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umaya Kazi is under 30—and proud of it.

At 24, Kazi is co-founder and executive director of online media company The CulturalConnect. But that’s not her day job—she’s also the youngest manager on her marketing team at Sun Microsystems. And if that’s not enough to impress you, Kazi has recently been named one of BusinessWeek’s Top 25 Entrepreneurs Under 25.

Then again, it’s no surprise that she’s been chosen for the list—she’s had her eyes set on BusinessWeek from the start. “I’d look through BusinessWeek, Forbes and Fortune … You will rarely see someone under 35, let alone 30,” she says. That’s not her only beef with business magazines: She believes they offer a distinct lack of attention to nonprofit organizations. “It’s just a shame that they don’t get the exposure that I feel they deserve,” she adds. Combine that with her desire to read about desis (Kazi is Bangladeshi American) in non-traditional fields, and you have the impetus for The CulturalConnect, a web site that spotlights young, high-achieving South Asian professionals in all fields.

Serendipitously, Kazi met co-founder Raymond Rouf at a wedding in 2005, where they exchanged business cards and ideas. After listening to Sumaya’s idea, Rouf says he “got on the plane the next day to fly to D.C. and pitch the idea to [his] partner Kaiser Shahid.” After just a few weeks, The DesiConnect was born. It started as a weekly online magazine featuring articles on South Asian young professionals and non-profits. “We didn’t know what we had gotten ourselves into. We knew nothing about media publishing,” says Kazi.

Neighbors in Cyberspace

The CulturalConnect’s three co-founders, Sumaya Kazi, Raymond Rouf and Kaiser Shahid, have yet to be in the same room together. “I’ve never met Kaiser—I’m hoping to one day,” says Kazi. In the age of social networking, this is hardly a problem for an online publishing company. “We’re all neighbors in Internet space. I don’t feel that there’s very much distance between any of us,” she says. Soon that will literally be true, according to Rouf. He is moving to Northern California from Illinois and suggests that Shahid will be making the move west, too.

Evidently, they learn fast. In just a year, The CulturalConnect has surpassed 5 million hits, spawned a staff of 30 and expanded to include four more online magazines: The MidEastConnect, The LatinConnect, The AsiaConnect, and starting in early 2007, The AfricanaConnect. Both advertisers and big media have taken notice—The CulturalConnect has partnered with such companies as Starbucks, Yahoo! and Travelocity, and it has been profiled on ABC News, The Washington Post and the L.A. Times.

As for Kazi’s frustration about the lack of younger people profiled in business mags? Before naming her to its young entrepreneurs list, BusinessWeek published a profile of Sumaya Kazi herself. recently sat down with Kazi to discuss—and connect.

How did you get into marketing and your job at Sun Microsystems?
I attended UC Berkeley and completed an interdisciplinary business major in marketing and strategic planning. Political economy and human rights, those were also big passions of mine. I worked with the Human Rights Center for about two years. I also did an e-business case competition, and my team got into the finals. I got very interested in reading these 500-page case studies on nerdy stuff. We won the competition and that opened doors for me. That’s how I got into this industry. After graduating, I jumped into public relations and a year later ended up where I am now.

With all that you do, how do you effectively manage your time?
The CulturalConnect doesn’t feel like work to me. It’s a process that I love to be a part of. Without Raymond and Kaiser, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Also, the fact that I have a team of 30 people [helps]. You know, I’m blessed with Sun Microsystems being a very flexible company that doesn’t micromanage. They give me a lot of responsibility but don’t follow me around. I think that makes me more productive.

I’ve never been star-struck—I want to meet someone who is going to be very influential.

How did your family feel when they saw you in the news?
It’s funny. So I was in BusinessWeek. That’s a big deal, a big publication. Reputable. The fact that I have a problem with young people not being profiled—I was happy that they were looking at this. But it’s funny, I told my mom and friends and they’re like cool, very excited. But they weren’t as excited until a few weeks ago when we appeared in the business section of India West. My parents were happy. My dad’s going to every single table in the restaurant, telling everyone, “This is my daughter.” That was a big deal. It was 10 times more of a big deal than BusinessWeek, which has a circulation of 1.3 million. India West has a circulation of about 30,000, but India West is huge. It gives that validation: This is my daughter. She might not be a doctor, but she’s in the news.

sumaya-kazi.jpg
Sumaya Kazi speaks at a South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow event on behalf of The CulturalConnect.

