Create & Cultivate 100: Entrepreneur: Melanie Elturk

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An elegant DIY solution turned Melanie Elturk’s life and career into a platform to empower Muslim women and elevate her community as a whole.

Frustrated by the lack of stylish (not to mention comfortable) hijab options, Melanie began collecting vintage scarves to create more fashion-forward hijabs for herself. She craved a closeness with her faith that she could represent with confidence, something that the hijabs she grew up wearing as a teen in the suburbs of Michigan hadn’t offered her. Her commitment to her faith is in the fabric of her identity, and hijab is a powerful demonstration of that identity. But a girl’s gotta feel good! Melanie created her own hijab collection from vintage scarves as a way to express both her American and Muslim identities at the same time (“hijab, but make it fashion”).

Inspired by the Islamic tradition of ihsaan—doing everything with beauty and excellence—Melanie and her husband Ahmed Zedan launched Haute Hijab in 2010. At this juncture, Melanie had a career as a civil-rights attorney under her belt and her own collection of DIY hijabs, but she saw an opportunity to create something bigger than herself. She saw the opportunity to contribute to a paradigm shift, one in which hijab and “American” exist in harmony to create a more inclusive and empathetic generation.

Now, Haute hijab caters to hundreds of thousands of Muslim women worldwide. The brand releases new styles weekly, has thousands of women posting their #HHSpottedClub selfies, and recently closed its second round of funding and release. Suffice to say, everyone could learn something from Melanie’s hijab hustle.

On the Haute Hijab site, it says, “The community surrounding the brand is just as important as the hijabs we make because together, we’re creating real change.” What is the key to building such a community?

The key to building community is having something bigger than you that others can rally around. If you’re going to be the spokesperson for that bigger-than-you-thing, then you also have to be transparent as to why others should rally around you. Why should you or your brand be at the helm of steering your broader mission? I started this brand with the mission of elevating Muslim women and our community as a whole. I brought my background of civil rights and social justice from the legal world with me and put my money where my mouth is. I live, breathe, and eat hijab. You have to believe that there’s nobody out there in your space that’s more passionate about the work you do than yourself.

A lot of people get distracted by likes and followers. If you get on Instagram with the intention of amassing tons of followers, you’ll get nowhere fast. If you get on there with the intention of building a community (no matter how small), you’ll get numbers, fast.

Did you have any hesitations when you were launching Haute Hijab? How did you overcome them?

Absolutely! I’m an attorney by profession and while I’ve always loved fashion, I was nowhere near the proficiency level I needed to be at to start a fashion brand. I overcame that by quickly finding the people I needed to aid me in my mission. Our first hire back in the early days in Chicago was a fashion designer who was so incredibly talented and knowledgeable, she could’ve written the book herself.

Our next hurdle was money. Again, back in those days, this was just a lifestyle business, but even then we needed to put up capital in order to pay said fashion designer as well as fund the clothing line itself. I got creative and launched our site with vintage scarves repurposed as hijabs. I put up 30 vintage scarves every Tuesday that gave us $800-$1,000 to fund the business each week. We still have weekly Tuesday drops to this day ;)

Who was the first person you hired for your business and how much of a difference did it make?

I always play to my strengths and recognize where I’m weak and delegate out those tasks. The first hire we made was a trained fashion designer, since again, I had only worked as an attorney to this point. It made *all* the difference. She’s the reason we even had a clothing line—her extensive knowledge and talent was a game-changer and there’s no way we could have done what we did without her.

You’re in the business of making women feel more confident about themselves on a daily basis. What moments are the most rewarding for you?

Hearing personal stories from customers, for sure. Here’s an example of an email I received from a customer recently:

“To the entire haute hijab team and importantly the founder Melanie. I want to say thank you for giving me the extra courage to feel comfortable to begin wearing hijab again. The soul must find its own light and once found can be donned with courage and bravery. Thank you for providing women like me who struggled for so long to feel comfortable in hijab truly feel empowered.”

When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?

I’m all about creative problem solving, as well as positive framing. Whenever I find myself in a perceived bind, I remind myself that it’s actually an opportunity to grow, and it’s God’s way of saying, “Let me show you another way.” I truly believe that if you work hard and put in the work and truly have good intentions, you’ll find a way through any obstacle. There’s a deeper force guiding us at every turn. We even have a saying around the office when we’ve achieved the impossible: “Haute Hijab miracle.” :)

What’s the best piece of #realtalk advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t try to be something for everyone. Be everything for someone.

Whenever I find myself in a perceived bind, I remind myself that it’s actually an opportunity to grow.

Who are the first three people you think an entrepreneur should hire?

It all really depends on your own strengths and what you bring to the table, as well as the company you’re running. For my husband and I, our first hires were a combination of weaknesses in our repertoires as well as hires that took substantial work off our plates so we could focus on more heavy-lifting. Those hires were: 1) fashion designer 2) customer service associate 3) graphic designer.

Who inspired you the most in your life growing up?

My Dad, definitely. He always encouraged my entrepreneurial side, and I learned so much about business and interpersonal skills from him. Just watching him haggle at a market was so informative; he had the perfect balance between tenacity and compassion that makes one very effective. He was an engineer that broke out on his own to become a consultant and in effect call his own shots. He always pushed me to be better and recognized my strengths and encouraged me to sharpen and nurture them. He was a single Dad for many years so he had a huge impact on my upbringing during my most impressionable years.

Whose career is inspiring you today?

Sophia Amoruso. She gets a lot of heat, but it can’t be ignored that she built an incredible business and drove revenues to over $100M. She’s a fighter and even in her new role, she’s still kicking the door down and inspiring us all.

What are the common challenges you've seen among female business owners and entrepreneurs?

Raising money! Women raise money at rates alarmingly lower than men. I don’t think the issue is necessarily that women aren’t taken seriously by VCs; I think it’s more an issue of access and pattern recognition. VCs fund those with pedigrees they recognize that have had past success, and often they tend to be men with ivy league backgrounds.

What’s next for the Haute Hijab brand in 2019?

2019 is such an exciting year for us! We *just* finished raising our second round of funding so it’s going to be an incredible year of growth and evolution! We’ll be focused on rounding out different categories in hijab, hiring like crazy, moving into an HH office and out of this co-working space and hopefully planning and executing our first HH summit!!!