Not many fashion-obsessed middle schoolers can turn their love of clothes into a much-buzzed about brand, but that’s exactly what sisters Zehra and Sophia Naqvi did when they first began working on what would become the fashion brand GLO. From the beginning, older sister Zehra says they knew that they wanted to create a company that incorporated style, their Pakistani heritage, and the conversations of social justice they grew up having with their friends.
When GLO was officially launched in 2014, Zehra and Sophia were only 14 and 12 years old respectively and living in their childhood home in Hong Kong. Five years later, Zehra Naqvi is now a busy college student in New York City who is balancing her studies with her work at GLO. We reached out to Zehra to get the inside scoop on what it takes to be a young fashion entrepreneur.
The Teal Mango: You were just 14 when GLO was founded. Can you remember when your interest in fashion and style began?
Zehra Naqvi: Fashion came naturally to me: at the age of four, I carefully chose my outfits and put them out the night before. It was something I felt I had full control over. As I grew older, I began to endlessly fill notebooks with doodles from whatever I was inspired by at the time, whether it was Kuch Kuch Hota Hai or High School Musical. I would always go through my nani’s makeup and her beautiful necklaces that adorned her vanity, but what intrigued me most was the chest of drawers filled to the brim with South Asian fabrics. My nani would meticulously choose the fabrics and design the salwar kameezes my sister, Sophia, and I would wear to shaadis. I used to take a pair of scissors and cut the smallest pieces off of the rolls of fabric and keep them in a zipped pouch. I took my fascination with fashion everywhere. When my nani passed away, I lost a grandmother and the fashion designer I looked up to the most, and that was a huge push towards what I’m doing today. It was, truth be told, a huge push towards me actually feeling brave enough to pursue fashion. I started a new notebook, in which I recorded weekly the trends I saw emerging at my school: silly bands, neon jeans, harem pants, feather extensions, glitter eyeliner. I found myself explaining and carefully describing each and every trend’s origin in my notebooks.
TTM: Both you and your sister Sophia grew up in Hong Kong. What was that like?
Naqvi: Growing up in Hong Kong was incredible: the city is immersed in Chinese culture, finance, entrepreneurship, business, art, and fashion. Even though I live in New York City now, nothing will ever compare to Hong Kong’s energy. There’s a saying I’ve heard that says “A New York Minute is a Hong Kong second,” and I really think that captures how just lively my home is. Though it may be odd for people to hear, especially considering that I am ethnically Pakistani; Chinese culture has played a huge role in my life.
TTM: I’ve heard you say that one of the reasons you started GLO was because you noticed that your friends in Hong Kong wanted to buy trendy t-shirts from the U.S. but the shipping costs were too high?
Naqvi: GLO came about for a lot of reasons. But, like you mentioned, the lack of graphic t-shirts, because most of them were only available to the US, was one of the most significant reasons. These graphic t-shirts came in crop tops, muscle tanks, or tank tops with the text relating directly to pop culture events or just trendy designs that followed with the popularity of Tumblr. However, these shirts were around $35 a piece and had an additional $30 shipping internationally, and very few preteens were able to afford such a hefty price for a single cotton shirt. Though I was 13 and barely knew anything about economics, I had just realized there was a demand with no supply, and that’s what pushed me towards starting GLO; I realized I could start a successful company to meet these people’s desires and fashion design. I also noticed that many of my peers were becoming increasingly aware of issues around identity like race and feminism, and I thought that GLO could give them an opportunity to really own that.
TTM: Building a business and figuring out how to delegate responsibilities with a business partner is difficult for most entrepreneurs. GLO’s co-founder is your sister Sophia. What is it like working with your sibling, especially in the early days when you were so young and living at home?
Naqvi: If I had started GLO with anyone else I don’t think the honesty and trust that I have with Sophia would’ve been there – though Sophia was 12 when we co-founded GLO, there was absolutely no sisterly conflict between us; we tell each other all of our ideas. With friends, it can be hard to disagree with or critique an idea, but with your own sister, it’s very easy to stay real with them. Of course, we have disagreements about some things, but when we talk about GLO it’s always professional. Oftentimes business partners are separated from each other or only work in an office. Sophia and I, whenever having an idea for GLO, would approach the other and start talking about ideas immediately. It was a very fluid and collaborative environment that GLO blossomed in.
