The environment got a much-deserved break — the air is cleaner, the stars shine brighter, carbon emissions are lower, the trees wildlife is thriving.
Families are spending quality time together — cooking and eating together more often, exercise routines include time with kids — walking, hiking, biking. Family members who live far away are connecting more frequently.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Azra Mehdi.
Azra Mehdi founded Au Xchange Fine Gold Jewelry (www.auxchange.com) late last year and the law firm The Mehdi Firm, PC in 2012. After almost 25 years of representing the interests of consumers, shareholders and investors, she decided to follow her passion for designing jewelry and launched Au Xchange Fine Gold Jewelry. She currently lives with her husband in San Francisco, where they are raising a teenage girl, a tween boy, and a ridiculously handsome, yet clingy Vizsla named Canon.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
At 17 years old, I left India to come to the United States to fulfill my parents’ dream of becoming a physician. I enrolled in the Pre-Med curriculum at the university, but soon discovered that I loved languages and the art of communication and advocacy leading to a year-long study abroad adventure in Vienna, Austria and a dual degree in English and German Literature. After law school, I moved to New York, worked in a large law firm for over 5 years before moving to San Francisco in 2001. I worked on a lot of interesting cases, including against WorldCom, Household, and others. I started own firm in 2012 shortly after my second child was born to have better control over my work-life schedule. All this time I continued to be fascinated with gold jewelry, instilled in part by my Indian heritage as well the immense sense of fulfillment in designing jewelry. Gold jewelry is a revered cultural tradition — it was, and continues to be an important source of empowerment, giving women greater control over their own destinies. In October 2019, inspired by my 5-year old daughter’s spontaneous declaration at her kindergarten Thanksgiving celebration, “I’m thankful for jewelry,” I launched Au Xchange Fine Gold Jewelry both as a medium for my creative expression and to support girls’ education.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
The Covid-19 pandemic is undoubtedly the most interesting and consuming thing that has happened to any business owner. It has forced newly launched businesses to fashion inventive ways to branding and sales. On a whim, I entered a jewelry designer competition this summer. I was pleasantly surprised to be chosen as a finalist and am now in the running for Au Xchange Fine Jewelry to be selected as a Featured Designer. At the time of this writing, I do not know if Au Xchange made the final cut but being chosen as a finalist has been an interesting twist.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m very excited about Au Xchange’s annual partnership with Campaign for Female Education (CamFED). When I launched Au Xchange, I was looking not only for an outlet for my creative expression, but also a way to advance my mission of helping educate girls in impoverished countries where education can influence concrete progress. CamFed is a pan-African movement founded on the belief that educating girls is the starting point for social change. It is undeniable that girls’ education is the catalyst to finding sustainable solutions to global problems like poverty, hunger, climate change, child and maternal mortality, and population growth, among others. Joaquim Chissano, former president of Mozambique said it best: “Women and girls are Africa’s greatest untapped resource, and it is they, not diamonds or oil and minerals, that will be the foundation for solid, sustainable and equitable progress.” I am proud to be able to contribute in any small measure to help eradicate even one of these issues.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Because of the duality of my careers, my gratitude is similarly multi-faceted. After I finished law school in Chicago, I took the New York bar exam and moved to Vienna, Austria for an internship at a law firm that needed an English/German speaker to assist in drafting a proposal to privatize the telecommunications sector in Austria. My plan was to find an internship at the European Union after my stint in Vienna. I did not get an internship at the EU and although the Viennese firm offered me a position, the salary they offered me was barely enough to live on, let alone pay off my student loans. I returned to New York without a job or any significant savings. I crashed on my sister’s couch hoping to quickly land employment, but it took almost a year to get a suitable position. My sister and her gracious husband let me crash on their couch for a year without requiring me to pay rent or groceries. I’m very grateful that she was there for me — I could not have afforded New York without a job or steady employment.
For instilling in me the courage and confidence to launch Au Xchange Fine Gold Jewelry, I’m grateful to my husband. Pivoting from a legal career to jewelry design and manufacturing takes a leap of faith. More than myself, my husband has that kind of faith in me. Over a decade of witnessing my pure joy around any aspect of gemstones or jewelry design, seeing how alive and energized I was when helping friends and family design or purchase jewelry, he insisted that I follow my heart, regardless of the outcome. He has been a fierce supporter of mine in every respect, and I could not have accomplished half as much in my life without his support.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
It’s important to acknowledge that the Covid-19 pandemic has imposed challenges on every family, whether you are a woman business leader, or not. Consistency in my children’s development has been the biggest family-related challenge we have faced during the pandemic. This includes severe interruptions in academic, school and non-school-related athletic activities, and overall social-emotional development due to the lack of interaction with other kids their own age. Distance learning, although helpful, has had its own drawbacks — finding separate spaces for each kid to work uninterrupted while also finding suitable workspaces for my husband and for me.
