To me, leadership means equanimity, as in self-control and self-possession. I believe true leadership starts with leading and mastering yourself because “he who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still” — Lao Tzu
Mehri Babayeva is the founder and CEO of Maraley, the go-to brand for beautiful, elegant and game-changing clothes for women. Having traveled all around the world from a young age, Mehri believes that her independence and self-reliance have given her the strength to shift from a successful banking career to a focus on her passion for fashion and embroidery craft. That shift is reflected in her first exclusive collection: a sophisticated fusion of traditional masculine work-wear and refreshing feminine embroidery: a shift in favor of “desired” rather than “needed.”
A yoga lover and successful entrepreneur, Mehri aims to balance her daily business life of growing her company, Maraley, with the relaxing flow of yoga and her passion for creating designs for women who wish to express their individuality through their unique and elegant style.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Thank you for having me for these series. My story goes back to Nomad traditions of the country in which I was born. There, women used needlework as a tool to express their deepest desires and emotions. Each piece of embroidered work that a woman created was a song of her soul. Each color she put into the craft reflected her mood and her spirit. It was a delicate, intricate and beautiful creation that required a piece of female soul, energy and patience. The modern-day embroidery work that we use for our collections takes its inspiration from ancient Silk Road and Nomad cultures and reflects the same philosophy and aesthetics: female beauty, charm and intuition.
The idea of combining traditional masculine-looking corporate wear and feminine embroidery came from an internal need to pause and reflect when I had overworked myself in order to conquer the corporate ladder. In the process, I trampled my core femininity into the ground. Moreover, it came from an external and unpleasant experience and a reminder from my male colleague that I had become too masculine, controlling and dominant.
Unfortunately, I am not alone in this. Many women use dress in the office and in business as armor. It then becomes difficult to drop the armor, both sartorially and emotionally, for one’s personal life. An extreme swing to ruffles and florals is also not an option, as it’s a flip side of femininity and can signal desperation. This is where the need for balance comes.
Maraley’s exclusive collection, which first saw the light in 2015, is about balancing the feminine and masculine with flair and confidence. While femininity is about an internal experience with yourself and clothes are about external appearance, your clothes can be a tool to remind you of it; a way of tapping into the essence of who you are.
Our Maraley collection is designed to lift, inspire and remind all women why it’s so important to honor your femininity and shine your unique light to the world.
Only a year ago, our brand expanded into the global market through its online presence but it is rapidly gaining popularity as a go-to brand for elegant, beautiful and game-changing clothes.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Our company takes pride in helping women in need and they help us with delicate embroidery and tailoring work. When we started a few years ago with prototype collections, we were working in a small embroidery studio that sometimes served as a shelter for women who were abused by their husbands. One day, the husband of a tailor appeared. He was drunk and behaving very rudely — aggressively shouting and threatening to beat us all black and blue.
I’m not sure where my strength came from at that moment, but I stood up and asked him politely and calmly to leave, and that otherwise I would be forced to call the police. God knows how scared I was inside, but I continued gazing at him to show that I meant what I’d said. Clearly, he didn’t take slim and small me as a threat, so he raised his hand to hit me as the other woman pushed him away. Then other women working there joined us in pushing him out. As he backed off and left the place, the silence that followed was broken by laughter and relief. That was a powerful moment for me, when I understood the literal meaning of women’s empowerment.
What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?
Undeniably, shifting my mindset from the stability and security of the corporate world to the unpredictable and adventurous world of business was my biggest challenge. Fortunately, my adventurous and free-spirited nature helped me overcome that, as did my trust and faith that things would eventually work out as I wanted. “And if they didn’t work out yet, then it’s not the end,” as Paulo Coelho said.
From a more practical perspective, it takes day-to-day training of one’s mind, though either affirmations, visualization or other self-help practices. For me, there are two core things when it comes to taming the mind:
- Not to fall into negative fearful thinking in the first place.
- If you’ve managed to fall into that place, do not stay in that state of mind long enough for it to drag you deeper. Pull yourself out of there by any means.
Turning my mind into a friendly alliance is something on which I worked consistently and I am still a work in progress.
What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?
I have a slightly unconventional understanding of leadership. To me, leadership means equanimity, as in self-control and self-possession. I believe true leadership starts with leading and mastering yourself because “he who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still” — Lao Tzu. I believe you can be only as powerful as your employees are inspired by what they do and how much they are rewarded for it. So, I follow the simple principle: “Utilize the person where his best assets are.” If someone is an extrovert and a natural with people, offering them our products in a valuable way, it would be meaningless to push him to create promotional graphics and design. While this seems intuitive and oversimplified, the challenge lies in identifying whether this person really loves what he does or only claims to do so.
Bringing the best out of other people and allowing them to be authentic is what I consider a quality of a true leader. That is possible only when you understand and recognize your own qualities. As a highly intuitive person, I am glad that I am capable of choosing the right talents for the right position and rewarding them immensely for their efforts so they can go the extra mile. Is there any better way to achieve a common goal when an individual goal is met?
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?
The source of my inspiration, my greatest strength and the symbol of femininity is my mother. In fact, our brand is named after her and embodies her values.
