interview series

Building Purposeful Teams

Melanie Elturk

In this series of conversations, Peter Gould explores deep topics with creative leaders, designers and spiritual teachers from around the world. Here, he interviews the founder and CEO of Haute Hijab, Melanie Elturk.

With Haute Hijab, Melanie Elturk has built one of modest fashion’s great success stories. Spotting a gap in the market for high quality, comfortable and stylish hijabs and accessories, she launched what would become many women’s go-to fashion brands. I spoke with Melanie a decade into her entrepreneurial journey about the source of her success: A clear and confident culture and team based around the principle of Ihsan.

In recent months, I’ve been reminded of the importance of having the right team around you. Working across various different projects, including high-pressure startups, has brought home the critical need for the right blend of people who can not only perform well on a technical basis, but also have the right spirit, attitude and heart to help bring the team together during both joyous and difficult times

On several occasions during these months, I’ve thought back to a trip to New York City back in 2019, when I had the pleasure of visiting Melanie Elturk and her team at Haute Hijab – the hugely successful modest fashion and lifestyle brand that specialises in hijabs and accessories.

I remember being blown away by the company — especially its purpose, its quality, and its office dynamic — so I followed up my visit with a call to Melanie some months later to learn more about how they get it so right.

We spoke about many things, including the importance of answering a creative calling, and establishing a heart-centered approach to business — as well as the key to putting together the right team and workplace culture. What she spoke about then still rings true, and serves as lasting counsel as I navigate my own path as a team builder and leader, and strive towards fostering beautiful working environments where people can thrive, fulfil their goals, and feel spiritually uplifted.

“Beyond the product and the community we’ve built, which is really important, I’m proud of the team that we’ve built and the culture that we’re building,” Melanie said at the time.

“And it all starts with the hiring process. I think a lot of people look solely at a potential hire’s competency. Can they do the job? Can they do it well? That’s great, but that’s only half of it. They may be able to do the job well, they may have the skills and the experience, but the other half that we look for is the culture. Are you going to fit into this culture that we’ve created?

We’re trying to ensure that there is Ihsan (excellence) in everything we do. Whether it’s the product, how we interact with our customers, the website, our social media, our blog, everything.

“We’re trying to ensure that there is Ihsan (excellence) in everything we do. Whether it’s the product, how we interact with our customers, the website, our social media, our blog, everything. It’s a huge tenet of our faith. And in order to do this, we have to ensure we’ve got the right people and the right culture.”

The right culture might not always be the easiest thing to come by, but it is definitely a key ingredient in creating a purposeful and successful brand.

Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” — meaning that a strong and empowering workplace culture is more important to the success of your company than any strategy you can devise; a sentiment echoed by Nilofer Merchant in her Harvard Business Review article, ‘Culture Trumps Strategy, Every Time’.

Merchant described culture as “all that invisible stuff that glues organisations together. It includes things like norms of purpose, values, approach — the stuff that’s hard to codify, hard to evaltuate, and certainly hard to measure and therefore manage”.

Across the board, business leaders from Simon Sinek to Sheryl Sandberg, and Tony Hsieh to Arianna Huffington, agree that culture is pivotal, whether that looks like a culture of trust, of collaboration, of inclusivity, open communication or wellbeing.

So what does ‘culture’ mean to Melanie, and how did she establish it at Haute Hijab? She told me that with Ihsan as the central pillar, her team’s culture always had to be about putting people first.

“We're people at the end of the day, we’re not robots,” she said. “We don't just spew out work, we interact with each other, we have friendly conversations at the water cooler. We have lives outside of work. We're people. 

For me, it's people first. People first always. Brand second, work second, product second, people first. Because without the right stir of people, you have nothing — nothing else will work.

“And so for me, it's people first. People first always. Brand second, work second, product second, people first. Because without the right stir of people, you have nothing — nothing else will work. You're only as strong as your weakest player, so if you have one toxic person on your team, you better believe that they're spreading that toxicity to others on your team. So it's people first always, always, always, always, always.”

Inherently spiritual

I was curious to know what that looked like on the ground for the team at Haute Hijab, when it came to the routine of a typical working week. Melanie explained that a core aspect of the company’s culture was spiritual in nature, and that this spirituality spread throughout the team, its habits and its work.

“Brené Brown has this really beautiful theory or quote that says: ‘You cannot divorce spirituality from the workplace when humans are inherently spiritual’. I really believe in that, and it comes through our culture in different ways.

“For example, we have this prayer circle — mainly for the Muslims on the team, but everybody is welcome. It’s an optional thing, but most people opt in. For me, it helps me to forge my identity as a Muslim woman, and as a community leader, which is really important to me.  Everything I do starts and ends with Allah, and my purpose here is to serve him and the world — and the brand is no different.

