"The Taste Maker"
Umber Ahmad has lived many lives in one lifetime. Professional violinist at 13. Pilot at 15. Aspiring surgeon at 18. Financier. Investor. Entrepreneur. And finally, (although probably not lastly) baker.
She talks about the inspiration that set her on her path, the triumphs and despair she has encountered along the way, the moment when she realized that even $10 was more than she could afford, and how she turned a brothel into one of New York City's best bakeries.
- Umber's willingness to explore
- Her limitless passion
- Her enduring resilience
"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT
Episode 7: Umber Ahmad
Hello. You're listening to Fearless where we explore the art and science of leading creativity, an unpredictable, amorphous, and invaluable resource critical to every modern business. Each week, we talk to leaders of the world's most disruptive companies, how they're jumping into the fire, crossing the curtain and blowing up the status quo, leaders who've mastered the art of turning the impossible into the profitable, so stay tuned because in the next half hour anything could happen.
Hello and welcome to Fearless. One of the recurring things in my work is that most people have no idea of what I've come to describe as their truth, that thing that they can do that almost no one else on the planet can do. As human beings when something comes easily to us, we believe almost instinctively that it must be easy for everyone else, too, and so we minimize it. The consequence is a lot of loss and realized genius, a lot of possibilities that never get explored, a lot of ideas that never get realized. Finding your truth, the reason why you're here can be the work of a lifetime. It means trying and failing, trying and sometimes succeeding only to have an outside force intervene, trying and sometimes never finding out if you could do it. And, if you're resilient enough, it means trying again until you find your truth and then create that set of circumstances into which it can come to life.
Umber Ahmad has lived all of that journey. Along the way, she's been a concert-level violinist, a pilot, an aspiring surgeon, a financier of other people's dreams, an entrepreneur and a baker. Her story is one of exploring relentlessly her own possibilities of trying and failing, of life-changing accidents, of being so poor that even $10 was beyond her. It's also a story of love and hope, of dreams and success, of tolerance and of perseverance. At the end of that journey is the best bakery I know and one of the very best people I've ever met. I hope you enjoy this conversation half as much as I enjoy her food.
Charles: I'm joined today by Umber Ahmad of Mah Ze Dahr Bakery. Umber, welcome.
Umber Ahmad: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Charles: Very nice to have you here. You have, I think, an extraordinary story.
Umber Ahmad: Thank you.
Charles: An extraordinary personal story. You have done a lot of very, very different things in your life before deciding to become a baker and own a bakery here in Manhattan. Tell us a little bit about your journey before you decided to take this step.
Umber Ahmad: Okay. Well, I will start with the fact that my family is from Pakistan. My parents immigrated to United States. My father was a professor at Harvard Medical School, went back and married my mom. They lived in Pakistan for a little while, had my sister and decided that the opportunity set for a girl was much greater outside of Pakistan than inside. It was with much regret and sadness that they decided to leave because they believed very much in their homeland. They left their families. They left everything they knew to be true to come to the States and create a life for themselves and for their family. Shortly thereafter, about a year and a half later, I was born in Northern Michigan.
My father and his friends in the '70s, it's something very progressive, they did a market study in the US as to where there were not a lot of ophthalmologists and there was a part of the state of Michigan at the upper peninsula, so we're the only state in America ... You can actually use our hands to show the geography of the state which is I know kind of nerdy and awful. The right hand, if you have your palm facing towards you, is the lower peninsula and your left hand with the palm facing towards you is the upper peninsula with a thumb facing upward. I am basically from the crook of the left hand between the thumb and the index finger.
Charles: What a fantastic description.
Umber Ahmad: Yeah, isn't that interesting?
Charles: It actually works on a podcast.
Umber Ahmad: It does even work on a podcast, yes.
Charles: It's fantastic.
Umber Ahmad: It's a great visual, even an oral visual. It's on the border of Lake Superior. It's a city called Marquette, Michigan. We were closer to Canada than we were to anybody else. A lot of people assumed, if you look at the old maps, we were either in Canada or in Wisconsin, but we were in fact part of Michigan. It was a part of the country that was largely populated by immigrants from the Scandinavian countries so Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and there were a lot of Polish people as well, and then us, the Pakistani family. There was one Indian family and one Chinese family. Everyone was blond. Everyone was Protestant and Catholic, and we were dark haired, dark eyed Muslim kids.
Needless to say, we were very different than everyone else but, at the same time, we never really felt that we were that different until we got a little bit older. And, having grown up in a very homogenous environment that we were very much the outliers of was very important to my family that we understand that we were, for a lack of a better term, global citizens. That while we live there and we created a community there, we didn't necessarily belong there. Every year for the summer we would travel to Pakistan for two months, and then we would spend a month in a different country. We would live in France, or Denmark, or Sweden, or Finland, or the UK, so many different places and my family would just discover.
My parents did a really incredible thing, two incredible things. The first one is is they taught us to learn ... They forced us to learn a number of languages, and we ultimately realized it was so that they could have translators. And, then the other thing they did is the first night in any new country, we would find a local restaurant. It would be where all of the gate minders, and shopkeepers and taxi drivers would eat, very rarely in a language we could understand so there's a lot of hand motions and making of animal sounds to ensure that we got what we wanted and didn't have what we couldn't have.
The first bite of food, we would take it and my mom would make us close our eyes. We'd sit there with our eyes closed and she would say, "Give it a second and tell me what you taste." I would say, "I taste cinnamon." She's like, "Okay. Where do you remember cinnamon from?" I'd say, "I remembered from the oatmeal that we have at home in Michigan." She says, "Okay. You're eating bastilla, which is a Moroccan dish of chicken, and eggs, and almonds, and phyllo and cinnamon."
Then we'd be in Sweden and we'd have breakfast, and there would be a bread that had saffron on it. "What does that remind you of?" She would say. I'd say, "Oh, that reminds me of Spain because that's in the rice." She said, "Right." In Mexico, you'd have chicken and have mole. She says, "What is that?" I was like, "That's Switzerland. That's chocolate." Very quickly for us food became a language, and it became a way for us to identify the commonalities and the connections between different people.
We understood at a very young age that we were all the same ingredients just mixed together in different ways and to find a way to bond with another human being what the first thing you do is like what do you taste like? What about you taste like me and what about me taste like you? How can I create that very intimate connection that doesn't mean we're the same but that means we have an opportunity to grow together? That's how I grew up and that's how I used to think about things. Every time I would meet someone or do something, it was like, "What does it taste like? What is the flavor and how can I put my own essence into this thing?"
Charles: This was creativity in a very visceral, tangible way for you growing up they were really bringing.
Umber Ahmad: It really was and it forced us to go beyond the confines and the constraints of what you would say just a traditional understand of something. I credit my family for that 100%. In growing up in that way, there was that creative run with it. Be free and wild. Then the flip side of it was we were first generation family from another country, and we were going to work three times as hard as anyone else because that's one was expected to do. We studied an incredible amount.