As a family that identifies as Black, the heightened racial tensions in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and now Jacob Blake, have accelerated the inevitable yet difficult race discussions. While non-Black families are often pondering if or how they will discuss the recent racial events to their children, Black families lack that luxury. Not only must we proactively raise recent race-related events with our children, we have to engage in a delicate balancing act to explore America’s dark history of racism and its inevitable impact on our children without crushing their spirits or their aspirations. These shootings of black people are not a “them” issue for our family.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
When shelter-in-place first began in March, no one really knew how long it would last. One of the most efficient things we did early on was to allocate workspaces, creating small but dedicated work areas for each individual. I work a lot from home, so we have all the trappings of a proper home office, but we needed to stock up on paper, toner and other office supplies.
Other than the space logistics, we have maintained a rather fluid approach to everything else. These are unprecedented times and there is no tried-and-true formula. My children knew they could not opt out of distance learning but wanted to be excused from optional school-led social activities on Zoom, and we complied. We have also been more lenient with screen time restrictions for non-school related activities. We watch movies and shows together as a family more than we did during non-pandemic times. Indeed, my teenage daughter and I have bonded over the series Criminal Minds, which has proven to demonstrate valuable lessons about personal safety and alertness, which my teenager has been more receptive to over my safety lectures in a vacuum.
We also try to exercise more regularly — my daughter prefers the water rower and I rely on Peloton for my routines. My husband works with our son on his basketball and football games, and they go bike riding. Consistent with city restrictions, when club basketball opened up for socially distanced practices, we have allowed our son to participate. My daughter took up painting and my son took up creating rap tunes, all of which we have encouraged. Inspired by social media, my daughter tried to sell her paintings on eBay and learned invaluable lessons about con artists and scammers, and how to deal with them.
Family discussions about racial injustices have also become a staple in our household. Education is the best weapon to combat not only poverty or climate change, but also racism, Inter course and other isms. So, we talk to our children — often and candidly. We also watch historical and academic lectures about American history, slavery, confederate symbols, etc. Of course, talking alone does not “address” racial injustice, but it is a first step.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
At the onset of shelter in place, all my suppliers had to shut down their facilities for several months. Au Xchange could not place any new orders or submit any new designs for proto typing. Even when Covid-related restrictions eased up, some of the suppliers could not easily get all the components they needed to manufacture our designs. In addition, the skyrocketing price of gold and the added labor costs to comply with Covid-related safety precautions have made it very expensive for Au Xchange to operate at the level that it was intended to operate.
With my law practice, courts were shut down in March and are still substantially closed to the public. All my cases came to a standstill because courts were not holding any hearings and meeting clients in person for consultations or depositions was out of the question.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Frankly, there was not much anyone could do during March and April as businesses and families were attempting to comprehend the scope of gravity of the pandemic as well as keeping their families and loved ones safe.
Once work-from-home and homeschooling became the new normal, I worked with my suppliers to complete the orders already placed since the raw materials for those orders had been previously ordered. We have deferred the release of the Fall 2020 Collection to Spring 2021, which was an excellent plan since business has still not returned to pre-Covid times. We also typically create multiple gold color and gemstone variations for each design. For the new collections, we intend not to create multiple variations, instead offering customers the option to make their preferred design as a special order. For custom-order clients who are not in urgent need of a jewelry item for a wedding, anniversary or special occasion, I usually recommend that they delay their custom orders because gold prices are at their highest. Although this may seem counterintuitive, I believe that being forthright with customers will not only save them money but will also engender customer loyalty in the long term.
For my law practice, there was nothing we could do to address federally or locally mandated court-closures, but we were able to resume depositions by video. While in-person court hearings are still not permitted in many courts, state and federal courts resumed hearings via Zoom in June.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
Best advice for effective work-from-home strategies when balancing homeschooling and kids:
“Have an Equal Measure of Structure and Flexibility.”
- Allocate designated workspaces for each person — it does not have to be a large space but should have a desk or a table and a comfortable chair. For my 11-year old son, I have a treatment ball chair — it facilitates movement necessary for his age without leaving his work area.
- Incorporate some structure for the kids’ school day allowing you to focus and complete your work, or at least a substantial part of it. Take away electronic devices (phones, tablets, etc.) from kids during school hours; limit your own use of devices for non-essential tasks.
- Pre-plan and make easy lunches that your kids can heat and serve themselves — this cuts down on the amount of time you are pulled away from your work or conference calls.
- Be flexible on the timing of when kids do their homework so long as it is not at the end of the day. When the on-screen school day is done, a short break that allows some physical activity is helpful, maybe a talk walk, shoot some hoops, playing with the dog, biking, jump rope, etc.
- Be flexible with the amount of non-school screen time — Facetime and other social apps have been the only social interaction that some of the kids have had. Talking that away eliminates the non-family social interaction for kids. For example, we have permitted our son to play on his gaming console but only on weekends — this provides some structure but also allows him to interact with his friends.