In the early 70s, navigating the thorns of a male-dominated environment, she managed to remain humble, vulnerable and strong without becoming a victim. She remained true to herself. To me, that is what true femininity is about: authenticity.
My mother was there for me when I decided to leave the country, when I came back lost and depressed in my younger years and, most importantly, during the difficult transition from a successful banking career to pursuing my passion in the fashion industry.
That said, while she cared deeply for me, sometimes her affection came across as tough love. But I believe that was the most effective way to toughen me up and get me back on my feet.
Another person to whom I am deeply grateful is my husband. He is my backbone and another name for “persistence” to me. He has been through our business’s ups and downs. He told me to just stay focused and keep going and that I would eventually achieve my dreams. I am glad I listened to him.
Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?
During the first one-and-a-half years of building the business, it was quite difficult to focus on other aspects of my life. The business just overtook me. I was eating Maraley, sleeping Maraley, drinking Maraley. I was obsessed with every little thing happening in the business and when I got another brilliant idea, I was literally restless (thinking through details in my sleep) until I implemented it. Initially, it was only me and my husband with a few ladies helping us out. As a business owner, I have been wearing many hats: business development manager, marketing and sales, customer service, you name it.
I’ve been affected on both the mental and physical levels. I realized that something was terribly wrong only when the same thing that made me extremely happy and fulfilled — my passion — now made me miserable and unmotivated. I was burned out and exhausted.
I made a conscious effort to take myself away from the business for a short break to re-evaluate what had happened. I realized that my life had lost its juice and become an unending to-do list. It was then when I made a decision to re-organize my daily schedule and re-integrate into my life things I used to enjoy: morning yoga flow, evening walks in nature, dinner nights with my husband without any discussion of business. The strange thing is, things became much easier, as if they got back into flow, with no additional effort or push needed.
Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?
I would say just the opposite happened. The time I had available for other activities in my life grew in direct proportion to my success. I believe in the power of leverage. As our positive cash flow and company expanded, it became possible to grow our team and outsource activities that other people were better at completing than I was. I have enjoyed it tremendously because being by nature an idea generator rather than an implementer; I can now simply voice the strategy and direction our business is taking and delegate. I can be rewarded by the good and learn from the bad along the way.
I have more time to work on the things I love to do. Now, for example, I am working on our new collection for fall/winter 2019. I know our female customers will love it.
Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?
I think there is no magic formula that suits everyone and we can find our own point of balance through trying what works best for us. But I will be glad to share five ways I use for balancing my personal and business life that work well for me:
- Set aside specific time for business and for personal life and do not compromise on any of it. Business time is only for business and personal is only time for family or myself.
- Each evening create a schedule for the next day and focus on high-priority items first half of the next day. Each evening check your progress and praise yourself for all accomplishments, regardless how small or big or they are.
- Outsource, outsource, outsource. Leveraging other people’s skills who are experts in their areas helps to make all aspects of business work smoother and allows more free time for myself and family.
- Take time to free up your mind from daily business tasks; Yoga and walks in nature work best for me.
- Whenever any business issue or problem arises, I have my mantra that works miracles for me:
“Whatever happens is for the best. Out of this situation only good, will come. I am calm and all is well”. In other words, I learn to practice gratitude for anything that happens, good or bad.” Repeating it just for few minutes gives me calm reassurance that everything will fall into place as needed.
What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride.
Unquestionably, the exciting and positive feedback we receive from our female customers. There’s nothing more rewarding than knowing that other women appreciate the art you created. I take pride in calling our collection art-of-work because that’s what it is to me. Intricate embroidery details and sophisticated designs created for women who understand the value of balance in their lives and who want to make their mark with fresh, beautiful and elegant style.
As we embarked on our mission to become an innovation and inspiration in the world of business casual women’s fashion, I considered myself blessed to watch our brand gain popularity among award-winning female speakers and figures. My deeply cherished desire and next goal is to see Oprah Winfrey among our brand’s quiet celebrity clientele.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I am not sure who said it, but this saying resonates with me a lot: “If you want to find your contribution to the world, look at your wounds. When you learn how to heal them, teach others.”
As someone with a rebellious and adventurous nature, I have gone through many adverse life-changing experiences that made me doubt the goodness of my authentic character and for a while kept me shut off from my inner needs. These experiences forced me to swim with the stream. They also cost me long years in a thriving but passionless career, my long-term relationship and, most importantly, deep discontentment with myself. I had to realize that the real me is what makes me unique. It didn’t happen overnight and is still an ongoing process.
But now I do know that I have a right to shine my light (and my darkness as well ☺). That’s what all women have. Once you own it, you can always shine your light. Moreover, you will let others shine their lights.
These intrinsic beliefs of mine seem to seamlessly integrate into our brand’s values.
Maraley is built on a core belief that every woman is unique. When women embrace and express their authenticity through their own styles and their own choices (in favor of desired rather than needed), they become an inspiration for others to shine the way they are!
My message to the world, and mostly to all women, is: Be yourself, be true to yourself and be in touch with yourself. Shine for who you are!
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
We love human-felt connections and we nourish them through our major SM channel: Instagram. DM is our tool for answering any inquiries in real time through chat or even video calls.