Artistic Impression

From a rural village in Pakistan to Harvard Business School and a Silicon Valley career, VIDA Founder and CEO Umaimah Mendhro has always woven her own path.

  • Category
    Fashion, People
  • Written by
    Jennifer Massoni Pardini
  • Photographed by
    Hillary Jeanne Photography

On a predawn morning in San Francisco’s Financial District, as sidewalks gradually fill with pedestrians and streets with traffic, Umaimah Mendhro steps apart from the fray, a scarf around her neck.

Mendhro in a textile mill and printing factory—one of the first VIDA worked with—in Karachi, Pakistan.
Photo Courtesy of VIDA

The scarf, in a way, is the story—Mendhro launched VIDA, her global eCommerce platform with two scarves and two tops. In five years, the San Francisco-based company has grown to produce 90+ products from over 125,000 artists in over 150 countries (after beginning with 22 designers in 20 countries). The name VIDA reflects a similar worldview, drawing meaning from four languages: “a rare find” in Persian; “beloved” in Hebrew; “life” in Spanish; and “wisdom” in Sanskrit—all to reflect “a wiser way to bring products into our world, one showing love and care and celebrating life,” Mendhro says.

Most fundamentally, the scarf represents Mendhro herself, a girl who grew up in exile in Saudi Arabia and rural Pakistan, the country of her birth, who was raised largely without access to formal education, who was drawn to artistic expression and given room to explore it, and who knew, even then, that her path would not be straight, but it would be of her own making.

That path largely began in Pakistan, in a village so far away from a city center it wasn’t even on the map, and where her parents, both doctors, had established a hospital so relied upon by their community that when they planned to move to the city to educate Mendhro and her older brother, patients came by the hundreds and begged them to stay.

Stay they did. Mendhro learned heritage craftsmanship like embroidery from locals. “Oh, can I learn block printing? I want to do a mail-in class on oil painting,” a young and inspired Mendhro asked herself and pursued. “This is the sort of place where I couldn’t go out on the street,” she says of the reality. “In some ways the confinement, but also the freedom of space and time, gave me the opportunity to explore.”

One of VIDA’s first 100% Modal Scarves, featuring original watercolor art by Maria Virginia from Barcelona, Spain, and manufactured at VIDA’s first Cut & Sew factory in Pakistan.
Photo Courtesy of VIDA

This combined passion for art and education remained Mendhro’s driving force. “I knew I always wanted to go to a great school,” she says. “The young Prime Minister of Pakistan was a woman. She went to Harvard, which was the first time I had heard of Harvard.” Mendhro eventually got a student visa and started forging her path stateside, first at Purdue University, where her brother was attending, then graduating from Cornell University before ultimately earning a spot at Harvard Business School.

Mendhro was conscious of the opportunity, and at first uncomfortable with it. “I’m at Harvard and my cousins back home don’t know how to spell ‘Harvard,’” she shares. “It’s the same gene pool. I’m not an exceptionally smart person compared to their promise or capability. In some ways it was a feeling of guilt, but it was more like I needed to do something about it.”

What Mendhro did was take a year of absence to return to Pakistan and found her global initiative, dreamfly, to connect “communities in conflict around common causes through education, exposure, and empowerment,” she writes. She began by building a school in her home village and has since expanded into Afghanistan, Rwanda, India, and Colombia.

When Mendhro later graduated in 2009, her mother first told her the story of their decision to stay for their patients. Mendhro recalls her mother saying, “I believe you’re going to go so far because of it, not despite of it.” Mendhro is now a mother herself, to a young son and daughter who have traveled with her all over the world, including trips home to Pakistan and an annual family pilgrimage designed to experience a culture and country they’ve never seen before (last year was Morocco, this year was Russia, and next year will be Kenya). “I would credit a lot of where I am right now to the fact that I had a very unconventional upbringing,” she says, “and this idea that I design my own life.”

Fabric and color coming together during Mendhro's same trip to the factory.
Photo Courtesy of VIDA

After Harvard, Mendhro did go far, with a career formed largely in the tech sector, working with Microsoft, Square, Twitter, and Dropbox, as well as McKinsey & Company. All of these experiences would serve her well in founding VIDA & Co. in 2014, after securing $1.3 million in seed funding, led by Google Ventures. As Forbes reported in 2016, she landed that funding on the very first pitch. “It was many years in the making, and then one pitch,” Mendhro says, reflecting on a connection she’d made in business school who had seen her leadership capacity with dreamfly. An informal brunch discussion with him led to the formal pitch to Google Ventures, and it all fell into place from there.

