2020 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Thawra Network, University of Michigan (Ross)

Thawra Network (Formerly For Dearborn)

MBA Program: University of Michigan, Ross School of Business

Industry: Media/Entertainment

Founding Student Name(s): Rima Imad Fadlallah, Founder/CEO

Yasmeen Kadouh, Founder/COO

Brief Description of Solution: In Arabic, thawra means revolution. At its core, Thawra Networks seeks to revolutionize the lived experiences of Arabs and Muslims in America through identity-affirming content and groundbreaking stories. Thawra has a demographic focus similar to BET and Univision, with a social impact and community development lens like the Oprah Winfrey Network.

In 2019, we launched Thawra’s first series, the Dearborn Girl podcast, to catalogue the stories of Arab and Muslim women. More recently, we launched Typical 3rab, a TikTok channel that celebrates Arab-American culture. Thawra content is currently streaming in over 70 countries across the globe.

Funding Dollars: $45,000

What led you to launch this venture? A decade of brainstorming around how to make America more livable for Arabs and Muslims and reconciling with the ways in which slanderous media coverage of my family and community has impacted my quality of life and the health of my loved ones.

There are over three million Arabs in America. Still, we find ourselves in a debilitating predicament. On one hand, we are forced to surrender our identities and check “white” on the demographic sections of nearly every application. On the other hand, we have to grapple with mainstream media and entertainment channels constantly vilifying and villainizing Arab and Muslim identities.

Countless studies point to the negative effects of media misrepresentation on the self-esteem and mental wellness of marginalized groups. For Arabs and Muslims, these effects are exacerbated by the sheer lack of accurate and affirming content out there.

Media representation matters, but not for the sake of representation itself; it matters insofar as people have access to characters or narratives that resonate with them and urge them to advocate for themselves and others.

As proud daughters of our community in Dearborn with a shared passion for storytelling, it only made sense that Yasmeen and I teamed up to do something about this problem.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with the venture? Filling the theatre in Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum two times with an audience eager to watch Dearborn Girl’s season debuts. Yasmeen and I were in awe seeing our community respond that way.

We knew we were doing something right when thousands of Arabs and Muslims immediately supported our work, continuously showed up to our pitch competitions and events, and proudly purchased and wore our merchandise. Our “north star” will always be our audience’s resonance with Thawra content.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? My MBA was pivotal in connecting me to the people, resources, and leadership skills necessary in founding Thawra.

I am a proud member of the Consortium for Graduate Studies in Management (CGSM), a national community of MBAs and corporate partners committed to increasing the representation of underserved communities in management. My CGSM family was my backbone at Ross and during my summer internship in New York, and the lifelong friends I made through CGSM continue to be my main sources of support and accountability as I build Thawra Network.

Other programs that were instrumental in developing Thawra include the Sanger Leadership Center’s Ross Leaders Academy, where I learned that true leadership comes from the inside out. I also owe much of Thawra’s success to my experiences with the Zell Lurie Institute (ZLI) as a Zell Entrepreneur, competing both years in the Michigan Business Challenge (and placing 2nd this year!), and being part of the Zell Lurie Commercialization Fund.

All of these experiences, coupled with my coursework, helped me better understand the problems I am uniquely positioned to solve, and eventually learn how to pitch Thawra to potential investors.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? My father and his legacy will always have the strongest influence on who I hope to be as a global citizen, dedicating my life to supporting my community and other marginalized groups.

I did not always know I wanted to be an entrepreneur. At 16, I knew I needed to follow in my father’s footsteps and transform the lived experiences of Arabs and Muslims in America.

My hometown, Dearborn, Michigan, houses the largest concentration of Arabs in any city outside of the Middle East. However, our home hasn’t been so welcoming to us. It never sat well with me that even our strength in numbers in Dearborn couldn’t immunize us from the racism that so many of us experience.

My father was the first Arab or Muslim administrator of Fordson High School, serving a student body that was about 95% Arab American. During his time in Dearborn Public Schools, he transformed the educational trajectory of thousands of students at a school that had been failing for years prior.

