Archive for : May, 2015

Leaving medicine for the world of art design

This article was originally published on The Muslim Observer. Edited by Mahvish Irfan.

How many doctors do you know would leave behind a lucrative career in medicine and start an Islamic art company instead?

We know one such person.

Graduating from Cornell, completing medical school in upstate New York, and an added internship at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), Jontie Karden did just that.

“Throughout the whole process, I had misgivings. By the time I went through residency, it became clear that this wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he explains.

But with all the years he had invested in his education, Jontie still wanted to give his medical career another shot. He spent some years working in clinical research, but here again he faced a dilemma. “I saw some moral and ethical issues that were inappropriate and I didn’t want to be a part of …so I left.”

One day while sitting with his wife, Kunk Pik Liu, he contemplated, “What do I do? Where do I go from here? I know what I don’t want to do….but what is it that I want to do?”

Jontie had created a piece of art for his home some time back. “My wife Pik pointed to the artwork and said, “Why don’t we do that? I’m a designer and can design the artwork. We could create a whole line of products and that could be our business!” “

Hence in 2009, Sakina Design was founded by a creative husband and wife team, Jontie and Pik.

Although we have known them for many years, it was such a pleasure to sit down with this delightful couple and discuss their journey.

At first glance, you can’t help but notice their diverse backgrounds. Jontie, although born and brought up in upstate New York has a unique Circassian background. His parents fled the Caucasus Mountains to Golan Heights and later immigrated to America. Kunk Pik Liu, or “Pik” as everyone knows her, was born and brought up in Hong Kong. She came to the US in 1999 to study graphic design at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT).

One of the first Muslims she ever came across offered her some books about Islam. She put them away. But, she did decide to challenge herself to try fasting. “I thought a quarter of the world’s population does it, why can’t I?” The first year she drank water while fasting, but the second year, she wanted to fast exactly like everyone did. “I just felt wonderful afterwards, a kind of peacefulness.” But the true clincher came in her second year at FIT when her instructor assigned a design project that could be based on anything, even religion. So Pik chose do it on Islam and after two months of extensive research on the religion, she was ready to take her Shahadah and convert.

So, how did these two totally different people from the spectrum meet? A matrimonial site of course! “I am a very practical person,” says Pik. “I knew that if I wanted to practice my faith the way I wanted to, America was the best place to do it. I couldn’t go back to Hong Kong. Another convert friend of mine had found her spouse online so I decided to give it a chance as well.” In the summer of 2003, they both were married.

“For both of us it’s important to have meaning in our lives and have a cause that we’re striving towards. So the concept of creating a product that melded our Islamic and western identities was very appealing and sharing that with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Sakina Design’s focus is on home décor and gifts that reflect the rich spirit of Islamic art from around the world. Our hope is that our unique designs create contemplation and sakina – tranquility – while offering timeless beauty. We believe in building bridges, Pik comes from East Asia, my family comes from Caucasus Mountains, we’re in America, we’re Muslim, we have this global perspective of trying to connect people to each other,” shares Jontie.

What makes Sakina Design unique? “What differentiates us from others is we have a certain aesthetic. We’re minimalists. We try to bring things down to its cleanest and simplest form while still retaining its authentic origin,” states Jontie.

Alhambra_BLACK_room

But that’s not all, the husband and wife duo believe living responsibly is an integral part of their faith and business. They try their utmost best to ensure that their products and packaging utilize resources wisely, minimize waste and pollution, and even have a Sakina GREEN label to show products that have been produced from eco-friendly and sustainable materials. “We’re Americans and the U.S. has some of the best labor standards, so our goal is to support local businesses and create as many products here in the US as we can,” expresses Jontie.

But as any entrepreneur will tell you, owning a business does not come without its challenges. With all this buzz of the “Islamic Economy”, Jontie and Pik are still trying to understand their market. “It’s so young and diverse and it’s definitely not a homogeneous community,” says Jontie. While most of their customers are based in the US, they have seen increased interest internationally from Canada, Asia, UK, France, and the Middle East.

