Jomana Siddiqui began her business, modernEID, in 2011 after observing a consumer gap in available Islamic-inspired festivity décor. However, during her nearly ten-year journey with the brand thus far, her business has also led her to experiences as well as observations about social equity gaps in society as a whole. I had the pleasure to engage in a virtual chat with Jomana and ask her some questions about her experiences as a woman in business and how it has contributed to her views on more recent social justice issues exposed by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jomana Siddiqui, founder of modernEID. Image by Sabrina Hill.
How did your business, modernEID, come into existence?
I started in 2011. I had already been doing graphic design and stationary design for quite a few years before that point. What I discovered is that I was doing a lot of custom work. So, I would get requests from friends and clients who are Muslim who said, ‘Hey, could you design me stickers or cards?’ At that time, which was not that long ago, nothing like that existed in that category. After doing that for a couple of clients, I thought maybe I could just design a couple of collections and throw it on a website. And it was literally just like that: I sat down, designed three collections, built a website, did a photoshoot (and all within one month). Then, I launched.
I didn’t have anything out there yet, no following; I just started a Facebook page and that was it. It was really word of mouth. And that first launch, I did pretty well. That right away told me that I just filled a giant void for the few people who found me; it fulfilled a need. So, when you see a reaction like that, you realize: I need to keep going with this; it’s not a one-time thing. What really helped me that particular year was that I caught the attention of the American Muslim Consumer Conference. They were doing a “Shark Tank” style panel, where you’d be pitching to entrepreneurs about your business and hearing their feedback; and they reached out to me and asked me to be a part of it. So I said, Oh yeah! I basically had to do this whole presentation about my financials, and my business, and where I was going.
What I remember is that one of the people on the panel was from a major company, and I distinctly remember him telling me, “I don’t think your name (modernEID) is very good. It’s too niche. You don’t have a big enough market. You should consider changing your name.” At that time, I was taken back and it really hit me. Then, they asked me my goal. And I said, “My goal is to walk into a regular store around Eid time and be able to buy Eid wrapping paper and have it be no big deal.”
It seems like it’s such an uphill battle to get anyone to recognize this underserved population who is not represented anywhere even though there’s so many Muslim consumers in America. It just boggles my mind that it has to be such an uphill battle. But it’s not something that I’m not accustomed to because I grew up Arab-Muslim my entire life and we don’t have representation. With me, for my kids, I want it to be no big deal for them. And now, it’s not. Their entire life they’ve grown up seeing products that cater to them; so, that was my goal. So, I did not change my name. We just moved forward and kept growing every year.
modernEID decor & party supplies.
It’s interesting to me that as late as 2011 there wasn’t an industry already there.
It is and it’s not. You have to think of it in the context of world events. So, unfortunately, when 9-11 happened, one of the biggest outcomes of that was this huge surge in Islamophobia. A lot of companies and shows did not feel compelled to stand up for that demographic of America, because it was the trend to not do so. So, for instance, we noticed that at one local shopping mall, they would have a Lunar New Year celebration and every store would have a little sign and decorations. We thought, Wouldn’t that be cool if they did something for Ramadan.
So, we pitched it to them in 2013. We had a meeting scheduled to talk to them about it and lend our expertise on how they could better serve this group of people. Then, literally about 20 minutes before we were about to go to this meeting, a lady contacted us and told us that her supervisor just nixed the entire idea. It was not unheard of at the time. So, pitching to stores, they just weren’t receptive to it.
So, today, what inspires your work and the content that you create for modernEID?
Because the name is modernEID, the whole premise was to not serve into typical stereotypes. For instance, anytime some people think about a Muslim person in America, they may automatically assume that person comes from the Middle East. Actually, Muslims from the Middle East make up a small portion of the Muslim population worldwide (but it’s just one of those stereotypes).
So, often, you see décor with camels or palm trees – which is fine because there are people who would identify with it – but my company is about me bringing it here. I am an American; I was born and raised here. So, I wanted to inject American culture in. I am very particular that my designs are culturally neutral and not serving stereotypes. That dictates everything that I do.
Faith typography shirt from modernEID.
As far as being a woman in business, what particular obstacles have you faced (for instance, earlier, you mentioned the comment made by the company owner to you at that conference)?
I do remember one woman reaching out to me after that conference which kind of clued me in. Really, as a designer and business owner, I kind of exist in a little bit of a bubble. I don’t work in an office or corporation, so I’m not witnessing those gender differences on a daily basis. I distinctly remember I had a couple of people reach out on Facebook and mention that it was interesting that on a panel of “wealthy and successful” entrepreneurs that there was not a single woman represented on the panel. This was true.
Maybe it was unintentional but the criticisms that I received seemed more aesthetic and superficial than maybe if I was a man pitching my business. I don’t think people would have fixated on the same things. That really stuck with me; I don’t really think I was singled out because I am a woman or those comments were made because I am a woman, but I do think subconsciously those comments were there because the mentality was, ‘Oh, this girl and her little hobby.’ I thought: That’s okay, someday I’ll be on that panel.
Do you think there’s been other obstacles since then that you’ve had to navigate?
You know, for the most part my experiences have been good. What I do feel is that sometimes when I pitch to a company to carry my products, I feel that the impression they have is: ‘You must be doing this as a hobby.’ This is in opposition to them thinking that I am a serious business owner who has identified a void in the market that needs to be filled. So, I feel that you’re not always taken as seriously in the market.
Speaking of this year, it’s been a moment of truly pushing for change, particularly for the Black Lives Matter movement. As a content creator and social media influencer, you recently utilized your voice to speak up for social justice and BLM. Why was that important for you to do?
