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A place for young achievers to connect

By Kate MoserContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 2006



Sumaya Kazi, a 20-something professional, works long hours at a high-powered technology firm in California. On weekends, she likes to go out, talk to friends, and network - just like others her age.

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Last summer, she realized that this kind of networking was a huge and untapped resource that could help solve two problems: the fact that she and other young Americans of south Asian descent rarely read or hear about themselves in the media, and that these successful young minorities could give back to their communities - if only they knew whom to call.

That's partly how Ms. Kazi and two others dreamed up The CulturalConnect, a free online magazine catering to people from four different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The magazine comes in four editions: "The DesiConnect" ("Desi" refers to a person with South Asian roots), "The MideastConnect," "The LatinConnect," and "The AsiaConnect."

"Our magazine really touches on the fact that young professionals have something valuable," says Kazi, who works in public relations at Sun Microsystems in Santa Clara, Calif. "Whether they're at a club, a bar, standing at the bus stop, they network, and we facilitate that."

Kazi and her two 20-something co-founders, Raymond Rouf and Kaiser Shahid, launched the online magazine last summer. Now the site has more than 30,000 subscribers. Kazi says it's filling a void for young professionals eager to hear about one another's work. It also puts readers in touch with nonprofit groups that can always use energetic people who want to help.

One reader, Maneka Sinha, says The CulturalConnect addresses a growing audience that other media are ignoring. "We have this new population of ├╝ber-successful type-A young people who are always looking to do more," says Ms. Sinha, who works for consulting firm Deloitte & Touche in the San Francisco area. Unlike their first-generation immigrant parents, she adds, these young people are in a position to pour energy into their communities. It's hard to find stories about these successful young minorities, she says.

Derek Stevens, a chemical engineering graduate student in Minnesota, says The DesiConnect resonates with him, even though he's white. "I haven't really found any other site that profiles young professionals the way they do," he says.

The magazine is simple: Each week, readers get one profile of a young professional and one of a nonprofit organization. Magazine staff members are always looking for new people and nonprofits to profile, and they usually get more contacts every time they write about someone.

Kazi says she's realized that nonprofits don't get the media attention they deserve, so young people don't end up hearing much about them. As a result, a great resource goes untapped, she says.

Just last week, the magazine started running ads in its various editions from companies like Starbucks and Travelocity, and Kazi hopes the niche audiences in a powerful consumer demographic will attract more.

Spread over the United States, the magazine's staff of 14 - all under age 25 - puts together the publication in their spare time. They use their free cellphone minutes for conference calls on weekends. They e-mail, instant message, and use online networking sites like MySpace to communicate with one another. Mr. Rouf says he spends about 40 hours a week working on the magazine, which he does outside of running his own computer start-up company.

Staff members give similar reasons for working for free, usually outside of full-time work or school. Laily Mesbah, a senior and sociology major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says she works on The MideastConnect because she thinks the world is more united than everyone thinks it is. "The whole world can be connected, but people haven't realized that deep within them," she says.

Their efforts appear to be paying off. The magazine has had more than 1.8 million hits since its inception, attracting readers in more than 65 countries. Staff members find that readers are subscribing to more than one edition and are contacting nonprofits.

"We've been pairing people up left and right," Kazi says. At Drishtipat, a nonprofit group that works on human rights in Bangladesh, the founder of a new Boston, Mass., chapter reported that its core group of volunteers grew after the organization was profiled by The CulturalConnect.

"I think a lot of people are looking for ways to get involved, and they have a lot of ideas that they don't necessarily know what to do with," Sinha says. The CulturalConnect gives them direction for their ideas, she adds, especially because it provides readers with contact information for every person and nonprofit profiled.

Ivy Suriyopas was recently profiled in The AsiaConnect. Ms. Suriyopas, a fellow at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, says she liked the fact that an actress was profiled in the same issue. "I think it's a great forum for sharing the diversity within the Asian-American community," she says.

It's also helpful, readers and founders say, to plug into a community of second-generation people who can relate to one another through both their backgrounds and professions.

"Our parents immigrated and have a tight network of friends and family," Kazi says. "We don't. We grew up in very diverse communities, and everyone is our friend. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but when you have certain cultural uphill battles that you have to deal with, it's nice to know what other people are doing."

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