Jontie and Pik’s advice to budding entrepreneurs, “Just do it! Don’t let fear stop you. It prevents you from experimenting and understanding the market. Go out and try with good intentions. Don’t be content and always look for ways to improve and grow yourselves. A business can’t grow unless the owners grow and that is what we have always strived to do.”

Halalifying your investments

Post by Faisal Masood and Sabiha Ansari. Edited by Mahvish Irfan.

How many of us have wondered about the “halalness” of our investments?

With 6 to 7 million Muslims in America and a buying power of $100 billion, Islamic finance is still in its infancy in the U.S.

We sat down with the perfect person to discuss this matter, Naushad Virji, founder & CEO of Sharia Portfolio, a boutique asset management firm specializing in Sharia-compliant investing.

Ansari_Naushad

After graduating with a degree in Business Administration from University of Florida, Naushad began his career in setting up a small hedge fund. “My focus at the time was only to invest in companies which I believed to be halal. I didn’t want to go outside of my comfort zone which meant no alcohol, pornography, tobacco, gambling, or weapons manufacturing”, he shared. “It was an exciting time for me because I was able to invest yet avoid areas that didn’t conform to my personal values and still do very well. Our initial return was 20% per year. I was happy and my clients were very happy.”

When his wife started United Muslim Foundation, a non-profit organization focusing on establishing unity through community service, Naushad became more involved with the local Muslim community in the Orlando area. In discussing what he did for a living and specifically the avoidance of non-halal investing, he realized there was a great interest and appeal in what he was doing. People kept asking him to invest their money. It dawned on him that with all the various regulations pertaining to a hedge fund, he would have to switch to setting up an investment advisory firm and therefore in 2005, Sharia Portfolio was officially launched.

Why the name Sharia Portfolio? With all the negative connotations attached to the word and increasing use of the phrase “creeping sharia”, did that affect his business in any manner? Surprisingly it didn’t. “I decided on this name because in one word it described the company. Originally, we started with a team of three people and we couldn’t keep up with the demand. There was an email that an anti-Muslim group sent out that spoke out against sharia compliant investing and mentioned Amana Mutual Funds, Azzad Investments, and a few other companies, but we weren’t mentioned at all. Frankly I was a bit offended!” laughs Naushad. “I joked with my staff that maybe we should contact them and complain that we weren’t on that list.”

Today Sharia Portfolio, has grown to a team of 10 financial professionals with a total asset management of approximately $40 million. “We hope to be at about $100 million by the end of the year. Our average rate of return over the last 10 years has been about 11 percent, and in the last 3 years, since the market has done very well, it has been about 14.5% to 15%.”

With regards to halal investment growing in America, Naushad is extremely optimistic. “According to a statistic released by DinarStandard, over 80 % of Muslims believe alcohol, gambling, and some of those areas are wrong and haram, but less than 20% actually avoid them in their investments. So that gives me a pretty big market,” he states. “What differentiates us from our competitors is that we see ourselves as financial advisors and consultants and our focus is more heavily on individual stocks as opposed to mutual funds,” he adds. But Naushad isn’t the only one with his eye on this huge market. According to him, four of the large major financial firms have reached out to him to buy out Sharia Portfolio in the past year, but he has no plans to sell.

With Naushad’s diverse background, being born in Italy, brought up in southeast Florida, and raised by parents of South Asian descent, family is an integral part of his leisurely activities. They try to spend as much time as possible together. “We’re going to blink one day and our kids are going to be gone, and when that happens, I don’t want to have any regrets,” he reflects poignantly.

What is Naushad’s advice to budding entrepreneurs? “Be determined, focused and think long-term. Have a clear vision of where you want to be and take the necessary steps to get there. Don’t expect to make your first million right away, my first year when I started my hedge fund, I only made $112!”

This post was originally published on The Muslim Observer.