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Entrepreneurs Compete in Somali 'Shark Tank'

Hussein Guled pitches judges on his business idea at McNamara Alumni Center in Minneapolis. (Laurie Ster)
Hussein Guled pitches judges on his business idea at McNamara Alumni Center in Minneapolis. (Laurie Ster)
September 25, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS -- Three Somali entrepreneurs recently got a new infusion of cash and business advice. A "Shark Tank"-style competition brought six competitors and judges from across the country to Minneapolis late last week.

As in the TV show, the entrepreneurs had five minutes to pitch their ideas to would-be investors. Quintan Wiktorowicz worked in global outreach for President Barack Obama. Now he heads Affinis Labs, a social innovation company that invests in the Muslim world and co-sponsored the Somali competition.

"Minnesota is the hub of the Somali-American community, one of the largest populations of Somalis in the United States,” Wiktorowicz said. "And very importantly, the community here remains very, very connected to Somalia itself."

One criterion was that the winning inventions had to help Somalia. Three of the six competitors came away with cash investments and all got advice from the judges - three of whom also are Somali entrepreneurs.

Hussein Guled has been living in Somalia since he graduated from the University of Minnesota. He started a business selling tea - called shaah in Somalia - from insulated backpacks.

"And it's a standard cup of shaah,” Guled said of his product. “It has all the proper spices, it's measured to a degree, you know? The same cup of shaah that you're drinking today is the same one you'll be drinking tomorrow.”

Guled said he wants to be the Starbucks of Somalia. His runners sell shaah in markets, on the street and even to drivers stuck in traffic jams.

The "sharks" liked his idea. They agreed to invest $75,000 for a 15 percent share of the company.

Wiktorowicz said he thinks entrepreneurship has been something of an elite sport. He said competitions like this will help change that.

"And the more aspiring entrepreneurs that you can bring into this ecosystem, the more it benefits everybody,” he said. "If you can find more entrepreneurs in disadvantaged communities, that means that the incubators, the investors and the coaches have more supply of viable startups that they can work with. And it grows the economies and it creates jobs."

Other inventions included a mixing bottle for sports drinks and a toothbrush with a timer and automated toothpaste dispenser.

Laurie Stern, Public News Service - MN