In 2007, Reza Aslan and Mahyad Tousi set out to change the entertainment industry. They created BoomGen, a production studio for film, television and digital media by and about the peoples and cultures of the Middle East, Central/South Asia and North Africa. Their mission was to increase visibility and opportunities for underrepresented voices in art and entertainment. Now they have been working on film projects (Aladdin) to books (Fanatic) to virtual reality, and the company is growing rapidly.
Notably, BoomGen is the force behind CBS United States of Al, a Chuck Lorre sitcom about an Afghan interpreter who moves to Columbus, Ohio to live with the Navy veteran he worked with in Afghanistan. Last year, the show won praise for its portrayal of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan – in an episode rewritten in just a few weeks. Recently, he won an MPAC Media Award for his advocacy work.
The show’s strength comes from its diverse writing and supporting staff, which includes five Afghans and seven military veterans, four Afghan actors, and network television’s only Muslim lead character. With a huge audience, United States of Al touches people who don’t normally consume stories about people of color.
BoomGen also just launched Starfish, a creative IP accelerator powered by philanthropy, community, and fandom. It is designed to scale the big pop culture ideas of emerging BIPOC artists, developing projects with broad appeal to underserved markets.
Here, Tousi offers his top tips for succeeding as a diverse and inclusive BIPOC content creator:
- Write or create every day, even if only for a few minutes.
- Find your people, your community.
- Believe in your voice and your point of view.
- Above all, tell strong stories.
- Be collaborative. Say “yes, and…” a lot.
- Don’t waste time looking for shortcuts.
- Never forget that your “otherness” is your superpower.
“In my heart, I’m a storyteller,” says Tousi, co-founder of BoomGen Studios and Starfish Accelerator. “In practice, I am a father, husband, multidisciplinary artist, writer, producer and entrepreneur.
Tousi began his entertainment career as a videographer working in conflict zones and on documentaries. Now he has a prime-time sitcom. He has worked on documentaries, blockbuster films, Broadway, virtual reality, video art, in all formats and genres. Currently, he is the executive producer of the second season of United States of Alwhich is one of the top 5 rated comedies on TV, and is finishing his directorial debut with Remotea feature film he also wrote.
His work is inspired by Tousi’s journey. He was born in Tehran shortly before the Iranian revolution. “I am a child of conflict, which in my case led to the separation of my family after immigrating to the United States at age thirteen with my mother,” says Tousi. Growing up in Iran, much of her childhood was spent consuming books, comics, radio plays, and movies. The stories helped him find his way through the constant instability of a revolution and a years-long war. “The stories are how I was able to make sense of why I emigrated away from my family and everything I knew.”
When he arrived in the United States, Tousi felt unprepared. “I didn’t speak English well. I didn’t dress properly. I didn’t have the “right” sense of humor. My mission has become rapid assimilation,” he explains. “It took me a long time, but I ended up accepting my otherness as my superpower. I found purpose in it.
It was then that he began to create stories aimed at inspiring resistance and change. “As a working artist, I have the incredible privilege and opportunity to create work that has made me whole and has the potential to help others find healing, meaning and joy,” says Tousi. . “That’s what drives me to work hard every day.”
United States of Al offers American audiences its first-ever Muslim and Afghan lead on television. He is neither a “good” nor a “bad” Muslim. He’s just a guy trying to adjust to life in a new house. They were able to air the episode “Promises”, about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, just two months after the fall of Kabul. Additionally, the show’s staff have worked actively with organizations supporting Afghans and Afghan refugees, including the IRC, No One Left Behind, and Miry’s List.
In 2020 Tousi founded Starfish to support other unrepresented artists. “Even today, when the need for diverse and inclusive content comes with a financial benefit (as markets evolve), the industry is struggling to figure out how to get out of its own way in order to identify and support original ideas by underrepresented artists for underserved markets,” he says. Already, Starfish artist Amir Sulaiman, a spoken word poet, has been nominated for a Grammy.
“You have to be prepared to align your skills with the impact you want to have in the world,” Tousi tells those looking to pursue their life purpose. “Then find a community that shares the vision of a future you want to be a part of. You have to be willing to put your heart and soul into it. And you need a good dose of courage and determination. I sincerely believe that is what it will take if we are to meet the multitude of challenges we face today.