Yasmine Mustafa is a Kuwaiti / American entrepreneur, whom the Iraqi incursion on Kuwait in 1990 forced her out of her country at the age of 8. She landed in the US, where she couldn’t speak the language, with so few number of relatives and friends.
Her life changed dramatically afterwards. She had work to help the family, and then to support herself, till she became and American citizen, started her first company which she then sold before she turned 30 and kept on doing that, and now, she is roaming the world, while she prepares for her next project, ROAR. Read on.
Q: Tell me more about your childhood.
Yasmine Mustafa: I was only 8 years old when we left Kuwait. As my little brother was born a few weeks prior in the US and so was an American citizen, two US ambassadors came looking for us. They wanted to bring him back for his safety due to the Gulf War. We came as a package deal and my Dad settled on Philadelphia because his brother lived in New Jersey and he had just been there on a business trip.
We lived in the City before moving out to the suburbs and it was definitely a culture shock because we didn’t know the language, culture, or have relatives close by. I remember thinking it was much more heavily populated, the people were a lot more diverse, there were fast food options everywhere (or so it seemed), and I didn’t think it was as clean as where we had lived in Kuwait.
Q: Tell me about the first job(s).
YM: My first job was at 7-11 when I was 9, a store my father bought when we moved from the City to the suburbs. My siblings and I cleaned, stocked shelves/cooler, and eventually worked the cashier. Outside my family, my first “real” job was as a hostess at a local diner. I don’t remember how I got the job.
Q: Growing up, you were faced with many difficult situations. Did those obstacles and pitfalls pave the way to your success today?
I think your life is shaped by the decisions you make with the cards you’re dealt. It wasn’t easy but yes, I would say they paved the road for where I am today. I just knew I wanted more out of life and I didn’t want to settle or be passive to the outcome.
I wanted to create my own path. With each obstacle, I grew and improved as a person. Almost nothing turned out the way I planned it – and it’s not going to – and it’s not being attached to the outcome and adapting to each situation that led me to persevere each time.
Q: Why did it take you 7 years to graduate college?
My Dad was a mechanical engineer in the Middle East. When we moved to Philly, he couldn’t find a job in that field because his degree didn’t translate over. His dream was for his oldest son to follow his footsteps. Because I had the highest grades in my family, he transferred his dream on to me and without asking, enrolled me as a Mechanical Engineering major.
That was not what I wanted to study, and so I switched after the first semester which is when he stopped paying for my tuition. I started at a Community College because the tuition was cheap and it’s where I ended up getting my Associate’s Degree.
It took me 4 years because I worked on and off while attending school to pay for it along the way. Also, the school restricted the number of credits I could take at one time because we didn’t have the proper paperwork.
To make a long story short, it turned out my parents had a year to apply for citizenship when we came to America as refugees. We didn’t know until my older sister and I started applying for colleges. Shortly after, we found out we were illegal immigrants. While we started the immigration process to become legalized, the school took pity on us because we’d been living in the country for 10 years at the time by allowing us to enroll part-time.
After mechanical engineering, I explored Graphic Design as a major after falling in love with Photoshop. I would stay up for hours agonizing over every pixel until the images I worked on were just right. This rarely happened because I was extremely hard on myself. After pulling an all-nighter on a project and losing my work the next day, I decided I couldn’t pursue it as a career because I was too much of a perfectionist.
From there, I explored Psychology because I liked digging into why people do what they do. I enjoyed it immensely. However, I realized I couldn’t go anywhere with it considering I would need a Master’s Degree in it to get a real job and with my financial situation (all this time I was working two jobs while attending school). I switched to Entrepreneurship because I realized I could do anything with it and it’s the degree I ultimately graduated with from Temple University.
Yes, I would say those different topics I studied gave me a unique perspective since it gave me a good general skill-set in various areas.
Q: How did you land your first job after graduation?
I landed my first job after graduation from an internship I had as an undergrad. They offered me a part-time position which later became full-time and I worked my way up to partner by investing 80+ hour weeks, collaborating with the Founder on many ideas, and being open to any task and most importantly – to learning.
Q: Tells us more about those hard early years, which you described saying ” I’ve hustled relentlessly for years and even that is an understatement.”
Well, I’ve worked since I was 9 years old. The 7-11 store was a 24/7 business and I was there almost every day until it was sold when I was 19. It was also this time my Dad left, taking all the money in the bank account, and here when I started working under the table.
