In the ballrooms and hallways of a DoubleTree hotel in Bloomington on Saturday, hundreds of Somali professionals and entrepreneurs from across North America and around the world gathered for a day of networking that brought together diverse talents and backgrounds.
It was the first time such a conference was held in North America. It attracted more than 500 people.
At their own expenses, attendees —who included entrepreneurs, religious leaders, economists, journalists, addiction counselors, marketing professionals, lawyers and doctors — came from all over the United States and Canada. A few traveled from other countries such as Kenya, Somalia and the United Arab Emirates.
The conference was organized and hosted by the Somali North American Business and Professionals Inc. (SNABPI), one of the largest Somali professional networks. The group, which has chapters in several cities in the U.S. and Canada, doesn’t have a hierarchy or outside funding, and all those involved work on a volunteer basis.
“We planned this to showcase Somali talent,” said Guled Ibrahim, a city of Minneapolis employee and one of the leaders of SNABPI. “For young professionals who attended, for them to see people who are successful who look like them, it was more than enough for us.”
“The level of success within the Somali community showcased in one place amazed me,” he added.
Panel discussions included investment, business and marketing, health and medicine and Islamic scholarship.
The event was sold out days before the conference began, and people scrambled to get tickets. It was so popular that some people resold their tickets for five times more than the regular price of $30.
Some of the sponsors of the conference included Abubakar As-Saddique Islamic Center, Humanitarian African Relief Organization (HARO) and Afro Deli.
The professional networking conference has its roots on Facebook. SNABPI began mostly as a loose project in 2017 on the social media platform. People shared inspirational posts and asked for advice and tips. Group members met in towns across North America. And then SNABPI quickly grew to become one of the most popular Facebook groups for Somalis. With more than 15,000 members, it has now officially transitioned from mainly having online interactions to in-person connections.
“We were looking to get 200 people” to attend the conference, said Mukhtar Shariff, a software engineer from Seattle who leads SNABPI. “Now we’re at 500 people. That shows how much people value this type of networking opportunities, how they value connecting with other Somalis.”
The conference marked a step forward in an ongoing, larger effort to connect global Somali professionals. That dates back to 2013, when a group of friends gathered at a park in Dubai. They wondered how they can address the challenges facing Somali students, entrepreneurs and professionals and strategize about how to help others find jobs, mentorship, funding or business ideas. They wanted to create a global network which embodies what it means to be a Somali.
After six years, the group had grown, with chapters in Australia, Middle East, East Africa, Europe and North America.
“This conference is a [place] to say, ‘Everybody that you have been interacting with online does exist,’” said Abu Bakr Ismail, a UAE-based entrepreneur and one of the founders of Somali Professional Network, an umbrella group that unites Somali professional chapters with nearly 30,000 members, making it the largest Somali professional network in the world.
Abu Bakr said they hope to turn the group into a nonprofit organization that takes talents from around the world and connects them to emerging markets, and provides knowledge exchange and seed money to Somali startups and businesses.
“What next for us is to organize this, transfer it into a system and let the best people manage this,” Abu Bakr told Sahan Journal.
At the conference, Eman Bare, one of the keynote speakers from Canada who’s a law student and fashion designer, shared the importance of setting goals for oneself. When she was 20, she said she set goals (her favorite thing) for the next 10 years.
“I sat in my room and I thought to myself, ‘What do I want my perfect day to look like in 10 years?’” Eman, who’s also a journalist, told the audience.
Some of her goals: Run a fashion company in Somalia, tell stories and win a Pulitzer Prize.
Now 27 and a law student in New York, she climbed through Canadian journalism, from a local reporter to a national political reporter. She became the first hijab-wearing Canadian TV reporter.
When she was growing up, Eman said she didn’t see many young professionals of Somali background who were successful.
“The kid in me is very happy,” Eman said at the conference. “I’ve never been around this many Somalis in my life.”
Yussuf Shafie, CEO of Alliance Wellness Center, an addiction treatment center in Bloomington, also shared his work of providing culturally-appropriate treatment plans for Somalis who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health and addiction problems.
“The people that I see, they have been through civil war,” said Yussuf, who was also a keynote speaker. “Some of the kids that are here, which is a different generation, they came from bad neighborhoods.”
Abdullahi Abdulle, a city of Minneapolis employee, said he was blown away by the number of positive stories he had heard at the conference.
“It brings the best of us. It’s kind of illuminating event,” Abdulle said. “It’s one thing to have a social media group that interacts online. But it’s another thing to see a group of young professionals who are in the same space that are sharing sometimes their personal intimate stories.”
Muhubo Mohamed, a city of St. Paul employee, attended an event that the local SNABPI chapter hosted in early summer. When she heard that a national conference was in the works, she did not hesitate to plan to attend.
“Last time, it was a very open and welcoming, especially seeing our own people being in so many different fields and willing to give a helping hand,” Muhubo said.
Fardowsa Hassan, an intern at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation who’s specializing in clinical and chemical health counseling, said she was amazed by the variety of professionals at the conference.
“It’s not the typical networking event where they do business-related stuff or health,” Fardowsa said. “They are trying to branch out and get people connected to various things.”
“Somali people have organizational skills,” added Kowsar Mohamed, who works for the city of St. Paul. “They can run a very smooth conference.”