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Minneapolis hosts pitch competition for Somali entrepreneurs

Minbar, an international entrepreneurship organization, will host its first startup competition in Minneapolis this month highlighting businesses created by Somali entrepreneurs across the globe.

To be considered for the competition, startups must offer a product or service that promotes job opportunities and quality of life in Somalia. The company itself does not have to be located in Eastern Africa. Affinis Labs, the East Coast-based social innovation firm behind Minbar, said it will look favorably on groups with youth and women.

Five startups will be selected to pitch at a “Shark Tank” style event in Minneapolis on September 21. Each group will have five minutes to pitch their business in front of a live audience and a panel of four judges.

Just like the show, the judges, often called sharks, will be free to commit as much or as little to the startups as they wish. Minbar plans to commit a minimum of $25,000, which will be split amongst the finalists.

“In many places entrepreneurship tends to be an elite sport,” said Quintan Wiktorowicz, Affinis Labs co-founder and managing partner. “If you want to succeed, you need to be interconnected and networked into the community.”

Before founding Affinis, Wiktorowicz served as the senior director for global engagement and community partnerships under the Obama administration. In this role, Wictorowicz worked with refugee communities across the country and around the world to determine how the government could best assist them.

“Now, we’re trying to flip that,” he said. “We found that communities better understand their own circumstances, so our role as an entity should be to empower them.”

Wiktorowicz explained that at that time, the government had largely engaged with the Somali population on two topics: civil rights and counterterrorism. One of the best ways to promote community-driven problem solving, he found, was through entrepreneurship.

Many community members are interested in starting their own business, but lack the resources to do so. Eventually, this idea led to the creation of Minbar, which connects hopeful entrepreneurs with the people and resources they need to grow a business.

But why is an international, shark-tank style Somali pitch competition coming to Minneapolis? To Wiktorowicz, the answer is obvious.

The Twin Cities is home to the greatest concentration of Somalis in the nation. One of the largest diasporas is located in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, which is occasionally referred to as “Little Mogadishu.” Somali entrepreneurs have made their mark on the area by opening barber shops, clothing stores and other businesses.

Last year, local entrepreneur Fatimah Hussein won the impact ventures division of the Minnesota Cup with Asiya Sport, a company that makes sweat-wicking athletic hijabs. And there are countless other examples of the Minnesota Somali community contributing to local government and business communities.

Affinis Labs ran a Minbar pilot program in Tunisia last year. As part of the program, Minbar sponsored an entrepreneurship bootcamp and pitch competition involving hundreds of participants. At the end of the program, Minbar gave seed funding to four Tunisian startups, half of which generated revenue not long after leaving its bootcamp, according to the organization.

“We were able to demonstrate that if you put something out there like that there’s a strong hunger of these types of opportunities,” Wiktorowicz said.

He added that Minbar aims to highlight the untapped talent, passion and potential of Somali entrepreneurs across the globe. Wiktorowicz hopes to continue expanding Minbar’s reach into other countries and cities across the globe.

“It’s amazing to realize how far very little investment can take you,” he said. “There’s a lot of need and a lot of opportunity which can be channeled by building an ecosystem and pipeline of support for entrepreneurs in places like Somalia.”

-VB



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