I was also a violin player so the age of three I started playing the violin. My mom had read all these studies how the Suzuki method of learning the violin in Japan increased the likelihood of one's children to excel in math and science because of the eye-hand coordination, and the listening, and the recreating of something that you take in, so we started playing violin. I was three. My sister was six and a half. My mom used to pop me on top of the table and away I would go.
When I was 13, I became a professional violinist, and it was something that also became another language for me. This was one of the things that I started to really appreciate, which was we have so many different ways to communicate. If one doesn't work, try something else. Music for me was a really wonderful opportunity to escape from everything else. I was not blond. I was not cute. I was not a cheerleader. I didn't celebrate Christmas. I couldn't eat the hotdogs at school, so there were plenty of things that made me seem like the weirdest kid on the planet but music just felt normal and natural, so I really enjoyed that. My sister also played so that was something also where we were connected which was lovely, and it was just something that felt like ... It felt like home I guess is the best way to describe it.
As I continue to grow up and study, my father was a big influence on me as I think many fathers are and in a very positive way. It was things as simple as being a pilot. My father is a surgeon but he was also a pilot and so, as a child, we would fly in places every weekend. My mom would say, "I feel like bread." There was this bakery in Chicago and I'm wishing I could remember the name of it that my mom love the baguette from that bakery. We would fly into Meigs Field in Chicago and we'd go get bread. We turn around and we'd come back. Very quickly I wanted to do that with my dad, so I became a pilot before I'd had the ability to drive. I could fly a plane but I couldn't drive a car.
Charles: How old were you when you first started flying?
Umber Ahmad: I think I was 13. I got my license when I was 15.
Charles: Literally at the controls of the plane.
Umber Ahmad: Yeah. It's one of those things where I think if you think about it now you think it's the most absurd thing on the planet. But, if you really think about it, flying for me actually governed a lot of the way in which I look at things, especially as an entrepreneur, because one of the things that I struggled with at the very beginning ...
I was taught to fly by a former fighter pilot and I would always be looking down. I would always be looking at my controls, looking at my controls. I'd always want to look and I'd want reassurance from all the gauges and I want to know, "Is it flying right? Is it flying right?" Then, in the beginning of training, what they call is they hood you. What they do is they put this helmet thing on you which basically it doesn't allow you to see out onto the horizon. It only allows you to see your controls. Then the instructor will say, "Close your eyes." You have a hood on. "Close your eyes. Take your hands off the control. Take your feet off the pedals." You basically sit back and you have no control. You feel the instructor taking you up and taking you down, all of this movement essentially to disorient you.
Then what they do is they say ... The instructor says, "Okay. Now, open your eyes. Don't look at the controls. Don't unhood yourself. Don't look at the horizon but all I want you to is, based on your internal instinct, I want you to try to steady the plane. I want you to fly straight and narrow." I was like, "Okay." You steady yourself and you got everything right. He's like, "Are you sure you're flying straight?" "Yes." "Are you sure we're not in a decline or in ascension?" "Nope, we're fine." He said, "I want you to look up." First you look up outside and you realize that you're pitch down going maybe at a 45 degree angle, and you're almost about to hit the ground. What that teaches you is that you can't always trust your instinct based just on external movement.
Then they'd do another exercise where you're just looking at the controls but he messes with the controls and so you look and you think you're flying straight based on the gauges and then you look up and you realize based on the horizon that you're in fact actually going in a different direction. All of those exercises for me were really a great way to understand that you have to always keep your eyes on the horizon. Never take your eyes off the horizon. You look, you continue to look. Keep your eye on what your ultimate objective is. What is your destination? Use everything else as components to feed and then form those minor changes that you'll make on the maximum direction. I think that was also very helpful. My father was the one who taught me that.
I think in all of that movement around understanding what my father does and the way in which he lived his life ... And, because we were this little microcosm in a larger world, it was the four of us, so my religion was taught by family. Our holidays were celebrated the four of us. So much of it was my family. It's felt very natural that I wanted to follow in my father's foot steps. I first thought I really wanted to be a violinist, a professional violinist, and I wanted to continue to do that. When I was in high school, I spent part of the summer in Austria to actually starting to perform, and starting to tour, and starting to do a lot more soloist work. There was an unfortunate moment in one day where I had an accident that crushed my thumb. You look at it now and you think ... You look back and say, "It was meant to be and it's just a moment in time." But, at that very moment in my life, I thought my entire existence had ended and nothing would ever be the same.
Charles: It stopped you playing entirely?
Umber Ahmad: It stopped me playing entirely because I don't have the full range of motion anymore so I can't open up my left hand the same way that I could with my right hand. In playing the violin, I can't get past third position, so I had to stop playing. Then I came back and went to school. I thought, "Okay. Well, if I can't be a violinist, I'm going to be a surgeon." Then I went to MIT and I studied genetic engineering. That was a really interesting moment in time for me because I had very gratefully a lot of support growing up.
I wasn't of a generation where everyone is a unique and special snowflake. It wasn't one of those where you're like, "You're all special. You're so beautiful and doesn't care if you threw up on the floor. It's perfect. It looks like a Picasso." You won or you lost. You were ranked and you had a position and all of these other things so I never was of the delusional variety that I was this perfect, wonderful human being, but I did really well. I excelled. I skipped a grade. I never really failed at anything. Everything came very naturally.
I went to MIT and I showed up and I thought I was one of the younger ones because I was 16 and there were 13 year olds in my class. It's one of those where we're all sitting in an auditorium. They say, "Everybody who's a valedictorian of their class, please stand." 90% of the kids stand. "Everybody who scored a perfect score in your SATs, please stand." 80% of the people stand. They continue to go through this. "Everybody who has a Westinghouse Scholarship, please stand." Eventually at some point you're not standing. Eventually at some point you watch people around you and everything like that.
Then they say, "The last thing we ask you to do is everybody look to your left and look to your right. At the end of these four years, both of those people aren't going to be here. And, the reason why we're telling you this and the reason why we had all of you stand and sit and stand and sit is just to remind you that you are no longer special. That this is no longer the world in which you rise to the top. This is the cream and then from the cream you will have an opportunity to distinguish yourself. We are going to break you down and we make you in our own image." I remember thinking, "Well, that's ridiculous. I'll get the fuck out of here." Then I thought, "Well, that's absurd. I never had a challenge like that. I'm sure I'll be fine. I'm going to be the special, unique snowflake here. The left and the right will be gone but me. I'm the one who's going to end up staying."
