Amina here. This week, I got a chance to catch up with Dr. Mohamed Issa, Founder & CEO of Noor Pharmaceuticals. Noor Pharmaceuticals, famous for their Noor Vitamin products are one of the rare Halal brands operating out of US in this space. Noor Vitamins have carved out a niche not only among the Muslim consumer base in US but also able to make a mark as a reliable and trustworthy brand among non-Muslim consumer base in US.
Amina: What was the idea behind starting the Noor Vitamins?
Issa: A doctor friend of mine approached me to start a clinic that included both medical clinic and a pharmacy that supports the community in general. When thinking through the business idea further and thinking about how to make that clinic and pharmacy even more different than the traditional Walgreen’s or CVS or the other traditional pharmacies that exist. One of the things that came up was how we always have patients come to us and asking us for medications, vitamins and supplements that do not contain non halal products. We really never had a reputable trusted brand that we can confidently recommend to them.
So one of the things that we thought about was what if we create something for the clinic to make this difference, something very local in nature and then once we started to take a look into it we realized that the problem of finding vitamin supplements that didn’t contain pork or alcohol was not just a local problem it was much more of a global problem. So we embarked on the journey to then start Noor pharmaceuticals to really fill the void of making supplements and vitamins and even in long term the medicines that don’t contain any pork or alcohol.
We certified them halal and certified our manufacturing facility halal. Now since then rather than just making the halal alternative to the major brands like Centrum, and the vitamins that currently exist, we went a step ahead to make all our products 100% natural. They are made with no artificial colors or preservatives, they are non-GMO and gluten free and they are also halal. Additionally, several of our products are specifically formulated by our scientists and are patented and trademarked to Noor which means the formulas can never be copied by any other brand.
So now a Muslim consumer can be confident that, “Not only am I taking the halal alternative, I am taking the best possible vitamin in the market”.
Amina: What made you believe that a Halal product would work in US market?
Issa: I think from a business perspective, the Muslim community in the US are a very powerful, in terms of education, the socioeconomic status, in terms of just pure numbers and to be quite frank we simply do not have the halal alternatives that maybe some of our family members may have back overseas in whatever countries we are from. Not only do we have the size, and education but we also have the purchasing power given that all the majority of the Muslim community is vastly educated, economically sound and then the problem or void exists here more than anywhere else in the world because we’re surrounded by non halal alternatives all the time. This gave us confidence that the US market is where we should launch first. It’s really where our expertise were. Personally I have been in pharmaceutical brands in the U.S my whole career so this is the market that we knew and we knew that if we were going to launch or learn anywhere it would be in the US. So we had confidence in knowing the market but we also had confidence in the U.S. Muslim consumers.
Amina: Are you actively exploring other geographies apart from US?
Issa: Amina, we are now about five years old as a company and we’re in 11 different countries. We’re in the U.S., Canada, Caribbean and by the end of this year we’ll be in about eight different countries in the Middle East. We have our products in certain parts of China that are very Muslim heavy and we also have our products in several countries in southern Africa as well. So geographies outside of the U.S. is certainly a priority for us and we already have started to get onto that journey.
Amina: What challenges do you see establishing a Muslim Focused Product in this Islamophobic environment?
Issa: That’s a powerful question. I don’t see them challenging at all for 2 reasons
- I think the more general geography is “Islamophobic”, the more the Muslim community generally comes together and I think that actually offers brands like ours an opportunity to be very specific and tailored to these Muslim communities that we create amazing products for.
- In an environment where it is Islamophobic like this. The major vitamin brands are very afraid to talk to the Muslim consumer and we take advantage of that.We at Noor organisation say, ”For all of those companies that don’t appreciate the Muslim consumer let me tell you that we do and we almost double down our investment in that community.”
To us it is an opportunity because we’re a brand by Muslims for Muslims. So that creates an opportunity. The broader opportunity exists because to be quite frank the more Islamophobia there is, more the general consumers, the non Muslim consumers are interested in what Islam is and what halal is and that people generally take a look into it.
They find that Islam is not a religion of propaganda like the media makes it. The more they take a look into halal, they find that it is premier quality products that treat animals humanely, that does not use pork and alcohol, so naturally they gravitate towards it. More importantly when they take a look at our brand more specifically they realize that between formulation and the sources of ingredients being all natural we are really the best vitamin brand that exists on the market. So in reality it leads to more attention and more attention gives you more exposure. Exposure can be good or bad if you’re a bad brand, exposure is very bad because it exposes all of your faults. But if you are a brand that is very confident in what you do, exposure is great because the more people learn about us the more people realize that we’re the best possible brand that exist.
So I’m sorry I didn’t answer your controversial question with a controversial answer.
I got to tell you that I see it as a tremendous opportunity for us.
Amina: Did you receive any push-backs from the Islamic organisations or Muslims in general?
Issa: I think the irony is that, the Muslim community in general sometimes are very sceptical because we see brands come and go all the time. The marketplace and the Muslim consumer will say, “You’re saying that you are halal, tell me more”. “You are saying that you don’t use interest based financing, tell me more”.”You’re saying that you’re all Muslim doctors or pharmacists, tell me more”.
So I think what we are seeing is a natural level of caution. Since Noor started there has been a few brands here and there that call themselves halal that want to copy what we do but don’t have the capability or the background or even this product to do what we do.
So I think scrutiny is good because the scrutiny allows the consumer to be more confident. So I would not call it stress as much as I would call it the Muslim consumer being very very cautious and we’re fine with that because the more people study our brand and the more the people study of what we do the more confident they become in what we provide. No. I would not call it stress I would call it caution.
Amina: How is Noor Vitamins trying to balance between Profitability and Community benefit, in this cut-throat capitalist economy?
