depend on. Yeah, no, that is that’s really amazing to hear. And you touched on you’ve touched on you mentioned authenticity is really the core of that. If you’re comfortable sharing. Could you tell us a bit more about some of the challenges along the way? Just because I know that this is one of those things, authenticity in general, that kind of stumps people. It’s people know that that’s something that they need to hold onto, that they need to build into everything they do and right. In order to turn something into something like you have to be close to it. So I’d love to hear more about that. Your your specific experience, as specific as you’d like to get with that particular challenge. Well, the first thing that comes to mind when I’m thinking about one of the earliest pieces of art is to go viral and get published in a mainstream publication. And it was an op Ed that we wrote when Michelle Obama was first lady and she made a trip to Saudi Arabia, where she wore a headscarf or no, she chose not to wear a headscarf during her visit. And she was being completely celebrated in American and Western media as being an icon for women’s rights in the Middle East. And look, she’s trying to be an example for Muslim women that they can do things on their own terms and things like that. And while everyone was celebrating her and obviously we were quite tremendous fans of her as first lady in that entire narrative was extremely problematic because it erase the fact that Saudi Arabian women have been leading movements within their own country, activists and civil rights leaders for four years. And that that hurt. Not wearing a headscarf wasn’t noteworthy for anyone in Saudi Arabia, but that it was being kind of turned into a big story in the United States and really portraying how things really are on the ground over there. And so we wrote an op Ed which basically said, no, this isn’t really doing anything to liberate us, and this is why. And that piece became one of the only counter narratives to that entire story. And it got picked up by, I remember, like a major mainstream publication which became our first time that we got republished outside of Muslim Girl. And then from there, everything really just started to take off then instead of us going elsewhere. It’s other places to ask them to cover our stories or to link sort of showed us how they started coming to us and asking us, like, can you please provide a quote on this? What’s your perspective on this? You have an op Ed you can share about this. And that’s a very powerful position to be in, especially when you come from an underrepresented community. Absolutely so that gets me sort of thinking about the growth side of things. So you mentioned that that’s sort of one that took off. It went viral, and then that helped sort of make it so that other people were going to rather than necessarily having to seek out your audience from within. I guess. So can you tell me more about how that worked out for you as far as how you handled growing your growing your publication essentially from a blog to what it is now? Because you definitely have it’s definitely more than a blog. Now, there’s as you’re involved in a lot of other things, there’s Muslim women’s day, which we haven’t even touched on. Can you tell me a little bit more about the or tell the audience, rather a little bit more about the logistics of that, like how you did sort of segue from writing blog posts on your own to building a team building, building a bigger building. Sorry excuse me, building a movement. You know, it’s been such a tremendous evolution over the years. And I do credit in large part all of the incredible women that have become involved with the Muslim world far beyond the work that I initially even put into starting it. I think that for what it has become, you know, starting out as a blog was that is our foundation event of the day. That’s always our number one. And we’re going to make sure that Muslim Girl continues to be the platform that it is for our voices. I mean, our slogan is Muslim women talk back, but it’s allowed us to be a jumping after so many other spaces like one of our first major partnerships into different spaces with the images. We teamed up with them to create a collection by for a Muslim woman to completely transform the way that they’re being represented in digital imagery online from being just hidden behind face veils, looking sad and victimized all the time, really showing us as being empowered women. And from there, we have had partnerships with major brands to that have been interested in tapping into our audience and really marketing towards Muslim women and really being inclusive towards our community. And we’ve been able to guide those conversations as well as in the television and film space. Now that we’ve seen an increase in representation for women that look like us and the world around us, a lot of TV and film projects have come to us seeking that type of guidance about how to get those stories right. And that’s really all around exciting for us to be able to then take what our needs are, the promise of Muslim Girl, which is to really carve out a space for ourselves and then extend that to other spaces. And I think that has been really the biggest subway has been finding the right team, the right team to be surrounded by. And from there, it’s just to keep building. And I think that has been really one of the most fulfilling parts of the entire journey. That’s I mean, that’s amazing to hear. I am, as you have grown into all these other areas within media. How would you how has your measure of measure of