Women in Business Q&A: Umaimah Mendhro, Founder & CEO, VIDA

04/18/2015 07:18 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015

Umaimah Mendhro is the Founder & CEO of VIDA, an e-commerce company that brings mindful global citizenship and an impeccable sense of taste to style-seekers around the world through carefully selected artistic partnerships and responsibly sourced, beautiful products that connect designers, producers, and consumers. Prior to founding VIDA, Umaimah worked on business strategy for a highly selective portfolio of Silicon Valley's most game-changing and desirable tech startups. Previously, she was the Director of Product Management in Microsoft's Startup Business Group where she led the division's efforts around incubation on Xbox Kinect, leading the Avatar Kinect from research to in-market and unveiling it at CES.

Umaimah is also the founder of The Dreamfly, a global initiative that connects communities in conflict around common causes through education, exposure, and empowerment. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Harvard Business School.

Umaimah grew up in rural Pakistan and is the daughter of a physician, the first in his family to go to college. Umaimah dreamt of being an artist and designer but knew that she had to be practical. After attending Cornell and Harvard and toiling many years in the tech and business industries, she finally took the leap to follow her passion. She set out to create a fashion company that also sought to break the chain of poverty often linked with textile companies established in Third World countries like Pakistan. She believes that fashion can be responsible, accessible and innovative.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I come from a very humble background. My father was the first person in the family to receive an education and not many followed. Most of his family remained illiterate. Growing up in exile in the Middle East, without proper schooling, I developed a visceral longing for learning. Being outside the norm became the norm. Not belonging, not fitting in, fit straight in my comfort zone. I learned to develop my own beliefs, regardless of what the common, sometimes staunch, prevalent opinions were. Today, I see myself wanting to create my own rules and to question the status quo. I find myself valuing most an original idea and vision, that stands apart from the common opinion. I value hardship. I value people. I don't assume success and I assume barriers and challenges. I believe it's a given that I will overcome them, even when I know I may not be able to.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at VIDA?
My experience working at West with Allison Johnson, former VP of Marketing at Apple, and observing the likes of Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square), Drew Houston and Arash Firdousi (Dropbox), Dave Morin (Path), and Hosain Rahman (Jawbone), taught me more than I thought it would. I saw how difficult, uncomfortable, and at times awkward it is to be thrown in to a position of leadership. I saw courage in the face of mistakes. At Microsoft's incubation team, I learned how to take an idea to market, even in the face of much inertia. At HBS, I connected with and was inspired by some of the most purpose-driven, humble, and ambitious people I've known. And in forming Dreamfly, I learned how to make something out of nothing - at a global scale - and follow my heart. And how much pleasure life gives us when we feel challenged to our bones and deeply fulfilled.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at VIDA?
Most entrepreneurs will tell you that the experience of founding your own company is full of extreme ups and downs. One day you feel you'll take over the world and the next day you know for a fact it was all a huge failure. I am a deeply passionate yet an even keel kind of a person. We faced our own set of highlights and challenges. From finding the right partners in Pakistan and India who we could trust, to getting to a perfect product - with no production flaws, to finding the right team, investors and board of advisors to join us on this journey, to being late for my daughter's Halloween party but making it up to her with a mama-daughter weekend with no cellphones - it has all been a bold, bumpy, beautiful journey. And I've loved every minute of it.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Believe in yourself. Believe in your ability. But if you can't, just close your eyes and take that first step. The first step is always the hardest. Don't be your hardest critic. Don't lose yourself trying to make sure everyone loves you. Do the right thing. Be thoughtful. Admit mistakes. Learn. Move on. Get better. Balance. Women have amazing opportunities today. Make sure you know which one you want to go after. Make sure you have a partner who supports you. Make sure you know how to support and take care of yourself.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Everyone has their own strategy that works for them. For me, I integrate it all. I have two kids - a 4 year old daughter and a 1.5 year old son. And they are my life! I don't get to spend every waking hour with them. But the time I spend with them, I focus on them. My husband drops them to school every day and I pick them up every day at 5:30, which gives me a mental break from work. Usually I bring them back to our team, and they get to meet everyone in the company. I pick up work again in the early evening but then take time again to put the kids to bed. We do a lot of 1:1 time. On Saturdays, I spend some time with just the kids, and daddy gets to spend some time on his own. On Sundays I catch up on work. We do date nights Thursday nights, just the two of us. It's busy. It's beautiful. It's a lot of balancing and integration.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
At Microsoft, I headed up our global women's initiative, representing all the women at Microsoft around the world. I learned of a lot of challenges that women face. From balancing home and work to taking care of aging parents to not feeling appreciated or heard at work. I know all those issues are real. And we must have a dialogue about them and actively find ways to resolve. Because no workplace can perform at its best if not all of its members can bring their best to it. Having said that, I really believe that it's an amazing time today for women to be in the workplace, to start their own businesses, to pursue their dreams. Many a times, we hold ourselves back. We doing voice what's wrong. We second guess ourselves. We don't say what we need. We fear. Too much. I've been there myself. I've done it. I think out strongest constrain can at times be ourselves. Which is great news. Because we have the power to solve this constrain, this issue, ourselves.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I wouldn't call it mentorship. I've had formal mentors and they've been amazing. But the people who've made a true difference in my life are in one of three categories - family members, colleagues/bosses/peers who I've learnt from on the job, and people who've been most difficult to work with. In family, my mom and my husband have been my biggest influences. My mom always encouraged me to think for myself. She told me I can do anything I set my heart to. That my life was mine to design. My husband always compelled me to do what I was afraid to do but truly wanted to try. At every step, he encouraged me to pursue my dreams. And every time I failed, he brought me back up. People who've been most difficult to work with tell you the most about yourself. They make you self-reflect. And I am grateful for that. They've taught me more than any kind, supportive, wise mentor ever could.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
My mother. She's a medical doctor. A community leader. A politician. A business woman. She worked two shifts as we were growing up. We saw her during a short lunch break. But there was never a question in our minds that she loved us - me and my brother - more than anything. We were her world, even if we weren't in front of her eyes all day. When my elder brother turned two, and we were living in a village where my mother and father built a hospital, the only hospital for hundreds of miles, my parents thought they'd move to the city to admit their child to a school. When my mother's patients heard about this, they came in masses, asking her not to leave. They said they'd pray that her children go to the best schools of the world one day, not just the country. But that she shouldn't leave them. She decided to stay back. She simply couldn't put one foot in front of the other and leave hundreds of her patients behind. She put her trust in us. And in her ability to instill the love of knowledge in us. And that we'll all find a way one day. She never told me of this daunting decision, till the night when I learnt I was graduating as a Baker Scholar at Harvard Business School (top 5% of the class). I admire my mother's extreme courage. Her unconventional thinking. Her working as hard as she did yet always putting us first. And her belief in capability and drive more than opportunity and privilege.

What do you want VIDA to accomplish in the next year?
We want to prove a point. We want to show amazing, breathtaking talent from all parts of the world. And help us realize how much we miss out when we don't tap into gifts and resources available to us. We want to show that we can manufacture incredibly desirable products that also create a positive change. We want to make fashion less elitist and exclusive. And more original and inclusive. We want to use technology to our advantage. We want to show that we can build a hugely successful business that makes a positive impact.