As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Umaimah Mendhro, Founder and CEO of VIDA (www.shopvida.com).
Umaimah is the Founder & CEO of VIDA, a global ecommerce platform connecting designers and makers to create original, quality apparel and accessories, each with a unique story. Umaimah is also the founder Dreamfly, a global initiative that connects communities in conflict around common causes through education, exposure, and empowerment. A curator of creative voices, VIDA represents art and culture from New York to LA, Mumbai to Madrid, and Tokyo to Tel Aviv, bringing to market products that are made responsibly and that help break the chain of poverty in the world of fashion. VIDA today has over 100,000 artists on the platform representing over 150 countries around the world. Umaimah lives in California with her husband, two children, age 5 and 8, and a puppy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born in a small town in Pakistan and grew up in exile in the Middle East and then in rural Pakistan. Living between four walls, without access to formal education for most of my life, I grew up with a passion to learn, explore, build, and make something of my life. I saw incredible talent around the world — in art, crafts, fashion — and learned to sew, print, paint, and sculpt. I made an attempt to build a line but found it incredibly difficult to get my first break as a designer or have factories take me seriously when I was just getting started. I decided instead to pursue a career in business and technology. I paved my way to Cornell University to study Human Development and Computer Science, then later Harvard Business School. As I was charting a career in the tech industry, my earlier days in rural Pakistan always stuck with me. I decided to start a company that utilizes technology to enable creatives from all over the world to design and launch original, quality products that each tell a unique story, and that each create a positive impact in the world by giving back to their designers and makers by way of education and empowerment opportunities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Two years after our Series A round of funding with a strategic investor, as the world was facing a global pandemic, our investor and board told us to find a buyer for the company or shut down. Instead of shutting down, we turned the company profitable, bought out our investors’ shares in the company, and today run a fully team-owned, profitable Public Benefits Corporation.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So many people, at so many stages of life. Early life would be hands down, my mom. She showed me how it was cool to not have to fit in — to live life by your own rules. To care and to give, to be humble and ambitious. How to be a fighter and a healer, a mother, and a leader — all at the same time. Later in life, my husband has always had my back. He encouraged me to go for my graduate studies, even though that meant living apart from him; to travel around the world, then later to start a school in my home village. Today, my mentor and board advisor, Doreen Lorenzo, former President of Frog Design, is a north star, a trusted sounding board, and someone who constantly keeps me in check. She and I have been connecting for 30 mins every two weeks for the past 7+ years. She’s on my Favorites Phone list after my kids and my parents.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Generally, I rely heavily on runs, showers, and mindfulness. Starting my morning with a 30 min HIIT workout or run on a high stakes day has been my go-to for years, but I’ve also found ways to prepare in unexpected places. When I was working at Microsoft as Director of Product for our incubation efforts, there was one situation where I had a complex and somewhat sensitive meeting with several senior executives in the company. I had recently given birth to our daughter and had her being cared for at a daycare center near Microsoft. I snuck out to visit my daughter and just played silly games with her and made her laugh for 30 mins. This reminded me of the true order of importance in life. As I joined the meeting, I could feel the energy in the room shift to a more open, collaborative, and light-hearted vibe, where we could all stay calm and discuss the matters with a cool head and come to a win-win outcome.
As you know, the United States is currently facing an important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Corporate businesses have had an outsized role to play in creating exclusion, inequality, and a class system — from human slavery to build the cotton and tobacco industries to exclusion to access to healthcare to maximize profits. We have reached a tipping point where we simply cannot and must not go forward with the status quo. Having a diverse executive team is a good start, but it’s not the end all. We have excluded and in turn missed out on what the majority of the world population can achieve for society and our collective wellbeing. In a capitalistic society, where corporations impact politics, society, commerce, health, education, and more — it is the business sector that needs to change first and foremost to bring about any real change.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
We have an all-female executive team. We have a highly international employee base. Yet we have to work on building and managing an inclusive culture every day. Last year, in 2020, when one of our warehouse managers asked his supervisor for a day off on Juneteenth, he was told they had no idea what that was and why it would be a holiday. Meanwhile, I had spoken at a company all-hands about the significance of the day, we had launched an extensive campaign in collaboration with our artists for a call for art to honor Juneteenth and had committed over $100,000 to support Black Lives Matter related causes. The supervisor had missed the all-hands meeting and did not follow us on social media to keep up to date with our company-wide activities.
This particular episode reminded me of the difference between a leader’s intention and a company’s reality — and the importance of ensuring our intention and communication is successfully understood and received across the entire organization. It’s crucial to ensure our second in command leaders can carry through that vision successfully. If they can’t, we need to recognize that and have the courage to make difficult decisions.
I invited both our warehouse manager and his supervisor for a direct and difficult conversation — I heard them, shared my perspective, allowed them to ask questions, and hoped to lead an open and honest conversation, culminating with an explicit and clear understanding.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Give purpose and direction for what we are building and enable the highest likelihood of success.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Simply having the CEO title does not give you the power to drive action or change across a company. I have met so many CEOs and business leaders who wished they could wave a magic wand and make change happen across their companies.
A strong CEO enables their deputies to challenge them, to make critical decisions, to steer the company forward. By doing so, the CEO is forfeiting their authority to make unilateral decisions. To influence meaningful action and sustainable change across their own company, a CEO must earn the trust of their team members, trust in their diverse talents, and convince a group of smart people to continue to work every day towards the collective mission.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Many women still take on the larger share of running the household — scheduling the kids’ doctor’s appointments and summer camps, arranging birthday parties, figuring out what we’re having for dinner, and making the house a home. As long as the weights tip in one direction, women will have less time in a day and more on their plates to get through than their male counterparts.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
In the early stages of the company, it was the amount of time I had to spend to raise capital vs. running the business. In today’s time, with a rapidly changing world during a global pandemic, the pace and frequency at which we must reinvent ourselves and respond to global market needs and constraints is both unexpected and incredibly thrilling.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The traits that increase likelihood of success: Perseverance. Optimism. Confidence. Ability to meet existential challenges with a calm mind. Being able to see the big picture without getting lost in the woods. Build something from nothing. Thrive in ambiguity. Ability to derive clarity. Some of these may read like personality traits but I believe they are traits that can be learned (and then need regular exercise to retain and grow).
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Believe in yourself. Lead with curiosity. Don’t try to follow a mold. Listen. Learn. Be bold. Be strong. Take action.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe I have though not enough. And I look to do more. <Expand>
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t get bogged down by the act of raising capital. Instead, focus on building a real business with a solid foundation.
- If it’s simply not working, change it wholesale, not piecemeal.
- You can do more alone than you give yourself credit for.
- Don’t try to do it all.
- You can do more in and with less than you think.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Challenge the norm.
I started VIDA because I wanted to challenge fashion industry norms and create a new model of commerce by connecting customers to creatives through an on-demand, and therefore much more sustainable, manufacturing supply chain.
When the pandemic took the world by storm, we challenged the norm that only big, deep-pocketed companies could make a difference and shipped masks before Amazon had them in stock.
I encourage us all to think about what norms we as individuals and companies accept and how we can challenge and change them. At VIDA we’re challenging the norm that access is for the wealthy, healthy and able-bodied. Through design and innovation, we want to democratize access to high quality health products and the world’s best post-graduate education.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Words I live by: Your life is yours to design. Make life matter.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Right now, Melinda Gates.