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Putting Faith and Sports on the Same Team

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Saturday January 7, 2017

Nabhaii Farah, 12, wearing an Asiya sport hijab at the Brian Coyle community center in Minneapolis. Asiya’s founder, Fatimah Hussein, said that as a child she was preoccupied with thoughts of “this doesn’t look right, this is falling.”

Fatimah Hussein was born in Somalia and immigrated to Minneapolis when she was 6 with her family, fleeing civil war. Ms. Hussein and her sister played softball when they were young, but in middle school they stopped, as did many of their Muslim peers.
“It was not normal to see girls playing sports,” she said of her childhood.

“You’d see boys continuing to play and getting support by the parents,” said Ms. Hussein, now 29 and a social worker. “It’s not that my dad ever said, ‘You can’t play,’ but we just never got that encouragement.”

Another impediment was that Ms. Hussein and her sister wore hijabs, the scarves that many Muslim women and girls use to cover their heads, ears and necks. The garments are typically made of thick fabric that wraps around the neck; some hijabs require pins as fasteners. On the playing field, hijabs are prone to unraveling, and they can be hot and unwieldy. Sometimes they’re even dangerous — other players could trip on them if they unravel, or the pins could jab the wearer or others.
During her childhood Ms. Hussein said she was preoccupied by thoughts of “this doesn’t look right, this is falling, I don’t feel comfortable inside.”
Eight years ago, she realized that the young girls she worked with at a Minneapolis community center shared those feelings, so she founded the Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports, or Girls, a program that provides girls-only gym time at the center.

Next she decided to tackle the hijab issue. A year ago, she and a business partner started Asiya, a company that sells head scarves designed for sports.

The Asiya hijabs are made of a lightweight, sweat-wicking fabric, and they come in three styles with varying degrees of coverage. They don’t require wrapping or pins because they’re snug-fitting with built-in headbands that further secure the fabric.

For Ms. Hussein, who works full-time as a social worker and had no business background, the transition into entrepreneurship presented a steep learning curve. A small corps of businesswomen in Minneapolis, along with a state senator, swooped in to help bring her product to market. Asiya’s story shows how mentors can be integral to a new business’s growth.
A year and a half ago, an early design of what would become the Asiya hijab caught the eye of Minnesota State Senator Kari Dziedzic during a fashion show. She recognized a potential benefit to the state’s Muslim girls and to the economy, in terms of job creation, so she volunteered to help connect Ms. Hussein with local entrepreneurs. One of them was Monica Nassif, the founder of the Caldrea Company and Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, both of which make aromatic cleaning products. Ms. Nassif said she was drawn to the idea right away.

“I grew up in a family of athletes, and I knew the power of sport,” she said.

Ms. Nassif began advising Ms. Hussein on a volunteer basis, as did a couple of other businesswomen. “What are you good at? What do you have time for?” were her initial questions for Ms. Hussein, she said.

The two biggest challenges to Ms. Hussein’s success, as Ms. Nassif saw it, were time and money constraints. She felt strongly that Asiya needed to be the first to market in the United States, which would require the company to raise capital.
“If you look at any category, the first three players get to own the shelf,” she said. “The shelf in the retail store, or the shelf in the consumer’s mind. It’s really important to be one of the leaders.”

Getting any product to market quickly requires focus, and often entrepreneurs get in their own way. “I call it falling in love with yourself,” Ms. Nassif said. “A lot of people get so enraptured with their idea that they can’t actually put their head down and get the work done.”

While Ms. Hussein understood the product, she would need a partner who could help figure out how to sell it. By putting out feelers at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Ms. Nassif found an M.B.A. student named Jamie Glover who was interested in teaming up with Ms. Hussein. Ms. Glover had spent a decade working in marketing, at 3M and at a local advertising agency. She had also played on her college’s varsity softball and volleyball teams.

Once she agreed to join forces with Ms. Hussein, they officially started Asiya. The company researched fabrics and had the participants in Ms. Hussein’s Girls gym program test prototypes.
“Not only did it need to be a sweat-wicking, breathable performance fabric, but because it’s on your face and neck, it had to be very lightweight, soft and stretchy,” Ms. Glover said, adding that they were determined to find an American manufacturer.

In order to raise money and do yet more networking, the Asiya founders entered their business plan last year in a start-up competition called the Minnesota Cup, which attracted more than 1,500 participants. Asiya won the social entrepreneurship category and was chosen as the top woman-led and minority-led business — honors that pulled in $65,000 in capital.

Last fall, Asiya raised an additional $38,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. In February it plans to begin delivering hijabs to its 859 Kickstarter backers. The hijabs were priced at $25 apiece on Kickstarter, but Ms. Hussein and Ms. Glover have yet to set a permanent price. They will sell the hijabs, which are manufactured in Brainerd, Minn., on the Asiya website starting Feb. 1. They also hope to sell them at sporting goods stores and through retailers that specialize in modest clothing.

Next year, they plan to expand the business to include swimwear and active wear, and they will market the brand not just to Muslims, but also more broadly to girls and women interested in modest apparel.
Asiya will be competing with several small international businesses, including Ahiida, credited with creating the “burkini” bathing suit; the Dutch company Capsters, which has been making sports hijabs since 2001; and Friniggi, a Botswana-based seller of hijabs and modest sportswear. .

Ms. Hussein and Ms. Glover have also worked to gain official approval for girls to wear their hijabs in Minnesota schools’ sports competitions. A few months ago, the Asiya designs were deemed to be in compliance with safety and design standards for sports uniforms, hastening Ms. Hussein and Ms. Glover’s goal: a time when “we just let girls compete,” Ms. Glover said, “regardless of what they want to wear.”


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