success for Muslim Girl evolved? It’s interesting because I think that especially when Muslim Girl became a company a couple of years ago, after we started going viral, Dodsworth and we started getting investors for the first time. A lot of the conversations internally started really bringing our entire movement down to the numbers. Right it’s been how do we quantify the success of this? What what are the hits? Who are the visitors? What’s the demographics and all of that stuff? And I think that. Now, it’s really going back to the foundation of it all, which is for me, as long as we are improving the lives of women, whether that is by shifting public opinion, by raising awareness and education, or whether that’s by directly assisting them, such as through our fiber 501(c)(3 organization that we launched, the Muslim girl foundation through a scholarship fund and things like that. That’s the most important part. And the second that Muslim world stops contributing to the benefit and the sanctity, the safety and the preservation of Muslim women and their ability to thrive, not just women from our community, but also our allies and the sisters stand beside us. That’s when the red flags to start going up. But I think that right now we have so much work to do and people have always asked us, how do you know when the work is done? And it’s not it’s not like we have come such a long way over the past few years. And even just in terms of our image in the public space, our representation over the last five years looks completely unrecognizable to where it was, thankfully. But there’s still so much left to go. And ultimately our liberation is it is our objective. That’s the goal. That’s wonderful. That is that’s a really beautiful that’s a really beautiful sentiment. And not just the sentiment here. I mean, you’re really putting that into action. I’m very I’m very curious because this is something that as far as publications, companies grow or companies grow, it can be a challenge. How do you as being so incredibly mission driven, how do you align your team members or the different prospects that you encountered and the business deals that you’re now having to manage? Getting very comfortable saying, lord, no. It is for a lot of women in the audience. We know that that’s a skill in and of itself is really learning how to say the word no. And I think that really perfecting that and just understanding what our values and our priorities have been the magic key for us and really just maintaining our integrity, because at the end of the day, it’s really understanding that when you are mission driven, your integrity is your biggest asset. Really, it’s not it’s not in the bank account. It’s really an integrity that you stand on because from there, you can really build anything. That’s that’s a great response and I wholeheartedly agree with you, it’s definitely something I myself need to learn to do a bit. So, yeah, I have a few more questions. Looks like we might be having some technical issues. I’m hoping we get the money back shortly, but I do want to remind the audience here that if you have any questions for us, please feel free to pop them into the chat. Just make sure you add the letter q in front so that we know that it is something that you’d like to share with us. Oh, there you are. Hello We both seem to drop out the signal. Yeah where were we. That’s OK. We can move forward. Oh, here you go. We actually have some questions that we cannot run through if you’re cool with that. And then I have just another one or two at the end. But here’s a question from the audience. Come on in. Do you have suggestions for email marketing and do you have a newsletter? Yes, we absolutely have a newsletter. Actually, email marketing was probably one of the first strategies that we ever even employed. And I think probably the best advice that I have and I’m going to I’m going to try to do like rapid answers because I know we’re short on time. Is offer value to your subscribers. Don’t make our newsletter just about company updates and your accomplishments and what you’re up to, but really offer value to your subscriber, whether that’s providing them with news or new facts about the industry that you’re in or something like that. But I think that’s really how you can continue to grow it at really amazing rates. Got it. And so how did you another question, how did you build awareness for your platform? Did you just rely on your social media or did you also spend money on ads, relied entirely on social media? And I say that, like, look, I’m not I didn’t come to the table as like Kylie Jenner was like 100 million followers or anything. I literally started with zero followers, just like everybody else. And we didn’t spend a single dime on ads because we literally just didn’t have the money to do so. But like I said, I really think it has been depending on that authentic narrative and really getting through all of the white noise to show people that we’re here and you can come to us now. Assam so another question, how did you develop your editor’s picks, do you have any tips for this? I’m amazed by your home page, especially your editor’s picks. The editor’s picks are compiled by our editorial team, of course, and they are a collection of some of the hottest stories that are being talked about on social media, especially within the Muslim community. So a lot of them are things that not only are being talked about, but we also recommend to our readers to be well-rounded and really aware of a lot of the things happening in the world around us right now. OK, so have you found that the business