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Meet The Disruptor: Yasmine Mustafa

The 33-year-old entrepreneur couldn’t speak English when she came to the States from Kuwait as an eight-year-old. Now she’s developing fashionable safety jewelry for women and spreading a message of kick-ass empowerment

Hand-drawn signs on the wall of Roar for Good’s offices at the University City Science Center incubator capture the founder’s audaciousness:

I ROAR…for breaking the glass ceiling

I ROAR…for future generations

I ROAR…for all underprivileged and challenge all privileged to step up

I ROAR…for those who can’t

I ROAR…for the greater good

Yasmine Mustafa, co-founder and CEO, can do businesspeak—she’s already founded and sold one company, 123LinkIt, and brought Girl Develop It, the nonprofit that teaches women coding and web development, to Philly. But her latest venture is more of a calling than a get rich quick plan or a charity. With ROAR, Mustafa is developing wearable safety technology: fashionable jewelry—necklace, charm or key fob—that women can wear and activate when under attack, emitting an alarm and a light and instantly calling 911. Once profitable, ROAR—a recent graduate of the DreamIt incubator—will donate money to non-profits that teach respect, consent and healthy relationships to young people.

Mustafa came to the States in 1990, on the eve of the first Gulf War. She was 8 years old and with her family and neighbors in a Kuwaiti bomb shelter when officials from the American embassy burst in, searching for her little brother, who had been born in Philadelphia during a family visit. That made him a U.S. citizen, and the Americans were there to hurriedly transport the family to America. Once here, Yasmine’s father, a mechanical engineer in the Middle East, couldn’t find a job. In keeping with the all-too-familiar immigrant script, he swallowed his pride and bought a 7-11 in Royersford. There, 9-year-old Yasmine—who spoke no English at the time—learned all about work ethic, stocking shelves and manning the cash register.

Today, Mustafa speaks with the fierce urgency of the immigrant she once was, the words coming breathless. She’s quick with a smile, but it’s only a momentary respite from an intensity that rarely dims. She points out that immigrants are twice as likely to start businesses as native-born Americans. Like so many others who have defied, as she puts it, their “birth lottery” and ended up achieving in the land of opportunity, she works—and when she’s done working, she works some more. But it’s not just personal fortune she’s chasing; Mustafa’s drive not only to succeed, but also to change the world, is palpable. “I’ve always had this naïve mentality that one person can make a difference,” she says over coffee at West Philly’s Joe Coffee, where the congenital enthusiast goes on a wide-eyed riff about how she’s just learned that chocolate and coffee can be mixed, and how great that is. “It sounds morbid, but a friend and I are always wondering about what people are going to say about us at our funerals. Did I actively pursue making a difference?”

In 2011, Mustafa sold her first company, 123LinkIt, a WordPress plugin that automated advertising for bloggers, and it was just in time. She’d been working since she was 9 and, approaching 30, was getting burned out. After the sale of 123LinkIt, she left for a six-month jaunt through South America, where stories of women coming under attack abounded. After she returned to Philly, a woman was brutally raped one night feeding her parking meter a block from Mustafa’s Gayborhood apartment.

Mustafa has raised $175,000 and is about to start a $50,000 crowdsourcing campaign. Once profitable, contributions will be made to non-profits that teach respect, consent and healthy relationships.

Mustafa had been feverishly filling notebooks with entrepreneurial ideas. What if that woman, or thousands of others, had had some form of protection that was also stylish, that could “distract and disorient” a would-be attacker? Could that have made a difference? With the help of Anthony Gold, her best friend and business partner, an idea was born: The “Macelet”—a bracelet that releases a torrent of mace when needed.

Mustafa and Gold commenced an online survey of women. They found that 39 percent have some sort of self-defense tool, but that none were particularly well-liked. Women, they learned, don’t like walking around with pepper spray; most are afraid they’ll be overpowered and their spray will be used against them. Like so many entrepreneurial birth stories, Mustafa had to recalibrate. The Macelet was out; an alarm, light and 911 notification system was in.

Mustafa and Gold financed the fledgling company themselves; DreamIt’s $25,000 seed money last year was their first outside investment. They’ve raised $150,000 since (the Untours Foundation and Benjamin Franklin Technology Partners are both on board) and next month will launch a $50,000 crowdfunding campaign. They plan to debut a pilot program with a university sometime soon, allowing students to use the technology for two-way communications with campus security. Imagine: A young woman using her necklace to request an escort on campus late at night.

Meantime, Mustafa finds herself engulfed by irony. Growing up, she was a tomboy, a self-described Allen Iverson “fan girl,” complete with the baggy Sixers jersey and signature Reeboks. Still, she says, she’s seldom aware of aesthetics—something she’s compensating for by hiring industrial designers who specialize in coming up with what’s stylish. “That I’m now running this company in the fashion space is kinda crazy,” she says.

Then there’s the irony of her childhood, which she spent “trying to disappear.” She was the girl in the back of the classroom who sat silent, who the boys teased, whose teachers were on her to “speak up.” After 9/11, catcalls on the street became angry demands to “go back where you came from.” How’d she find her voice?  At 19, her Dad—fed up with the Americanization of his family—fled for Jordan, taking the family nest egg with him. Like her mother, Mustafa had to work multiple minimum wage jobs, often under the table, just to make ends meet. It took seven years, but she put herself through Temple University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, where her mentor, the late Chris Pavlides, encouraged her earliest business plans. And when she became a United States citizen in 2012, she celebrated by eating an American flag cake and ruminating on how, had she not been whisked away to America, her life likely would have followed her mother’s trajectory, which included an arranged marriage.

The name of her company is taken from the Katy Perry song Roar, which hearkens back to the 1970s Helen Reddy classic, I am Woman (Hear me Roar). Roaring is what Mustafa has been doing ever since her father boarded that flight to Jordan, living a life that amounts to an extended primal scream of self-empowerment. It’s a freeing feeling she wants to provide to women everywhere. She’s gone from immigrant to citizen, from wallflower to bad ass, from dreamer to business owner. And she’s not only forgiven her father, but feels in his debt. “He gave me someone to prove something to,” she says.

For more information on Roar for Good, click here, where you can sign up and be in the running to win a wearable device for free.

To read Yasmine’s personal blog, go to www.myasmine.com.

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