My first semester I failed physics, completely failed physics. I remember because I had a Chinese instructor who stood up in front of the class, spoke not a word of English, was ambidextrous and would take a piece of chalk in both hands and start writing formulas, would start from the middle of a formula and work his way out on both hands. I didn't even understand what's going on. I remember turning to the person to the left of me and I said, "I don't know what that zero is." It was the originating position of velocity so it's v nought. It's V with a subzero. He goes, "That's a naught." I said, "It's not what?" He looked at me and he's like, "You're screwed." I failed physics and it was truthfully the first thing I'd ever failed in my life, and I think it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
It's from one of those things that I continuously take through my life with me. If you're going to fail, fail fast because then you figure out how to get through it so I did. I got through it and I was one of the ones left very gratefully. At the end of that, I wasn't sure I really still wanted to go to medical school. For me, I was doing a lot of basic science research, and I think what MIT taught me was a rigorous analytical approach and how to evaluate a situation based on a limited amount of information, create a game plan, make a decision and move forward.
In doing that, I was working on the Huntington's gene which was discovered and sequenced while I was working in the labs. After that, I thought to myself, "God, it took so long and we don't even know what we're going to do with it. We don't even know how we're going to help anybody with it other than being able to say, 'Hey, you have an 85% likelihood that you're going to have Huntington's disease.'" Which is basically like hand them a gun thereafter and let them kill themselves. I thought, "Well, I don't know if I want to commit to doing medicine."
My dad said, "Listen, you've got a ... " I had grant from the NIH to do research as a way to replicate human cells, so all your cells are exactly the same, and then they get messages and signals to become something else. Some of your cells get message signals to become skin, or hair, or blood, or cartilage, or whatever it is, but a lot of your body doesn't regenerate itself so it doesn't resend the signal. An example of something that does is skin. If you see people who are burnt, they do a skin graft which they take some skin from elsewhere, put it down onto the burnt area which basically gives the signals and teaches the rest of the new cells to become skin, similarly with other parts of the body. Things that don't regenerate. Nerves don't regenerate and your eyes don't regenerate.
I was doing research on how to create artificial corneas by teaching themselves to become corneal tissue because at the time there was AIDS epidemic in the world, and so 90% of all donor tissue that was coming into the United States was HIV positive. All of a sudden, there was this huge push to have more people come forward, find alternative sources of tissue but also encourage people to donate their organs. It's this big thing. Michael Jordan. You remember this on the Chicago days. Michael Jordan was one of the biggest proponents of sign the back of your license and make sure you donate your organs.
While I figured, "All right. Well, I still have two years left on the grant," the grant got transferred to the University of Michigan, so I went with the grant to UFM, continued to do my research and got a master's in international health policy in epidemiology because I thought, "Let me share how to apply what I know how to do." Then that opened up a whole world of opportunity which was here's a chance for me to actually take the medical and the science background and research and apply it to helping people more immediately.
My father always jokes and says, "I'm part of the microwave generation." I want everything done in 30 seconds. It has to pop in the box. If it doesn't pop it in the box, I don't want it. I said, "Let's pop in the box and let's figure out how we can actually implement healthcare." I worked as a healthcare consultant and I spend a lot of time learning and understanding that you have this pot of money. You have this set of people. This pot of money needs to take care of the set of people. More often than not, that pot of money was very small and that set of people was very large. I was constantly challenged with how do I execute on an operational level a healthcare system that needs a much larger pot of money? The more that I did that, the more frustrated I became, the more I knew that I had to understand and have control over that pot of money.
I went back to Wharton and received my MBA in finance and decided I'd go to the end of that rainbow where that pot of money actually lives and I went to work on Wall Street. I was an M&A at Morgan Stanley, and then I worked in a private equity with Goldman Sachs because I kept following the pot and kept following, kept following, kept following. It turns out all the leprechauns, they live in private equity firms, and I wanted to really have the opportunity and ability to change people through financial allocation and that was really my goal.
I had an opportunity to be seeded by a former Goldman partner to start my own firm. She saw that I was continuously frustrated by this. She says, "Well, then go. Go make these financial decisions. Go make these investment decisions." I was like, "Perfect. That sounds great."
At the end of 2007, I leave with a very good friend of mine who was a banker at Merrill Lynch, and he and I were in business school together. I said, "Listen, I know we've been planning to do this. We're about five years ahead of schedule. I know we don't have everything lined up yet but we have money and we have an opportunity." 2007, it was actually a very good year. We said, "Okay. We're going to leave." We leave. We were just puppies, literally puppies. We still have the scent of mom's milk on our breaths. We're like, "Fine." We decide to go out. We're very excited. We go and we raise capital.
The first thing we just have to do is to buy an airline because my friend Michael who became my business partner, his background was in aviation banking and transportation, and I come from a family of pilots. My father and his friends started an airline when I was a kid that was ultimately acquired by Northwest, which is ultimately acquired by Delta. I knew, I thought I knew, exactly how airlines are meant to operate. Very truthfully, airlines along with a lot of other institutions and organizations in this country need not be publicly available. They should be privately held. To be a public company means you'll need access to the capital markets. To be a public company also means you have a three month runway to perform. You don't get long-term opportunity. Airlines need long-term opportunities. We made a bid and a play to take a regional carrier private.
That was right at the end of 2007 and we're like, "Great. Now, we just need to get our debt financing in line. Everything will be totally fine." Well, 2008 happens and the lending windows closed and Bear Stearns goes away and everything else implodes. We realize we can't do what we're going to do, so we figured that we have to pivot and we start to work on advisory work.
We ultimately decided that the area that I wanted to focus on was different than the area that Michael wanted to focus on, so I went and joined another group of people that continued to work on the financial allocation, the servicing of people and all those components and ultimately I split off with another individual, and we founded a firm called Specialized Capital Management. Essentially, what we do is we look at companies, and organizations, and brands, and people and say, "Where are you now? Where do you want to be? What is your ultimate objective and how do we help you get there?" There's a financial component to it. There's a personal component to it. There's a strategic component, a geographic component and we start working with them in that way.
I naturally gravitate towards transportation, and aerospace, and defense and luxury. I did that more because a lot of our clients were coming from the Middle East, and they care about a handful of things. They care about food. They care about protection and they care about luxury and very often those three things are intertwined in some way. I started working on setting up hydroponic farms in Saudi Arabia, helping luxury brands increase their presence in the Middle East. There were lots of different random, I'd say random, a lot of different interesting complementary pieces.
Through that, one of our clients was a very well-known chef and restaurateur here in New York City who wanted to expand his business overseas. His name is Tom Colicchio. He owns a number of restaurants. He's also the creator and head judge of Top Chef, which is a food competition show on Bravo. We started to work together and I made a cake for a mutual friend's husband. Unbeknownst to me, he was also friends with Tom. I say I made this cake and I say I made it randomly but the cake was something that I continued to do from my childhood because I was always like, "Let me tell you what I taste like. Let me share something about me with you."
I think there's nothing more intimate, and more personal, and more soulful than putting food that you've created with your own hands into the body of someone else. Now, you're connected with them but they change what they do. They alter the course of their decision-making because of what you've done for them, and I think that's just the most incredible honor that you have for someone. It's something that I always continued to do.
It's also a stress reliever. I like to bake, beat some dough, cut some chocolate. It's awesome and it was also just again another reminder of the hospitality and the graciousness of my family which is you feed people. You're always working towards that. That's what we get up everyday to do. We get up so that we can feed our families and we can create sustenance. I just baked because I love to do it.
