Yasmine Mustafa was 30 years old when she took a 6-month leave of absence to go backpacking through South America. It was her “reward trip” after becoming a U.S. citizen and selling her first company.
“As incredible as it was, it was also disheartening because … I kept encountering women that would share these stories of times they had been assaulted,” Yasmine says. When she returned home from her trip, she was inspired to act.
Yasmine co-founded ROAR for Good, a hardware company that aims to help curb abuse against women. ROAR, named after the popular Katy Perry song, hopes to create a world with fewer assaults through technology and education. Its first product is Athena, a fashionable, wearable safety device that—when activated—sounds an alarm and notifies selected contacts via an app on the user’s phone.
Yasmine says we’re experiencing “a much-needed movement” where assault is being discussed on a larger, more public scale in the wake of Harvey Weinstein and #metoo.
Before launching ROAR for Good, Yasmine founded a software company and launched the Philadelphia chapter of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit that helps women learn web and software development skills. [Editor’s Note: Meet Girl Develop It Co-Founder Vanessa Hurst here.] In this interview, Yasmine talks about her unlikely journey to America, starting companies she has “no business starting” and learning to adapt to life’s many curveballs.
No matter how much you plan your life, it’s just not going to happen the way you think it’s going to work out. Something will come up, and someone will drop the ball or throw a wrench in your plan. What I’ve learned is it’s about learning to adapt when your plan doesn't go the way you want.
You immigrated to the United States as a young child after war broke out in your home country. Can you talk about how you arrived in Philadelphia?
I was born in Kuwait. My parents are Palestinian and moved there after they were married.
During the summer of 1990, my parents took a trip to Philadelphia. My dad was a mechanical engineer and he would come out to Philly for some trips. This one particular time, my mom asked if she could join because she really wanted to see America and it was going to be one of his last trips for a while.
They ended up being in Philadelphia longer than they anticipated, and my mother—who was six months pregnant at the time—ended up having my little brother there.
A week after they came back, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait for its oil. Eight weeks after that, we were sitting in a bomb shelter. All of a sudden these two men burst into the door asking for my baby brother. It turns out, they were U.S. ambassadors sent to rescue all American citizens out of Kuwait for their safety. They came to collect all of us. They told us we had an hour to pack two bags, and then they sent us on a plane to Philly.
We arrived here Sept. 21, 1990. I’ll be honest, I thought we were only going to be here temporarily—I didn’t realize this was going to be home eventually.
What was life like in a new country where you didn’t know anyone or the language?
We moved out of the city to the suburbs because my dad couldn’t find a mechanical engineer job. A lot of immigrants lose their degrees when they move to the U.S., unfortunately, and that was hard for him because his job was part of his identity. With the move, he lost his career and went from being upper middle class to poor. He was never the same after that.
None of us spoke English except my dad. My siblings and I were enrolled in school, and they initially put me in fourth grade. They didn’t have english as a second language (ESL) classes. Somehow, I graduated.
The next year, I had ESL classes. For almost the whole day, I’d learn English in the basement of the school with other students. And, believe it or not, watching Full House helped me learn English. I would repeat, “Cut it out!” and, “You got it, dude!” all the time!
You went to Temple University and studied entrepreneurship. What inspired you to learn about that subject?
A few things inspired me. First, we had a family convenience store growing up, and I grew up watching my parents run the store, which exposed me to entrepreneurship. Second, I worked for people who took advantage of me and my situation after learning I was undocumented. I remember I would look at them at say, “I want to be you—but a better a version of you. Someone who treats people better.” I was working two or three jobs making below minimum wage to support myself. I wanted to feel more independent and do work that was meaningful. So, a combination of all those things.
I graduated in seven and a half years, working full time throughout. My college experience was different from that of a typical student. [She laughs.]
After graduating, you founded a software company, 123LinkIt. How did you come up with the idea for it?
I was working at a consulting firm where we’d help early-stage entrepreneurs with their business plan and their go-to-market strategies. I started a blog to get more clients and help us be seen as a thought leader. Over time, we became one of the top blogs according to Technorati, a popular directory at the time.
One day, someone told me I could make money blogging. I said, “OK. Show me!”
We put a couple ads on my blog and I forgot about it. Then, a few months later I wrote a blog post that took off on Digg and StumbleUpon (just to show you how old this was — in the mid-to-late 2000s). Two weeks later, I received two checks that came out to almost $200. I was like, “Whoa! I need to invest more time into this.”
I learned more about the process, and it was time-consuming and convoluted. Basically, it was an eight-step process from beginning to end, and you had to be technical to do it, too. I thought, “There’s got to be a better way.” So, I built a WordPress plugin that would automate the whole process.
