She Grew Up In Rural Pakistan, Now This Silicon Valley CEO Works To Break Cycles Of Poverty

We’re always on the lookout for women who are doing badass, inspirational things in the world and love to share their stories with our audience. But seriously, we can’t believe it has taken us so long to learn about Umaimah Mendhro, the founder and CEO of VIDA, an e-commerce company that combines mindful global citizenship and style through carefully selected artistic partnerships and responsibly sourced, beautiful products that connect designers, producers, and consumers (scroll down to the end for an exclusive discount for GTHQ readers).

That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Umaimah’s incredible career path in Silicon Valley. Hers is the kind of story that needs to be shared more as a way to empower younger women to know what is possible in life. Umaimah was born in Pakistan and lived in a rural village, before her family left to live in exile in Saudi Arabia and the UK, and eventually moving back home. Her parents, both doctors (her dad was the first in his family to go to college, and her mom built a hospital), were very politically and socially active during her upbringing.

They were friends with former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation, before she was tragically assassinated in 2007. Umaimah recalls meeting Benazir and being inspired by her as she was pregnant while running for office. Growing up being surrounded by people, especially women, who were anomalies among the rest of the Pakistani community, became the starting point for her passion to want to make a difference in the world.

“I always knew I wanted the build something and make my life matter,” she told us in an interview.

Her maternal grandfather believed in education for his daughters as well as his son, and was adamant they would have the same opportunities as boys.

“He was the anomaly,” said Umaimah, adding that rural Sindh was largely illiterate.

Because she was born into this forward-thinking environment, she had the ability to dream big about her future and know there was life beyond her immediate surroundings.

“I used to daydream about being either the Prime Minister of Pakistan or a CEO,” she recalls.

While the former has not eventuated (yet!) it was the latter aspiration that came into being because she had the chance to study. Umaimah earned a BSc from Cornell University in Human Development with coursework in Computer Science, and eventually earned an MBA from Harvard Business School, where she was a Baker Scholar. During her studies she started to think seriously about her business aspirations, and began her path by working at major tech companies like Microsoft as the Director of Product, where she led the division’s efforts around incubation on Xbox Kinect.

Her resume is chock-full of startup and tech experience for multi-million dollar businesses, managing growth strategies for some of the most sought-after companies, and working with game-changing companies in the pre-IPO stage. It would be a trip back to her home country that sparked the idea for VIDA, which is an impressive success story in and of itself. She wanted to create a platform that brought together designers and creators, and take out the “middle man”.

“These two worlds are generally so far apart in fashion and design, but they don’t have to be,” she said.

“The fashion industry is dictated by buyers and trend forecasters. I wanted to find out whether it was possible to use technology to turn that model on its head,” she said.

In Pakistan, she spent a lot of time in factories learning about how the work gets done and about the lives of those doing creating the product. It bothered her to see how the system where all the money went to those at the top meant cycles of poverty continued, and didn’t think that was fair. That became the crux of what VIDA would offer the market, while also being a tool to empower workers to make more money without it having to be a charity, as such.

“VIDA makes the whole eco-system more efficient as there are no huge markups, the factory workers earn more, and it becomes a sustainable model,” she said.

The idea was formed, and the only thing left to get it off the ground was seed funding. Thanks to connections she made at Harvard, she presented the idea to investors at Google Ventures, and secured funding on her first pitch. This is not something to gloss over, especially when it comes to the systemic sexism that exists on a number of levels in the tech world.

According to TechCrunch, women-founded companies are still not being funded at anywhere near an equal rate as male-founded ones, and this has to do with hidden bias in the tech culture. However, if investors were smart, they would actively seek out female-driven startups. As the Harvard Business Review points out, studies show many female-founded companies have a higher rate of return on average than their male counterparts. And with only 8% of Venture Capital firms in the US having female partners, there is a need for more women making the funding decisions also. Umaimah says sexism has been a problem in Silicon Valley for a long time, it’s just that stories are finally coming to light now.

“The conversations we’re having right now about the need for more diversity can be uncomfortable and awkward, but they are necessary. I am hopeful it will get better and lead to change,” she said.

Along with her career success, Umaimah never lost sight of her desire to make a difference in the world. She founded an organization called Dreamfly which is a global initiative connecting communities in conflict around common causes with presence across four countries touching over 5,000 lives. Dreamfly kickstarts seed initiatives that are 100% financially sustainable within one year. Wanting to help people in Pakistan escape the cycle of poverty was also buoyed on by a major historical event.

“Post September 11 [2001], I wanted to re-frame people’s idea of Pakistan, by sharing the stories of kids’ lives,” she said.

The idea has since expanded to Afghanistan, Rwanda and India, where people in poverty create projects that become a self-sustaining source of income. Umaimah is the kind of role model who understands that not everyone is born with the same opportunities in life to get ahead, but that those who do have advantages like her (thanks to progressive-minded family members) can use that to empower others and lift them out of poverty. For instance, in the factories where the VIDA products are made, they have introduced literacy programs for the workers which have in turn opened up even more opportunities and possibilities for the people and their children.

If you are inspired by what you read, it’s important to know that each of us has the potential to do great things with what we are given. When we asked Umaimah how she would define “power”, (something we ask a lot of our interviewees), she said perseverance.

“It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you genuinely believe you will persevere, you will. There is strength and power in perseverance,” she said.

Visit the VIDA website to support designers and learn more about how the company is working to change the world through commerce. Right now VIDA is offering an exclusive discount to GTHQ readers. Use the code “GTHQ25” for 25% off your entire order at the checkout.

 

 

 

 

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