I have this cake. It was enjoyed. I was very grateful for that. Fred says to Tom, "I had this amazing cake for my birthday." Tom said, "Where did you get it from?" He said, "Our friend Umber made it." Then Tom was like, "Well, how many Umbers could there be in the world, right?" Come on. It's like me Oprah, Cher. I always say that but seriously don't mean it. There's Umber. He comes in the next day to a meeting and says, "I heard you make cake." I said, "Okay." He goes, "I heard it's really good." I said, "Okay." He said, "I want to try your cake."
For those of you that don't know Tom Colicchio, he's a very serious chef. He's very stern. He makes people cry on TV about their food. Look, I'm an emotional cutter as much as the next girl, but I'm not that much that deep into it so I say, "No, it's fine. You food, me finance and never the twain shall meet. Let's stay on these sides of the table." He goes, "No, I really want to try it. I heard it's really good." I said, "It's great." He said, "Well, no one ever really cooks for me. Everyone is afraid to do it." I was like, "Challenge accepted." I spent the next three days making everything I knew how to make for him. I don't know why but I just did. I started making scones, and shortbread, and cakes, and cheesecakes, and biscuits, and literally everything that I could think to make for him.
The first day I showed up with three or four things. He takes a few bites. He pushes it aside, says nothing about it and then we start to have a conversation about the business. The next day ... Why I suspended my disbelief? I showed up again with more food and then the third day I showed up with food, he took a couple of bites. He looked at me and he said, "What do you want to do with this?" I thought, "Does he want me to throw it away? Does he want me to put it back in my purse? Shall I look for his assistant?" I honestly don't know what to do. I was like, "Ah, give me two minutes. I'm going to go get the garbage can." He's like, "What?" I said, "What do you want me to do with this food?" He goes, "No, what do you want to do with this?" He said, "It's incredible." I said, "Oh, thank you." He says, "What do you want?"
I looked at him and in that very moment all I said to him ... I don't think I had really thought about it so much but I said, "I want to do for myself what I have done again and again and again for other people. I want to create the next great heritage brand. I want to create an opportunity for the world to come together. I want there to be a legacy around who I am as a person, who my family is and I want to do it for this pastry." He looked at me and he said, "Let's do it together." I said, "Okay." I walked out and I was like, "The fuck am I talking about? Who the hell is going to make pastry? I'm a finance person with a science background. I also play the violin and fly a plane. Am I an idiot? That's ridiculous." Then I stopped and I thought, "Okay. Well, I said it. I got the headshot. I put the title on it. I guess I have to do it."
It started. It started really more as an experimentation because what I really wanted to do was not create yet another bakery or yet another restaurant because what happens very often in food businesses is people have a really incredible product. They're like, "I have a great product. I'm going to spend a lot of money. I'm going to build a store and I'm going to stand here with a tray and hope somebody shows up." Well, that's pretty much a recipe for ruin. I said, "What I'm going to do is I'm going to become my own client and I'm going to ask myself what I ask my clients which is what is your objective? Where do you see yourself? Ultimately what is it that you want to achieve?" Then once you've identified that, you work your way back.
Charles: That's a really hard thing to do from within.
Umber Ahmad: It is.
Charles: I mean, to stop and make yourself ... Even to ask yourself those questions is tough but to answer them is really ... How did you make sure you were being honest with yourself?
Umber Ahmad: I wrote it down. I didn't allow myself to have the intellectual gymnastics around, "I didn't really say that. I didn't really mean it." I physically wrote it down and I committed to it. I think that that's something that's really important. I don't know if this is the right thing or the wrong thing to do is I didn't involve anyone else. I wasn't sure that I was capable of sifting through the noise around somebody. Do they believe in me? Were they really looking out for me? Were they afraid for me? Were they going to want the idea for themselves versus what did I really truthfully want and believe in? I thought, "If I could come to resolution internally about it, then I could create the right story and structure around that and then I can get the buy in and then go and say, 'Poke holes in this. Tell me why it's not going to work. Shoot this down for me. I need you to do that for me.'" Initially I was just like, "What is it that I want to do?"
Because I had done that with such great frequency with my clients, it was relatively easy exercise. The answers, however, were very difficult and then the committing to them was also really tough. I think that's the challenge of being an entrepreneur. People often ask like, "Oh, my gosh. You don't come from a family of entrepreneurs. You came from a family of these professionals." I think to myself, "That's true but the more I think about it the more I realize that my parents were the ultimate entrepreneurs." They left their country and they left everything that that they held as the known and they said, "We're going to venture in to the unknown because we have the promise and the possibility of what if." I think that's really what your life is about is a promise and possibility of what if, but then you create a structure around that to have what the outcome is that is meant to be your legacy.
Charles: Like you said, they were true explorers in every sense of the word.
Umber Ahmad: They were. They were and this is pre-internet, and pre-Skype, and pre-FaceTime, and pre-everything else. It was literally lick it, put a stamp on it and hope it gets there. That was a really great role model of a structure that I live by.
I thought, "Okay. If my objective is to create the next great luxury heritage brand, and it is going to take the form of this pastry, and I ultimately want it to be sold," not in a bad because I think that there are a founder CEOs and there are forever CEOs. This is a phrase that actually we heard at a conference recently that Vanity Fair hosted about female founders. There was one woman in particular who said she had to ask herself if she was going to be the founder CEO or the forever CEO. I thought to myself, "I'd ask myself that same question not so eloquently and not so easily but I want to be the founder CEO."
This is something that was one of the first things you ever said to me when I ... I think I whispered to you that I wanted to start this bakery. I couldn't even get my own internal voice around it. I would have to say quietly, very surreptitiously like, "Hey, I'm making pot brownies." Not really. Although by the way maybe not for this podcast but I have looked into edibles and it's a huge market. It's incredible. Anyway, we do make great brownies but that's a different story is this idea that I knew that I had to create my own obsolescence and that was something that you had said to me. You and Chris both said that this brand, and this business, and this entrepreneurship, it should represent you in so many ways but it should not be beholden to you nor you to it and nor is it something that you will live and die by.
That's something that I think differentiates what we do from a lot of food businesses because, for better or worse, most food businesses live and die by the hands of the chef. To create an opportunity where it has longevity meant I had to do something that could be put out into the world without me, ultimately without me. I think it still has to have me but, at some point, it won't.
Charles: Yeah. It's a fine balance, isn't it? Because I think you need the ego to start a business.
Umber Ahmad: Yes, you do.
Charles: But then, in order to grow it past a certain point, you need to put that ego aside and, as you said, design your own obsolescence. Make yourself irrelevant. The ability to step out and say, "It can't be about me," is actually going to be sustainably successful. It's a very difficult thing for most people to do but I think essential.
