Editor’s note: Jess Porta is Director of HQ Raleigh. This is the first of two articles. The second can be read online as well.

 RALEIGH – Today there are an estimated 35,000 Muslims living in the Triangle area, and as Raleigh continues to grow every day, we’d expect that number to increase as well.

In the tech start-up world, one problem we hear a lot of is that companies struggle to attract and retain diverse talent. In Raleigh, hiring new talent can be a challenge because we are growing so fast that we have a surplus of jobs on the market, so it can be an even greater challenge to hire thoughtfully and be inclusive of individuals from diverse backgrounds.

I want to help companies take a look at their inclusion efforts by diving into Islam and the Muslim community. I am focusing specifically on Islam because it is an opportunity to discuss both religious and cultural inclusion, and also because there is a growing relationship between Islam and Innovation, which may bring new ideas and employees to Raleigh from the Muslim community. And if Raleigh wants to continue to be on the cutting edge of innovation, understanding how to be inclusive of this population, especially in the tech sector, is about to be more important than ever.

Here’s how your company can be inclusive of Muslims

Islam & Innovation

Islam has a really interesting relationship with innovation.

Someone who understands this better than most is Imran Aukhil. Imran is the Assistant Director of the Real Estate and Development Office at North Carolina State University. He works closely with HQ Raleigh to bring a collaborative entrepreneurial community to Centennial Campus, and he also happens to be a practicing Muslim. I have not encountered Islam and practicing Muslims too often in the innovation and entrepreneurship space, so when we first met, naturally, I wanted to dig in to how he balances his faith, which is deeply rooted in tradition and culture, with entrepreneurship and innovation, two things that do not seem to naturally go together.

Imran Aukhil

“The very word  ‘innovation,’ in Islam, sometimes carries a negative connotation because of Islam’s emphasis on orthodox tradition,” and tradition is very important to Muslims, as Imran explains. The word “bid‘a” translates  directly to “innovation” in English, but it has a duel meaning. Tradition and community are essential to Islamic faith, so innovation of religious beliefs or practices is frequently frowned upon, and you may see some individuals in the Islamic faith that do not naturally gravitate toward innovation at all. But innovation, in the sense of structured thinking and developing new technologies, is actually a tradition and value of Islam, Imran explains. “Innovation globally in the Muslim community has declined recently, but Muslims have always been innovative. Muslims participated in inventing soap, hospitals, algebra, cataracts surgery… Innovation and exploration are embedded in the DNA of our belief system.”

In fact, Muslims were also pioneers of flight, coffee, university education systems, optics, music, dental care and much more! In line with this heritage, there has already been early stage talks about creating a program for Muslim innovators within the Raleigh community, something that Imran, in particular is passionate about.

Muslims, however, are not just bringing innovation and new ideas through new programming. They are contributing to the innovation ecosystem in Raleigh as a whole. They are doing this as employees, executives, and leaders within organizations across the Triangle. Muslims are among the most highly educated religious groups in America in recent years, according to a recent study,  and are therefore entering more advanced jobs in the tech industry. For businesses to stay on the cutting edge of innovation,  they are going to need to create cultures of inclusivity that are welcoming to Muslims.

So what does it mean to be inclusive?

This is a more complicated question than it seems on the surface. It might be easier to talk about what “being inclusive” is not. Being Inclusive is not creating an environment where people can easily assimilate to your culture. That is not being inclusive, but yet we see it over and over again; a perfect example is the tech company that wants to include more women but doesn’t add a mother’s room or offer paid maternity leave. Simply inviting people to participate in your organization is not enough; you have to make space for them. Even well intentioned people with open minds (often found in startups and the tech industry in general) can still struggle to create inclusive cultures if they are not comfortable with making space for others.

We have all heard the analogy about the melting pot, but Imran offers a different analogy for inclusivity.  “Instead of a melting pot, we should strive to build a mosaic,” Imran explains, “Inclusivity requires one to be confident in their own beliefs and way of life so that they are not threatened by others belief systems or way of life.” So we can each be a unique beautiful piece of tile within this mosaic that has clear borders and boundaries but can also fit into these other cultures.

So with that said, inclusivity is also not about giving up your entire cultural identity or changing your practices, it is about creating space and options for others to co-exist and thrive in our places of work and in our communities.

What I am talking about today is not changing your work practices to accommodate one group of people,  but rather creating space, literally and figuratively for other cultures to exist within your community or organization, and open up to the Muslim community.

The Triangle has always been on the forefront of innovation. Historically that has looked like opening up our government and community resources to the start-up community; creating space and programming for the health-tech and bio-tech fields; and developing new plans for public transit. I would argue, that our next wave of innovation, is for the Triangle to strive to be one of the most inclusive places in the country to live and work. Only through this inclusive, intentional community building, which includes individuals from all cultural and faith background, such as the Muslim community, can we truly be a destination place for innovation.