Ayah Bdeir, the founder and CEO of electronics startup LittleBits, was planning on hosting her mother in New York City next month. But when President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven predominately Muslim nations, Bdeir started to worry. Her mother, who is a Canadian citizen, was born in Syria.
“The issue is personal for me,” Bdeir explains, writing in a post on Medium. “My family and I are refugees many times over. My parents are both from Syria and moved to Lebanon as kids. They then fled Beirut to Montreal when the war broke out.”
On Friday, a Seattle judge blocked the Trump administration’s ban, arguing that there was “no support” for the government’s claim that it needs to protect U.S. citizens from individuals from those countries. The Department of Justice swiftly filed an appeal to reinstate the ban.
Bdeir is just one of many entrepreneurs grappling with how to handle the news of the on-again-off-again travel blockade. While some companies are choosing to align themselves with court cases battling the administration’s order, others are mounting their own (perhaps smaller) acts of protest. Bdeir, for her part, went big.
Her company put up an advertisement on a Times Square billboard, projecting the words: “We Invent the World We Want to Live In,” accompanied by the translation in Arabic. The hope, Bdeir explains, is to “counter the idea that Arabic is foreign, or ‘the other,’ ” by associating the script with a positive message.
“We believe if more people see Arabic script in a large font and understand the translation, they may view the Arab and Muslim world as a little less foreign and a little less far away,” she adds.
Her company, which launched in 2011, has been growing at a rapid clip: LittleBits raised $44.2 million in Series B funding in 2015, bringing its total capital raised to nearly $60 million. A 2014 Inc. 35 under 35 honoree, the startup now sells its products—electronic building blocks for students and hobbyists—in 130 countries, working with more than 3,500 schools.
Bdeir says what has made the company so successful is the very thing that the president seems to be attacking: immigrant employees. About a dozen LittleBits staffers have visas or green cards, and about 20 percent of the company’s employees were born outside of the U.S., she notes.
“This mantra has always embodied our values of empowerment, creativity, and hope for the future,” she continued, referring to the Times Square slogan. “For the billboard ad, we chose to add another layer onto it: posting our rallying cry in bright shiny letters in English and Arabic as a message of inclusivity and diversity, and our hope for a peaceful future that celebrates all people.”