end has interfered with your message? I don’t think it has interfered with the message, but I do think that the business side of things has definitely presented an obstacle and in certain moments. Right, because it kind of based off of one of the last questions that you were asking me, would you how do you decide what to get involved in and things like that? You know, sometimes there are projects where, like, for example, are our show Muslim Girl has a show on Snapchat now and it’s doing incredibly well. And the reason why we do it is because it’s a tremendous partnership opportunity with Snapchat on the business side. It’s remarkable. It’s really a wonderful project that we’re involved in. But the content, for example, is a bit basic for the Muslim Girl audience. It is very much geared towards a more mainstream young non-Muslim audience that might have very basic questions that you look at. Average Muslim might be like, why are we talking about this? And so for us, it might feel like a compromise in terms of the conversations that we’re focusing on or the types of space that we’re providing to certain questions. But on the business side of things, the audience that it’s tapping into far beyond the Muslim background and from many diverse walks of life, that to us is a very tangible type of return on it. So it’s always kind of figuring out this balance of how to accomplish your goals and the most effective way possible while also being true to what your mission truly is. Fantastic circle right back to authenticity, which is just amazing to hear that that’s been such a core part of your growth. So we have time for one more question, and I think we have to wrap it up. The hardest question for me questions. So thank you, Robert Preston. So sorry. What are your three most impactful lessons from growing up, mission based movements? Yeah, amazing passion. I’m like, how do I not spend time thinking about this for a second? But I would say off the top of my head, first lesson, definitely make sure that you surround yourself with the right team. I’ve been lucky that the people I’ve been surrounded by have all been just as committed to the mission as I have. And that’s really important when it’s a mission based movement. The second one is to really stay focused on what that mission is, because also a lot of times, especially when you start seeing an impact from your work, you’re going to want to work on more. There might be even more on the table that you’re like, OK, let’s do this now. Let’s do that. Let’s do that. You want to keep growing, but it’s really important to make sure to stay focused and do your absolute best and give it your all to what you set out to do, because otherwise you spread yourself too thin or overextend yourself. You might end up losing that progress that you started making in the first place. And then the third lesson I would have to say is definitely protect yourself care, especially within these spaces, because, again, with all these elements that we touched upon getting so pulled into the business side of things, the rat race that is the internet world with hints and views and all of that stuff, and then also on top of not being mission based, which a lot of times means that you’re dealing with issues that are very difficult to deal with because you’re passionate about them and you care about them and you want to. Those are the moments where we really have to make sure that you protect your own well-being first, because if you got burnt out or if you got blindsided by things, that’s not going to do anything to help you or the people that you set out to help yourself. So make sure that you’re 100% first with the gas mask on yourself first before you put it on others and carry on, have a good support system or audio. Awesome advice. So I have just one last question for you and then we can wrap up and thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I really appreciate it. And I know we had to meet a lot of great questions in the audience today. But Yeah. What’s next for you money? What’s next for Muslim Girl? And feel free to make it a plug. Well, we’re definitely in season two of the Muslim Girl’s show on Snapchat right now. So check it out right now. There’s a lot going on in terms of the conversations happening around Afghanistan, which I’m sure everyone is well aware and has encountered. And so I kind of want to leave everyone off with the call to action to please turn to sources from that community to understand what’s going on and how we should react to it. On MuslimGirl.com, we’re going to be publishing a series of op Ed pieces from Afghan women from their perspective. So please keep an eye out for that. And also seek out other Afghan women activists and movers and shakers online that you can support and amplify and follow to keep tabs on what’s happening. If you to get involved in that conversation. And then I know that we didn’t get a chance to talk about it too much. But of course, we have Muslim women’s day, which happens every year during Women’s History Month. We’re already gearing up for next year’s Muslim women campaign and we are planning an entire daylong summit in celebration of the Day. So that’s something I’m super excited about. And I can’t wait to continue to update you guys about that. And I hope to see you all there, Hassan. Well, that’s really fantastic. So you can find mRNA at Muslim Girl and all the links to all the other amazing thing that she’s working on from there. Thank you so much again. And I hope you enjoyed the rest of your day. Thank you all.

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