Muppies Creatives Lightning Talks: Self- Determination + Success

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Muppies Chicago, DC, and Seattle collaborated to produce a unique event focused on talented Muslims working in creative industries.

Five speakers from different cities and industries spoke to Muppies about the lessons they’ve learned, then broke into smaller sessions for more in-depth discussion. This webinar was full of inspirational success stories of pushing past challenges and overcoming obstacles. 

Fatima Aslam & Zareen Abbasi 
Co-founders of Kishmish, a San Francisco-based paper goods and candle company

Launched in 2017, Kishmish quickly became the first South Asian stationery brand to be stocked by Paper Source, a huge win for a small brand in a billion-dollar industry.

In early 2019, the two-woman team added a collection of hand-poured soy candles to their inventory. The candles feature scents evocative of quintessentially South Asian culture, a one-of-a-kind concept. Each candle captures moments reminiscent of the sub-continent, including floral profiles and the scent of Kashmiri chai.

All elements of Kishmish candles are sourced and produced in the US, from the frosted jars to the soy wax, and Fatimah and Zareen pour all of the candles by hand in their homes. It’s a very intimate production, something in which the co-founders take immense pride. 

Kishmish is a side hustle for both of the founders; they also have full-time jobs in technology. As a small business in a niche space, the pair have encountered their share of struggles, through which they realized that they could and needed to rely on others. Growing Kishmish has been a learning experience in trusting people and asking for help.

 “With online spaces, it’s easy to connect with people who are like-minded, have similar goals, and who are willing to help. Fatimah and I are both the type who feel as though we can’t ask for help, that it’s a sign of weakness, which is a myth, but it’s the mentality that we have. Being able to put that ego aside, be vulnerable, and ask for advice helps you grow professionally and personally. There’s a lot of trial and error and there are going to be relationships that aren’t going to work out for you and your business and you just have to figure out what works for you because we can’t do it all.” – Zareen

Nitasha Syed
Host of digital talk show, Sham ki Chai

Nitasha was born and raised in Vancouver and is currently based in the Bay Area. Her background is in software engineering and machine learning.

Two years ago, she started a media company called Unboxd. The idea was to change the narratives of women in the media through interviews with women in STEM. She later found local photographers and began organizing high-end editorial fashion shoots with women in STEM fields.

When the pandemic hit, she found herself at home with all of her media equipment. Like many during the pandemic, Nitasha turned on the TV. She watched the Pakistani dramas that she had grown up with and realized that a lot of the narratives portrayed were still the same as when she was a girl. She thought, surely there are more narratives about Pakistani people than what can be seen here.

Sham ki Chai means afternoon tea, where many South Asians connect over tea and conversation. 

On Sham ki Chai, Nitasha has interviewed Pakistanis from all over the world, from the godfather of MMA in Pakistan (who is based out of Tokyo) to the leader in Virtual Reality in Pakistan to producers, artists, writers, and directors. It’s been interesting to see how many Pakistani creatives there are. Younger generations seem to want to influence fields like politics, art, and media.

One of Nitasha’s struggles has been in distributing her content. To a certain degree, successful content is about quality, but it’s also about quantity and figuring out how to produce a steady stream while also working full-time. Continuous content allows algorithms to surface and recommend creators. Knowing what keywords to use, who or what to tag, and which hashtags to use, are all important. The Google algorithm is different from the Instagram algorithm, which is different from Twitter. It’s important to understand what these algorithms optimize for and who the intended audience is. Pick and avoid certain platforms to ensure that you don’t spread yourself too thin.

Bassam Abdelfattah
Film + Stage Actor

In 2013, Bassam was happily working for Charles Schwabb as a stockbroker in Chicago, but also felt as though something was missing. At the same time, he was, and still is, very passionate about the way the media portrays Muslims. So, in 2015, he began to re-explore acting. He had acted on a small scale in his hometown of El Paso, TX, and now that he was living in Chicago, there was more opportunity. 

He went on Facebook and saw a post for extras on the TV show, Chicago PD. He submitted his information and fifteen minutes later, they reached out and asked him to come in the next day. 

Bassam loved being on set. Chicago PD called him back over and over and every time, they’d bump him up a little bit more in the realm of being an extra. He quickly became a featured extra, which means being in scenes with main actors and increased camera time. 

While on set, Bassam asked questions like, what’s the difference between an extra and an actor? How do I become an actor? What do I need to do? The advice he got was to get an agent. He looked up top agents in Chicago and applied to one that was recommended. He ended up getting picked up by this agency. The timing was right, as he was transitioning into working for himself as a trader. That allowed him to make an income on a flexible schedule, which allowed him to go to every audition, which then propelled his acting career forward quickly.

In addition to acting, Bassam also runs a production company that creates promotional videos. He does the writing, the producing, the casting, and oversees the editing for these videos. Now, he understands how to be in front of, as well as behind, the camera. 

