Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 6: Al Milukas, and Zahra Aljabri and James Faghmous

Sometimes your passion is what you think about outside your day job. And sometimes solving your own needs turns into a startup opportunity.

Passion and need — two ingredients that help drive success for startups. The latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111, shared how a passion for food, and a personal need for modest but fashionable clothing fueled decisions to begin second careers as startup founders.

Joining me in Sirius’ New York studio were:

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Channeling a passion

Al Milukas

Al Milukas

Al Milukas has been in the radio business for 35 years and currently co-hosts The Paul & Al Show in Providence, RI. In addition to his day job, Al is a Master Gardener, self-proclaimed foodie, and writes a food and travel blog called Live the Live. He also makes krupnikas, a family-recipe Lithuanian honey liqueur. He is now turning his passion for food and spirits into a business.

Making the leap from radio mic to startup founder means channeling his passion, much as he did as a young man breaking into radio.

I have two sisters who are both math majors, so my dad, who was an electrical engineer, was thrilled with the fact that they wanted to major in that. And for me it was really all about radio from the beginning and he really wasn’t happy with my career choice at all. (He) kind of gave me that line of, “What makes you think you’re so special that you’re going to get into radio when thousands of other people fail?” 

I think that’s kind of in line with what entrepreneurs face, the fact that people may tell you along the way that what you’re doing is really impossible, why are you doing it? It’s such a risk, etc., etc., and (yet) it’s a passion of yours you need to follow. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

As a new founder, Al will be calling the perseverance he used to make it in radio. Here’s how he knew he’d finally won his father over:

Probably when I got the New York City job, because he knew what a big market it was. … He basically started telling his friends that his son was in radio. And when I overheard that, that’s when I knew I had made it in my dad’s eyes. 

And then I was unemployed actually, when they blew everybody out of New York. … He never told me, “I told you so” to his credit. …

 … You had to search for (a) job yourself. Nobody was going to give you your new job. … And he saw me do that for a year and not succeed, which is why I went to Cape Cod. It was the first job that somebody offered me.

And again, he was just shaking his head (saying), “I’d never be able to do that.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Fulfilling a need

Zahra Aljabri

Zahra Aljabri

Zahra Aljabri is an estate planning attorney and civil rights advocate who struggled to find modest, but fashionable, clothing styles that reflected her Muslim values. With encouragement from her husband, data scientist James Faghmous, she decided to fill the need herself. She and James founded Mode-sty in 2012.

James Faghmous

James Faghmous

Zahra explained that many women seek conservative, but fashionable clothing that allows them to stay true to their religious values, but finding styles that offer the right amount of coverage and are on-trend is difficult.

… There’s about 10 million women who dress modestly in the United States (for religious reasons). …

And then we get some many customers who, for other reasons, want modest clothing. Older women who want to be on trend but can’t be dressing like younger women anymore or don’t feel comfortable dressing like young women any more. …

There’s lots of holidays in many of those faith groups and they need occasion wear. …they need the clothing for all the categories. So think activewear; these women still want to dress conservatively when they’re running, when they’re swimming. Maternity. When they’re having a baby they still need their clothing to be modest. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Zahra discovered the opportunity for creating Mode-sty while living overseas.

It was (in Norway) that this idea started percolating, because over there the shopping was so much better to find things that met my needs, that were modest, and I was trying to explain to James why the shopping was so much better.

Through the course of the discussions he kept pushing, “I don’t understand why it’s so hard in the US and what could you do there to replicate this experience or make it better. …” 

At first it was like, “You could totally do something like this,” and I was like, “No, no, no. Maybe somebody is already working on it.” So it started with research to find out if somebody else was already working on it and I hadn’t searched hard enough. … Almost the whole time when I was in Norway (I) was looking and searching for companies, physical and online, that were providing a solution, and there was not.

So when we came back, push came to shove and we said, “OK we’ll take this leap.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Al’s startup journey began with a personal project:

We took a family trip to New Zealand and I wanted a place where I could log what we were doing, day by day — photos, food, all that kind of stuff. So I started Livethelive.com for myself … and from that I started featuring every bit of travel that we did and all the food that I cooked. I started posting recipes… and it … blossomed … 

(It began) personally for me, but then I started getting into the fact that other people were reading it and enjoy it as well and that was kind of fun. You put something on Facebook or Twitter or on the webpage and you get a response from somebody saying, “Hey, wow that looks really great, I’m going to try it today.” So that eggs you on to do more.

