Think about what you’re wearing right now. Do you know where it was made? Will you wear it for longer than a fashion season? Will it even last that long? These are the questions that Maxine Bédat, 31, and Soraya Darabi, 30, asked themselves. Not being able to find satisfactory answers, they were inspired to form a community – and a movement – to conquer the notion of fast, disposable fashion. Through their online fashion retailer Zady.com, the duo connects conscious (yet fashion-savvy) consumers with the stories of each garment, while also giving a hand up to talented artisans in developing countries.
When they first met on the tennis team at high school in Minnesota, USA, Maxine Bédat and Soraya Darabi instantly bonded. “In Minnesota there are a lot of Scandinavians,” Maxine explains of their fledgling friendship. “So we had brunette hair in a sea of blondes.” They also bonded over their foreign backgrounds – Maxine’s family hail from South Africa, while Soraya’s parents are of Persian and European descent.
While most teenagers were focused on the dramas of their own lives, Maxine and Soraya both individually began to open their eyes to the injustices that existed in the rest of the world. For Soraya, it was through the essays of The New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof about the working conditions in maquiladoras (factories in free-trade zones) in Central America. Fittingly, Soraya ended up being Nicholas’s colleague when she took on the role as The New York Times’ manager of digital partnerships and social media. This was the first of several jobs in the digital sphere – including co-founding the app Foodspotting – that led her to be named among Fast Company’s ‘Most Creative People in Business’.
Maxine’s awareness of social injustices first immerged in primary school. “My best friend was African American and my family was South African, and it was during the era of apartheid,” she recalls. “I remember going to South Africa and seeing how beautiful it was, but everything seemed so incongruous from where I was growing up in Minnesota. I always thought to myself, ‘How could I ever bring my best friend to South Africa under these conditions?’.”
Inspired by that injustice, as well as her great uncle who had worked as one of Nelson Mandela’s lawyers, Maxine began to pursue a path in international law, working at the United Nations as well as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. In 2010, she co-founded The Bootstrap Project, a non-profit social enterprise that empowers independent artisans in developing countries who are working to end their own poverty. Working on the premise of ‘trade not aid’, Maxine saw it as a way of making positive change. “What I had seen working in the non-profit world was that everything was very aid-driven and a kind of handout culture,” she says. “I remember going to meet artisans in Nepal and speaking to them about how to build their businesses and the first thing they asked me was what I was going to give them. I realised that it shouldn’t be about what I could bring them, but rather what they could do for themselves – helping them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps by using their amazing talents
to improve their own conditions.”
As Maxine and Soraya’s lives diverged after high school while they chased after their own individual dreams, they mostly lost touch except for cursory glimpses of each other’s achievements through the posts of mutual friends on Facebook. Both intrigued by what the other was doing – and both living in New York – they eventually decided to meet up for a coffee, almost a decade after finishing high school. “We were both really excited by how the other had evolved in their life and we had a lot of shared interests,” Soraya says. “There’s something really wonderful about having a shared history with someone.”
They spent the next few months chatting in detail about the work Maxine was doing with The Bootstrap Project and how Soraya’s background in digital media might be able to play a part. “As we really began to understand the artisanal work and appreciate where the artisans were coming from, and the talent that they brought to the table, it opened our eyes to so many things,” Maxine explains. “Things like where our jeans came from and why we didn’t have the same connection with them that we had with these artisans. As we tried to find the answer to that, it opened up the whole world and the massive problems throughout the apparel supply chain – problems that are environmental, economic and human-rights driven.”
The girls decided that they could either continue to view it as a big problem, or instead see it as a big opportunity to make positive change. “Our generation wants to solve these things and there’s innovation happening in almost every sphere,” Maxine says. “And it should be happening in the apparel world as well.”
Inspired, in August 2013 they launched Zady.com, an online retailer that eschewed fast fashion, instead focusing on creating a platform where people could buy high-quality, sustainable and handmade garments, while also being connected to the story of where they came from. And for every purchase made on Zady, an artisan launching a micro business in the developing world would be provided with essential funding to grow their business.
Both Maxine and Soraya left behind successful, lucrative careers in order to pursue their passion, but neither has looked back for a moment. “To me it was going back to what I was really passionate about,” Maxine says. “You only get to live life once so I wanted to be doing something that I could feel really excited and passionate about. I wanted to apply my hardworking mentality to something I really believed in. And now I couldn’t imagine life any other way.”
Soraya agrees emphatically. “It’s really scary for anyone who does it, but in my entire life I’m yet to meet anyone who regrets leaving a comfortable job for an entrepreneurial path,” she says.
Currently with a staff of seven, the Zady team is very much like a family. But one of the greatest obstacles she and Maxine have faced, Soraya says, is learning to let things be. “The biggest challenge in life is letting things go. Maxine and I often have this conversation. We both want to be present for all meetings, and to have time to process every conversation after we’ve had it, and to take every speaking opportunity that comes our way. But there’s just not enough time in the day. So we’ve had to learn to relinquish control a little bit, and it really helps to have a business partner who you trust implicitly.”
On matters of success, she says that it’s a precarious concept for an entrepreneur. “I think it’s a dangerous road to go down to measure success in the first place, and it’s even more dangerous to consider yourself successful. It’s important to stop yourself along the way and congratulate yourself for accomplishments, hurdles passed and challenges solved. But to ever sit back and think you’re a great success means, by its very nature, that you’re slowing down on your path to conquering the world.”
And that’s definitely not what they want to happen, Maxine adds. “We get one chance at life, and isn’t it amazing that we have an opportunity to make the world better and be part of something that is working to fix the wrongs of the past and to create something even better in the future.”