Success in startupland is hard to achieve for anyone. But for Muslim women, there are barriers even for getting a foot in the door, according to Sistrv8 founder Sam Haouchar.
Founded in November last year, Melbourne-based Sistrv8 is an organisation dedicated to supporting and connecting Muslim women entrepreneurs, helping to empower them as they kick-start their startup journey.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Haouchar says she provides coaching for women in the Muslim community who are thinking of launching their own venture, but she’s also focused on creating an ecosystem for these women to support each other.
Partly, it’s about financial literacy, she says. For anyone new to startups, figuring out what funding is available is tricky.
But, for practising Muslim women, banks are generally not an option.
“We need more equity-based than debt-based financing, for religious reasons,” Haouchar explains.
However, it’s also important for Muslim women to have people in the ecosystem to look up to.
Through her work in the startup space, Haouchar found Muslim women would already approach her for advice and guidance.
“They really want to see someone that looks like them,” she says.
“It’s just like with anything — you have confidence when you other women going out there and doing it.”
You can’t be what you can’t see
Having role models you can identify within the ecosystem is “extremely important”, she says, to show other aspiring women that being an entrepreneur is possible and that it’s not so scary.
“We need to support our own, we need to see our own out there because then we’re paving a pathway … to say, ‘it’s doable’,” she says.
But “minority communities are still lagging behind a bit”, she says.
“We’re not connected.”
If Muslim women entrepreneurs are better connected to each other, they can then share their connections outside of that community and open up new contacts and opportunities for eachother.
“It’s just safety in numbers,” Haouchar says.
“They need that support to start taking the first steps.”
Haouchar stresses that it’s not that Muslim women are necessarily excluded from early-stage startup programs, incubators or accelerators.
It’s just that there are more hurdles for to overcome to enter the ecosystem in the first place.
“Getting into the ecosystem is the hardest part of the journey,” she says.
“The barriers within the community are higher. But as soon as they start on that journey, and they get into the main ecosystem, it’s actually extremely supportive.”
This is why Sistrv8 is designed for cross-pollination. To help Muslim women gain access to the right people, to better understand the language around entrepreneurship, and to give them the confidence and connections to take the next steps.
Haouchar is focused on creating an ecosystem of Muslim women entrepreneurs, “then plugging it into the main one”, she says.
“It’s really just showcasing others of different minority groups, and how they have journeyed through, to give others encouragement. I think we really need to showcase that.”
Changing the system
For Haouchar, this is about social impact, “to say ‘hey, we’re here’”, and to make change in a space where white men still make up the majority.
“That’s just the reality of the system and the way it’s built,” she says.
However, she says she personally feels empowered to do something about that.
“If you sit there and wallow over it, it’s not going to change,” she says.
“I’m a person of action.”
Haouchar will put her hand up to speak at events and appear on panels, purely because she looks different, she says.
For those who are representing minority groups in the startup ecosystem, “it’s our job to show that we’re here as well”, she explains.
“There is lots of variety and diversity out there — that’s what makes us a great country,” she adds.
She also says she’s not exhausted by the obligations; she’s an extrovert, and this is her passion.
However, at this point, she feels she’s built enough of a network of other Muslim women entrepreneurs that if she can’t be the one to represent, there will be someone else to do it.
“I’m hoping that I’ve built enough around me that other people can pick up the ball and run with it,” she says.
“I’m not building an empire,” she adds.
“I’m building a community and a network that anyone should be able to draw on. Then we can all showcase ourselves.”
Sistrv8 is a passion project for Haouchar, but even as the founder, she hopes that one day the organisation will disappear, having served its purpose.
“It’s more about sustainability and moving on to do other things that will be of more impact over time,” she says.
“I’ll stop when we get the first Muslim woman-led unicorn.”
For Muslim women, or other entrepreneurs in minority groups, Haouchar’s advice is simple: reach out and start talking about your ideas.
“Don’t be scared about sharing the idea,” she says.
“Talk about it, start it, even if it’s baby steps.”
She also says early-stage entrepreneurs shouldn’t be afraid to partner with others if that’s what is required to get a startup off the ground.
“If you want to grow it, you have to share it, you have to bring a team on,” she says.
Finally, Haouchar encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to reach out to those already in the ecosystem. She herself welcomes face-to-face coffee meetings for bouncing ideas around or answering questions on entrepreneurship.
“Surround yourself with the right people to make it happen,” she advises.
“We’re establishing this whole community.”