July 2, 2017

She’s always been a hustler: The Soofi family story

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Courtesy The Hum / Soofi family

Imrana Soofi, with young Ali and Shahbaz

Republished with permission via The Hum, the newsletter inspiring aspiring entrepreneurs, one story at a time. Sign up for its daily email for more stories like this one.

Imrana Soofi is the founder of Muslim Community Link and Black Seed Farmers Market and has served on various nonprofit boards in Massachusetts. Her sons, Ali, 26, and Shahbaz, 24, are two of the six founders of WooRides, a new pedicab service in Worcester. We were fortunate enough to sit down with them during Ramadan to discuss how the entrepreneurial mindset has shaped their family and their lives. Their story moved us in ways we did not anticipate. We have done our best to do it justice here.

Imrana Soofi and her two sons, Ali and Shahbaz, are many things. They are Bengali-Americans, with Imrana immigrating here to the United States in 1981 as a young girl. They are Muslims. They are entrepreneurs, hustlers, inspiring hard-workers and, perhaps most of all, givers.

Related: In Worcester, battle for pedicab supremacy is afoot

For Imrana, the entrepreneurial mindset started early. Shortly after coming to the United States, she was sent abroad by her family to attend an all-girls boarding school in Pakistan.

“There were four of us in one room. We had our allowances from our parents, but sometimes we decided that we really wanted to be able to eat more kebabs,”  Imrana said. “We thought, ‘Hey, what do we do?’ ”

“Because we were at boarding school, we couldn’t just go for haircuts. It was this big huge thing to go get one. So we said, ‘Why don’t we give haircuts?’

“We opened our salon in our dorm room, ‘The 4-Star Tind House,” Imrana continued. “ ‘Tind’ is actually slang for  ‘bald,’ so we actually called it the ‘4-star bald house.’ Everyone lined up to get their hair cut. I gave terrible haircuts. At one point I even nicked the earlobe of a younger girl. And she still paid us because she was really happy to have a haircut. … We gave her a discount for the little mishap, though.”

Courtesy The Hum / Soofi family

Imrana Soofi, at boarding school.

Imrana’s entrepreneurial mindset learned in her boarding school days became an essential part of her life.

‘How do you convince somebody that you can bring them value?’

Raising Ali and Shahbaz by herself after separating from their father, Imrana recalls the hustle it took to piece together enough income to support her sons after having to move to Cape Cod and needing to pay rent there while also paying rent in Worcester.

“When I was on the Cape, I had to manage two rents. I really had to work a lot,” Imrana said. “I was taking up shifts wherever I could, working at multiple restaurants. … I  remember having Saturdays free, and we would go to the local flea market. There was a guy that used to sell lingerie. He had this huge trailer full. … I remember convincing him basically to hire me. Because I’m a woman and I could sell way better to women than he could. He said, ‘Wow, you’ve got a point.’

“How do you take a situation and convince somebody that you can bring them value? What skill do you have that you can use? Some days it is really miserable, some days the traffic sucks, but other days you think, ‘Yeah, I made the money that I needed to make so we could do this.’ To me, that is a huge accomplishment,” she said.

While living in Worcester, Imrana noticed the struggles of the area’s underserved Muslim immigrant population and set out to help. Beginning shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Imrana began to help Afghan families in any way she could.

She arranged to have volunteers delead one of the family’s apartments, made arrangements to get them Halal turkey at Thanksgiving, and worked to build community among the population – often taking Ali and Shahbaz with her on house visits. She called her work American-Muslim Community Link (now known as Muslim Community Link, or MCL).

As word of her work spread, she came to serve more and more families, all while struggling to support her own.

Courtesy The Hum / Soofi family

Imrana Soofi, with young Ali and Shahbaz

‘A watershed moment’

In the coming years, Imrana continued to selflessly help Worcester’s Muslim population through MCL, worked a number of jobs, and took classes toward her Government and Geography dual major degree at Clark University.

Later, in 2014, Imrana landed a temporary job in a call center – a job she conceded she “hated” but “needed.” Imrana had a bittersweet feeling when she found out she was not going to get hired permanently.

“I had this sense of relief. I was really glad because I hated that job, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I drove home and I was sitting there with my hands on the steering wheel thinking, ‘Hmm, what’s next?’ when the phone rang,” she said.

The call came from Gladys Rodriguez-Parker, chief of staff for Congressman Jim McGovern, whom Imrana had worked with previously. Gladys knew of a woman in a terrible domestic violence situation and was reaching out to Imrana to see if she could communicate with her and support her to get through this trying time.

Shahbaz, finishing up his own degree at Worcester Polytechnic Institute at the time, recalls the selflessness his mother showed in that moment.

“She’s always been a hustler, always out of necessity. It’s like survival mode. Even in helping other people, I felt like she was hustling for them because she was looking out for their survival, as well,” he said.

Speaking directly to his mother, he said, “When you finished that temporary job and didn’t get the permanent position, you were still in this survival mode, and then you got the call about this woman in a domestic violence situation, which is very dire.”

Turning back to us, he added: “She goes to help her with that dire situation when she doesn’t know what’s going on with her own situation.”

