Atoms Co-Founder Sidra Qasim on Her Humans of New York Experience

2/8/2021 · Ann Binlot

Atoms co-founder Sidra Qasim’s courageous story about her journey from Pakistan to Silicon Valley to participate in Y Combinator, to New York to start the sneaker company recently made an impact across the world when Brandon Stanton published it on his platform, Humans of New York on January 28, 2021. In the days that followed, Qasim found herself both elated and overwhelmed by the newfound attention for both herself and Atoms. A lot of you wondered, How did the story come about? We sat down with Sidra to learn everything about her experience working with Stanton to create the emotionally gripping narrative that captured the hearts of people around the world, not only because we wanted to know, but because we thought you want to know as well. Sidra shares how the story came about, what her interview process was like, and why it led to one of the most important moments of her life.

Do you remember the moment you first discovered humans of New York and how it made you feel?

It was 2011. Very early on. I remember a few posts in 2012. Waqas and I were living with two of our friends. We were also discussing the dressing sense of New Yorkers. Because the kind of photos he was taking, like some people, they would like to dress crazier. Some, they would dress high fashion. That was very interesting, how he was capturing the vibe of New York. I was reading that story, I was thinking, Wow, people in New York — they are so inspiring. That was my only lens to see New York.

What was your perception of New York at the time?

Right now when I got a chance to live in the city, it's very different. We moved here in 2019. We lived in Brooklyn, and now we are living in Manhattan. At the time, I thought [it would be] a lot of people [who] are always outside. Then something is going on, like someone would be dancing, someone is in crazy clothes, or someone is in a different kind of mood. We also saw parts of New York captured in movies, and there was also a vibe there. At the same time, New York felt very human because of Humans of New York. It felt like it has a face. When you think about some other cities or countries, you think about some kind of landscape or some kind of touristy places. But whenever I was thinking about New York, I was thinking about people mostly. And I think that is a lot more an effect of Humans of New York in that perception.

How did you meet Brandon Stanton, the founder of Humans of New York?

We had a pop up in Soho at the end of 2019. And then we were looking for some guest speakers — people who can come to our pop-up [shop], and then meet with our community. We found out that our board member Alexis Ohanian is friends with Brandon. So we reached out to Alexis and said, “Hey, this is a wild dream, but we are thinking about if you can talk to him, if he can come to our event. Just you know, a small interview. We would love to have him. He would love the vibe.” He said, “Okay, let me ask him, let me try.” He asked Brandon, and Brandon said, “Going to a corporate event would be the last thing I would like to do.” He was thinking about Atoms as a company instead of wondering, Who are the people behind it? There was no context from him. Alexis provided some context, and he said, “That’s interesting, it’s a startup, it’s a small business.” He agreed to go to the event, but he said, “I would like Alexis to interview me.” So Alexis flew from a different city, he came to our pop-up, and he did an interview. It was all packed. There was no place to even stand. I could only stand in the stairs of the basement. Brandon was on my left side. It was unreal to be honest, standing there and thinking about that, Oh this is the person who was writing all those stories. Then someone in the audience mentioned to him, “You are covering different stories. Sidra and Waqas have amazing stories, so it would be great if you can look into that.” Someone else said that the founders of this company are from Pakistan, and the journey is amazing. When he heard from the crowd, he started taking more interest. I was thinking, What if I finally meet with Brendan, in the subway, or in a Central Park. If he asked me a question, what am I going to answer? I told him I kept thinking of that my first two months in New York, and he laughed. He was the last person to leave that night. Everyone left. The event went longer than we expected. He stayed almost three-and-a-half hours. He loved the crowd and the engagement and everything.

How did you keep in touch after?

He said, “Okay, can I get your number? I'll send you a text message. Can we meet for breakfast?” The next day we met for breakfast, and it was a common, normal conversation. He asked about the business, how we are thinking about how our shoes are, how we made shoes. All of that detail. It was a very normal conversation. And then he said, he said he said nothing. And then we were walking and we saw one person who was from the United Kingdom wearing Atoms in the street, and I said, “Oh he’s wearing Atoms,” and then Waqas and I were silent. Then Brandon stopped that person, and said, you know the shoes you are wearing? These are the founders of that company. Then he started the conversation. He asked, “How?” How did you decide to buy the shoes, and he said, like he heard about the shoes. He said some celebrity was wearing the shoes, and then he Googled that, and he was in New York and learned we had a pop-up store, so he bought shoes from there. We talked about how we met our customer in the street. The next time, he invited us for lunch and then he said, “Let's have a conversation.” I might like to do a story on you. And then he said, “Tell me about yourself.” And that was the starting point.

How long ago was that?

October, November 2019.

When did you do your first formal interview with him?