Umber Ahmad: I think it is essential. I think the challenge that I have with it though is that consumers now are much more savvy, and they're much more in tuned and aware of authenticity. I think that there is a level of authenticity that exist when you have a human attached to a brand because those decisions, and the displays, and the movement around something is much more ... It's instinctual if there's an actual person behind it, and so I want that to still exist, and then be able to create it such that it can propagate without me. We're very young still so I think that we have opportunity to grow in that way. But, knowing that and knowing that there was going to be a brand and there was going to be something long after I was no longer involved and I'm the founder CEO not the forever CEO ... Although I don't think I ever call myself the CEO. I think this might be the first time. Look at this on this podcast. You guys heard it here first. People ask me, "What do you do?" I was like, "What don't I do?" That's an easier question.
Charles: You had a very innovative way of ... Once you decided you were going to do this, you have a very innovative way of actually establishing the business as a real economic concern. It would have been natural and easy to just decide, "I'm going to wait until I have a physical space. It's a bakery. It should have a building." You could easily have done what I think most people would have done in our situation. I'm going to wait until it can be physical and have a street presence before I do anything. But, you in fact went exactly the opposite way.
Umber Ahmad: I went the opposite way because I was building a brand. People say, "Oh, you were not a banker anymore. You left banking to become a baker." I was like, "Well, actually I didn't because I'm still a banker. It turns out that I also bake but what I'm doing ... " People was like, "Oh, you built a bakery." I was like, "I built and building a great luxury brand. It happens to take the form of pastry. It could take the form of socks, or jewelry, or something else because I'm building a mindset, and a lifestyle, and a connectivity." To do that, you don't need a physical space, but what you do need is to figure out if people are going to care. Because I knew my objective was long-term, I looked at it and said, "Let's figure out if anybody wants to eat this." It's great that Tom likes it and my friends like it, but is there an actual market for it?
It's a very crowded market. It's a low margin business. How do I create an opportunity and a niche for myself whereby when I do spend an obscene amount of money to build the space, it won't just be that I'm standing there with a pan of brownies. But, it will be that people, "Thank goodness you're finally open. We're so excited you're here." We become a destination and people want to be around us so I started online. I was like, "Let's go and figure out if anybody want to buy this." I created a website and started telling all of my friends about it, started working with some of my friends at Goldman and saying, "Okay. Let's send this to your clients. Let's do some gifting. Let's get people excited about what we do."
Having Tom Colicchio's name attached to the concept was a very good one because he has a level of credibility around food that I certainly didn't have. Then also the opportunity to figure out where our clients were. What were they spending? What do they care about? What did they buy? What didn't they buy? I could do a lot of recipe testing with them. I could send samples of things and see if the next time they purchase they would buy again. We have over 50% reorder rate online, so for me it was less about client retention and actual client acquisition. How do I go and get those clients outside of having a physical space? Well, who else do I like? What other brands do I like? I like those people. Those people will shop there. Let me see if I can partner with those people. I started finding the right wholesale relationships and finding the right brand ambassadors on my behalf.
Intelligentsia Coffee, which is coffee roaster based out of Chicago and LA, was coming into the city. I had an opportunity to meet with one of their chief marketing people and I became ... Who's the nanny that was played by Julie Andrews? Mary Poppins.
Umber Ahmad: I became like Mary Poppins. I'd always have this bag with me, and I'd pull out all this food. I went from being an M&A banker where I was like a slash and burn person to actually having food. It's so weird. I'd always pass these things out and I brought it to him and he said, "Oh, we're actually coming to New York from LA." I said, "Great. I'd love to work with you." We started providing pastry to all of their cafés. Then we started working with a couple of other people, and I got Tom to put our pastries in one of his restaurants. All of a sudden, the same people that I want to be my customers were in these other places and started to get to know who we were. That continued to grow and expand.
We started working with JetBlue. They had introduced Mint service which is their premium class ... I say first class service. You're not allowed to say that at JetBlue but it's the first class service. We produce a box of pastry for each one of their passengers. We did that for two and a half years. It went from 30 passengers a month to 21,500 passengers a month up until the end of our relationship with them. Again, it was an opportunity to get in front of other people.
As soon as I knew that this brand have traction and that we were getting people to come back and we're being excited, I started to try to leverage my media relationships more. Being written about the right way, being talked about the right way, photographs in the right places. Then it was like, now, it's time to build a space. Now, it's time to build a home where people will be excited, and there's also a physical manifestation of everything that we've had online, so we started-
Charles: How did you ... Before you built the space, how were you actually servicing JetBlue and servicing 21,500 passengers a month? Where did you make this stuff?
Umber Ahmad: I started in my apartment actually, not the 21,000 passengers. When I first started, it was in my apartment, and I was deathly afraid that I was going to get kicked out of my apartment. Something was going to happen. But, I started at my apartment, a one bedroom apartment in New York City, and I had created five email addresses so you could email support. You could email admin. You could email Umber. There's all these different things. I created two different phone numbers. All these things set to create the illusion, for better or worse, of a larger business. I think this is both the great thing and the hazard of the internet is you don't really know what's going on. I didn't want to catfish anybody but, at the same time, I did want people to understand this business is more than just, "Oh, there's this girl who's got this apron and she's got a pan of brownies."
I started there and started to gain traction, started to get too big, too big for me to do everything because I was buying. I was baking. I was doing all the ordering. I was also doing all the deliveries. We have my friends go and steal those big blue IKEA totes from IKEA because I was totally ... I had no money left. I had put all the money into the business and into all these other things, and so everything that I needed to do I had to do as economically as possible. I used to sit in the subway with these big IKEA totes between my feet and all these things and do everything myself.
As I started growing, I called Tom and I ... "Listen, I need space in a kitchen." He's like, "All right. We'll make space for you in one of our commissaries." I went into the commissary and I started doing larger production but I was still by myself. One of the chefs that was working in the commissaries, the head of Tom's Witchcraft restaurants said to me one day, he said, "I watch you everyday and you're like a chicken with your head cut off. You have so much work." He said, "You should hire somebody." I think that's the most difficult thing is to bring on your first hire because no one will ever love your children as much as you do. No one will ever understand it the way you do. No one will ever commit to your business or your life the way that you are because this is you.
Everybody else say to you, especially when you're fundraising, "Oh, it's not personal. It's just business." I was like, "It's personal to me. It's personal because this is my whole life that I have committed to and dedicated myself to and you know me so fuck off if you think you're not going to give me any money." Anyway, separate conversation.
He said, "You should meet this woman. She's great. She's very talented. She's French trained. She's been in these incredible restaurants. They've all got Michelin stars with her." I said, "That's great." "Her name is Shelly." I was like, "Okay." She showed up one day. I was like, "Who's this?" She said, "Mike said that you might be interested and have me work with you." I was like, "Mike's wrong but it's nice to meet you." She goes away. She comes back a couple of days later and she's, "I just wanted to talk with you. What are you doing? This is interesting. Oh, that's nice." Okay. Fine. We talked for a couple of minutes and then she went away. The next day she showed up in an apron, and I was like, "Okay." I was so tired and just exhausted. I had so much work and I said, "Okay. Can you follow this recipe?" She said, "Yeah." She started doing something and I'm watching her like a hawk. Then I would give her another recipe and this went on for probably about a month. We didn't have any conversation of us working together. There's no compensation on whatsoever.