That call was what Imrana and her sons described as a “watershed moment” – it was the moment they knew they needed to take MCL to a new level.

“This was the impetus to go back and try to pull together a board,” Shahbaz said. “Prior to that, in 2013, we had met with a few people in the community about it, but they said, ‘Oh, we don’t really think it’s going to work.’ After this, Mom said, ‘Shahbaz, you have to help me.’ At this point, I had nearly graduated and I’m going off to get a job.”

Despite beginning work at Avery Dennison in 2015, Shahbaz helped Imrana pull together a board for MCL. Six Muslim college students and two working adults from six different ethnic backgrounds began to lead the organization.

Courtesy The Hum / Soofi family

Black Seed Farmers Market

Finding a vision

With such diverse interests on the board, the biggest issue MCL had was that its members wanted to do too much. To hash things out, the team began 2016 by developing its mission and vision by holding a retreat that took place on New Year’s Eve and lasted through New Year’s Day.

They developed three main initiatives for MCL: support and referral; education; and community building. A major piece of the community building came to be the Black Seed Farmers Market, an entity within MCL that connects local immigrants and refugees with local farmers who provide produce not commonly found in the United States.

To best utilize their experiences, Ali stepped off the board and served as the Black Seed Farmers Market’s manager in the first season. Today, Imrana serves as the market manager in addition to her role as president of the board and executive director of MCL, and Shahbaz continues to serve on the board. They also provide employment opportunities to a number of youth in the community to help them operate both MCL and the market.

A new chapter

With experience gained from years of watching their mother hustle and assisting with both MCL and Black Seed Farmers Market, inspiration from their roots in Bangladesh, and perfect timing, Shahbaz and Ali recently set out to start a new venture: WooRides.

WooRides is an on-demand pedicab service based in Worcester. The company launched at the Black Heritage Juneteenth Festival at Institute Park June 17 and the Taste of Shrewsbury Street June 20 to a popular reception, and its story brings the Soofi family narrative full circle.

“We went to Bangladesh for a month. It was our first time there. All Ali and I could talk about was the traffic; it was crazy there. The people on the rickshaws (pedicabs) have no gears, they’re fixed speed. They’re weaving through cars that are six inches apart,” Shahbaz said. “We thought that if these 30-, 40-, 50-year-old Bengali men can weave through this traffic and we never saw a fender bender then, on the roads we have in Worcester, bringing pedicabs is probably feasible.

“It’ll take a little bit of hyping up and education, but I think we can do it,” he said.

The brothers sat on the idea for nearly two years but then, as part of a wave of cuts at the company, Shahbaz was laid off at Avery Dennison.

Ali recalled, “Shahbaz came to me and said, ‘I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that I got laid off. The good news is that I got laid off.’ ”

“It was the opportune time,” Shahbaz said. “I was getting laid off and I could very easily go back to a corporate job. And I’ll make more [money] because I’ve got experience. But I thought, ‘This is the time to do it.’ ”

Even more special than the early success the team members have had is the fact that they get to do so working side-by-side with their mother, who has taught them so much.

“She’s still part of it!” Shahbaz exclaimed. “She recently became one of the business partners. To be honest, my mom’s connections have helped with moving things along these past three weeks. That is the hustling mindset – my mom is always considering how we can barter: ‘I’m giving this person an opportunity, is there something they can also help us with?’ ”

Courtesy WooRides

Shahbaz Soofi, WooRides owner, takes a pair of customers for a ride.

Redefining a legacy of entrepreneurship

Shahbaz and Ali credit their entrepreneurial mindset to their upbringing and mother.

“Honestly, it’s not that uncommon if you’ve lived in the socio-economic situation that we, and a lot of other families, grew up in living in the city. We are put in situations in which working just one job isn’t enough. You’re making minimum wage, you have two, three mouths to feed,” Ali said.

“I remember being young, my mom saying, ‘Hey, you want to try selling these Hugs?’ I was slinging these things for 50 cents. There has always been a side hustle. My mom, when we were young, she was always working. Living in a situation where you don’t have a degree, where you don’t have family that is there to support you, the concept of being entrepreneurial isn’t foreign,” he said.

Shahbaz agreed. “When I think of the word entrepreneur, in my own head, it has this preconceived notion that the entrepreneur has to be high-tech or something. But when you think about it, all of the small businesses are entrepreneurial, too. Some of them, not all of them, but some may have come out of adversity,” he said.

Indeed, entrepreneurship is not simply venture capital-backed tech companies pulling in millions. It is often born out of necessity and adversity, a truth that is regularly overlooked.

It is apparent that the Soofi family has a unique appreciation for where they are today. Their words, character, and the manner in which they carry themselves are all a product of their ongoing journey – a journey that is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of entrepreneurship.

But perhaps it should be the first thing that comes to mind.

“The idea of entrepreneurship, even when you hear the word itself, you see a dude in a suit and tie,” said Ali. “But at its core, entrepreneurship is what our family has been doing since the beginning.”

We could not offer enough thanks to Imrana, Ali, and Shahbaz for sharing their story with us and opening up in a way few people could. This is what it’s all about.

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