"We were bonded by our journey."
A Pakistani couple escaped the small-town life to become the founders of Atoms, a New York-based footwear brand known for its quarter sizes and comfortable trainers.
Sidra Qasim and her husband Waqas Ali left their conservative families and got on the path to success, although it was not an easy journey.
In an interview with Humans of New York, Sidra explained:
“It’s the same story taught to every Pakistani girl.
“We are raised from a young age to believe that our purpose in life is to find and keep a husband.”
Sidra had bigger dreams despite being pressured to get married as soon as she finished school.
She then met Waqas at her aunt’s house in Okara, he was one of her aunt’s students.
“We’d discuss life, and society, and human emotions.
“It became the only chance I had to exchange my ideas with anyone. And Waqas took my opinions seriously.”
Sidra went to college and was one of just 15 female students there. After she successfully produced a play to help with flood relief, Waqas asked her to join him in Lahore and become his business partner.
“It finally felt as though my talents were being recognised, and the next day I asked for my parent’s permission. But they refused.”
The refusal was a massive blow for Sidra. Eventually, her parents agreed to let her move to Lahore.
She and Waqas worked together on a company called ‘Social Media Art’ which helped brands to establish a social media presence.
During their struggle, the pair grew closer. Sidra explained:
“We never discussed the status of our relationship, but both of us could feel a closeness.
“We were bonded by our journey. Both of us were defying our parents.
“But after a year of rejection, we had begun to lose hope.”
Hope arrived when they met with a group of craftsmen in the local village council of Okara. They were making leather shoes on the floor of a two-room workshop.
They kept going to the workshop and eventually, the craftsmen agreed to work with them.
“We called our collection ‘Hometown Shoes.’ And after we launched our website, the first order came in right away.
“After a year we were selling about 50 shoes per month. We were happy to have any business at all, but it wasn’t nearly enough to survive.”
The Pakistani couple then got married and began working on their application for the Y-combinator accelerator programme in San Francisco.
“The admissions process was more selective than Harvard, and they’d helped launch companies like Airbnb and Dropbox.”
They were successful and moved to the United States.
“We were the only company in our group who didn’t raise money. And to make matters even worse, it had been a formal event.
“Many of our classmates had dressed up. But none of them were wearing the shoes we had sold them.”
More research helped them to understand the market even better. They made the shift towards casual footwear.
Sidra said: “We researched the highest quality materials, and we put all of our findings into a document called ‘Ideal, Everyday Shoe’.
“Then we gave all our notes to a talented designer.
“Together we built a prototype, and we called them ‘Atoms,’ because we’d gone to the atomic level in search of quality.”
The Pakistani couple manufactured their first collection after months of research and feedback.
“By the time we were ready to launch, 45,000 people had signed up for our mailing list. On the first day of sales our website crashed.”
Their company increased to 25 workers, but they also had to experience layoffs.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Atoms expanded to making masks.
“One year later we’ve sold 500,000 of them and donated 500,000 more.”
“Our shoe business has continued to grow, and once again investors are calling on the phone.”
Sidra revealed the change her business has helped bring about, which includes her mother who now tells her students to be financially independent and learn technology.
She added: “She’s telling them all the things that I needed to hear as a little girl.
“The road was so lonely for me, and maybe I still carry some unconscious resentment.
“But my mother has apologised for not supporting me more. And consciously I have forgiven her.”