Then I remember one day we were both making scones and I turned and looked at her and I said, "Are we doing this?" She looked at me and she says, "We've been doing this." I said, "Okay." It turns out this woman Shelly was at the time Mike, the chef's girlfriend, ultimately fiance and now wife. Shelly was my first hire. She joined me about two and a half years ago. She's now my executive pastry chef and she's a partner in the business. She loves this child as much as I do which is one of the things that I feel very grateful about but in a different way. From there, we continued to hire and continued to grow. We had some very fortuitous and very gratefully wonderful press that popped our business and expanded our business in ways.
We ultimately outgrew Tom's kitchen and had to move into a commissary kitchen up in Harlem, in Spanish Harlem. We had a month and a half where the commissary kitchen wasn't ready and Tom needed his space back so we baked out of the basement of a bar up in the Upper West Side. We were so grateful to have the opportunity to continue our work but it was so janky that after a while I was like, "Why do our brownies smell like falafel?" It's terrible because they're fine falafel and we're trying to make brownies. Anyway, all that being said, we said, "We're moving more into the Middle Eastern pastries," we kept telling people. It's fine.
We're up in Spanish Harlem while we were building our kitchen. We spent about a year looking for space, and I had what everybody said was this unicorn vision which, as I said, "I need enough space that I can have a retail operation and my commissary kitchen in the same place." I didn't want to have a commissary out somewhere else. We'd be trucking food and not have quality control. I want to be in the West Village because having been online and having been delivering pastries for two years at that point, I knew where my customers were. I knew what kind of people wanted my food and I knew that they don't travel. Where was the right place for us to be? I said, "I needed to be able to afford it." That was going to be the tough thing.
We see all these places and all these kitchens and everybody wanted lots of money so I said, "Okay. Show me a space that's not a kitchen. I'll build a kitchen. How hard can that be?" Famous last words. I said, "All right. Let's go and look." We finally saw this space on Greenwich Avenue. It was a former nail salon. It was like manicures, and pedicures, and things like that. We walk in and it's a dump. It's got the spiral staircase with this weird wrought iron handle. It's got a fish tank in the window. The ceiling is so low that I swear it was literally just for hobbits. It was just awful and it had weird linoleum and it was just so terrible.
They had a full basement and I remember looking at the space and I remember standing in the front and seeing that there was a window all the way in the back of the space. I said, "What's back there?" They said, "It's a courtyard. It's for the residence but it's a courtyard." I thought, "Well, this is the first time I've seen window light all the way through a space. I think that's a good thing." Then I walked outside and I heard this laughter, that din of children playing, that screaming, and laughing, and playing, and then there's balls and the sound of the metal of the swings going back and forth. I looked to my left and there was an elementary school right there and I was like, "Perfect." I was told the rent and it was much more reasonable than I expected. My first question of course is what's wrong with this place? I'm like, "No, no. It's good. It's fine." I was like, "U-huh."
Knowing that I have to build a kitchen, I was like, "Okay, let's go downstairs and see the basement. The basement was tons of tiny little rooms and very dark and everything. I look at each room and each room had a bed. Each room had a shower. Each room had red lights and stuff. I was like, "This is kind of strange." All of a sudden, I was like, "Nobody touch anything. I think this was a brothel." Everybody starts laughing except for the real estate agent. He looks at me very nervously. He's like, "How did you know?" I was like, "How did I know? Are you kidding me? Why does every room have a shower and a bed?" I was like, "Please, nobody touch anything. We don't know what's going on in here." We laughed about it but it had a really good energy it. Probably everybody left happy, I guess. I don't know.
Then it was like, well, this ticks all the boxes outside of the fact that we don't really know what's wrong with it but we can figure that out. I've been in worst positions before. I've had brownies smell like falafel. It'll be fine. We signed the lease. Two days after we signed the lease we had the whole team, the construction team, architects, everybody standing in the space. It had been completely cleared out, dirty outlines of pedicure chairs were sitting. We drained the fish tank but that was it.
Everything else was still in place and there's this super loud knock on the door, kind of frantic. It's about 6:30. I unlocked the door. It's a glass door. You can see inside and I was like, "Can I help you?" The man was like, "Are you open?" I leaned back so he can see that in fact this entire place has been vacant. I said, "For what?" He looks at me and he gives me the up, down and he says, "You'll do." All of a sudden, I'm remembering that this was at one time ... I joked about it being a brothel but I think it was in fact a brothel. I'm completely horrified. Then there's a moment of, "Thank you so much. That's so sweet." I was like, "I'm a little flattered." But I was like, "No, prostitution is bad. Get out." It was verified that in fact there was a lot of other activity.
Charles: Good heavens.
Umber Ahmad: Which is how a manicure, pedicure place could actually exist in the West Village, and then still be in the process of trying to do something yet again that I had never done before.
Charles: Is that even the title of your autobiography, do you think? You'll Do.
Umber Ahmad: You'll Do. I think so. That's good. Now that I think about it, I think that'll be fun. It was just this whole process of having to build something or having to create something in a world that I had never been in before that, for better or worse, existed long before I came along and had a very specific way of operating, which was largely through kickbacks, and bribes, and very unsavory people actually building these spaces. The restaurant business and the food business in New York City can operate in one of two ways. It can operate as completely legitimate, by the book with code or it can operate basically in the shadows, and I decided to be the former and not the latter which ultimately caused an immense amount of pain, an immense amount of expense, an immense amount of time, so we were told that we had to hire these people called expediters.
In Pakistan, everybody has a number so there's like Mr. 10%, Mr. 20%, Mr. 30%. It's like what are you? I'm Mr. 10% which means whatever the price is, you pat on 10% and that's the cost, right? There's Mr. 100% or whatever but they don't do that here because everything ... This is the Western world. It's very progressive. It's not. You just have a title which is an expediter. These expediters allegedly will handhold you through the process of getting your demolition permit, your building's permit, all these other things you need to get when in reality, it's all horse trading. They take money from all these different people and they sit down in front of these commissioners and be like, "All right. What do you want? What do I need? Let's make this happen."
Because I was this little fish and I was this girl who just happen along, I was traded away for a bigger project. It was a process where I went through five months of permitting, and in the end of those five months, I was denied my permits. I was like, "Okay. Well, I don't know what to do here because I have my team up in Spanish Harlem. I'm down here. I've already spent money. We've already started doing the build out, all the architectural designs and drawings. I don't have an alternative." Then I was told also by our landlord, "You don't get your deposit back." I said, "Okay. Let's hire another Mr. 50% at this point and let's get him to help and work with us." We ultimately went through nine and a half months of permitting in total.
