I scour the globe for stories worth reading about ventures that are a true force for good for humanity and our planet.
That’s why I’m THRILLED to introduce Farrah Moussallati Sibai, Founder and President of Afia.
Farrah and Mediterranean food company Afia are driven by a mission to make food powerful.
Their impact to date?
Afia set out to introduce American consumers to convenient, authentic Mediterranean cuisine and carve a place for modern Middle Eastern food at the grocery stores all while giving back to their local refugee community through employment and mentoring opportunities. In addition, Afia has given away over 100,000 falafel to hunger relief organizations in Central Texas in the past 1.5 years.
Let’s dive into the deep end.
Diana: What’s the problem you’re solving?
Farrah: I am trying to make sure that people like me—other Middle Easterners— see themselves reflected in the grocery stores, introduce American shoppers to some of our delicious specialities, plus help the refugee community in our area feel more settled.
Diana: How are you solving it?
Farrah: It’s really two parts.
First, through the company we founded. Afia offers a modern take on some of the Mediterranean classics I grew up with – like falafel and kibbeh, but presents them in fresh, accessible ways. One of the only things that my mother-in-law could take when she was fleeing Syria during the conflict was her family heirloom recipe book – and we took those recipes and added twists to them. We also spent a lot of time getting the branding just right on Afia – as I wanted to be true to our heritage but also break from any stereotypes. This region is known for fresh, bright, healthy cuisine and vibrant design, and I wanted to be sure we were introducing that correctly, even through the use of the irreverent expressions, like ‘Feeling Falafull’ on our website. It’s meant to be fun and present the culture in an uplifting, welcoming way.
I am very focused on job training and recruiting from our local refugee community. There is so much talent among the current population of refugees living here. And I strongly believe that through employment opportunities we can help give people dignity and a sense of belonging in our community. My own mother-in-law was a refugee after she fled Syria during the war. She eventually was reunited with her own family in the United States, but I saw how she struggled to fit in and find community. I found that myself – when I moved here after my own tragedies. I know what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land, to be starting over. I need to do everything in my power to give people new opportunities – and our family works to model that in our community.
Diana: What’s a story of a life you’ve transformed through your work?
Farrah: Our first hire was a refugee who had just arrived in Austin. His wife was pregnant, and he did not speak one word of English. He tried to find work, but was struggling because of the language barrier. He was desperate and willing to work two or three shifts just to provide for wife and soon-to-come newborn. He started working for Afia,and we helped with all his paperwork, taught him how to use bank apps, explained how taxes work, explained health insurance and made sure the whole family was covered and set them up with their primary care doctors, guided him and his wife on how to communicate with preschools, etc. He now has two daughters who are in school, are bilingual – perfect English and Arabic, he and his wife have learnt how to speak English, and he made and saved enough money over a few years to be able to take his family on vacations, owns his own car, and is looking into owning his own house. He has settled and stood on his feet. I still see them and their daughters, and I am so proud of how far along they have all come.
Diana: How does Afia measure impact?
Farrah: It’s so hard to measure impact as such a small organization. Our employee base is still quite small. I measure it in ‘are we giving back as much as we can?’, ‘are we changing lives?’ “Are we good global citizens for our daughters and inspiring them to be good global citizens in their lives?’
Diana: What does the world look like once you’ve solved this problem?
Farrah: Oh wow, that’s a big question. Because I see my goals as three tier: 1. to help find jobs for refugees and help with their resettlement, 2. To change minds and increase awareness around Mediterranean cuisine, and 3. (Probably my biggest goal), inspire others through my own mission and story. That’s a very long term goal.
When all of that is done, we’ll have really changed the world for the better.
Diana: What motivated you personally to start this company/organization?
Farrah: I founded the company in 2017 when I realized that I couldn’t find the foods that I loved in the grocery store in Texas. I had recently moved to Texas, after losing nearly everything in Syria including my two daughters. I had fled for a better life for my middle daughter, but I was truly starting over with practically nothing. During this time in my new country, I started volunteering with a local refugee organization — and I really empathized with their pain and struggle. It was at this time that I started to see how food could be a connection to home for them and for myself. It inspired me to launch Afia with our line of frozen Mediterranean signature dishes, falafel and kibbeh.
I also wanted to be sure we were giving back. From the start, we’ve sought to employ local refugees in our factory.
Diana: What is a hard-earned growth-hack you’ve picked up building this venture that you share with other founders of good ventures?
Farrah: Early on, we took every opportunity that came our way — and you will learn quickly that some paths are the wrong ones. Because we were working with a shoestring budget at launch, we needed to be scrappy, but being scrappy taught us a lot. It helped us determine who we wanted to be in those first days. Now, we are able to be more discerning about our choices and really make sure it speaks to the message we want to give off.
Diana: A little vulnerability – how do you take care of you so that you can show up as the best version of you to serve others?
Farrah: Wow, that’s really hard. I find that I am often the last one to be prioritized. I try to practice gratitude every day — and having suffered through so much and lost so much, I remind myself of this regularly. I want to be an inspiration to my girls and to women everywhere. Empowering them to believe that they are stronger than they think and that they can start from the ground up and overcome life-changing adversities.
A huge part of my own self care is giving back and supporting the community. When I needed help, I had it. It lifted me up and was encouraging. I hope with my help, I can have this impact on others and encourage them.
Diana: How can readers get involved / support / help?
Farrah: Buy Afia, ask for it in your stores. But also advocate for different voices, a variety of cuisines in your grocery stores.
If you want to make a donation directly to support the refugee community in the United States, my favorite charities for helping refugees are The Tent Partnership for Refugees, which was founded by Hamdi Ulukaya whom I have had the great fortune of getting to know through the Chobani Incubator program, and locally in Texas, Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston, is an amazing organization that we’ve seen up close make a huge difference in people’s lives. They have a deep commitment to helping refugees settle in Texas – and it’s true boots on the ground hard work.
Diana: How can you help readers that are building ventures for good?
Farrah: At the end of the day, all of the good ventures are startups at heart. There’s so much hustle involved in making your venture a success. But I think it comes down to two major things:
- Self-confidence: I founded Afia with no experience in the CPG, the food industry or non-profits, my background was in business, but I believed in the concept of Afia, the opportunity, and the overall mission. Believing in Afia meant I had to believe in myself and my own judgement and vision. Believing in myself and this venture also meant that I had to have patience and resilience because it’s a journey, a difficult yet rewarding one. I am always reminded that difficult roads can lead to beautiful destinations.
- The humility to know what you don’t know: Being an entrepreneur is all about learning and growing not only as an individual but as an entrepreneur. As I said, I knew very little when I entered the world of CPG and it wasn’t something I was shy to admit to, I constantly asked questions and still do till now, as founders it is impossible to know all the answers and be an expert in every field but as a founder you will always be learning. I am a constant learner. Every meeting I take, I ask people to educate me on the topic, even if I think I already know. You’d be amazed at what you will learn. As someone who came to a new country, I think it says a lot about my experience here that I needed to be so open to new experiences.
Diana: Anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had?
Farrah: People always ask me why we founded Afia with a social good mission. At the end of the day, I feel so incredibly fortunate where I am today and that I’ve been able to overcome the most crushing adversities, that I know anything I did would need to give back to our community. Having gone through so much, I feel this deep connection to the refugee community. I myself was never a refugee per se, but I know what it feels like to lose your entire life, to leave it all behind, to come to an unknown land, and to frankly wonder when you will see sunlight again. I knew I had to lift people up no matter what I decided to do with myself.
Learn more & take action:
- Try us at afiafoods.com
- Ask for Afia in your local grocery stores!