When Mohamed Ali was three years old, his family fled Somalia to the United States as refugees. They settled in Columbus, Ohio, a region home to Somali immigrants. Growing up relatively privileged in the U.S., Ali soon became increasingly concerned about developments back home.
He decided to pursue immigration law at Boston College and began working in the Somali community. But Ali was also interested in helping Somalia itself and to achieve this, he spent years touring some diaspora communities in Europe to understand the needs of his people. He birthed the idea of a foundation during a trip to Rome.
“At the time there was no central government in Somalia, and nobody operating the embassy in Rome,” he told the BBC. “There were about 150 young men camped there, all illegal immigrants who had crossed the Mediterranean to get to Italy and were looking for jobs. My family left Somalia because of the civil war, but these kids left because of a lack of employment. That’s when I saw entrepreneurship as a tool for social impact.”
In 2010, Ali’s work in the community was noticed by the U.S. State Department. He was subsequently invited to Washington to meet then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton along with 80 other young Muslim leaders, as part of the government’s Generation Change initiative.
After the meeting, Ali was inspired by the works of other young Muslim leaders in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia so he launched the Iftiin Foundation to empower his countrymen back home. He subsequently returned to Somalia in 2011 to organize a conference on youth leadership and youth innovation.
Together with his then 27-year-old sister, Ali launched Iftiin Foundation in Somalia in 2012. The foundation, based in the Somali capital Mogadishu, offers training in entrepreneurship and micro-enterprise support. It also offers vocational training, conflict resolution training, counseling and reintegration support.
The idea behind the foundation, he noted, was to build peace through entrepreneurship. “The basic idea is active capitalism – using capitalism as a tool for development rather than aid,” he said. “We invest in these businesses and take an equity stake. Instead of just giving out grants we have a stake in their success – and their success means we are generating income that we can use to support our activity.”
At the time he launched his foundation, he had no government support and as a result, funding came mainly from private sources including remittances from Somali communities in the U.S. or Europe. Investors were not willing to invest in a conflict-ridden country.
Nonetheless, Ali was unfazed. Today, Iftiin Foundation has provided over 1000 Somali youth with business skills training through its “Mini MBA” program. The foundation has provided extensive post-training assistance to its graduates, facilitating the launch of their own businesses and providing ongoing mentorship support.