Still, I spent the greater part of my adolescence watching my father face vitriolic, baseless media slander and 50+ investigations all because he dared to demand better educational outcomes for our youth, many of whom are English Language Learners, first-generation, and/or refugees of American terror in the Middle East.

Initially, these experiences left me with a deep commitment to ending educational inequities for underserved students as a classroom teacher. Like my father, I grew quickly frustrated with the bureaucracy and systemic racism woven into our nation’s schools. In fact, teaching Gen Z youth taught me that media was perhaps an even more powerful tool in shaping one’s identity and inspiring communities to action. I pursued an MBA to pivot out of education and into media/entertainment.

After my father passed three years ago, my family and I learned that – in addition to transforming Dearborn Public Schools – he spent decades supporting impoverished communities in our family’s Lebanese village. His legacy and unapologetic leadership will always be the thawra that inspired me.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? Definitely Lindy Greer’s The Psychology of Start-Up Teams. First and foremost, it was sobering to learn that 90% of start-ups fail, and the majority of those failures are due to people issues within the company. The biggest lesson I learned was that having a strong company culture can either be Thawra’s #1 asset or its greatest downfall.

As brand new founders, this held a mirror to Yasmeen and I, urging us to re-examine Thawra’s culture. My favorite part of the class was being able to volunteer Thawra’s team dynamics to be evaluated by three of my classmates who would later present findings and recommendations in front of our class. We are still implementing their recommendations today!

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why?

Marcus Collins. Marcus is a marketing genius. During my first year at Ross, I asked his permission to sit in on his BBA Social Media Marketing class. So much of what Yasmeen and I have built today comes from the lessons I learned in that classroom, as well as from follow up one-on-ones during Marcus’ office hours. At the time, Marcus didn’t teach any MBA courses, so I asked to be his TA during my second year to ensure I could continue learning from him. He is still someone I call today to help inform Thawra’s strategy and long term vision.

I would also like to shout out Bryan Johnson, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Ross. Throughout my MBA journey, Bryan urged me to stay true to my mission and not get tempted into a more “traditional” MBA career path. Bryan believed in and supported us back when Thawra was nothing but a lofty dream living in my head. I am so grateful for his guidance and wisdom.

How did the pandemic impact your startup plans? I am writing this response in the midst of a new, perhaps unexpected phase of this pandemic: one where Americans have less distractions and are finally forced to confront the roles each of us are playing in this nation’s century-long history of systemic racism and anti-Blackness.

This phase of the pandemic has urged Yasmeen and I to find new ways to educate our largely non-Black Arab and Muslim audience on systemic racism, including the ways non-Black communities of color like ours perpetuates anti-Blackness.

Since we have not been able to record Dearborn Girl episodes in person, we have launched three new series on Dearborn Girl’s Instagram addressing anti-Blackness within Arab communities:

  1. Know Better, Do Better book club: A book club where we read, discuss and summarize books to educate our community on anti-Blackness. We just finished the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and will be starting Angela Davis’ Freedom is a Constant Struggle in mid-July.
  2. Amplify Black Voices: A series spotlighting Black members of Arab enclaves as they share their stories and experiences living in largely Arab communities around the nation.
  3. Own Your Lane: A series spotlighting Arabs who are doing important work to eradicate anti-Blackness in our communities.

You can tune into our work on Dearborn Girl’s Instagram (@dearborn.girl).

Thawra envisions better lived experiences for our audiences, and this includes urging those non-Black members of our community to be true advocates, especially when issues do not uniquely impact us.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Thawra envisions a world where revolutions are televised. We want our platform to inspire social movements, and we believe that our communities will be best positioned to advocate for ourselves and others when we can finally be the ones telling our own stories. We want to reimagine what role media should play in inspiring real change.

We also want to be the “one-stop shop” for Arab and Muslim content in America. In the next several years, Thawra plans to expand outside of podcasts and social media channels to TV series and feature length films. Additionally, we will continue selling merchandise and will eventually hold live events across the nation to deliver on our audience’s desire to engage with us through multiple channels.

Learn more about Thawra’s first platform, Dearborn Girl here



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