Finally, we're told that we could build the space but we weren't being grandfathered into any of the existing code. What happens in New York is if you take over a space that's a 127 years old as we did, you were required then to make all of it completely current which is almost impossible, but if you want to not live in the shadows and you want to have a legitimate business, that's what you have to do. I went from having a budget of X to now having a budget of XX in a timeline of Y to having a timeline of YY. That was really difficult and really challenging and extraordinarily disheartening. The questioning everyday of if you're going to fail, you should fail fast. I was like, "Is this a slow bleed? Is this a failure that I'm not aware of?"
As everyday went on like that and everyday that I attempted to do more, I attempted to feel more and more ... I continued to feel more and more responsibility for my team because now it wasn't just me in my apartment with an IKEA tote. It was 23 people that are working for me, that are building this with me, that are invested, that are supporting their families because of me. I don't mean because of me because that sounds very arrogant and very self-promoting and I don't mean that, but the business that I'm attempting to build required all of their work, and their efforts. If I stop building that, then all of that would fall away.
Charles: How much of what kept you going was the vision of what you were trying to build and how much of it was the pressure or responsibility you felt for taking care of the people?
Umber Ahmad: I would say that the pressure and the responsibility almost completely consumed me, and I think that that happened over time that I started to emerge again back into the vision of what I'm building. I think that I spent a lot of time looking at my instruments, and I needed to look back up at the horizon. The reality is that those instruments needed to be looked at and I needed to work on the tactical execution of what I was doing. I think being a philosopher is an incredible opportunity to just sit there, and pontificate, and talk about, and do, and predict, and project, but to actually execute is a completely different animal.
Part of my ability to do that was I didn't look into the future and say, "Well, ultimately ... " Fine, I'd love to be there. I'd love to have 14 stores and seven licensing agreements and have [inaudible 00:49:34] come in, or have [inaudible 00:49:35], or [inaudible 00:49:36] come in, but right now I need to figure out how the hell I'm going to get an awning put up and how I'm going to go to the community board to petition them to change the door handle from the right side of the door to the left side of the door.
These are the types of things where I just want to look at these people who I think just thought it was an interesting exercise for them to come and just [spat on 00:49:54] about how the West Village is so important when I would just be like, "I'm fucking dying. Do you understand how much this is costing in me money, and in my life, and my wellbeing, on my business? What are you doing?" Being at the behest and at the mercy of other people is not something I'm good at, and I think that I become much more comfortable with being around that, I think.
Charles: In the end it took you how long to get open?
Umber Ahmad: In the end it took us two years and two months to get open in what originally was supposed to have been a six month process.
Charles: Are you still running the online business?
Umber Ahmad: Mm-hmm (affirmative). We're still running the online business. We're still doing all of the wholesale work. We're still working with JetBlue and all that was happening out of Spanish Harlem and I continued. I'd taken equity. I'd raised capital. I'd done two rounds of capital raises, and I continued to build the business and struggle. I struggle a lot and I still struggle now. I think everyday there are things that go well and there's opportunities to grow and to build. As you continue to do more and more ... As a leader, one of the things that I task myself very often is know what you know and know what you don't know. The things that you don't know decide if it's worth you figuring out and learning or are you going to go out and find the expert? I don't cut my own hair. I don't prescribe my own medicine. There's no reason why I should be looking to become an expert in certain things when I can associate myself with an employee or partner with somebody that knows more than I.
Charles: Yeah. It's a very powerful realization. I think one of the things that I've learned early on in my leadership advisory work was how few people are actually conscious of what their strengths are, what their natural strengths are. It falls. They tend to focus on exactly what you you've just described, which is they often lack that awareness of saying, "I'm naturally talented in these areas. I'm not very talented in these areas." The instinct is for successful people to then suddenly try and get good at the things they're not good at. Of course, that's a waste of time. It's a waste of energy. It detracts them and distracts them rather from really leading into the things that they're naturally brilliant at. The organization suffers as a result of that because then you have a whole bunch of people who are adequate at everything but nobody is really being brilliant at anything. I think your awareness of realizing, "I don't need to be good at the stuff I'm not good at. I need to find somebody else who's good at that stuff," is a big catapult.
Umber Ahmad: It is a big catapult but, as an entrepreneur, it's difficult because that comes at a cost. It comes at a financial cost which is one thing, but it also comes at a cost of ... I back up and say I've been wrong about some people that I've hired. You're meant to trust your instincts, but I think that when you become so enveloped into something and so committed to something, your instincts become cloudy. Often times you want to see something in someone or you want to believe that they will be accretive to your ultimate outcome and they're not. Being able to sift through that in a way that allows you to say, "I'm not good at this but I'm good enough at it to know this person is going to be the right person," is also something that's important, especially as an entrepreneur. You don't have the luxury of a large organization. It's one of those things where if you have advisors, you have investors, you have people that you can work with, they can give you guidance.
My family was and continuous to be very much those people in part because they're committed in an honest journey with me and in part also because they're not in the business that I'm in, so they can ask these questions that may seem very simple or very normal, but they're profound in my process of trying to figure all of that out.
Charles: How do you see yourself now?
Umber Ahmad: In what way?
Charles: As a leader, as a ... How do you see yourself now as a leader in terms of how you're dealing with people, how you're trying to get the best out of them?
Umber Ahmad: When I bring on anyone, and it's a very rigorous hiring process to join our team, we'll often ask different things and I say, "There's only four words you're not allowed to use with me. Just four. You can say anything you want to me whenever you want, however you want." I always give them my cellphone. "You can call me anytime, whatever, but there's four words you're not allowed to use. The four words are: that's not my job. That's it. Don't ever say that to me because I still clean the toilet everyday. I have done every single job that I've ever asked anybody to do. I have worked on every project. I have made those phone calls. I have run those deliveries. I have thought through this process. I have built these recipes. If you tell me that, 'I don't understand,' you're wrong."
For me, that's an important component where I think that there are people that want to be viewed from afar and that's sort of a definition of leadership. But, for me, leadership is about collective ownership and getting somebody to see that I'm here with you and I'm committed with you. I'm committed not only to the outcome but I'm committed to you and bringing you into this process and focusing on your success.
The thing that I think is very difficult for me sometimes is to not recognize that everybody has the same objective that I do. I used to think that motivating people was really easy. I also understood that I was often surrounding myself with like-minded people. When I was in school, we were all motivated by the same thing. [inaudible 00:55:09] in college. We were all motivated by the same thing. I was in business school. I was in investment banking. We're all motivated by the same thing, very similar things and I come into this environment and I've a lot of different types of people. The motivators are different. Their incentives are different. How they structure their lives and what they place value on is very different. That for me has been a very interesting leadership challenge because I think like, "We're going to do this and that's going to happen and that's going to make everybody really happy." They all look at me and say, "That doesn't really move our needle."