Illegal jobs aren’t the most forgiving. You work twice as hard as everyone else with half the pay and you don’t have the choice because if you don’t, someone else will. So while my friends were going out and partying, I was working my butt off. I always felt like I was struggling for money. I was very frugal and would budget my finances every Sunday, giving myself a daily allowance based on my income. I only spent money on necessities.
Because of my finances and illegal status, I couldn’t travel so I felt imprisoned. After I got the idea for 123LinkIt, I worked every single day for hours on end to get it off the ground for two years. I wrote more about this topic here: myasmine.com/10-years
Q: How did you get the idea for your first company, how did you fund it, etc.
I got the idea while working at the first consulting company mentioned above. I started a blog (Cheap Revolution) focused on entrepreneurship and marketing as a way to build authority leadership and attract clients to our business. We wrote about Startups, how to get press coverage, productivity tools and the like. It eventually ranked as one of the top 100,000 blogs on Technorati.
One day, someone made an off-hand remark that I could make money blogging and the idea of making money from something I was already doing was appealing, so I started looking into it. I signed up for a couple of ad networks, added links to my blog and forgot about it. I wrote a quick, silly post titled “Top 20 Entrepreneurial Quotes” (Ed. took 2 hours to write and optimize) that ended up taking off – it was on the front page of Digg, Stumbleupon, Reddit, Hacker News, etc.
The next month, I received two cheques from those ad networks and I got hooked. (Ed. That famous post got Yasmine over $15K in revenues, which led her to think about her first Startup.) I found the process of searching and adding the appropriate ads was time-consuming and convoluted. I couldn’t find a way to streamline it so I decided to do it myself. I funded it by being frugal, living at home, wearing the same clothes, and not buying anything that wasn’t a necessity.
I found my mentors through the consulting company I worked with and by attending the local tech Meetups, especially those that served free pizza (there was a period where I would attend events based on the food they would have to help me save money). I got to know them, had coffee or lunch with them, kept in touch and just started reaching out to them for advice every now and then.
I found my first CTO through a friend and the second through the local tech community. It was by talking to a lot of people and finding someone who was excited about the technology (developers love tackling challenging things) and the idea.
We built an alpha list before launch to start an email list of those that were interested and wanted to be notified about what we were doing. We kept them posted on what we were doing (I’m doing the same with useROAR.com right now) and we immediately got users upon launch.
I decided to sell because I was excited about the possibilities of what a partnership with NetLine would look like. I also wanted to work more directly with a team.
Q: Going back to being Kuwaiti (half Kuwaiti, no worries). We, Arabs, have this belief that succeeding in the US is a walk in the park, piece of cake, and that anyone can easily make it big once he or she manages to enter the US. What can you tell us about that?
There’s no magic remedy to making it big. Even the overnight successes didn’t happen overnight – Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game. Justin Beiber performed on Youtube for years before being discovered. AirBnb almost shut down before hitting it big.
My advice would be not to look for a quick get rich/famous solution – it’s to create a vision, plan accordingly, and work hard.
Q: The 1 Million Dollar question: Had you stayed in Kuwait, do you think you’d have achieved the same level of success you’ve reached so far? Why?
That’s certainly the million dollar question. I’ll never know for sure but I doubt it. Women in the Middle East are expected to get married and have a family. I wouldn’t have known any other way and moving to the US (or cheating the birth lottery as I call it) led me to the opportunities I had.
Q: Why did you decide to leave the US and go try the nomad life? I noticed that you did not travel to any Arabian country yet.
I needed a break. I’ve worked since I was 9 years old, and I felt like I didn’t know who I was outside of my professional career. I wanted to get out of the rat race, forget what day/time it was, and just live and enjoy life.
I plan on going to Kuwait/Jordan next year to celebrate our 25th anniversary of moving to the US.
Q: Any final thoughts for the fellow readers, specially the female ones who aspire to follow your steps and become successful entrepreneurs?
Have a vision for yourself and your company. Why are you doing what you’re doing? Go back to that when things get tough because they will. Build an advisory board or get mentors. You need both of these to get through the dips that will occur. Be realistic. Go after what you want. And believe in yourself.
And here is where I thank Yasmine Mustafa for taking the time to answer my long list of questions. The email replies I received from Yasmine were sent 2 AM and 3 AM in the morning.