Social Enterprise Spotlight: Thawra

Business+Impact is introducing a new series on U-M alumni who have created social enterprises and continue the work of entrepreneurship after graduation. For our inaugural spotlight, we are shining the light on Thawra, a multimedia content provider for the Arab and Muslim communities.
Last year, in the Michigan Business Challenge – Seigle Impact Track, Yasmeen Kadouh (U-M Dearborn BA ’17) and Rima Fadlallah (Ross MBA ’20) introduced their business to the world as For Dearborn, featuring the subbrand Dearborn Girl, and they became the runner up in the track competition. Their business has kept the Dearborn Girl division and added several others, but their purpose remains the same: to create a space for Arab and/or Muslim Americans (AAMs) to self-actualize and thrive through digital media, programming, fashion and philanthropy.
This work has been noticed and picked up by Poets and Quants and ABC’s Nightline. We reached out to Ms. Kadouh and Ms. Fadlallah for an update.

Describe your business.

Thawra Network produces trusted multimedia content for Arabs & Muslims. We aspire to be our communities’ choice for media on Arabs or Muslims.

How did you come to create it?  What was the impetus?

Before we officially started Thawra, we were the hosts of the Dearborn Girl podcast, highlighting the stories of Arab or Muslim women in the nation’s largest concentration of Arabs. We have always wanted to showcase the complexity and wisdom in our narratives, and as proud daughters of Dearborn, we figured we would start in our own backyard. 

Dearborn Girl taught us that our hyper local stories were global: we are currently streaming in over 85 countries! Our DMs, email inboxes, and trips to the local grocer are still filled with people telling us about their favorite episode, how much they loved our live events, or ideas they have for our next merch design. This community buy-in and thirst for spaces that affirm their identities (in a world that is constantly vilifying them) inspired us to take this local idea and run with it.

After the tragic Beirut blast in August 2020, we found ourselves frantically checking family WhatsApp group chats or social media for answers, and that’s when we truly realized the severity of our distrust of mainstream media. Put simply, for Arabs and Muslims, “fake news” and “tired tropes” have been our reality for decades. Even in this digital age, we find ourselves struggling to find answers about issues or stories that uniquely impact us, and eventually having to settle for “good enough.” We founded Thawra because we believe it’s time our communities have places they can trust, and content that actually sees them. 

How have you used what you learned at U-M Dearborn, Ross and Michigan Business Challenge experience since leaving U-M?

We are so privileged and grateful to have world class institutions just a short drive away from our community in Dearborn, and we’ve been intentional about drawing wisdom from both sources.

By day, we were going through pitch practice at Ross’ Zell Lurie Institute, and by night we were hosting community coffee chats at Dearborn’s beloved Qahwah House. We held focus groups with students at U-M Dearborn and Dearborn Public Schools, and consulted with student groups at Ross through Lindy Greer’s Psychology of Start-Up Teams course. One of our favorite moments was meeting a fellow Dearborn Girl and Ross student while sitting in on Marcus Collins’ Social Media Marketing course, and inviting her to be on our podcast only a week later. Talk about the best of both worlds.

You are, in a sense “influencers” and “encouragers”.  What are the biggest entrepreneurial hurdles for such a role?

Representation, ironically. Our platform is for Arab Muslims, non-Arab Muslims, and non-Muslim Arabs. Cultivating a public facing platform that is representative of the diversity that exists within our communities is so important, and it can also be pretty challenging to navigate. We think it’s important to call that out, but the stakes are way too high to let that be an excuse. 

We have conversations every day about how to reflect this diversity in everything from our hiring decisions to our content creation. Arab identities and Muslim identities are constantly conflated in the media, but the reality is, most Arabs in America are not Muslim, and the vast majority of Muslims are non-Arab. While our founding team happens to hold both identities, we are mindful of the fact that we will need to recruit people who reflect the diversity of our national and global communities.

This may seem obvious, but in what ways does social impact function as a core missional goal in Thawra/DG?

We are never not talking about social impact. Our values are bravery, shared liberation, truth-telling, independence and growth.

Thawra at its core is about inspiring our communities to action. We want to be the aggregators and creators of content that motivates people to self advocate socially and politically. We want young people who grow up consuming our content to believe that their voices can drive real change. 

Most importantly, we want to inject our audience with a commitment to collective liberation, or the notion that all of our struggles are intimately intertwined, that we all suffer under systems of oppression. In 10-15 years, we want the media landscape to look radically different for communities of color because Thawra exists.

What are the core elements of your business, and what new ideas are you looking toward, especially in light of coronavirus?

Thawra currently has four active brands: (1) The Dearborn Girl podcast, highlighting the stories of Arab &/or Muslim woman from Dearborn, the world’s largest concentration of Arabs outside of the Middle East; (2) Missing Pages, an anonymous submissions blog and podcast series where we discuss some of our community’s most harmful taboos; (3) The Typical Arab TikTok Page, where our content creators celebrate Arab culture through funny videos, and lastly, (4) the Al-Nazar email series, where we will provide trusted news and culture content to a rapidly growing community of Arabs and Muslims across the nation (starting this Spring). You can (and should) subscribe here to get ready for our Spring launch. 

What advice do you have for students who wish to start their own businesses while still students?

Rima: Fast forward to the day you walk across the stage. What are you most proud of yourself for? When I went through these visualization activities early on during my first year at Ross, I kept imagining myself feeling proud of my ability to balance school, part-time work and leaving my local community with something that would outlast me. I didn’t know what that last part looked like or meant, and I didn’t even know I wanted to start a business that would ultimately impact national Arab or Muslim communities greatly, I just knew I had a deep yearning to solve a specific problem, so I let myself lean into the problem solving/design thinking process. 

From there, Ross became a training ground/sandbox of sorts. Because I had my eyes set on a vision – vague as it was – all of my courses, resources, conversations with peers on campus or back home served to help me solve that problem.

How can the people who are reading this support your work?

People can support us by connecting us to anyone who can be a potential mentor or advisor, and by subscribing to Al Nazar (launching Spring ’21).