Issa: That is a great question.First and foremost we run our business in a Sharia compliant way. So from the way we fund our business from our financing there’s never any interest based financing and interest based dealing. More importantly we will donate a significant portion of our proceeds, Zakat is supposed to be 2.5 percent. I’m not in a position to share because we do it for the sake of Allah(swt) but we donate significantly more than the 2.5 percent not only of profit, but also the products to the communities that are malnourished in the Muslim world both domestically and abroad.
So we’re confident that the more we can generate a profit the more we can help our community in two ways.
- To continue to invest and introduce more and more products that are needed by our community.
- The more profitable we are, the more we can actually give back to our community and support the community in some way whether it be through products for malnourishment, whether it be financing zakat to our communities and projects that need financial support in our community or even if it’s simply just employing more and more people. So as we think about what we do, financially supporting those projects in our community that otherwise would not get funding because the non-muslim community is not funding whether it be a masjid or an orphanage or our refugee crisis that’s happening.
So we take great pride in that fact we have a whole department in our company dedicated just to identify how we can continue to better serve the community and Alhamdulillah we feel really confident that we can walk that path.
Amina: Why doesn’t any one of the popular Muslim scholars promote this halal brand, though this is one of the kind of halal medications by Muslims?
Issa: I think that’s a question that’s probably better suited for them and not me. I can tell you my perspective with that, I appreciate and respect their attempt to stay fair and not associate themselves with a particular brand. Because, they don’t want to seem like a commercial, at the end of the day their job is to promote and share Islamic knowledge and I think that they may think if they associate themselves directly to a reputed brand that they will loose some of that credibility and serve as a commercial. I can tell you confidently though that most of the Muslim scholars that you and I follow and listen to, are all users of Noor vitamins which is very humbling for me and our team. More importantly we don’t ask them and we don’t expect them to speak for the brand because their job is on the Islamic part and not on the advertising.
Amina: How does the negative publicity of Dr. Hatem Al-Haj affects promoting the brand in non Islamic population?
Issa: Anybody that knows Dr.Hatem will clearly understand what he stands for and his belief system. In fact most of our scholars today have been students of Dr Hatem in many ways. First and foremost may Allah(swt) preserve him continue to give him the ability to teach and to promote both health and Islamic knowledge in our community.
I think if people truly listen to the full context of what Dr. Hatem shares, they will realize that Dr.Hatem is far from controversies in fact and probably the most modest, moderate scholar we know, if people know the details on some of the issues that are surrounding him today, he will gain more followers than adversaries, I guarantee it.
That said, Dr. Hatem is our advisor around sharia compliance. Everybody within the organization has their role. Dr.Hatem is a PHD in sharia so we leverage his knowledge and his expertise to ensure that we are running our organization in a sharia compliant way. So his consulting is to ensure that we are Islamically compliant, it has nothing to do with anything that he’s done outside of Noor. We go to him and say this is the contract, is this Islamically compliant, this is our profit and this is what we donate, what else can we do. We go to him and say this is the balance of Islam, medicine and profitability. Is there anything that we should be thinking about to ensure that we are Islamically compliant so Allah(swt) can continue to put more and more barakah in our project. So we don’t see it as a negative consequence at all and in fact he’s an expert in Islamic compliance and that’s what we utilize him for.
Amina: There is less than 1% Muslim population in US. Isn’t using of the word halal drives of a huge population of the non Islamic people? What steps are you taking to promote this among the non-Islamic population.
Issa: Once halal is used with a concept by which it stands for, the non-Muslim consumer understands the quality standards that it holds. So many of the things that we’ve been doing has been interpreting and defining Halal not just using the word halal, ensuring that halal to people means that there are no pork or alcohol based products, if in rare instances where animal products are used the animals are slaughtered and treated in a way that is humane and is pain free for the animal, it is irrespective of religious decree, once I think it is a way that we should handle all of our deals.
In addition to being halal they will know we’re also all natural, we’re also non-GMO and gluten free. Halal becomes one of several value propositions not only the value proposition. So I think when you included among all the other values and define what halal is the non-Muslim consumer is attracted to Noor vitamins just as much as a Muslim consumer.
Amina: We have a dearth of Muslim Entrepreneurs, what suggestion do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Issa: I would have a few thoughts for that.
- I would encourage the entrepreneurs to surround themselves with people that can make their idea and their business better and more comprehensive. There is no one that has all the answers on their own.
- There are always trials and tribulations with entrepreneurship and in many cases it will seem extraordinary difficult and will require personal and professional sacrifice that is probably outside of the imagination of an aspiring entrepreneur, so there has to be a level of persistence that someone is comfortable having in order for their idea to actually make it.
Lastly, I would just say to entrepreneurs to not rely just on affinity value and more core value. This is a personal philosophy. I think affinity based value is saying, ”Amina: you should buy Noor vitamins from Noor pharmaceuticals because we’re Muslim and you’re Muslim and you should support the Muslim consumer.” Saying you should buy from us because we’re Muslim and you are Muslim and the product is halal. That’s not enough.
Some entrepreneurs just rely on that. I will make a product for my community and I will rely on that in my mind, it’s actually much more than that, if I asked you to do that you might do now once twice maybe three times but the best possible value that I can bring you if I say, “Amina: look at the marketplace and study it and you will see that Noor vitamins is the best possible vitamin option.”
If you buy from Noor vitamins because it is the best possible option that you have available to you irrespective of the affinity then that what I call the entrepreneurs more sustained value for a long term. Those are the three pieces of advice.
- Surround yourself with people that are going to make your idea and project better.
- Stay persistent and resilient because there will be times it is going to be easy to give up and the road will be very very difficult.
- Focus on the core value and not just rely on affinity value.You can do these things and entrepreneurs can be more and more successful.