By KAVITA KUMAR , STAR TRIBUNE
Sunday September 20, 2020
Entrepreneurs Salman Elmi, left, and Abdi Hassan are co-founders of Top Figure.
— David Joles, Star Tribune
The day after George Floyd died, another video also went viral.
It showed a group of Black men in an office gym in Minneapolis’ Uptown confronted by a white man, who asked if they worked in the building. They said they did. When he asked at which office, they said they didn’t need to answer. He threatened to call 911 but instead called building management and said there’s a “bunch of people who don’t appear to be part of” the building.
A short time later, Abdi Hassan and Salman Elmi posted a 45-second video clip of the encounter on Instagram, calling it out as racial profiling. With viral speed, they and the other man in the video, Tom Austin, were swept into the roiling national conversation on racial bias, just as a confrontation between a dog walker and bird watcher in New York’s Central Park also caught on video had been in the news.
But that conversation was overtaken by the protests and riots over Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police. Out of the direct spotlight since late May, the fates of Hassan, Elmi and Austin went in different directions.
Hassan and Elmi just celebrated the third anniversary of Top Figure, an e-commerce and marketing company they co-founded. They’ve received thousands of supportive messages, some new business connections and offers to consult on diversity matters. “It goes to show there’s hope,” Elmi said.
Austin’s business consulting firm, F2 Group, lost its lease, received a deluge of angry messages, and shut down. “It was an absolute destruction,” he said.
‘Really messed-up moment’
The original Instagram video of the gym meeting in the MoZaic East office building collected more than 80,000 reactions and was widely shared on Twitter and Facebook. Dozens of media outlets wrote about it.
Hassan and Elmi said they decided to share the “really messed-up moment” to show some of the challenges they face as Somali American and Black entrepreneurs.
“Some people think, especially in the business world, that people will be professional,” Hassan said. “But we’re like, ‘Hey, this happens all of the time. Let’s just shed some light on the situation.’ ”
This particular incident, Elmi added, was especially overt. “It’s not usually so blatant out in the open, but it’s like side-eye that you’re not supposed to be in spaces like this,” he said.
The video was a wake-up call for Molly Hanten, a co-founder of Alchemy 365, a small chain of fitness studios unaffiliated with the gym where the confrontation took place. She had seen Hassan and Elmi around the WeWork co-working space in that building where she also worked.
Disturbed by the clip, she sent them a message saying she was sorry they were made to feel so uncomfortable.
“I’ve used that gym. … I’ve probably passed the man who said that [to them],” Hanten said. “To me, it was a really big, close-to-home white privilege moment. … I don’t have to think twice about how someone is going to treat me.”
She told Hassan and Elmi she had started discussions within her own company about how to make its gyms more diverse and inclusive. The two men joined a committee to help Alchemy build new partnerships and diversify its client base. “They’ve been super helpful,” she said. “I’m appreciative we’ve crossed paths regardless of the unfortunate way it happened.”
Hassan and Elmi were working out with three colleagues in the gym when Austin began asking to see their key cards. Property managers had sent a note to tenants reminding them that the gym was to be used only by people who worked in the building.
With that in mind, Austin said he grew suspicious that not all of the men with Hassan and Elmi worked there because he saw one of the men use a key card to let others into the bathroom.
“This is not a racism issue, this is a trespassing issue,” he said. “These guys, rather than addressing the trespassing issue, played the race card.”
Hassan said the three other men who were with him were a contractor and two interns who also worked out of the WeWork office. He added that all five of them had key cards but felt it was wrong for Austin to demand they show them to him.
Austin said he took the memo about the gym as a request to watch for people sneaking into it. “I was doing what the property management asked,” he said.
By the end of the day, after the video started making the rounds on the internet, building owner Ackerberg Group decided to terminate the lease for Austin’s F2.
Stuart Ackerberg, CEO of Ackerberg Group, said the incident was “unbelievably disturbing.” The marketing concept for MoZaic East, and location of a co-working space in it, was around the sharing of ideas and cultures. He added that everyone in the group at the gym that day had the right to use it.
He said he also told Austin that it wasn’t his responsibility to monitor gym use.
Austin said that his company, which provided consulting and research services to private equity firms, received a flood of angry messages after the video went viral. “Thousands of people called my customers, my clients, and harassed them. They called my employees and harassed them,” Austin said.
As a result, the company couldn’t continue, he said. Its seven employees lost their jobs.
Before the May incident, Austin had been in the spotlight as a leader of a group in Minneapolis that contested the renaming of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska by the city’s Park Board. The group won a court ruling that temporarily delayed the renaming but lost at the state Supreme Court.
Some of Austin’s critics accused him of supporting John Calhoun, the 19th-century U.S. senator and backer of slavery for whom the lake was named. Austin said he wasn’t advocating for Calhoun but thought the new name was difficult to pronounce. He added he thinks the idea of systemic racism is an “absolute joke.”
“You have no idea how many white people who … just don’t want to have anything to do with Blacks because they don’t want to deal with the … of Blacks trying to blame them for white supremacy and racism when there is none,” he said.
Catherine Squires, a communications professor at the University of Minnesota, said enough moments of white people assuming Black people are in the wrong place or breaking the rules have been caught on camera that they’re a genre on social media. She cited another example of a white woman in California who called the police on a group of Black people for using a charcoal grill in a park.
“We’re seeing this over and over again, this pattern of white people feeling completely empowered … to try to discipline Black people,” Squires said.
Jordana Green, a WCCO Radio talk-show host, invited Hassan and Elmi onto her show after seeing the video.
“It was horrific,” she said of the video. “And yet it shone a bright light on what happens every day to minorities in our country.”
The two ended up becoming regular guests on her show for awhile, with the segments evolving into discussions of the challenges of being Black entrepreneurs. They also have offered digital marketing tips to her listeners.
Hassan and Elmi note that their journey so far hasn’t been easy. As young entrepreneurs, ages 23 and 24, they’ve faced rejection and worked extra hard to prove themselves.
“They kind of always assumed we were underqualified and that we couldn’t deliver,” Elmi said. “That’s what pushed us to work three times harder. That’s where we get our grit from.”
They have been heartened by the thousands of encouraging messages they’ve received.
“The overwhelming support we’ve gotten from a lot of different people all across not only the nation, but all across the world, it’s been phenomenal and amazing,” Elmi said.
After the gym incident, the two moved Top Figure to an office building in southeast Minneapolis. The business has grown to 10 employees.
They now use the gym in their apartment building.