How I Led My Business Through the Uncertainty of a Pandemic

Elle AyoubZadeh, CEO of the high-end accessory line Zvelle, rose to the challenge of being a small-business owner during Covid-19.

From personal relationships to professional demands, the global pandemic has turned every aspect of life upside down. For small-business owner Elle AyoubZadeh, making it through challenging days meant looking up, not giving up.

Since launching Zvelle online in 2015, AyoubZadeh’s high-end leather goods label of classically beautiful shoes and handbags has occupied several pop-up locations in her home base of Toronto. Along with a season of fresh spring styles about to debut, she was starting an exciting new chapter (a permanent retail/office/event space in the heart of the city) when the world began to shut down.

“My job is to be the mother of everybody, and there are a lot of people counting on me and the company,” says AyoubZadeh, who oversees a small number of internal staff and works closely with Italian manufactures on her independent line. “Everybody is looking to me for direction. I’m the CEO, and I don’t have the luxury to be negative.” (Related: 10 ways to get rid of negative energy.)

With a commitment to her team and a desire to keep her business moving forward, AyoubZadeh moved into strategy mode. “The first thing I did was make sure that we were in a position to keep our production order,” she says, “but I also looked at what we know are classics that we can always sell.”

While other brands dialed back, AyoubZadeh sought out opportunities for growth and support. “We work with small- to medium-sized factories that have a maximum of 50 employees, and they rely on us, our orders and everything we do to feed their people,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘Are we in a position to increase some of the production on those styles so that we can help?’”

Pivoting is something AyoubZadeh is very good at. Having traded a career in global finance for fashion, she is proof that you can end up wherever you want, regardless of where you start. “Being purpose driven, I didn’t see myself spending the rest of my life in finance,” she says. “I’m not driven by money. Of course, I love the luxuries of life, like everybody else, but I wanted to do something with my life.”

AyoubZadeh, who was born in Iran and raised in Australia, was also fired up on a different level. “Most entrepreneurs are pissed off by something,” she says. “I just didn’t like the way that the media and fashion, in particular, portrayed women and their stories. As a woman of colour, it didn’t relate to me. I really wanted to change that, and I felt so strongly about it that I made drastic changes.” Like sell-your-condo-to-fund-your-dream-job drastic.

Family bonds also motivated AyoubZadeh to take a risk and pursue her passion. She is especially inspired by her brother, Amir, who has a developmental disability. “For me, it goes back to Amir,” she says. “I feel that ‘to whom much is given, much is required,’ and I have all these things that he doesn’t have the ability to choose.”

With her mother, a frontline health care worker, and siblings living in Australia, New Zealand and France, AyoubZadeh experienced the global spread of the pandemic from a unique perspective as it affected various regions at different times. Seemingly overnight, staying in touch became more vital than ever. “The thing that has changed most for me is that I used to feel that I could get on a plane and go and see them tomorrow,” she says. “The pandemic made the distance a little bit harder.” Her 2020 definition of success includes prioritizing those connections. “The one thing that’s very important to ask is, ‘Do the people I love know I love them?’”

(Related: The importance of making memories during pandemic life.)

Elle AyoubZadehPhoto Credit: Zvelle

The gift

Like many in Canada’s fashion community, AyoubZadeh felt compelled to contribute during the early days of the Covid-19 crisis. While some labels embarked on fundraising efforts and those with local factories focused on personal protective equipment production, Zvelle stepped up in its own way by launching a social media initiative called #HealthcareHeroes. “There was a lot of panic and sadness in the world, and it came out of talking with my team and reassuring them that nothing is going to change, that they’d be taken care of,” says AyoubZadeh. “As an optimistic person with a brand that looks on the positive side of things, I wanted to bring unexpected beauty, joy and love into the world — a gift.”

The gift took the form of a pair of the brand’s Stowe sandals, and the project allowed anyone to nominate a frontline worker to receive a pair. The flat, strappy sandals couldn’t have been more fitting since AyoubZadeh, a long-time supporter of Women’s College Hospital, named the style after Dr. Emily Stowe, who founded the health care facility in 1883 and holds the title of Canada’s first female physician.

“Taking inspiration from Dr. Stowe, who fought to study medicine, was in the suffragette movement and did a lot for women to have rights today, we wanted to use that spirit and pay it forward,” says AyoubZadeh, who has since gifted hundreds of pairs to doctors, nurses, health technicians and cleaning staff, each sent with a handwritten note. “For these women on the frontlines, the way I looked at it was that giving them a beautiful pair of shoes made them feel good, and they needed that,” she says. “Even if they never wear the shoes and the box is just in their closets, it’s a reminder that some strange brand in Canada that they’d never heard of before sent them a pair of shoes to say, ‘We celebrate and honour you — and thank you.’”

Besides generating an overwhelming response, the campaign deepened the Zvelle community by sparking conversations around race and representation of medical professionals in the media. “It has been the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my career and, in this whole physical distancing experience, I’ve never felt more connected to strangers around the world,” says AyoubZadeh.

(Related: Beat loneliness and enrich your life with these tips.)

Next steps

Having developed a brand that has earned international recognition and is now celebrating its fifth year of operation, AyoubZadeh has many highlights to reflect on. But her sights are set on bigger, bolder goals. “I want Zvelle to be around 100 years from now, when I’m no longer here,” she says. “I want it to be a source of financial success for everybody who works on it. I want to help grow and build communities, change the world for the better and change the world’s view of women.”

One of her biggest pandemic takeaways is to count each day lived to its fullest as a win because tomorrow isn’t promised. “If I die today, I do not want to die with dreams inside of me,” she says. “I want to have done everything — in a way, to die empty because I’ve poured myself out into the world.”

To do so, AyoubZadeh incorporates spirituality and mindfulness into her itinerary. “My self-care has always been from the inside out,” she says. “You can spend five hours a day running on the treadmill, but if you don’t have inner peace and are not connected to your own spirit, it’s not going to be good enough.” Having a conversation with God and herself and setting an intention each morning lays the foundation. “If I have that internal peace, then whatever happens, I can handle it,” she says. “But even if lots of things go right and I don’t have peace, it just doesn’t work. It’s something that’s very, very important.”

AyoubZadeh, who lives with extreme irritable bowel syndrome, has also learned to listen to her body. For a people pleaser who typically travels, this lesson was tough. “On days when I’m practising self-care, I’m not in pain, but I was living with pain for so many years,” she says. “I was used to it — pain in my stomach was my normal. When it became unbearable — we had some success in the company, and every day became more important and I had to work harder — that’s when, sadly, I paid attention to it because I wanted to be in the best shape to lead my company and grow it.” Now, she sticks to a diet that’s suited to her restrictions to make the most of every day.

If all goes according to plan, AyoubZadeh will have soon opened her boutique’s doors and be hosting the latest empowering Zvelle In Conversation event. “It’s also a space that will have arts and culture,” she says. “We’ll have a lounge so that, if you’re in the area, you can come and have a coffee and hang out.” And if everything isn’t exactly on track, that’s OK, too. “I think I have some resilience built in me for these things,” she says. “In general, I’m a positive person. I can’t wait to host everyone and say, ‘Yay, this is behind us!’”

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada