Yasmine Mustafa will tell you she cheated the birth lottery. She talks about this phenomenon often — how we don't decide where we are born, or what culture we live in, or what type of educational opportunities we have, or who are parents are, but it often defines the challenges and opportunities we are faced with.
Mustafa's mother had an arranged marriage when she was 16. She met Mustafa's father three days before her wedding. Both her parents are Palestinian, though Mustafa spent the first eight years of her life in Kuwait. She was born with a certain set of traits — traits that would have put her on a trajectory similar to her mother.
Today, Mustafa is the founder of ROAR For Good, a company that makes self-defense wearable technology to diminish attacks against women. She's the leader of Girl Develop It in Philadelphia, and a seasoned marketing consultant and software entrepreneur.
That all happened because of two random occurrences. The first was a trip her parents took. When Mustafa was young, her father was traveling to Philadelphia for a business trip, and her mother, who was pregnant with Mustafa's younger brother, accompanied him because she had never been to the US. She ended up delivering her son on US soil, which made him a US citizen.
Then, a month later, the second life-altering event occurred. When the family was back in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein invaded, and the Gulf War began. One of Mustafa's earliest memories is that of two US ambassadors beating on her door while the family was in their bomb shelter, calling out her baby brother's name. They were there to evacuate all Americans, and he was American. The family had two hours to pack two suitcases, and then they boarded a plane to Philadelphia.
"I came here, and I didn't speak any English. I took ESL, and the culture shock was immense. I'd only seen Arab people, never seen people of different backgrounds and ethnicities. It was crowded, there were tall buildings. It was so different," she said.
Her father was a mechanical engineer, but the job didn't transfer, so he bought a 7-Eleven. For 10 years it was the family business. But, when Mustafa was 18, her father abruptly sold the business and bought a one way ticket to Jordan. They were all becoming too Americanized, he said, and he didn't like it. She hasn't seen him since.
"He took all the family savings with him, leaving us to fend for ourselves," she said. "I would say thats when my entrepreneurial spirit kicked in."
The family found out they were illegal immigrants, despite their refugee status, and despite the fact the government brought them to America. So they all worked under the table jobs to survive. Mustafa worked as a hostess, waitress, cleaner — and then, when 9/11 happened, everything changed.
"My manager came into work and he said, 'Yasmine you don't know how to fly planes do you?' And then he fired me the day after 911."
Her brother, whose name is Osama, was beaten and harassed — so much so, he changed his name to Adam.
"All those experiences fueled a fire under me to be my own boss so I could treat others how I wanted to be treated," she said.
Because of her illegal status, Mustafa could only take a few hours of college courses at a time. It took her seven and a half years, working multiple under the table jobs, to get through it. During that time, she became a US citizen.
Her first job was at a tech startup, a marketing consulting firm. She started as an intern at Team and a Dream, and worked her way up to partner.
"I just loved it. I loved sitting across from these entrepreneurs as they shared their dreams and visions, and I wanted to be one of them," she said.
She started running a blog, built her audience, and fell in love with marketing. She also had a knack for it. So in 2009, she founded 123LinkIt, a software system that helped bloggers make money from their content. She learned a lot there, about how to interact with developers and tried to teach herself to code.
When she found out why so few women get into technology, especially software development, she started the Philadelphia chapter of Girl Develop It, an organization that aims to get more women to learn programming in supportive environments. It's now the most active chapter in the US, above San Francisco and New York, with 20 teachers, 80 volunteers, and a network of more than 3,000 women.
After 123LinkIt was acquired, Mustafa had financial freedom for the first time in her life. She traveled solo around South America for six months. While there, she couldn't get the fact that so many women she encountered had been attacked or harassed. From the front desk worker at a hostel to other female travelers that she met, the incidents accumulated fast. And when she returned to Philadelphia, one of the first stories she read about in the news was a woman who was raped while leaving a bar in a safe neighborhood.
"I was looking at it and being like, 'Shit, someone has to do something about this. This is ridiculous.' It inspired ROAR For Good." she said.
Initially, she wanted to make self-defense tools like mace and tasers wearable, but eventually, something clicked.
"Right now everything is on women. Don't wear this, don't walk here," she said.
And it shouldn't be like that. So ROAR evolved into a device that is fashionable jewelry that acts as an alarm and light, as well as a wearable that connects to a smartphone and sends texts to family and friends, and 911 or campus security, depending on the location of the woman using it. The connecting app also watches over her, letting her know if she's entering unsafe areas.
Mustafa has seen many other safety devices out there, but none really take a humanistic approach to this societal problem. So she and her co-founder have incorporated an educational component by giving some proceeds from the wearable to nonprofits dedicated to increasing empathy in young men and women.
ROAR will launch this month, and will be crowdfunding its first product.
"When I first held the prototype, I looked at it and I was like, 'You were just an idea a few months ago and now look im holding you!'," she said. "I just don't want that feeling to ever go away. It's intoxicating."
In her own words...
What are some of your hobbies?
"I have no life work balance. I ran into a friend on the way to lunch. He's like, 'How the hell do you have a personal life?' And I'm like, I don't! I remember being like, 'Oh yeah, I want to start dating but I'm going to schedule it in July.' And he looked at me like, 'You're going to schedule time to start dating? Yasmine, you have a problem we have to do something about this.' I gotta figure it out. I like to get away from the bustle and hustle of the city, so like last weekend I went out. I'll just get a craving to see the stars, to just lay somewhere and look at space and the twinkling lights. I like doing that, hiking, biking, being outdoors as much as possible because I'm inside so much. And playing poker. I love playing poker."
Looking back, what is some advice you would give yourself?
"If I could go back to my 18-year-old self and give myself advice I would say a few things. Your plans are never going to work out how you want, so don't be so rigid on those plans. And adapt. And don't take failures so hard. Really focus more on learning from them and actually embrace them. Let go of being perfect. I think it's held me back a lot. For 123Linkit, I waited so long for it to be just right and of course it's never right, and waiting prevented me from getting it out to my audience first to get their feedback. And ask for help, I always had this thing where I felt like if I asked people for help, I had to do something back for them, it was like a scale and it wasn't balanced, and it seems so transactional then versus building relationships with people. I wish I would have learned that earlier."
What kind of company culture do you try to create?
"I'm trying to figure that out. I want to be open and transparent, I love the idea of giving people big shoes to fill and watching them adapt and learn and grow and seeing where their strengths are and helping where they're not as strong... What's been great about ROAR is the people that get the purpose, they're driven by something — it's not a job, it's not work. Their passion emerges from the purpose and you get a different type of person as a result...We are very lucky."
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.