Bassam has always been a business-minded artist. Many actors and artists were greatly and negatively affected by the pandemic. Bassam’s production company and financial work allowed him to make an income when acting opportunities became fewer.

“These things don’t happen overnight. They take time. They take years. I went into acting thinking that once I started booking things, that it was going to happen for me right away. It’s not like that at all. It’s a long game, so find a way that you can play the long game so that you’re not forced to quit because you have to make money some other way. I think that’s the key to being able to pursue anything creative for a long period of time.”

Bassam is currently writing a new TV show script based on his experiences of being a Muslim in America. 

MAHRUKH TAHIR
Fine Artist

Mahrukh is a fine artist and Senior Account Manager at Google. 

A first-generation Pakistani immigrant, she was the first person in her family to graduate from university. Education was not valued when she was growing up. Instead, marriage was the priority and career came second.

Mahrukh grew up in Calgary, an oil and gas town, where brand marketing roles are sparse. With a degree in marketing and the ambition to manage a global brand one day, she joined PepsiCo in the sales division. The PepsiCo sales leadership program allowed her to experience different roles within the company, and her first rotation was in merchandising where she would drive a delivery truck and merchandise chips for 14 hours a day! 

That experience laid a foundation of grit and determination that would serve her throughout her career.  She was quickly promoted and was soon managing a team of 20 people and a fleet of trucks as the only South Asian woman working for PepsiCo in her city with the added challenge of leading a group of entirely male staff.

“My mom used to cry about my job. I used to come home in my steel-toed boots and she would look at me and say, ‘What are you doing? Just stay home.’ I got tons of pushback from everyone in my friend group, as well, but I felt really passionate that this was going to lead somewhere; this is going to be my career path.”

She stuck to it and was the first person to get promoted from her cohort and one of the few in Western Canada to be promoted into a national marketing role. The hard work and determination paid off. Since then, she has pivoted to the tech industry.

Mahrukh’s day job is how she funds her artwork, and her artwork is what fuels her and replenishes her creativity to keep her motivated at work.

She believes that the ability to pour life into your passion requires financial stability. 

“If you’re interested in the arts, you also need to make sure that you’re taking care of your basic needs. Artists are traditionally underpaid so making sure that you have the stability and the means to devote yourself to something creative is crucial. Have patience, be in it for the long game, and continue to build your creative skills, but make sure that you’re also building your savings, building your life, and building your stability.”

Mahrukh brings creativity and passion into everything that she does. Where she really lets loose and doesn’t hold back is through her artwork. 

“This is who I am. This is where nobody can tell me what to do. There are no rules. I never have a plan for my paintings. I always paint from whatever’s in my head, and for me, it’s a very spiritual process.” 

Mahrukh uses 24k gold, diamond dust, gems, glass, mirrors, ink, and acrylic paint in her paintings.

Follow her artistic journey on Instagram @mt.creates

Subhaan Ashrafi
Marketer

While in high school, Subhaan started a YouTube channel for sports and gaming. What started out as a hobby became increasingly more like a business. 

Subhaan’s YouTube audience was made up of young people who would often share some of the struggles in their lives with him. After graduating from college, Subhaan began working at a mosque as a marketer and youth coordinator. Just as his YouTube subscribers talked through challenges with him, the youth at the mosque would bring their worries to Subhaan. 

In 2017, Subhaan quit his job to start his first business. He has worked with many Muslim organizations and has learned that it’s not just young people who go through challenges, it’s adults, as well. That’s how the Sabr app came to be.  

The Sabr app is the Calm app for Muslims. Calm benefits millions of people across the globe, but lacks a faith perspective. That’s what Subhaan decided to remedy. The Sabr App exists to lower anxiety and increase confidence by improving one’s relationship with Allah. The app offers courses by reputable scholars and public figures, guided mediation sessions, and soothing vocals and calm nasheed sounds. 

Subhaan’s goal is for Sabr to benefit Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. Sabr launched in November of 2020 and now has thousands of users and growing.

Subhaan’s first step in transforming his idea into reality was to test and validate whether the community would support an app like Sabr so he made a LaunchGood Campaign. Seeing support through LaunchGood was an important motivator and validation. It was time to make it happen.

One of the first lessons Subhaan learned is the value of persistence and consistency. He garnered partnerships with over 20 scholars and therapists. These were new relationships that Subhaan had to build and cultivate, most of them through email. If Subhaan were to just send each person a single email, the app wouldn’t exist.

Another takeaway from Subhaan is to have faith. “You have to rely on the one above and know that whatever you embark upon, it is a responsibility, as well. There are now thousands of people who are using Sabr to help relieve anxiety. It’s a responsibility for me now that they’re taken care of..

“Somebody told me, this whole journey of making the Sabr app is going to be a journey of sabr, as well. No matter what endeavor you embark upon, have patience because there will be ups, but I promise there will be downs. If you don’t have the downs, you won’t appreciate the ups. So, expect that, have patience, have faith, be persistent, and take that idea to fruition!”


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