Here’s how it worked: Any time bloggers wrote about a blog post, our software would scan the post for product keywords and turn it into a hyperlink. If someone clicked on the link and bought an item, they would get a commission and we would take a cut of that commission.
An advisor doing lead-gen affiliate business wanted to incorporate the plugin into his company. We were working together, but I was too understaffed to help him with the integration. I didn’t have the resources, and he had a bigger team with more developers.
On a call one day, I jokingly suggested he buy it— the next day he called back and said, “Let’s talk about an acquisition.” I got very, very lucky.
Was it overwhelming starting a software company as a non-engineer?
I have a habit of starting companies I really have no business starting. [She laughs.] First a software company, and then later, a hardware company. But what I’ve found is it’s really all about finding the team members needed—people much smarter than me—and hiring them. I have a knack for building teams, motivating smart people and inspiring them to do what they’re best at. I like being the visionary and building teams around that.
You founded the Philadelphia chapter of Girl Develop It. Was that related to your frustration of not having the tech skills to grow 123LinkIt?
Exactly. I was so naive when I started 123LinkIt—I thought coding was this magical thing where I could easily find someone to build my product, but I had trouble communicating my needs with developers. I started teaching myself tech skills to better communicate with them and be a better business leader.
I learned about Girl Develop It in New York City on Twitter. I would take a two-hour bus there, take a two-hour class and then take a two-hour bus back to Philly. By the fourth class, everything clicked.
One day, I went up to one of the co-organizers after class and asked her about expanding to Philly. Six months later, we did.
Can you talk about becoming an American citizen and the inspiration behind ROAR for Good?
I became a U.S. citizen at 30 years old, right around the time I sold 123LinkIt. It was the first time I wasn’t bound by my circumstances and could do what I wanted to do. I’d been working hard since I was 9 years old and started planning my “reward trip,” if you will.
I chose South America. I’d always loved the food and was really into salsa dancing at the time. It was also cheap to travel throughout the continent. I initially planned to stay for one month, then two, and then decided on six months. The trip changed my life.
I mostly stayed in hostels. The one thing I’ve learned from traveling is you connect with people faster and bond on a deeper level when you’re not on a schedule. I met a lot of fellow solo travelers, and we’d get to know each other well within a few days.
While backpacking through South America, one topic kept coming up: assault. On my second day there, I heard about a student assaulted at a party the night before. I encountered lots of women with stories of abuse during my travels, including one woman who had been assaulted by her uncle for 10 years growing up. I also met men who shared stories of being attacked.
After I returned to my apartment in Philadelphia, someone was raped in my neighborhood a week later. I knew I wanted my next business to focus on helping women.
How would you describe ROAR for Good and its first product, Athena?
I would describe ROAR for Good as a company that’s on a mission to end violence against women and empower them to live their lives boldly. Our device, Athena, is designed to connect you with your loved ones when you need them most. At the touch of a button, Athena shares your location with your trusted network of friends and family via mobile SMS alerts.
What I think is most important about our work at ROAR is our ROAR Back program. We contribute a portion of proceeds from each Athena sold to educational programs that have been shown to increase empathy and reduce violence.
What’s an average day in the office like?
Every day is different! It’s hard to predict what each one will look like. Recently, my days have been filled with lots of meetings, press requests, launching Athena on Amazon and business development.
What are the challenges that keep you awake up at night?
We’re at 15 full-time people. I want to make sure everyone likes what they’re doing and enjoys their time at the company. I’m always thinking about what could we do to make things better and how to make enough money to keep people in their roles.
We also have so many ideas for what we want to do with Athena: Should we go down this path or this road? Things like that.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Graduating college after seven and a half years while working two to three jobs and achieving summa cum laude status. It was not easy!
What would you tell someone recently graduating college?
One of the lessons I learned for myself: No matter how much you plan your life, it’s just not going to happen the way you think it’s going to work out. Something will come up, and someone will drop the ball or throw a wrench in your plan. What I’ve learned — and I think this is a great lesson for everyone—is it’s about learning to adapt when your plan doesn’t go the way you want.
I have a friend who felt she had to be married by the time she was 25, have a kid by 27 … that never works. She always felt like she was in this state of trying to catch up.
Life’s not necessarily about the plan; it’s about adapting to the curveballs that will, without a doubt, arise.
I’d love to grab a beer with: Serena Williams
My favorite quote is: “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.”
If I could tell my 30-year-old self one thing, it would be: Look up. It’s easy to get consumed with work, your thoughts and everything going on around you. It’s important to stop and smell the roses.
My favorite show to binge-watch is: Anything on Netflix. Saturday is my “me” day, and I use it to put my phone and email away so I can relax and reenergize after the workweek.
I feel my best when: I recharge after my Saturday “me” day and after yoga class.