How winning the ‘birth lottery’ opened the door to Philly tech entrepreneur

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This week, the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians brought together entrepreneurs and economic development experts in Philadelphia to talk about ways to tap into immigrant potential in new ways.

A high-profile speaker at the Global Network Convening, as the event was called, was a woman who would have grown up in Kuwait if it were not for a dire situation and a bit of luck.

Yasmine Mustafa is a young tech entrepreneur in Philadelphia who has been celebrated for her community activism and economic development. But it was not an easy journey for her. At the gathering this week, she described a series of “resets” in her life, as she had in a recent TedX Philly talk (video above).

“My first reset started when I was eight years old, it’s one of my earliest memories,” she recalled. “I’m sitting on the concrete floor of a bomb shelter. My knees are clutched to my chest. I’m pressed against my mom, my dad, my brother, my sisters.  Bombs are dropping all around us.”

Mustafa uses the phrase “birth lottery” to explain how circumstances outside of a person’s control determine the fate of many immigrants like her.

Before she was in that bomb shelter, her parents traveled for business to Philadelphia. Her mother was pregnant and Mustafa’s brother was born earlier than expected. And because he was born in Philadelphia, he was an American citizen.

She picks up the story when back in Kuwait, two U.S. ambassadors came to the bomb shelter to evacuate Americans.

“And because my little brother had just been born, he was a citizen. Because of his ‘birth lottery,’ we got to come along,” she said.

Once here, it took years of hardship for the rest of the family to become citizens, but they were safe.

Steve Tobocman, an organizer of the event and the founder of the economic development company Global Detroit says it’s not surprising that Mustafa and her family founded businesses once in the U.S. He says that storyline of adversity feeding ingenuity is uniting long-time Detroit residents with new arrivals.

“Immigrants are redeveloping cities, helping neighborhoods and powering our growth in our 21 century economy,” he said.

Tobocman says technology has become a big area where immigrants thrive, noting that influential digital entrepreneurs and Nobel Prize winners are frequently immigrants or first-generation Americans. He says 28 percent of main street business in American are owned by immigrants.

Yasmine Mustafa says research has shown there’s a business argument for existing firms to hire immigrants.

“Having people from different backgrounds, different experiences actually allows better innovation, because they look at problems differently,” she said.  “It’s actually been proven that, diverse teams make more money and they come up with better solutions.”

The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians is hoping this week’s meeting of minds and experiences fuels new strategies in immigramt business communities nationwide.

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