“So having a culture where we can exercise that is so special. I don’t know how many people can say that they can do that at work with a team that’s half Muslim and half not. But like attracts like, and the non-Muslim members of the team get it. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. There are always some non-Muslims who vibrate towards us, and I’m really glad they found us, and have that like-minded energy. That’s what’s allowed us to thrive.”

As we talked, Melanie traced the company’s spiritually-infused culture back to an earlier time when she lived in Dubai, and worked at the courts.

“If my dad. was in town from Detroit, my judge would tell me: ‘What are you doing? Your dad is here — go home!’ Because nothing is more important than family. This is inherent for Muslims — it’s not just something we try to fit into whatever else we’re doing — and it showed me that we should feel confident to live these Islamic principles in the workplace, and just let them flow. 

I want our dynamic and spiritual culture to be an example where people say, ‘they were able to make it work’.

“In this way, I hope people look at who we are as Muslims and take inspiration from that. I want our dynamic and spiritual culture to be an example where people say, ‘they were able to make it work’.

“When we started out in 2010, hijab as fashion was not really a thing. And there was this underlying  perception that if you were a Muslim brand, you were going to be cheap. Not give a good product or experience. Maybe even rip people off. So I said ‘we’re going to do things better. Chanel was my standard, and I said ‘if Chanel is doing it this way, we’re going to do it this way too; and we’re going to do it better’. 

“I hope we’ve been able to change that perception, and give others a point of reference when they start out.”

Living your purpose

One of the most heartening things we spoke about, which continues to serve as a reminder for me, was the importance of giving people a platform to let their God-given talents and passions shine.

Having moved from a successful legal career in order to start Haute Hijab, Melanie is a firm believer in following what you love. And while she considers herself one of the lucky ones, who enjoyed her previous job, she believes too many young Muslims are walking a professional path that they don’t feel is right for them – sacrificing a creative career for the sake of familial or social expectations. Which, she says, can come at a great cost.

“As Muslims we’ve neglected our roots in the arts for so long,” she said. “And it pains me to have seen so many incredibly talented Muslims just throw it all away to go to med school, or be miserable doing something they didn’t love to do. Whether that’s becoming a pharmacist, a lawyer, an engineer — those conventional careers that our parents accepted. 

“They could sing, they could paint, they could design, they could build websites, and do so many things, yet they weren’t able to utilise those gifts. Not only is it heartbreaking, but it’s a denial of the gifts that God has given you to make the world a better place. 

“One day we’re going to have to have an answer for that because Allah gave us these gifts, but what are we doing with them?

Throughout your life, God is always trying to get you back to your ultimate purpose and what you’re supposed to do.

“Throughout your life, God is always trying to get you back to your ultimate purpose and what you’re supposed to do. And ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s our decision to push it aside and say ‘no, I’m not going to do that thing’.

“Of course there are heavy, heavy expectations and societal pressures within our communities to go into certain fields, but at some point of doing that for however many years miserably, you have to say ‘I’ve got to do me, and I’ve got to do what makes me happy’.”

Like Melanie, I’m a big believer that the professional world gives us an opportunity to fulfill our Amanah — a trust or responsibility gifted in the form of talent, inspiration and skill to be in service to others.  And to take it a step further, having the belief that we are guided into our roles by God rather than by virtue of our own planning can help us to accept and appreciate where we are and what we’re doing at any given time — unaffected by any trials and tribulations that may come our way, safe in the knowledge that we are there for a reason,

“I agree with this 100%,” said Melanie. “I don’t want to sound any type of way, but I know and realise that, alhamdulillah, Allah has put us in a position where we are a leader in this space, and put me in a position where I am a leader in this space. 

“People are looking to us and seeing what we’re doing, whether in this industry, or as an entrepreneur, or a business owner, a Muslim woman CEO, or whatever it is. So I feel a responsibility and an Amanah because of that. And that’s huge. It’s humbling. 

“It’s taken time to accept and step into that, though. I was previously shy to do it because I was afraid of being arrogant. But now I know and understand that as long as you credit it to God, and know that it’s Him that allowed you to be in this place, and gave you the tools, the gifts, the talents — and that He can take it all away at any moment — then it’s ok. 

“And while you’re in that position, you’ve got to do right with it. That’s why I’m so proud of the team and the culture that we’ve built. This team truly acts like a blueprint for other teams, and I’m really grateful to have had the chance to do that.”

The best proof of Melanie’s team-and-culture building acumen might just be the fact Haute Hijab is still thriving, still growing, and still fostering a working environment that feels inclusive, safe, progressive and energising for employees — and of course the fact that I still think back to that visit to their office four years ago.

I really appreciate Melanie’s dedication to developing a positive culture for all her team members to feel part of, and. I take inspiration in the way she has placed faith at the centre of her approach. It’s a powerful reminder that the professional and spiritual paths do not have to deviate. Rather they can be one and the same, giving you and your team greater purpose and greater drive to do good in the world.

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