Interview with Student-Entrepreneur Kareem Abukhadra

Kareem Abukhadra is the founder of Forgotten Neighbors, an organization dedicated to sharing the stories of the homeless. Since starting the organization in his sophomore year at Columbia University, he has since amassed tens of thousands of views on his posts. He has also pursued care packages for the homeless and is currently working on a documentary. Kareem was able to share his experience with running an organization as a student with BT today.

Business Today: What inspired you to start Forgotten Neighbors?

Kareem Abukhadra: The whole thing started in my sophomore year, and it came out of talking to people who were suffering from homelessness, and realizing that it sucks to not have shelter and it sucks to not have food, but one thing that was really horrible … was getting ignored and feeling dejected and feeling like you’re nothing. I started to realize that that was consistent across all the homeless people that i spoke with. I started this organization to help people … get their voice out, and to help them feel like their voices do matter and that they do deserve to be acknowledged.  

BT: How did you begin collecting people’s stories?

KA: I don’t have a background in journalism… but I think people learn the best by doing. It was scary to start, but I started by doing it and finding out what works and what does and iterating based on that … There are basic skills you learn from doing this. One natural thing I learned to do is to get on the level of the person I’m talking to. So if I’m interviewing with someone who sits crouched down, it's important to get on their level. And it's just something you learn as you do it multiple times.

BT: How do you find these stories? What kind of considerations do you balance in representing stories?

KA: I go out and approach people. It comes down to whether or not I ask enough specific questions … the way I gauge whether or not I share the story is if the details I shared is specific to the person. If what they share with me is something that society can learn from, or if what they said kind of shocked me or triggered a reaction.

BT: So you currently have thousands of views on your Facebook and Instagram posts. How do you intend on growing Forgotten Neighbors both with regards to your viewership and the stories that you’re covering?

KA: One thing I’ve been doing instead is sharing the content [and] doing interviews like this, especially if they’re undergraduate journals or an undergraduate reader base because most people who join Forgotten Neighbors are in school. The goal really is to keep scaling the number of people on my team so I have somebody in Colorado right now, I have somebody in Los Angeles, I have somebody who started recently in New York, I have other people starting across the U.S., and most people are students or people who have just graduated. The goal really is to have individuals in all states covering stories from people who might otherwise not have their voice shared.

BT: Since BT is a business magazine, I was wondering if you could elaborate on some business skills you’ve developed as a result of engaging in this inherently social project.

KA: I think the skills you build whether it’s an organization or a project or a company are transferable. One example is how you manage people. There, it doesn’t matter if you’re building a blog or a wine company. The way you manage people should come from a deep passion and understanding that each person you take on board is a different individual — knowing how to get transparent, constructive, actionable feedback — knowing how to be motivating. Forgotten Neighbors has taught me how to manage people for one, it taught me how to scale, it taught me how to do things out of my comfort zone, it taught me how to pick up new skills quickly, it’s taught me how to fundraise, it taught me how to grow an audience — it’s taught me a lot of skills that I can carry on to other parts of my life.