And I’ve always been kind of a crazy cook. Even when I was single I had parties at my house with 80 people and I used to cook all the food. People looked at me like, “You’re nuts,” but I just enjoyed doing that.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Al is writing a cookbook:

Originally the goal of the website was just to have fun … and share ideas with other people. I started recently putting together my recipes for a cookbook. … Now the focus of the website is to get a cookbook together that … features some of these recipes. … 

I’d love to find a publisher. (But) these days you can do a lot of self-publishing. Because my wife is in the art world, we have a couple of friends who are extremely talented food photographers … so we can almost do it all ourselves.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

And he’s researching the best way to sell the krupnikas honey liqueur he makes and gifts to friends and relatives each Christmas:

Al: There’s a lot of legalities to go through. I have friends that have done similar things and we also have some local distilleries that are popping up in Rhode Island. … It’s all the rage now. They have all these craft breweries popping up for beer…  so now a distillery is the next step. They make a rum in Rhode Island called Thomas Tew, and … Sons of Liberty is one of the distillers in Rhode Island as well. They make whiskey. …

I’m talking to those guys to get an idea of what the business is all about, what’s required. And they all just kind of roll their eyes and say. “Paperwork. Get the right lawyer.” …

…You can (run a still in your basement), but not for sale. … I make a ton of (krupnikas) every year. … I use a case of grain alcohol per batch that I make. I make small batches, but over the course of a week, I use the whole case. … I get about 30 liters out of it. 

At Christmastime, I ask (everybody) what they want … and they say, “Give me a bottle.”

Steve: I don’t know if you’re listening to yourself, but I’m listening to you describe the basis of a really interesting business. … Not the only the honey liqueur, but the website and the food… there’s something here, don’t you think?

Al: I think so. They’re tied in a bit to each other … I’ve written about my honey liqueur on livethelive.com, but of course I didn’t give the recipe out. …

Steve: If they’re already these people making hard liquor in Rhode Island, any of them want to carry your line?

Al: That’s what I’m working on… 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here’s how Zahra and James tested their idea for Mode-sty:

James: All we did was put up a webpage with a dress that we thought met Zahra’s aesthetics and function, so the coverage and the style.”

Zahra: A landing page. …

Steve: Was it designed to be a Minimum Viable Product?

Zahra: It was, it was just to collect email addresses and to see if anyone else saw the need that I saw. … (We used) social media (to create demand) … mostly Facebook. … We got a lot of signups and people emailing us, “When are you going to launch? I have something coming up soon.”

Then we had been reading your books so we started to ask people if we could call them and talk to them. … I found a lot of women who were feeling how I was feeling. So that was reassuring. I think my husband, now he’s a believer, but initially he was like, “I don’t think there’s going to be that much. There can’t be that be that many.” It was my job to prove to him that there are a lot of women who are looking for the fashion and the coverage, because we thought more would be just concerned with the function and the price.

James: And ironically… about 24 to 48 hours after we put up the landing page, Refinery 29 reached out to write a story about us (even though) we had nothing … but this landing page. …

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Zahra concedes that doing a startup is much harder than being a lawyer:

Being an entrepreneur is the hardest thing. … You really test yourself. You learn a lot more about yourself. You have to rely on your own instincts. …

(Working with James) has made it easier. …There’s that level of trust, the honestly we can have with each other and in our relationship we want to reach good outcomes, so there’s that incentive to … discuss this and argue it until we get the best outcome. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

And yet the experience has been empowering. Knowing what she knows now, here’s what Zahra would have told herself when she first took that leap:

I’d just say, “You can do it.” I think that’s probably the biggest thing is (that) before (I thought), Who am I to do this? I have no fashion background, I have no business experience. … Who do I think I am? 

Steve: Who convinced you?

Zahra: Reading about other entrepreneurs who just started and said no one else is solving this problem. I’m going to take it on, and also the encouragement from James. …

James: Zahra’s a brilliant person, so I just saw it in her and I knew that she could do it. I was convinced from the get-go. … For me I think I was more entrepreneurial from a younger age, so to me … it’s very similar to going to graduate school and doing a Ph.D. I always look for problems, for gaps. Where are the gaps in the world. And once Zahra showed me the gaps, and I saw these emails from people (saying) … “We love you. Thanks so much. We need this so much.” I just knew that this could be done if we were thoughtful … 

We want to move forward. It’s like experiential learning going though this. You can read as much as you want, you can watch how to start a startup videos as much as you want, but being on the ground and doing it, and knowing that no, we don’t have anything to lose so much, so no mistake can really be fatal, just try to do and learn and do as you go without being too outlandish was the way that … got us where we are today. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to my full interviews with Al, and with Zahra and James’ by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Betsy Corcoran, co-founder and CEO of EdSurge and Miriam Altman, co-founder of Kinvolved.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111

2 Responses

  1. Great interview! Interviews with startup founders are some of my favorites. When you see someone who’s really successful, they can seem sort of larger than life, so hearing about how they started out kind of makes them seem human again (and makes their achievements seem possible!)

  2. great article , thank you for sharing … best regards

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