Three weeks ago, Shams Frough opened the doors to his rug shop, Kapisa Rugs, with the goal to make money to get through medical school and bring a piece of his home, Afghanistan, to Evanston, IL.
The shop always aimed to support makers in Afghanistan, who create many of the colorful, intricate rugs, which now hang along Frough’s shop walls. With the Taliban taking over the country again, Frough predicts economic collapse. Purchasing from the rug makers is the one way to aid the people there, he said.
“The plan was to basically do something that also pays back to where I came from, to help the people, because I was actually foreseeing this, what’s happening now,” he said.
As he tells me about his new store, his family and his aspirations of being a doctor, he holds his phone tight, periodically checking messages and answering calls from his family on the other side of the world. He has seven brothers and sisters, all who were in Afghanistan when the Taliban regained control last week.
He believes one brother has made it out and another was on a plane as he spoke to me. Two sisters will likely make it out as well. “Do I look tired?” he asks, as I take his photo. He’s had a lot on his mind with the new shop, studying for medical school exams and the worry of his family’s safety.
The first few weeks of his shop have gone well, he said. He’s made a majority of the sales to friends. “I totally, 100%, believe in the American dream,” he said “I believe, if you want to, there’s an opportunity for everyone to have some sort of a job.”
The Taliban’s last rule included tight governance under a strict version of Sharia Law, which permitted executions, and did not allow women to work, leave the home without a man and required them to be covered from head to toe, among other laws. The group says it has changed, but reports have already poured out of the country saying otherwise. Frough gives it two months until people run out of funds and groceries become scarce.
Frough immigrated to the U.S. in 2014 after serving as a U.S. interpreter in Afghanistan for five years. He graduated from the University of Illinois- Chicago in December. He’s always had a knack for entrepreneurship — in Afghanistan, he supplied food for McLean, Virginia-based Contrack International and prior to the rug store in the U.S. he had an online auction site for a few months.
Frough pays $2,500 a month to rent the shop on Chicago Avenue, home to many other small shops and restaurants. He estimates he has spent about $100,000 so far to open the shop, financing it with credit cards and savings he and his wife had.
Virtual rug flipping
He aims to bring a more digital component to traditional rug selling — instead of flipping through hundreds of rugs and the one on the bottom of the stack collecting dust, customers can flip through the inventory virtually, seeing the rugs on a large screen mounted in the shop. Frough has about 350 rugs in store, and suppliers in the Middle East with stocks of thousands. Each is made from master weavers and the companies he purchases from have provided him a certificate that they’re made ethically.
Small rugs and runners go for about $250 and the largest size, a 10×14, goes for about $5,000. Each is priced for its size and intricacy.
Frough’s not concerned that Taliban’s rule will stop rug exports. The 2,500 year old industry has survived wars and reigns. Though, border control has hit sales in the past — most sellers import around the world as few Afghans can afford the expensive carpets.
The Taliban’s control will likely increase the shipping time as airports will not be as accessible, he said. Worst case, the rugs will be imported to Pakistan and he will be able to source from there, he said.
The digital platform makes it easier for him to run it without employees. Frough plans to run the shop as he goes to medical school and hopes it will pay the bills. He’s studying for the MCAT now.
“Could things get better? Always, but I’m pretty satisfied and appreciate what the people and the [U.S.] government has done for me.”
Q&A: For Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Doors Are Closed
I talked to Unshackled Ventures founding partner Manan Mehta on Aug. 20 about whether the U.S. is a welcoming place for entrepreneurs and for immigrants who want to found businesses here. Immigrants can and do prosper as entrepreneurs — in fact, they are twice as likely as native-born Americans to start businesses. But there are many bureaucratic barriers; getting a visa that enables the freedom to launch a business is difficult. Creating a visa for entrepreneurs — a startup visa — would simplify the process, he says, and allow immigrants and supporting organizations to focus on the startup rather than the complicated immigration process.
Unshackled Ventures is a Silicon Valley-based venture firm that funds immigrant-founded startups at the pre-seed level.
Responses have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
As people are leaving Afghanistan, especially women and other minorities, many of them are coming to the US. Some are entrepreneurs themselves. What are their prospects for success?
I think there’s a lot to ask for in terms of policy and the right entrepreneurship visas for immigrants. But at the margin, I think right now, it’s good to be an entrepreneur in the US. All things considered in the backdrop of COVID, it’s hard. But that’s a global challenge. And so I think, in that context, it’s a really good time. There’s a lot of money that’s being invested and deployed.
When I look at the population of our portfolio, nearly 35% of our portfolio companies are female led. And that is significantly higher than kind of industry standards, and certainly something that we are pretty bullish on.
Is there currently a way to get into the U.S. for entrepreneurship?
There is not a way to get into the United States for entrepreneurship. The only pathway you can go through is the international entrepreneur parole. This is something the Obama Administration put in place, the Trump Administration stopped, and Biden put it back into place.
Recently, a startup visa was proposed in the U.S. to start a business. What would a startup visa mean?
One of the biggest challenges we’re facing as a nation is that there’s not a lot of clarity on how to start a company while on a visa. If there was something like an entrepreneurship visa, could you imagine just what it would feel like if you thought about it, and there was a clear answer? Right now you have to search for the right answer, because there’s not a clear pathway. And so as a result, many people, through the lack of having resources and education and can’t find a clear answer, don’t do it.
We know mmigrants become entrepreneurs at high rates and immigrant rates are currently on the rise in many U.S. cities, many in the Heartland. What role do and will immigrants play in entrepreneurship in the U.S.?
Immigrants are the U.S. I mean, at the most fundamental pieces, this is a country of immigrants. Outside of our Native American population, most of the 250 plus years is an experiment of immigration. And so nothing has changed. I think in any capacity, whether you are the founder of Fox News or the founder of Tesla, you are an immigrant.
I think this rise is going to continue. From a most fundamental level, either by choice or by force, when you leave your home country and go to someplace that’s unfamiliar to you, you are taking the first step of entrepreneurship. And that is challenging your comfort zone.
REPORT: UAE Jumps to Top 25 Ecosystem
In a sign of the power of investing a lot of money in a local community, the United Arab Emirates has jumped to the top 25 countries on Haifa, Israel-based StartupBlink’s 2021 Global Ecosystem Index Report, published in June. Ranking number 25, a spot below Brazil, the country jumped 18 spots from last year.
Data partners including Crunchbase, Meetup and UNAIDS created the report. StartupBlink also partnered with dozens of partners from the ecosystems. The report ranks 100 countries and 1,000 cities based on their number of startups, the quality of those startups and supporting organizations and the ecosystem’s business environment.
The UAE’s growing hubs, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are bringing more attention to the area. The UAE also has an abundance of funding opportunities. More legal and financial reform from the government could encourage even more entrepreneurship in the country, according to the report.
Dubai ranked number 67th among city hubs, up 32 spots from last year. Many Arab entrepreneurs relocate to the city when looking to scale their company, according to the report.
In order to stay in the position, the country may have to keep investing. The countries following it — Taiwan and Portugal — have almost identical rankings and positive growth momentum.
“Considering the size of the Arab-speaking market, potential is high, and the public sector should prioritize preparation for a future era when oil revenue will not be as substantial as it is today,” said the report.