Zehra is a sophomore at Columbia University, motivated to change beauty standards through her company shopGLO. She was born in Singapore, grew up in Hong Kong, and is now living in New York City. During our conversation, she spoke quickly and with passion as she explained the importance of making sure all women know they are beautiful regardless of skin tone.
Zehra, tell us about growing up in Asia.
I was born in Singapore and ended up moving to Hong Kong when I was four. I feel like Hong Kong is my home, but I view myself as a Pakistani woman. It was easier for me to adapt to New York City given that I attended an international school in Hong Kong for 14 years.
“Even if you think that posting something on your Instagram story makes no difference, you have a voice and you can educate other people on these issues just by spreading a message.”
How much time did you spend in Pakistan as a kid?
Both of my parents grew up in Pakistan, and I go back roughly 3-4 times per year. I am very in tune with my culture and I’m aware of how lucky I am to have that experience. It’s a very large part of my identity not just in the way I look, but the history and politics that have shaped the country.
Being Pakistani in Hong Kong, as a child, I never really saw myself as “the other” or isolated from the wider East Asian community. As I grew older, I realized that there are many discriminatory practices that are so ingrained in Asia that I didn’t realize weren’t normal. Specifically colorism. Anywhere you go in Asia, there are beauty advertisements that focus on having fair skin. There are companies that makes skin lightening products and skin bleach. The implication then becomes if you want to be beautiful, you have to have light skin. This is something very well-known and heavily normalized in Asia.
I always saw this as a child in both Hong Kong and in Pakistan; two cultures that are so different but had common beauty standards. Both places became constant reminders that light skin was beautiful and anything darker was not. At age 12, I started to realize it was such a big issue. I became increasingly aware that I wasn’t as fair as others, and there were these nuanced perceptions of how this came to me.
When did you start learning about colorism and trying to address it?
The film, Dark Girl by Oprah, was my first exposure to the word colorism. I never heard of it before that and had no idea that it was an issue beyond something I had just created in my mind. This is why it’s such a big issue because there’s no one discussing it in Asia. I thought I was the only person that realized this, and then I realized other ethnic communities felt it too.
How did shopGLO come from your concerns with colorism?
The empowerment campaign really derived from the need to discuss colorism in Hong Kong, and some of my experiences in America, but initially it was addressing issues I found in Asia.
Where did you interest in fashion start?
I was always interested in fashion and its influence especially when I went back to Pakistan. It’s one place that wedding culture has not changed in centuries; it’s the same clothes, music, traditions, and dancing at the weddings that happened now or years ago in the subcontinent. My grandmother was the fashion designer of our family and she would design our clothes for Eid or Shaadi’s (Weddings). She would meticulously choose the fabric, etch out a design, match pieces together, choose embellishment then created some of my favorite salwar kameez’s (traditional Pakistani clothing). I would watch her put together all of these fabrics. I’d be so fascinated in the fabrics that I would cut pieces off and keep them in a small pouch and would take little swatches back with me to Hong Kong. This fascination led to an interest in designing my own clothes; I began to proudly announce that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I would sit there and draw and draw and draw clothes everyday. I even started keeping track of trends in my middle school and analyzed them. It was when I was in 7th grade, I noticed a huge demand for graphic t-shirts.
How did you start Shop Glo?
I started the company at age 13 as a graphic t-shirt brand along with my younger sister, Sophia Naqvi. The brand grew with us and shifted from topical graphic tshirts to designs focused on colorism, activism, inclusion, and diversity. At the time, Hong Kong island was lacking in a variety of clothing stores that preteens and teenagers alike wanted to shop in. This demand happened at the same time as the boom of the beauty influencer industry; preteens and teenagers were becoming increasingly influenced by girls posting videos on YouTube and were interested in products they recommend. We’d see Bath & Body Works, Sephora, Forever 21, or PINK recommended in their videos but none of these stores had locations in Hong Kong. The blending of my interest in fashion, the analytical approach to trends, and this market gap led to the perfect opportunity to start a business that addressed this issue. From then on out GLO went from a dream to a reality.
What are you doing with shopGLO today?
At Columbia I’m lucky to be part of a Columbia Business School Undergraduate Class titled “Venturing to Change the World.” We learn about entrepreneurship and we discuss what is needed to be an entrepreneur today. I feel like GLO’s entire business, the clothing, and the activism, is about making a statement without making a sound.We believe that fashion is one of the best platforms for discussion. It’s a medium so many people understand and acts as a form of activism. The empowerment campaign started with the shirts. When you wear a shirt you aren’t just empowering yourself but you are educating others who read your shirt without doing anything necessarily and it doesn’t take any energy. Fashion is such an amazing platform to evoke a change.
How can others join this discussion on colorism and beauty?
This information is not at all as widely discussed as it should be. Post about it and talk about it! Even if you think that posting something on your Instagram story makes no difference, you have a voice and you can educate other people on these issues just by spreading a message.
What’s your opinion on fast fashion?
I’m going to be very blunt. I didn’t know much about it until about three years ago and I didn’t know how detrimental it is to the environment. I think it’d really important that more awareness is raised regarding this. There are multiple big-name fashion brands that still use cheap labor and and produce copious amounts of waste. I strive to ensure GLO stays sustainable with ethical production in Hong Kong, and avoids the human rights abuses of sweatshop labor.
What does it mean for you to be powerful?
I get a lot of my power from knowing the position I was in 10 years ago, and thinking about myself, and how I viewed the world. These were all issues that were pushed into my world at such a young age, and I’ve decided that I don’t want any other young girl to go through this. There was so much ingrained in me that made me feel like I had to change myself to meet these standards. There is far more conversation in the U.S. about these types of topics, but in Asia there are girls being raised in environments that are damaging to their self-worth. I am so motivated to make a difference in this in every way I can, even having conversations with girls my age that have never talked about colorism and have never spoken out loud about it. Even at Columbia people don’t realize how fortunate we are to have this education, and we are so lucky to be learning what we learn.
Is there anything else you want to share?
Emily, Gretta, Tolu, Kate, Sarah, Fatima, Margot, and Em have shaped the way I see GLO growing. Their passion and diligence have taken this brand to another level.
Visit shopGLO here: