Zahnrader: Connecting entrepreneurs, sharing knowledge, helping the community

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Germany_Said Haider_Zahnrader Network chairman

Photo: Said Haider, chairman of Zahnrader Network

A network of socially engaged young Muslim entrepreneurs is nudging the discourse within the Muslim community in Germany gently beyond religion. Social inclusion of the differently abled, the relevance of art and environmental consciousness are just some of the topics that Zahnrader Network (“Zahnrader” means “gears” in German) has promoted through its annual conferences and awards for Muslim social entrepreneurs.

Said Haider, Chairman of Zahnrader Network, calls it is a network for Muslims, regardless of denomination or ethnicity, “to exchange knowledge”. Zahnrader was created by three German students in the United Kingdom who realised the value of combining their networks of Muslim non-profit organisations. They decided to hold a conference for everyone to meet and share their experiences as entrepreneurs, and thus their first conference was held in 2010.

According to Said, volunteers at Muslim non-profit organisations in Germany are invariably Muslims themselves. And because of the all-Muslim members, a lot of these non-profit organisations face the same challenges, such as public relations with the wider society. “There is a need to justify yourself to the outside community and a pressure attached to this,” he explained. “With our conferences, we wanted to create a safe space for people to exchange experiences regarding these challenges.”

During the first conference, 60 non-profits connected; over the last seven years, this has expanded to more than 300 non-profits. At each conference, Zahnrader awards three organisations for what they do. Both a jury and the audience pick winners. “We started the jury because the audience usually picks the organisations with the most heartbreaking stories. But we want to award social entrepreneurship too,” he said.

Germany_Zahnrader Conference

Photo: At the 2016 conference

The winners are helped financially from Zahnrader’s fundraising. Existing organisations who want to scale their projects and entrepreneurs who need help getting their projects off the floor are both eligible to apply to Zahnrader. In addition to financial help, they also provide mentoring and assistance with their specific needs and challenges through their network of professionals.

One of the winning organisations was Study Coach, where the objective was to connect high school students with university students in the field they are interested in so that they understand what it entails and whether it is feasible for them.

Another winner was Deaf Islam, an organisation that worked to make mosques inclusive for hearing-impaired people. “With the awards, we set the topic of discourse within our communities,” Said remarked. “The year that Deaf Islam won, at every iftar that I attended, people were discussing social inclusion and how mosques were indeed not accessible [for differently abled people]. And when an organisation who organises Islamic poetry slams won, people were discussing that.”

Zahnrader has chapters for major German cities, including Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich, and Cologne. These chapters organise local events. To join Zahnrader, one has to be Muslim and socially conscious. Said cautioned, “Whoever joins us should be aware that we are not a business incubator and it is never about making money. We are always looking for volunteers who are interested in fulfilling a need and an existing demand within the community.”

Said himself is a volunteer at Zahnrader and a lawyer in his day job. He got to know a few of the founding members and realised how much they could help others with their influence. “I saw the demand they were facing for these networking opportunities and sharing of knowledge. It feels good to know that my volunteering has an impact on society.”

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