Who would you like to meet?
Matthew Herren. I saw him listed in MIT Tech Review’s TR35, at age 23. He’s a guy raised in South Africa who started EduVision, which works with satellite and technology companies to broadcast books into classrooms in rural villages in Africa. I thought, he’s young, he might be on Facebook. So I went on there and introduced myself and he said, “You’re the first person that has contacted me on Facebook about EduVision!”

Those are the kind of people that I look up to as resources. People like Muhammad Yunus with Grameen Bank. [A few days after our interview, Yunus and Grameen Bank receive the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006.] He’s a Bangladeshi professor who started the micro-credit revolution by lending money to a network of women who were struggling in poverty. Now it’s spread to other countries. I’ve never been star-struck—I would want to meet someone who is going to be very influential.

I’ve spoken with the executive director of the World Food Programme, and I’m sitting there angry during the conversation because one kid in South Asia can be fed for a year with $16. That’s like two drinks. Or a meal.

What’s next for you?
I’d like to someday establish a nonprofit that creates a young professional movement of awareness and change and to do it in such a way that it’s fun and doesn’t focus as much on dollar amounts as it does on how many people we bring into this network.

I’ve spoken with the executive director of the World Food Programme (a leg of the United Nations), and I’m sitting there angry during the conversation because I learned that one kid in South Asia can be fed for a year with just $16. That’s like two drinks. Or a meal. I was just jotting down all these notes, and again, feeling frustration and venting. Now I have a year’s experience of learning from nonprofits. We now have partners, subscribers and the know-how. We have all these networks. We could really do something.

In the near future, I will be applying to graduate business programs and hopefully couple that with a degree in international policy-human rights. Something to combine the two of them with business would be ideal.

What advice can you offer to young entrepreneurs?
I don’t think I’m in any position to give “advice” as I’m in the same place as many other young entrepreneurs and I don’t feel that I am in any ways “wise beyond my years.” However, based on my experience as a young entrepreneur I would say the most important thing any young entrepreneur can do is to not sit on the amazing ideas they have brewing in their heads. More often than not, a great idea goes to waste because you’re scared it won’t work, think it’s unrealistic, or just don’t feel motivated enough by yourself to pursue it. The simple solution? Throw your ideas out to your friends, family, colleagues, or someone you just meet. You’d be surprised at what kind of response you get and how much that can energize you to do something with your ideas.

The beauty of being a young professional and entrepreneur is that you can really network wherever you go.

In order to stay competitive, you need to have a PhD mentality. That is to be Poor, Hungry and Driven. Someone I once networked with put it into those words, and it has stuck with me ever since. You’ll find this type of mentality behind many successful entrepreneurs old and young.

Network like hell. Every connection you make can result in a new idea, a new partner, a new supporter, a new critic, a new connection to someone else that can result in a new idea, a new…you get the picture. It doesn’t matter what industry that person falls into, how old they are or what ethnic background they come from. The beauty of being a young professional and entrepreneur is that you can really network wherever you go—the club, the bus stop, through sites like MySpace, Facebook or Friendster, or while you’re ordering food. n

Pavani Yalamanchili is a desi with connections.
Published on November 6, 2006.
Photography: Courtesy of Sumaya Kazi.
Comments are closed.
  1. April 9, 2007, 9:22 am Sabiha Ijaz

    I want to know if there is a way of connecting with Sumaya Kazi. I too am into starting a non-profit group to help the women of S. Asian descent with domestic problems. I have helped a few people on a personal basis, and would like to have some way to do this on a larger scale and equip women with tools to better themselves without divorce or living in hell.
    Please forward this email to her.

  2. April 22, 2008, 1:04 pm kazi

    i would like to meet to Sumaiya
    i will meet her i will decide what to do
    teek hai na

  3. July 20, 2008, 5:24 am Kazi S. Islam

    Proud of you.. keep it up.