The vision of a Somali immigrant and her Minnesota-born business partner to outfit the growing ranks of Muslim-girl athletes through a line of customized sportswear moves to manufacturing early next year.
“Our mission is to help more girls play sports,” said Fatimah Hussein, a Ramsey County social worker who has volunteered for years with East African girls. “Girls who play sports are more confident and do better in school ... and [are] more ready to compete to a get a good job.”
Hussein, 29, is CEO and co-founder of “Asiya,” named for a historical Islamic woman who was wise and just.
Asiya plans a line of sports hijabs that makes exerting in basketball or volleyball or other sports more comfortable without conceding modesty.
Asiya attracted media attention last year with a sportswear-fashion show, and it raised $100,000-plus in working capital this fall through the Minnesota Cup emerging-business competition and Kickstarter. Asiya has hired a local contract manufacturer to make its lightweight, sweat-wicking hijabs.
Asiya’s co-founders, who Minnesota Cup judges named the winner of the social-enterprise category, say there are no American companies producing sport hijabs or team active wear designed for the “modest-apparel” market for Muslim girls who play team volleyball or pickup basketball.
Co-founder Jamie Glover, 32, is a veteran corporate marketer who took a couple of years off to earn an MBA at the University of Minnesota. Her friends joked when she signed on with Asiya that it didn’t exactly look like “a billion-dollar idea” or “a get-rich-quick business.”
So far, the business has consumed hundreds of unpaid hours from Glover and Hussein.
“I wanted to find a way to spend my working time on something that can make a difference,” said Glover, who also was a volleyball player at Carleton College and Edina High School. “There is value in bringing girls together through sport. We just want to see this happen and happen well.”
The inaugural products on the Asiyasport.com website will be several variations of sport hijabs, for $30 to $40 apiece. They are snug and lack the flowing scarves that can be uncomfortable or encumber while playing. They were designed by local Muslim girls and University of Minnesota design students. That process culminated also in friendships, a fashion show, and stories in the Huffington Post and USA Today.
The partners say if hijab sales take off, that could lead to team-specific hijabs, in partnership with community leagues and high schools. The Minnesota State High School League is listening. The third stage would be a line of “athleisurewear” for active Muslim women, including long-sleeve tunics and yoga pants with skirt attached, kind of a reflection of the activewear trend among American women.
The capital-light company hopes first-year demand drives cash flow to finance the planned expanded product lines. That might also lead to a partnership or buyout from a sportswear or other clothing company within a few short years, the founders contemplate.
Hussein, who also is the several-year volunteer founder of a girls club at the Brian Coyle Community Center on the West Bank, saw the need for more comfortable hijabs among her basketball-playing club members. She reached out for help with her idea. Hussein, who by day works mostly with the elderly in St. Paul, has a master’s degree in social work from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.
And she’s a networker. State Sen. Kari Dziedzic was an early supporter of the idea, as well as businesswoman Peggy Lucas, also a U board member. They connected her with Monica Nassif, the veteran consumer products entrepreneur.
“Fatimah understands that consumer,” said Nassif, who signed on last year as an unpaid adviser to Asiya. “I just loved the idea. I grew up in a family of children who played sports, and my daughters played sports.”
Nassif and Hussein connected with Glover in 2015 through the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the U’s Carlson School of Management. They needed an MBA who wanted to work on a social-enterprise start-up that would benefit girls.
“My counsel to Jamie and Fatimah has been ‘speed, speed, speed,’ ” Nassif said. “The [niche market of sports-minded Muslim girls] is growing, and someone is going to do something like this. They have to be fast.
“If they can build a brand and build that consumer base, they have a chance. They don’t have a lot of funds. But Jamie has really taken the ball, developed the business plan, and run with it.”
The founders are well aware of the risks, including getting trampled by a bigger player before Asiya can get established. Or problems as manufacturing gets underway. Or simply not bringing in sufficient revenue with the inaugural line of hijabs next year to trigger subsequent expansion.
They also dream of a company that one day might employ local seamstresses and expanding the product line to factory and custodial uniforms for Muslim women.
This laudable effort so far has brought together an expanding group of diverse women, sport-loving girls and others who support further integration of Muslim girls into sport. And credible recognition and support from Minnesota Cup, the Carlson Family Foundation and the Metropolitan Economic Development Association (MEDA) for an innovative product and plan.
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.