In 2007, Reza Aslan and Mahyad Tousi set out to change the entertainment industry. They created BoomGen, a production studio for film, TV, 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 opportunity for underrepresented voices in art and entertainment. Now, they’ve worked on projects from movies (Aladdin) to books (Zealot) to VR, and the company is growing fast.
Notably, BoomGen is the force behind CBS’s United States of Al, a Chuck Lorre sitcom about an Afghan interpreter who moves to Columbus, Ohio to live with the Marine veteran he worked alongside in Afghanistan. Last year, the show received glowing praise for its portrayal of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan – in an episode rewritten in just weeks. Recently, it won an MPAC Media Award for its advocacy work.
The show’s strength comes from its diverse writing and support staff, which includes five Afghans and seven military veterans on staff, four Afghan actors, and the only Muslim lead character on network television. With huge viewership, United States of Al is reaching 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 big pop culture ideas from emerging BIPOC artists, developing projects with broad appeal for underserved markets.
Here, Tousi offers his top tips for success as a BIPOC, diverse and inclusive content creator:
- Write or create everyday, even if only for a few minutes.
- Find your people, your community.
- Believe in your voice and your perspective.
- Tell powerful stories above all.
- 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 am a storyteller,” says Tousi, the cofounder of BoomGen Studios and Starfish Accelerator. “In practice, I’m a father, husband, multidisciplinary artist, writer, producer, and entrepreneur.”
Tousi started his entertainment career as a videographer working in conflict zones and on documentaries. Now he has a primetime sitcom. He has worked on docs, blockbusters films, Broadway, virtual reality, video art, across formats and genres. Currently, he is executive producing the second season of United States of Alwhich is a top-5 rated comedy across broadcast TV, and finishing his directorial debut of Remotea feature film he also wrote.
His work is inspired by Tousi’s background. He was born in Tehran shortly before the Iranian Revolution, “I am a child of conflict, which in my case led to family separation after I emigrated to the US at thirteen with my mother,” Tousi says. Growing up in Iran, a big part of his childhood was spent consuming books, comic books, radio plays, and movies. Stories helped him find his way through the constant instability of a revolution and multi-year war. “Stories are how I was able to breathe purpose into why I was migrating away from my family and everything I knew.”
When I arrived in the US, Tousi felt unprepared. “I didn’t speak English well. I didn’t dress right. I didn’t have the ‘right’ sense of humor. My mission became rapid assimilation,” he explains. “It took me a long time, but eventually I came to embrace my otherness as my superpower. I found purpose in it.”
That’s when he began creating stories aimed at inspiring resistance and change. “As a working artist, I have the unbelievable 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 is what drives me to work my ass off every day.”
United States of Al offers American audiences their first-ever Muslim and Afghan protagonist on broadcast TV. He is neither a “good” or “bad” Muslim. He is just a guy trying to adjust to life in a new home. They were able to air the episode “Promises,” about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, only two months after the fall of Kabul. In addition, the show’s staff have been actively working 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 has a financial benefit attached to it (as markets shift), the industry has a very difficult time figuring out how to get out of its own way in order to identify and back original ideas by underrepresented artists for underserved markets,” he says. Already, Starfish artist Amir Sulaiman, a spoken word poet, was nominated for a Grammy.
“You have to be willing to align your skills with the impact you want to make in the world,” says Tousi to 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 pour your heart and soul into it. And you need a healthy dose of grit and determination. I truly believe that’s what it will take if we are going to address the multitude of challenges that we are confronted with today.”