“I would encourage young founders to think about capital forces. Silicon Valley has incredible access and opportunities,” Mendhro advises. “Having that early in a company’s history was just tremendous in helping us get to where we are.” (Where they are now includes a $29 million majority equity investment by a major corporation, but more on that later.)

“From a design standpoint, there are so many stories to be told. And the U.S. customer doesn’t get to see all of that.”

VIDA’s home base in San Francisco further speaks to Mendhro’s views of Silicon Valley and the prevalence of innovation here. “That innovation is a lot about creativity. It’s the disruptive nature—questioning the norm, doing things your own way—that is really important,” she says, pointing to the heart of what it takes, in her opinion, to be a successful entrepreneur: this notion of making rules rather than following them, of seeing opportunities rather than obstacles. “I do think that makes a huge difference in getting to a great finish line or not.”

That belief also harkens back to Mendhro’s path, which never wandered far from its artistic roots. (She even tried to launch a career as an independent designer back in Pakistan before turning to the tech space.) But in traveling the world as much as she has, Mendhro also saw an opportunity to harness incredible talent, from a street in Istanbul as much as in Paris. The founding ethos was again about bringing together different parts of the world, “a global partnership of co-creators,” as she puts it, to bring to market unique, high-quality, and art-inspired apparel and accessories from designers emerging from places like New York, Mumbai, Tokyo, and, of course, Karachi, Pakistan.

“From a design standpoint, there are so many stories to be told. And the U.S. customer doesn’t get to see all of that,” says Mendhro, who believed she could make the fashion industry both more accessible and more responsible. Being a fashion outsider enabled her to identify inefficiencies in the retail space. “To me there was so much waste in this entire ecosystem,” she says. “If you’re a large retailer or a major brand, you try to come up with a design idea. You make projections and build inventory. Six months later, you’re sitting on that inventory trying to sell it. I saw retailers crumble under that.” Instead of having capital stuck in inventory, VIDA gives back to the ecosystem, offering education and empowerment programs to workers in its factories, such as setting up a women’s center and teaching basic literacy in Pakistan, financial literacy in India, and women’s rights training in Turkey.

Today, VIDA’s product range includes everything from handbags to home décor, jewelry to umbrellas, iPhone cases to oven mitts. Scarves still feature prominently—including the Jackson Pollock design Mendhro wore for this story, a previous collaboration with SFMOMA on a special line with iconic artists. “I love Jackson Pollock’s work,” she says. “Now, it’s on a scarf. I can’t touch the original painting in the museum, but I can wear it. Art should not be untouchable, not something we cannot experience and feel and play with. That’s what I love about what we get to do—take an incredible piece of work and bring it into our lives.”

This concept has resonated with VIDA’s customers, who are U.S.-based as well as international. “Our customer is globally minded and well-traveled,” says Mendhro, who continues as CEO. “She cares about her impact on the world. She’s very conscious about where she shops. She’s into art and design. She loves to read, learn, and explore.”

It’s a description that befits Mendhro herself as well as one famous collaborator—none other than icon Cher. As Mendhro recalls, what started off as an organic introduction by an advisor become a phone call and an invitation from the entertainer to just come on over. “I spent an hour with Cher in her closet,” Mendhro says, poring over a collection of, what else, scarves. What was originally planned to be a jumping-off point for VIDA designers to work with became a proposal from Mendhro to Cher to design a line herself. She did, taking inspiration from a mirror from Morocco and creating a motif that ran through her collection for VIDA.

Other collaborators have included Frank Lloyd Wright, Lord & Taylor, the Golden Globes, museums such as SFMOMA and the de Young, as well as the nonprofits Charity: Water, where VIDA donates 10% of every sale, and Creativity Explored, a San Francisco-based organization that works with artists with developmental disabilities.

VIDA’s path ahead is wide open, especially with that recent majority equity investment from Cimpress, a global leader in mass customizations and an ideal source of support for a company in the space of on-demand production. “We’re super excited about what’s next for VIDA,” Mendhro says of the infrastructure, supply chain access, and technology platform afforded by Cimpress. “We’re really building VIDA into a destination for today’s modern shoppers to experience and shop unique and original pieces that are curated and made especially for them,” she says of the brand’s ensuing evolution. “There’s so much choice, and fashion moves fast. We want to create a beautiful experience that feels like a personalized gallery.” The experience will be thoroughly custom.

As VIDA continues to grow, its initial aim remains: “We want to be the accent to your life, to your wardrobe, around your home,” its founder says of products that serve as points of inspiration—as well as stories all their own.

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