- Make family time a critical part of the day whether it is breakfast or dinner. We do it at dinner time, with the kids sometimes helping us with meal prep. Some evenings we have played board games or watched a show or movie together (Hamilton: The Movie, The Last Dance, BlackAF, among others).
- Be flexible about creating special time for each kid so they feel special about sharing something unique with each parent.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
My most effective strategy for staying sane during long periods of sheltering in place is grounded in a deep respect for the physical and emotional space and time unique to each individual in our family unit. We are cognizant that not everyone within our family unit moves at the same speed, needs the same amount of alone or together time or enjoys the same type of activity. Our family has applied a fluid formula for staying sane and serene in the past 6 months. We enjoy each other while preserving me-time for ourselves individually.
We do some things together like cooking or baking, walking the family dog together, going out to meals together, playing pickleball, organizing Zoom calls with extended family, playing Idiom Addict, Big Boggle or Scrabble.
Sometimes my husband and I take turns doing activities with each kid to ensure that they have our undivided attention — I have taken online dance class with my daughter, my husband takes our son biking, basketball, football, doing lunch/dinner dates with both kids, sometime together, sometimes individually.
Personally, I start every morning with 10 minutes of meditation, beginning my day with intention and positivity. I make a short list of priority items (usually things that have an impending deadline) and a longer list of things of 2nd priority items. Most importantly, I make time for my family every day. Ironically, the pandemic has allowed a temporal leninecy that has injected more structure into our lives without the commensurate pressure.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
My top 5 reasons to be hopeful during this Coronavirus (other than the fact that I am an eternal optimist ☺)
- The environment got a much-deserved break — the air is cleaner, the stars shine brighter, carbon emissions are lower, the trees wildlife is thriving.
- Working from home has been productive — many innovations and improvements in video conferencing have taken place in a very short time. More work seems to get done in a short time.
- Families are spending quality time together — cooking and eating together more often, exercise routines include time with kids — walking, hiking, biking. Family members who live far away are connecting more frequently.
- Deeper examination of personal value — greater inward reflection and mediation, desire to de-clutter the physical and emotional environment.
- And lastly, the conviction that this will be over at some point — “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” Victor Hugo,Les Misérables.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
As we are all aware, anxiety manifests itself in different ways. For the family members who are willing to talk, the most effective way to offer support is by active listening. Listening actively does not mean interrupting them when they are speaking or offering up gratuitous solutions. Sometimes, and especially during the pandemic, I have observed that a touch can be very therapeutic — holding hands, sitting closely, hugging, exhibiting patience. When your loved ones are willing to open up, it is imperative to avoid seeming dismissive of their concerns. For example, if your kid is having difficulties because they cannot interact with their friends, or are having issues with friends, it is important to acknowledge their concerns as valid. Saying that everyone is going through similar feelings because of the pandemic is not helpful and may even exacerbate their anxiety. Where applicable, give your child an alternative innocuous explanation for why their friend may be acting out. Maybe give an example from your own childhood of a similar incident. It is also ok not to have all the answers. Children develop more resilience in the knowledge that some circumstances, unavoidable as they are, do in fact pass with time.
Sometimes your loved ones are not ready to discuss what’s troubling them. In those instances, after reminding them that you love them and will always there for there, I find a way to spend time with them that does not seem like hovering or monitoring. I do this by asking to watch a movie or show of their choice with them, cooking together, inviting them to do chores with me, playing a board game or asking for their help with a puzzle. In other words, just being present. When you love someone, sometimes your mere presence is sufficient.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.” Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s quote fittingly calibrates my life approach — measured yet optimistic, reminding me not to overanalyze setbacks in my life as defining everything about who I am or what I can accomplish. This life lesson gives me perspective in both the professional and personal aspects of my life.
I fell in love and married a Jamaican-Panamanian man whom I worked with. My traditional Indian parents refused to accept my life partner. I persisted in educating them ensuring that they got to know the person I had come to love and look beyond race, religion and ethnicity. My entire family has grown to love my husband and children — all they needed was a chance to get to know him without artificial social divides. I have similar hopes for our country and the rest of the world.
Professionally, the pandemic has undoubtedly been an unprecedented challenge for the fine jewelry business. Accepting that I could not control the pandemic or how long it might last, I mentally shifted gears, owning that which I could control — my response to the pandemic. Maintaining an empathetic and compassionate approach in all my dealings with customers and potential customers, I focused on education. I got my certification as an Applied Jewelry Professional (AJP) with the GIA and am continuing to take other courses to earn my Graduate Gemology degree. I also regularly participate in various women’s collectives both to give and receive support, creating new allies.
How can our readers follow you online?
I’m embarrassed to say that I only began engaging on social media in any serious way in August 2019, a few months before launching my jewelry business, Au Xchange. I’m on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook under the handle @auxchangeofficial as well as on LinkedIn and Twitter (@MehdiAzra).
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!