TTM: Instagram (and social media in general) has played a big role in getting GLO on the map, particularly when it came to introducing the brand to influencers. Why do you think Instagram is so powerful?
Naqvi: We started GLO when Instagram was transitioning from purely social media to a platform rich with influencers and promoters. Not many businesses had active Instagram pages at the time, as Twitter was more popular. We decided on Instagram because it was most used social media platform for our demographic, so we knew we’d find the most customers there. At 1000 followers in April 2014 then 10,000 in August 2014, GLO spread everywhere.
TTM: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who want their product to be noticed on social media?
Naqvi: The social media landscape is constantly changing, and it’s hard to find something that is very effective that doesn’t cost a huge amount of money. I’d tell any entrepreneur out there to focus on what their demographic would be looking for in terms of advertising; what sites will they be checking? What social media platform will they be on? Do they want to see advertisements with famous models? Do they want to see advertisements with real people? You need to know who you’re selling to, and how to appeal to them if you want to succeed in a social media and marketing world that is becoming increasingly chaotic.
TTM: You are currently a student at Columbia University majoring in Financial Economics. How do you balance academics and your work for GLO? Do you have any time management or organizational tips for readers?
Naqvi: I started GLO when I was in middle school. As the company grew, I grew. So did my academic workload. Learning how to balance my workload in middle school with GLO has carried over to how I approach the balancing all of my academic work now and GLO. GLO has never felt like work. It’s something I feel motivated and excited to do. Though starting university is nothing like high school, I’ve found that I’m able to manage my academics and GLO better than ever before.
In terms of organizational tips, I’d say it’s best to have a schedule of what your day is going to look like. I like doing this the Sunday before a week starts. On my phone and in a written planner, I’ll write down meetings, events, and classes that I have to attend. I’ll then schedule in time for social activities, studying, and time spent on GLO. I try to get as much done in a day as I can, but it’s also important to take care of yourself and not burn out from too much work; never take on more than you can bear and always stick to commitments you make.
TTM: You’ve talked a lot about how GLO has a social mission and welcomes discussions about identity. Why is that important to you?
Naqvi: This is a topic I could talk about forever, I feel like, and yet never find a true solution to remedy any of the problems that we see. I grew up in the bubble that was Hong Kong International School. It was only when I was in middle school when I was old enough to do my own exploration to try and understand racism, sexism, and colorism. A boy in my class had asked me if I knew any terrorists since I was Pakistani; being 11 at the time, I had no idea what a terrorist was. It was from that moment when I began to do research and understand the issues that plague the world. I began to fuel my inspiration for GLO. The colorism that exists in Asia is so prevalent in the places I call home, and it’s frustrating to realize it’s often never called out. In my junior year of high school, I researched inequalities in both my homes primarily through colorism. When I realized how ingrained these values were in my community, I felt that I had a perfect platform to discuss these issues. Fashion is a medium that everyone understands to a certain extent; we felt that using graphic t’s, GLO’s original medium of expression, was the best way we could address these issues.
Our Mission at GLO is to use fashion to confront issues that oppress voices. This statement is why our empowerment campaign is important to me. With our shirts, you make a statement without making a sound. People look at the designs. They think about them. It’s a whole process that doesn’t just involve the person wearing the shirt but how it will influence the people who see it. That’s what fashion does, and that’s why I felt this was the best way to both inform and empower people.
TTM: Finally, what’s next for both you and GLO? How are you planning to use economics major as you move forward?
Naqvi: GLO has always been Sophia and I working on it together the last four years, but we want GLO to expand, influence and inspire more people through our clothing. At Columbia, we’ve expanded our team to include other incredibly talented and young individuals who share our values. We have our third empowerment campaign launching later this year, and we’re excited to give people more options to empower and inform both themselves and others around them. Studying financial economics at Columbia and being part of Lion Fund (a Columbia student-managed hedge fund) I’ve learnt analytical skills in evaluating companies and deducing their worth. I’ve applied this knowledge to GLO as we try to maximize the efficiency of our business operations while empowering others through our clothing.