Dawoodi Bohra women organize first-ever business expo in U.S. to showcase female entrepreneurship

By  | Orange County Register

In Arabic, the word “mashtal” means a nursery.

“It’s where seeds are planted and young saplings are nurtured so they can be planted in a bigger garden where they can grow and thrive,” said Batul Fidaali of Tustin.

Mashtal is also the name Fidaali and several other women from the Inland Empire and Orange County have given to their free Business Expo: For Women By Women, to be held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 23, at the Dawoodi Bohra Anjuman-e-Qutbi mosque in Ontario.

Organizers say the business expo in Ontario will feature the work of women business owners, entrepreneurs and artisans from across North America, many of them from the Dawoodi Bohra community, a sect of Shia Islam that comprises 400 families in Southern California and 5,000 nationwide. Most members of the communities have roots and live in India, Pakistan, Yemen, East Africa and the Middle East and follow the teachings of the sect’s leader and spiritual guide Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, who lives in India.

Three mosques serve the community in Southern California. The Ontario center serves Orange County and the Inland Empire, while mosques in Woodland Hills and San Diego serve communities in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

The expo, which has been held in Mumbai in previous years, is being brought to the United States for the first time and the Ontario mosque was chosen because of the robust community in Southern California, said Fareeda Zakir, one of the event’s organizers. The Dawoodi Bohras are known as a community of business owners and professionals, she said, adding that women have historically played an important role in family businesses.

“We have a long line of women business owners we can look up to, going all the way back to Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah who took over her father’s trading business when he died and still inspires us today as an empowered woman who ran a business in a male-dominated society,” said Zakir, an Anaheim resident.

Zakir has strong role models in her own family as well. Her grandmother was active in the family glass business in Nairobi, Kenya, where her mother also worked. Now, Zakir owns a residential glass and glazing business in Orange County.

“When it comes to entrepreneurship, it’s a multi-generational effect and once it’s in there, it’s there,” she said.

Zakir’s daughter, now 12, already dreams of owning a bakery and bookstore.

The expo is a space to lift women up, showcase their work and offer networking opportunities, Zakir said. Sunday’s event will feature a variety of business owners in the community from real estate agents to women selling baked goods, jewelry and home decor, she said.

Zakir said organizers have also put “strict COVID protocols in place” and will require full proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test 48 hours prior to the event for entry. She said all dining at the event will be held outdoors.

The main goal is to offer support to each other as a community, Zakir said.

“When women support each other, it results in profound growth and inspiration,” she said. “It can do wonders for your confidence. I’m a woman in construction. Most of the time, I’m the only woman in the room. Often, it’s about making other people believe in me. Our hope is to help a new generation of women grow as business owners.”

Among the new generation is Arwa Nomani of Corona who recently started Arwa Coffee, importing premium coffee from Yemen. Nomani, who is from Mumbai, India, said she used the Dawoodi Bohra network in Yemen to forge a relationship with a coffee company that sources coffee from community farms and pays fair prices to farmers who grow the crop in Yemen.

“Yemeni coffee has a rich, deep flavor, like Ethiopian coffee,” she said. “It also has to do with how the beans are roasted.”

Nomani and her coffee business are named after Arwa Al-Sulayhi, a queen who ruled Yemen in the 11th century. Inspired by the history of the country where her coffee comes from, Nomani said she is hoping to find women-owned business to distribute the coffee across the United States.

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan said she plans to attend the expo and is impressed to see “women uplifting one another.”

“The biggest challenge for women business owners is having a network of support,” said Khan, the first Muslim and first person of color to be elected mayor of Irvine. “It’s always a struggle to get started and build themselves up. I think this event also sends a message to the men of the community about how important it is for them to understand women need the support to be successful.”

The fact that such an event catering to women is necessary shows that parity and equity is lacking in the business world, Khan said.

“That’s true across the board, for all communities,” she said.

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