“I left Egypt for the same reason I probably have to leave the US now.” From powerwomen recognised by Forbes, to young entrepreneurs building disruptive tech gadgets, Silicon Valley's Egyptian changemakers face fear amid Trump's radical shift in policy.
Just a few hours after Donald Trump’s ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries was made public, in the heart of Silicon Valley, TechWadi’s annual conference started. The organisation, a non-profit that aims to build bridges between Arab diaspora tech professionals and the Middle Eastern ecosystem, celebrated their 10th anniversary with a heightened sense of social responsibility. “It feels so much more meaningful to host our Annual Forum Conference during a time when members in our community need it most,” the organisation said in a Facebook post. For Silicon Valley’s immigrant entrepreneurs, the directive felt very personal.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, there are an estimated 250,000 Muslims living in the Bay Area, 60 percent of whom were born outside the US. In fact, data from the Kauffman Foundation's 2016 Index of Startup Activity finds that immigrant entrepreneurs account for 27.5 percent of all new entrepreneurs in America; thousands have immigrated from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — the countries included in Trump’s list. And, although the directive does not include Egypt, the White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told NBC that the executive order to ban Muslims from entering the US could extend to Egypt, among other countries.
For Peri AbuZeid, whose company MoviePigs was selected by Forbes as one of Egypt’s 20 most promising startups, the measure came as a shock. “There have already been cases of citizens whose countries are not on the list who were held up at the airport when trying to re-enter the country. That level of uncertainty combined with the knowledge of random acts of racism by regular people is very troubling and scary,” the entrepreneur tells CairoScene. “Now I'm worried that my business may all of a sudden not be able to exist in the country where my market is, because I may not be able to stay legally and safely in the country,” she adds.
The funny fact is that, because I am starting a business, part of my taxes go to unemployed American people, while I myself am being called out for stealing their jobs, while not being able to get a visa.
Her startup, supported by international giant 500 Startups, set out to fight precisely that misrepresentation of Muslims and Arabs in Hollywood, by offering a different narrative through films. “I left Egypt for the very same reason I probably have to leave the US for now,” she wrote in a Facebook post just after Trump’s announcement. “Over the past 13 months, for one reason or another, I've experienced things I never believed existed. I've witnessed pure evilness and been subjected to true cruelty and injustice,” she said.
The entrepreneur, who is also an MIT alumna, won the Best Female Entrepreneur Award from the MITEF - Pan Arab in 2012, an award that included an entrepreneurial tour in the US that was sponsored by the US State department. “It's a huge shift in foreign policy I'm witnessing; Obama had a plan to fight extremism by supporting entrepreneurship and young people; Trump is fighting it by killing any opportunities for them. It's sad,” she laments.
For 27-year-old entrepreneur Ahmed Nasser, founder of smart earphone startup Audesis, it’s been a struggle for years now. “Nobody talks about our struggles, even before Trump’s ban. I’ve been on a student visa for eight years, so since 2014 I’ve been in fear of actually leaving the country, which has cost me missing my sisters’ graduations and engagements because I was scared. If I had left, I might have ruined all I had built,” he says. “The funny fact is that, because I am starting a business, part of my taxes go to unemployed American people, while I myself am being called out for stealing their jobs, while not being able to get a visa.”
His startup, Audices, creates what he terms "sociable music," aiming for people to utilise music and sounds to empower their day instead of isolating themselves. "We make earphones for you to be listening to music without endangering yourself or compromising your ability to be social," he explains.
I’ve been in places where I’ve been stopped by the police because I am a coloured man driving a Jaguar.
Having moved to the US in 2009, Nasser was pursuing a Master’s degree when his entrepreneurial journey began. “I started it one year before I quit my job, in Rochester, and then moved on to New York, until I got my first investment and moved to Silicon Valley,” he recalls. “I’ve been in places where I’ve been stopped by the police because I am a coloured man driving a Jaguar. I’ve been in companies, surrounded by American colleagues who literally thought that because I am Egyptian, I must have jumped off a fence to come here, or that I might not be legal - including the HR department,” he laments.
“I have a friend who is Iranian - he’s a successful graduate from Stanford, and is running a ticketing business. He told me he is going back home to take care of some stuff, and said he won’t be able to come back for a while because of the ban. So here he is, banned from coming here, apparently because Trump thinks he is a threat to the US, while he is actually creating jobs in the US, it’s insane."
Institutional racism is also a constant struggle for San Francisco-based Mohamed Ali, whose startup Kulectiv, is a journalist-only community platform focused on information exchange and collaboration. “As an individual, an Egyptian living in San Francisco, I'm reconsidering my travels throughout the year to understand Trump's policies and their repercussions and how his agenda affects me. I'm consistently ‘thoroughly’ screened at airports, and even denied entry to airplanes,” he says.
“As the founder of Kulectiv, I find his rhetoric extreme and offensive,” he adds. “His shock and fear tactics illustrate a toxic culture which will affect US' foreign policy. His direct attacks on journalists and the journalism industry is a strong indication of his unwillingness to work with others, especially ones who provide constructive criticism.”