When Walt Disney Pictures released the animated feature “Aladdin” in 1992, the movie was criticized for its stereotypical portrayal of Arab culture. Now, to ensure that its upcoming live-action version is authentic and nuanced, Disney has turned to an immigrant entrepreneur named Marya Bangee, the owner of SILA Consulting. The name of the company, which she launched in 2017, comes from the Arabic word for connection.
“It has been an incredible, incredible ride,” Bangee says of her success. “I feel very lucky for the work that I am doing. My background and skill set is what really draws people in.” Bangee’s business also provides capacity-building for nonprofits, helps connect them with philanthropists, and aids with strategic planning and organizational design. One of her big clients is Harness, a nonprofit founded by actors America Ferrera, known for her lead role as Betty Suarez from ABC’s series “Ugly Betty”; Wilmer Valderrama, best known as Fez from the Fox sitcom “That 70s Show”; and director Ryan Piers Williams to promote the voices of under-represented communities in the entertainment industry.
I have a unique role to play in America because of my background. Many other immigrants do, too.
As a successful immigrant entrepreneur, Bangee isn’t alone. Immigrants start businesses at a rate that is consistently higher than that of U.S.-born residents. In 2010, roughly one in 10 American workers with jobs at private firms were employed at immigrant-founded companies. Such businesses also generated more than $775 billion in business revenue that year. In California, like the country as a whole, immigrants are currently punching far above their weight class as entrepreneurs.
In California, where Bangee lives, immigrants comprise 27 percent of the population but make up. Bangee’s own father brought the family from England when she was 6, so he could become an entrepreneur. “He loved the prospect of adventure in the United States,” Bangee recalls. Upon arrival in Southern California, her dad launched three travel agencies, specializing in places like Europe and Asia.
Bangee paved her own path towards entrepreneurship by accumulating a broad skill set. She worked as a project director for Mentors for Academic and Peer Success, a UCLA-run initiative that helps low-income youth access higher education, earned a master’s in public administration from the University of Southern California, and worked for California’s Speaker of the Assembly and the California Community Foundation. She was also selected by the Ford Foundation as a 2017 Public Voices Fellow.
Bangee was inspired to strike out on her own after the 2016 electoral cycle. “My faith definitely inspired me to amplify the voices that are less-often heard,” she says. “Immigrants are a vulnerable community. I am a woman of color and a Muslim woman who wears hijab. I know what it means to feel powerless, what it means to be discriminated against and misunderstood, and to feel like I don’t have rights.”
To do this, Bangee has worked with Harness to help highlight immigrant voices. When Katy Perry released her last album, Bangee helped organize a dinner hosted by the singer, where two undocumented immigrants discussed their lives before a livestream audience of thousands. She also helped organize Harness’ mainstage event for the entertainment industry, where one of the voices highlighted was that of Gastón Cazares, a father of two who had lived in the United States for 20 years. One of Cazares’ children has severe autism, and Cazares served as his family’s sole breadwinner. At the time of the event, Cazares was scheduled for deportation four days later. He was eventually sent back to Mexico. Bangee helped connect Gaston to a media company who will be producing a mini-documentary to profile Cazares’ life in Mexico without his family.
“Immigration policy matters to me because a lot of people don’t understand what barriers exist for non-citizens,” she says. Bangee would like to see immigration reform that welcomes refugees instead of shutting them out. She wants reform that acknowledges how much immigrants have to contribute economically, as she and her father have — but also culturally and civically. “I have a unique role to play in America because of my background,” says Bangee. “Many other immigrants do, too.”