Startups Cater To Muslim Millennials With Dating Apps And Vegan Halal Soap

Oct 27, 2015
Originally published on November 5, 2015 2:22 pm

It used to be that American Muslims who wanted a halal meal had to live in a major city and know a good butcher. Want to find an eligible spouse? Get your parents involved. In the market for halal cosmetics? Good luck.

Times are changing though.

Across the U.S., the Muslim population is booming. It's expected to reach six million in 15 years, more than double its current number. That's good news for Muslim entrepreneurs looking to reach the new generation of tech-savvy Muslim consumers. Matchmaking apps like Salaam Swipe provide a twist on Tinder for Muslim millennials. Other companies supply everything from vegan halal soaps to gourmet halal meals delivered fresh to your door.

At the annual convention for Islamic Society of North America this year, community leaders gather to discuss urgent topics like Syrian refugees and civil rights. The event also serves as a venue for marketers to pitch their products. Alongside old standbys like halal chicken distributors and Islamic finance firms, startups are making a bigger show than they have in past years.

Among those startup marketers is Sarah Ahmed. She hands out blue plastic cups that say "Share a home with friendly Muslims" to promote Umma Spot. Umma means community in Arabic, and Ahmed says the business is "basically like an Airbnb for Muslims." It connects Muslim homeowners with travelers who want to book short-term stays where it's comfortable to eat halal or wear a hijab.

"It was actually a group of us friends just sitting together after a birthday party one day, and then we were like 'Hey, that would be a good idea!'" Ahmed recalls. "And then we took it and ran with it." Umma Spot CEO Usman Choudhry says the startup, which also plans to help Muslims network, is still in the testing phase and plans to roll out a mobile app later this year."

There's a familiar immigrant story to these startups, says Sahiba Ansari, a representative from the American Muslim Consumer Consortium (an industry group supporting Muslim entrepreneurs). "I definitely do see us following us the trend of the Jewish and Hispanic market," she says: A tech-savvy generation moving far beyond the old neighborhood and the corner stores their parents and grandparents built and relied on.

Ansari's group hosts a "Shark Tank" style contest for startups. Last year's winner was LaunchGood, a company that does online crowdfunding for projects and business ventures with social missions. She estimates the American Muslim market at close to 100 billion dollars.

"It's the American dream at work," says Benjamin Jones, a professor of entrepreneurship and emerging markets at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "And entrepreneurship of course is an important part of that process."

Back at the Chicago conference, hundreds of people sign up for Umma Spot. And women in bright headscarves crowd around a booth called "Soap Ethics," buying beautifully packaged, herbal, vegan, halal soap. A line forms at the booth for Convey, a brand that sells jewelry as well as t-shirts featuring artsy photos and sayings from Muhammad and the Sufi poet Rumi. "I've known about this brand for maybe about a year or maybe about a year and a half," says Jumana Elammori of South Bend, Indiana. "I'm always checking their social media to see what they have new. I got the rose shirt that says, 'Seek everything from the source to the reflection.'" She looks a little starstruck as she hands over her credit card. "It's awesome to see Muslims doing something cool like this."

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The Muslim population of the United States is expected to reach 6 million in 15 years. That's more than double what it is now. Those kind of numbers spell opportunity for a new generation of Muslim entrepreneurs. From Chicago, Monique Parsons reports on the types of products and services that startups are focusing on.

MONIQUE PARSONS, BYLINE: It used to be that American Muslims who wanted a Hilal meal had to be living in a major city and know a good butcher. Want to find an eligible spouse? Get your parents involved. And the market for Hilal cosmetics - good luck.

Times are changing, though, and a wide variety of products is just a smartphone away, matchmaking apps like Salaam Swipe, a Muslim twist on Tinder, vegan Hilal soaps and gourmet Hilal meals delivered fresh to your door.

At a recent convention in Chicago held by the Islamic Society of North America, there were urgent talks about Syrian refugees and civil rights. There were also marketers targeting Muslim consumers. Alongside old standbys like Hilal chicken distributors and Islamic finance firms, startups are grabbing more of the space. Sarah Ahmed of Indiana is handing out blue plastic cups that say share a home with friendly Muslims. She's a cofounder of a company called Umma Spot.

SARAH AHMED: It's basically, like, then - an Airbnb for Muslims.

PARSONS: Umma means community in Arabic, and the startup connects Muslim homeowners to travelers booking short-term stays where it's comfortable to pray, eat Hilal, religiously approved food or wear a hijab. They plan to roll out a mobile app later this year.

AHMED: It was actually a group of us friends just sitting together after a birthday party one day. And then we were like, hey, that would be a good idea. And then we took it and ran with it.

SABIHA ANSARI: The American Muslim market is estimated to be close to about $100 billion.

PARSONS: That's Sabiha Ansari of the American Muslim Consumer Consortium, the industry group supporting Muslim entrepreneurs. She sees a familiar immigrant story here - a tech savvy generation moving far beyond the old neighborhood and the corner stores their parents and grandparents built and relied on.

ANSARI: I definitely do see us following the trend of the Jewish and the Hispanic market.

PARSONS: Her group hosts a shark tank-style contests for startups. Last year's winner was LaunchGood. It does online crowdfunding for projects and business ventures with social missions. Benjamin Jones teaches entrepreneurship in emerging markets at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He says it's all about scale.

BENJAMIN JONES: This is the classic American story. It's the American dream at work. And when that's function well, it's nice to see the kinds of developments where a community can really raise itself in socioeconomic status and in other ways. And entrepreneurship, of course, is an important part of that process.

PARSONS: At the Chicago conference, hundreds of people are signing up for the Muslim-style Airbnb. Women in bright headscarves crowd around a booth called Soap Ethics, buying beautifully packaged herbal vegan Hilal soap. A line forms at Convey, a booth selling hipster T-shirts and jewelry. Jumana Elammori of South Bend, Ind., looks a little star struck as she hands over her credit card.

JUMANA ELAMMORI: I'm actually buying a T-shirt. I've known about this band for, I think, about a year and a half or maybe just a year. I'm really excited about it. I love it. Like, I always am checking their social media to see what they have new.

PARSONS: The shirts features artsy photos and sayings from Muhammad and the Sufi poet known as Rumi.

ELAMMORI: I got the rose shirt that says seek everything from the source to the reflection. I'm excited to wear it. It's really awesome to see, like, Muslims doing something cool like this.

PARSONS: Chances are good consumers like Elammori will continue to find reasons to pull out their credit cards to buy new goods and services that speak directly to them. For NPR News, I'm Monique Parsons. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In audio of this story, as in a previous Web version of this story, we misidentify Sarah Ahmed as the co-founder of Umma Spot. Rather, CEO Usman Choudhry says she is a team member.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.