From Pakistan to Silicon Valley: Sidra Qasim's Unlikely Journey to Building a Shoe Empire
Meet the relentless entrepreneur who left her small town in Pakistan to follow her entrepreneurial dreams to America.
Growing up in Okara, Pakistan, Sidra Qasim had greater ambitions than what society had planned for her.
She had bold ideas and audacious goals, but society wanted her to get married and start a family. She questioned the egregious gender inequality, but society wanted to quiet her voice. She was passionate about starting a business, but society wanted her to stop wasting her time.
"My mom wanted to protect me so she was standing by society, not by my side," Qasim told The Profile. "To be honest, I had no image of 'society.' It was just a word. When she was saying, 'Hey, society will say this,' I wanted to know who these people were and why I should care about them."
As she grew up, Qasim began to understand that there would be biases, judgements, and taboos that would come with all that she wanted to accomplish. Even though she understood, she refused to passively comply with a system designed to keep her trapped.
When she was a teenager, Qasim serendipitously met Waqas Ali while visiting her aunt's home. He had lived in a nearby village, but he was equally curious. More importantly, he respected and listened to Qasim's many ideas.
"I felt that I found someone who I could talk to and someone who understood what I was saying," she says. "I realized that society could be different — that men could be different. For me, Waqas was a screen I could project myself on to."
Unbeknownst to them at the time, Qasim and Ali would become partners — in business and in life. They would start one company, then another, then another. They would even get a chance to leave Pakistan for the first time and travel to the United States to pitch their idea at prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator. They did all of this with two tools at their disposal — their brains and the internet.
The first time Qasim learned about the internet was in 2006. She overheard a conversation in which her uncle explained this innovation to her mother. He said he had heard that people could order chai directly through the internet.
"I imagined chai coming from the wires because I just couldn't imagine how it was possible to order chai from the computer," Qasim says. "Fast forward 15 years, I'm selling shoes on the internet. This is crazy."
"Selling shoes on the internet" is an understatement. Qasim and Ali co-founded Atoms, a sleek direct-to-consumer shoe startup, that has raised more than $8 million in funding from investors including Alexis Ohanian's Initialized Capital, Shrug Capital, and Kleiner Perkins.
"One time my father looked at me and my younger brother because we both had poor grades, and he said, 'You are not going to do anything in your life,'" Qasim recalls. "I said, 'Abu, one day, people will recognize you because of my name.'"
I interviewed Qasim about her mind-blowing journey to entrepreneurship. It details how she designed the life she wanted to live, how refused to give up time and time again, and why, after all these years of struggle, it's all been worth it.
Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to watch the full interview here:
When you got accepted into Y Combinator, did you feel relief or did you feel pressure?
QASIM: A lot of pressure. I don't know if I have ever felt relief in my life, because it's always one thing after another. So Y Combinator brought a lot of pressure. There was excitement around, 'Oh we're going to the US, so maybe we'll meet some interesting entrepreneurs' because we were always reading about Silicon Valley and how someone started with a small idea and turned it into a big company, so there was that excitement. But when we came here, the big pressure was the language. Waqas and I were not speaking English in Pakistan, so speaking it was very, very difficult.
There was a lot of passion, but when we had to translate that passion into words, we were focused more on our grammar than our message. That was very hard, and it shook our confidence. We got into a frame of mind where we started believing our own doubts. There were technology companies at YC, and we were selling handmade leather shoes. It was a huge difference.
The second part was the culture. I think it took us a lot of time to adapt to the culture. And when I say culture, it's not just how you wear clothes. Culture is more of a mindset. It took us some time to understand that, but we worked on it very intentionally for the next two to four years when we started Atoms.
You went from looking up to Americans to having Americans look up to you. How did you learn to navigate that shift in power?
It feels great. When I shared my story on Humans of New York, I read it several times. I was a bit nervous but not as emotional when Brandon [Stanton] shared the first part of the story. Then, I started reading the story and the comments together, and it was very emotional.
At one point, I realized our God is the same. We all live for freedom. We all live for someone to take our opinion seriously. We all live for the idea that we should be able to achieve our dreams and the things we want to do in our life. So I think a lot of people were able to associate my story with their story no matter where they live — no matter if they're in Pakistan or in the U.S.
That was very powerful for me to see as well because for the first time, I didn't see myself as a Pakistani woman entrepreneur but I saw myself as part of the human race. It's a completely different feeling where you feel it doesn't matter the color of your skin, it doesn't matter who you are — it just matters that as a human, you are the same at your core.
In the HONY story, you said that the more success you had, the more you had "a fear of falling backwards, all the way back to my home." How often does that fear flare up?
I am still navigating through that, to be honest. How often it comes? Every time a big moment comes. Whenever some big thing happens in my life, something bad also happens at the same time with the same momentum or intensity. Then, my mind goes in a neutral state.
For example, when the Kickstarter campaign happened, it was a big moment for me, but I was not receiving any personal support from my family. There were a lot of emotions going on because there was no one to celebrate my success with in my family, so that neutralized the whole effect. I couldn't celebrate that moment.
The interesting thing is that when you've actually gone through so many experiences in your life — good or bad — you definitely pay a price, but at the same time, you also become more courageous. You also build a different type of strength within you. So at this point in my life, I also have a different type of strength within me. I'm feeling a lot of power inside me because I was able to bring a shift in my family, which I'm super proud of and this was a big goal in my life.
I'd like to pay more attention of what's going inside me, too. It's kind of like being drawn down into the sea, and you're trying to go up. You are discovering interesting things about what's going on in that beautiful sea, but at the same time, you also need to take a breath.
I definitely have a lot of doubts, but I'm learning how to use my fears as my strengths. I'm learning how not to let something pull me off the ground which I have built with such hard work and such passion.
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