Farah Azmi (MBA ’21) walks through her journey as a female entrepreneur.
Some people say that you are either born an entrepreneur or you are not. As someone who was born into a poor immigrant family, I certainly was not bred to be an HBS student much less an entrepreneur. However, throughout my life, I have worked my way and gained the skills on how to be an entrepreneur. So in a way, although I was not born to be one, perhaps I learned to be one.
To explain what I mean, I will start from the very beginning. I was born in Malaysia and came to the US when I was one. I lived in random places throughout the US from Memphis, Tennessee to Magnolia, Arkansas to Cedar City, Utah. When we first moved to the US, we were quite poor, to say the least. My dad was getting a PhD to become a professor and supported a family of four on zero income. As a current student myself, I am completely in awe reflecting back to see how much my dad sacrificed to get all four mouths fed every day.
Being a child of immigrants—and being a poor one at that—stemmed my love of fashion. As you can imagine, Utah is nothing like Arkansas and southern Arkansas is nothing like Memphis. However, fashion allowed me to connect to each of those different cultures. When I was five, I remember looking at girls with big bows in their hair and cute dresses and wanting my own oversized bow. However, given my socioeconomic status, I could never afford any of it. Instead, I frequented garage sales and the clearance rack at Wal-Mart to try to fit in among my peers. However, to the credit of my mother, she made my clothing. She was my personal fashion designer growing up creating all my pieces just so I can keep up with my friends. The same sewing machine that she used for my clothes as a five-year-old was the same machine I used when I was 16 to sew my own clothes. My mother bought $1.00 per yard fabric and still made dresses comparable to my friends’ store-bought dresses. She showed me my first lesson in entrepreneurship: be scrappy and be resourceful. You can make it work even with a low-cost MVP. Now, as I try to wrestle with costs in my start-up, I always evaluate all my options and think about the cheapest way to do something to avoid costly mistakes down the road.
When it was time for college, my parents played typical Tiger Parents and did not let me dare think about majoring in fashion design. At the University of Utah, during my freshman year, I joined every club to understand the different majors from accounting to marketing to finance. When I went to the finance club, I was introduced to the advisor, Professor Liz Tashjian. Under her guidance, she introduced me to fellow students venturing into the world of investment banking. She even introduced me to amazing alumni who would later become mentors and help me get into investment banking myself. Without her, I am not sure if I would even be at Harvard Business School. Tashjian kick-started my career and single-handedly helped me be where I am today. Tashjian taught me another lesson in entrepreneurship: utilize mentors. There are so many people that have been on the road before, so do not be afraid to ask for help and guidance. You never know what doors can open and who can help you on your journey. Now, I constantly seek help from former entrepreneurs, my peers at HBS, and basically anyone who is willing to advise me with my start-up.
Post-banking, I joined Tommy Hilfiger in their corporate strategy team. It was exciting when I first joined as it was a team of two, me and my manager Kat Dubois. It gave me so much room to grow with lots of responsibility. Fairly early on, I was thrust into the spotlight owning projects. After leading my first few meetings, I remember my manager giving me feedback after each one. She was always patient to see me improve. She taught me how to lead a room, present my materials confidently and stand up for my position. Her lessons have been critical as I pitch my start-up to strangers. Each time I give a pitch now, I reflect on her candor and her feedback to continuously improve on how I deliver my own ideas to other people.
While I say that IXORA has been two years in the making, it has been more like 28 years. It is because of incredible women in my life that I could build my start-up. I am the daughter of Nur Azizah Yahaya, a student of Liz Tashjian and a former employee of Kat Dubois. All these women and more shaped who I am today as a woman and as an entrepreneur, and I am grateful to them all. When it comes to building a start-up, it is no surprise that I wanted to build an apparel company that supports women. IXORA Apparel is dedicated to all these women that have supported me to chase my dreams, and I hope IXORA Apparel will help other women achieve theirs.
Farah Azmi is a second-year MBA candidate. She’s the founder of IXORA Apparel, delivering trend-driven made-to-measure apparel for women. She previously has worked in investment banking at Barclays and corporate strategy at Tommy Hilfiger. She’s passionate about the apparel space and hopes to drive change in the way we shop for clothes.