As a leader to be able to do what my mom had always told me to do. She said, "You have two ears and one mouth. You got to use those in that proportion." Then, my father is like, "Add the two eyes in and now you're four to one." I was like, "Okay. Fine. We're four to one." It's four to one. You observe and then you contribute and that's really what I work on everyday.
Charles: What are you afraid of?
Umber Ahmad: Oh, my god. There's this thing called imposter syndrome and I used to think it was ridiculous because it's like ... That's so stupid. I used to think that. I used to think that people will realize that I'm a fraud. I'm not a fraud because I'm doing it, and it's tangible, and it's real. What I have set out to be my life's work to create this ideology, this belief around connectivity of people and the soulfulness of what it is that we do and how it is that we feed people doesn't matter. I think irrelevance is something that I'm afraid of. I don't want fame. I don't need everybody to know who I am, but I want what I do to inform the way people live their lives going forward and for that not to happen I fear ... I fear not being enough to everything that I do. That's a big fear of mine.
Charles: I don't think you have to lie.
Umber Ahmad: I don't know about that. I don't know. My mom died, and I cry when I say this because I cannot cry when I say this, while I was building the bakery and she never saw it. I fear that time, and the angst, and the anguish that I put her through was time I could have spent just loving her because she was on this journey with me and she went through the worst part of it and she never saw the end. I worry that that wasn't enough.
Charles: I'm pretty sure she's still on that with you.
Umber Ahmad: I hope so. Everyone tells me she is but I don't know if that's true or not. Everyone says that she is.
Charles: Yeah, I think that bakery is filled with her energy.
Umber Ahmad: Everyone says that. I look exactly like her except that my mother had light green eyes and I have dark brown eyes, terrible. It's awful. She was stunning and I was like, "How come I got brown eyes?" My father is like, "Hello." I was like, "Yeah, yeah. I know I get one piece of you, but how come I didn't have her green eyes?" It was fun.
I was at MIT as an undergrad in Boston and my father went back for a reunion with his Harvard medical class because he did his fellowship there. I was 21 at the time when he took me to this dinner and my mom was 21 when they married, and she moved to Boston because of my dad, and so I looked exactly like her. We walked into this room and all of my dad's friends, they're all now in their 50s. They all look at me and be like, "Adeeba? You haven't aged in days." I was like, "What the fuck is this Benjamin Button shit?" I was like, "I'm their daughter and of course my mother has aged. It's 25 years later."
I think that the fear is also something that, as an entrepreneur, I have learned to use as fuel and not as a break. One of the things is that you imagine the worst-case scenario. You go to DEFCON 5 and you say, "Okay. If this what the outcome is, how would I deal with it?" If you can create a structure and a plan around that and then you move on with your life and your day, all right, well, I figured out how to do that. I say this out loud and I'm sure the universe is listening. They're going to laugh at me. I think the worst thing that could have happen to me have happened to me so far, and I'm sure the universe is like, "Ha ha, silly girl. Just you wait."
But, I've come through a lot of things where I wasn't sure I was ever going to come through. I've put so much money into the business and all these different things, and we had lost a lot of money. We're trying to buy the airline and all this stuff. That I got to the point where there was a night that I was meant to make a cheesecake that was supposed to go to a famous actress, and my one cheesecake pan broke, and I didn't have enough money to go and buy another cheesecake pan from Bed Bath & Beyond because that was the only place that was open, so I had to call my mom in tears.
She called and placed one on hold for me. And, then when I went to pick it up, they said, "We need to see the physical credit card in order to actually give you this pan." I was like, "It's 9:30 and I have to get this cheesecake into the oven and out because it needs eight hours of setting," and then they wouldn't sell it to me. They just literally wouldn't and my mom is in the phone from Michigan and I think about that. I think about not knowing that I was even going to be able to make this one cheesecake, not even having enough money going from a banker and being in private equity and growing up in very privileged family to literally eating one apple and peanut butter a day because every other penny had to go into this business. I was so skinny. I looked so good. It was amazing and I was so stressed out I didn't even know it.
Anyway, all that being said, they ultimately allowed my mother to purchase this piece of equipment over the phone. I remember walking home and thinking, "I think that's the worst thing that's ever happened to me." Then walking 40 minutes the next day with the cheesecake because I didn't have enough money to take the taxi to get the cheesecake. I was like, "Nope, this is the worst thing that's ever happened to me." Then realizing that, "Well, if I survived through that and people survive through so much worse, and I could survive through the death of my mom who was the love of my life and the energy behind my soul, I'll get through this."
Charles: Yeah, I'm sure you will.
Umber Ahmad: Perhaps so.
Charles: There were three themes that really struck me listening to you. One is your willingness to explore obviously infused by your parents, but I think that your willingness to try things and to see what happens is really extraordinary. Two I think is your endless passion. You pour your heart and soul into what you did. I think three is classically your resilience. I think so many people who might have shared a dream of similar vividness but who wouldn't have had the ability to get through what you've gone through already to bring it this far and ...
Umber Ahmad: If you call that vividness stupidity but, yes, okay.
Charles: I've tasted your stupidity. It taste-
Umber Ahmad: Oh, thank you so much.
Charles: It taste really good. I wish you nothing but success,
Umber Ahmad: Thank you.
Charles: ... and health and happiness on the rest of this journey.
Umber Ahmad: Thank you. Thank you.
Charles: It's going to be extraordinary. I'm excited to see where it goes for you.
Umber Ahmad: Oh, my goodness.
Charles: Thanks for joining me today.
Umber Ahmad: Thank you so much for having me.
Charles: That wraps up this episode of Fearless. Join us next time as we delve further into the art and science of leading some of the world's most disruptive businesses and unlocking the power of creativity to change ourselves and the world. Thanks for joining us.
[1:30] Who is Umber, and what did she do before she opened her own bakery?
[7:30] Umber traveled the world with her family, and tasted food from all over at a very young age. New food was a way of connecting with others who don’t speak the same language. When Umber was 13, she became a professional violist, and found that you could also communicate through music.
[15:10] The first class that Umber ever failed in her life was physics, and it was the best thing to ever happen to her.
[21:50] A lot of Umber’s clients at the time were coming from the Middle East, and they primarily cared about three things, food, protection, and luxury.
[25:45] Umber wanted to create the next heritage brand. She was ready to create her own legacy. And thus, the bakery was born.
[32:00] What does Umber do? Well, what doesn’t she do?
[33:10] Umber isn’t building just a bakery. She’s building a mindset, a lifestyle, and connection. It just so happens to be in the form of pastries.
[40:40] Umber spent about a year looking for the right location for her kitchen. She had been selling her baked goods online for two years, by that point, and already knew what her customers wanted and where they were located.
[50:55] So few people are consciously aware of, and embrace, what their natural strengths are, and, because of this, they try to improve where they are weak. However, this just wastes time and energy!
[56:10] Umber has fears that she is not enough. She is worried that she will fail. The good thing is, she uses this fear to fuel her drive.
Mentioned in This Episode: Mahzedahrbakery.com