If I were to talk about this from a personal level, I’ve always been anti-racist from a really young age. I’ve always felt that way. I’ve always looked at historical leaders; I was obsessed with John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and what they would do. I was very attracted to the civil rights movement during that time. So, when this recently came out, it felt different.
I’ve always spoken up and said what I have to say. I remember being in school during the Los Angeles Riots right after the Rodney King incident and watching that unfold. I remember people said they were going to leave school and march down to UCI (UC Irvine) to protest. I’d say, I’m in! I never thought twice about it; to me, this is what’s right. No race should have a hierarchy in this world. With everything that unfolded, it was touching me very deeply to see these stories, even before people were posting about it.
What felt different to me this time was that (before) I didn’t have a right to speak out about it as vocally as I did because I’m not a black person. I felt like, I agree with you, I stand with you. But, what everybody saw with the current movement is that it’s not enough “not to be racist;” we have to be anti-racist. We have to speak up no matter who we are. I felt like I was living my life not being racist, teaching my children the same, and trying to break down cultural stereotypes.
So many people are victims of it who may have come from immigrant parents or come from certain religious backgrounds; there are so many who have experienced prejudice or bigotry. With this movement, it touched me so deeply, and I felt like I had permission to say something. To me, it felt like the Black Lives Matter movement was saying, ‘We need our allies to say something.’ So, I felt like I had to answer that call. I let people who follow me know: This is where I stand and I really need you to do this as well. And if you don’t agree with me, then don’t follow me. And it really was drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘This is what I stand for.’
Luna Ramadan banner.
You wrote in one of your posts, “Being silently non-racist is no longer enough. We need to be vocally anti-racist.” What’s your explanation of what it means to be “anti-racist”?
I think a lot of us experience at some point someone we know – whether friend or family member – who says something that we don’t agree with but we don’t necessarily speak up against it. We just kind of stay silent, because we don’t want to offend them or create a problem. I think a lot of people live their lives in that comfort zone. I always thought I don’t want to be “preachy” or come off as sanctimonious.
But then, I felt because so many people may do that, a lot more people feel at liberty to say these things and inherently believe them. I just felt like I have to be anti-racist. If I hear someone saying something like, “No, All lives matter,” I don’t think it’s enough to just dismiss them as ignorant. You should at least say why saying that statement is harmful (whether they agree with you or not). And this is not about being politically correct. But when more of us start doing that, maybe someone will be educated in that moment.
I had a discussion with somebody about BLM, and they replied, “But, All lives should matter.” I told them, “Well, all lives do matter. But when you answer with ‘No. All lives matter,’ what you’re doing is putting yourself into an equation that you don’t belong and you’re not educated enough in really understanding what the BLM movement means.” The BLM movement doesn’t say, ‘Only Black lives matter.’ It says ‘Black lives matter, too.’ It is pointing out that their stories aren’t being told and murders of Black people aren’t being reported on the news like they should be.
For instance, I’ve never had breast cancer but I support the Susan B. Komen foundation, walked in the walk, donated, and I have worn the pink ribbon. But wearing the pink ribbon does not mean: Your other form of cancer doesn’t matter (and only this matters). It means: There is a cancer that is killing this particular group of people, so we need to do something about it. It doesn’t diminish all other cancers that exist. The BLM movement, at least in my interpretation of what it means, is that this is a cancer that is affecting this group of people. We either wear our ribbon and help support them or no one’s cancers will be fixed. To me, that’s anti-racism.
You have encouraged people to continue to use their voice for this movement. What are some ways that people can continue to contribute to this moment and movement to ensure its development into the future?
Every action has an effect. Look for ways to donate. You might write to your local Congressmen. You might go out and march. What is also a great idea is sitting down and talking to your children about it. Letting them know: This is not cool and this is not right. You’re educating them, because these young lives are going to grow up and live in this world. Every little thing is going to help, whether it’s educating yourself or being really overt with what you’re doing.
What bothered me when I initially wanted to post is that I didn’t want to jump on a “trend” or “display” of wanting to help. So, there was more behind those posts and it has to continue with everybody. It’s not just continually posting about it and shouting from my megaphone; it’s actually rolling your sleeves up, getting your hands dirty. It might be wearing a shirt that you’re loud and proud, writing emails, or making phone calls.
And some progress has been made. But look at how many people have to come out, how many protests, and how many things had to happen just to make that small amount of progress. To me, that’s mind-blowing that it took an army just for small things to happen; that shouldn’t be the case.
Do you want to share anything else that you’ve thought about during this moment where social justice and issues of equality have come to the forefront?
It was equally upsetting to me during the Muslim-ban. It seemed as if I was living in a “twilight zone.” I thought, How is it okay to say that ‘we’re not going to let a person of a certain religion into this country?’ That was mind-boggling to me. I think what I found heartening and disheartening at the same time was that there were people who stood up – some people who were not Muslim – who made signs to protest and went to the airports to speak out. But there were a lot of people who did not. I felt (of those who did not) that their silence allowed continued stereotypes of a certain group of people and facilitated laws accordingly. I felt that this should have outraged anybody, but it didn’t. So, I need to speak up when I see these kinds of things happening to people around me. Because when these things happen to me, I’m going to hope that they speak up for me.
Many thanks to Jomana Siddiqui for her time and thoughtful responses in our interview. Jomana is currently the owner and designer for modernEID and Pences Design Studio. You can follow her on Instagram @modernEID or @AHappyBlog. You can also check out modernEID at modernEID.com.
Written by Ea Madrigal