At first we thought, okay, he can publish the story in the start of 2020, but then the pandemic happened, and then he left the city and there was a lot of uncertainty. Then we met again in August. He interviewed me several times, about a dozen times over the phone. Then we had an email exchange, then text message, like whenever he was writing a story, he was writing the whole incident. Then he would ask me for more details. He asked about when I met with Waqas, and I told him about things that happened. Then he would ask, “What was his whole appearance? When did you see him for the first time? It was interesting, especially for the struggling part, I couldn’t remember a lot of the details because there was a lot of stress present with those memories. I was also putting myself on hold. So I just remember the main facts or incidents that happened, but not a lot of details.

You shared a lot of intimate personal details of your life. Were you ever hesitant about sharing your whole story on Humans of New York?

To be honest, I was never hesitant to share my story. There were two things — one is a lot of my story with my siblings, they had no idea. Most of my siblings, they are younger than me, I have an older sister, who is two-and-a-half years older than me. In my family, they don’t know a lot of details about my story. I mentioned to them several times some parts of my story. But the other thing was, I was continuously thinking back and reflecting on my journey. Because for me thinking about a woman who would like to live her life and be you know, would like to make her own life, it was very, very important. I remember we went into our first workshop where we were making our shoes. Jacqueline Novogratz, who is the founder of Acumen, asked me this question, “So, what is the cost of what you are doing?” Then she asked, “What is the price that you’re paying?” That was a very deep question. Nobody had ever asked what is the price you pay. I wanted to share my side because I knew a lot of girls were struggling with their identities. We generalize ourselves as humans, but then as a person, we are all so different. We need freedom. We need empowerment. That’s why it was important. When the story was going to be published, I was scared. That was a different kind of anxiety. It was not about like, hey, my intimate details will go out and all of that, but it was a different kind of pressure of how people will receive it, would people receive it the way I want them to receive it?

Do you recall seeing any inspirational stories about strong women when you were finding your own way?

Yeah, a lot of them actually. Jacqueline Novogratz’s story was very inspiring for me, like how she started, but she also had a lot of support and systems, which sometimes can be a liability, because some of her friends would say, hey, you can head of XYZ, why are you working on the baseline? It might feel strange at the moment because of Facebook, but I remember Lean In. That’s when I connected the most. She talked about the first time, let’s sit at the table. Most of the time, as a woman in the room, I thought you have to be a supportive partner in any conversation or in any situation. But not, you can be the center, you can sit at the table. She introduced that idea to me, but quite recently in 2020. I started watching a lot of female-focused movies and shows, which gave me a lot of strength. Queen is a very interesting show. It’s based on a lot of women’s stories. Yes, there is the story of the British Empire, and there is a lot of drama. I felt more connected with women who are strong. Then there is the Queen’s Gambit. That was very inspiring for me. It was all about a female main character, it was about a sport that isn’t celebrated, and it’s highly intellectual. Last year was the first time I noticed a lot of womencentric movies. There are a lot of movies where the man is the hero. I noticed I started using the word ‘he’ when referring to entrepreneurs. Last year, I started connecting more with women founders, mentors, and I felt that they understand me more.

How did Brandon make you feel when he interviewed you? Was it easy for you to share your deepest, darkest stories with him?

He has a lot of patience. He's a very good listener. He thinks about the story in a format. He asked a lot of tough questions, like, “How would you describe your mother?” You look at your mother or your father as like figures, you don't build a personality on top of it the way you would if someone asks you, “Can you tell me what your friend’s personality is like?” That was a hard question for me. Maybe it would be easy for someone else to answer that question. Yeah, I cried a lot during the interviews.

You spoke about very painful things.

Yeah. The other interesting thing is we also connected with each other on a very different level, I need to learn about him. He would ask a lot of deep details. I would sometimes feel embarrassed because I lived this life and I didn’t remember things. He would ask me about my time in Lahore, about the environment, or the words used. I don’t remember a lot of details except the harsh ones, or really good ones. The medium details, I don’t remember. It feels like my brain washed those memories because I wanted to focus on myself or one goal. Like if I make this company successful, I’ll get out of this, I’ll change this, I’ll make a change for myself, my family, or other girls. He wrote about 50 to 70 pages. It was a long scroll. Then we condensed it to 5,400 words. So condensing from there was very, very difficult. A lot of incidents are not mentioned in this story, but I think the most important ones are.

When was your last interview with Brandon?

The day we published the story. (laughing) He kept asking me some small details too. I would say one interview was a day before he published the story. Even when he saw the first draft, we spoke over the phone. He would like to keep the voice of the person, but he edits the story until the last minute, even when he’s posting on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Wow, he works right up until the last minute. I mean the editing process could go on forever if you let it. You just have to cut it off.

Yeah, that’s what he also said. He keeps working on a story no matter how many hours, how many days it takes. He explained, “When I feel this is the best, then I stop editing the bigger part of it, to then format the story.” He worked very hard.

What was going on in your head as the story was unfolding on Instagram and the web?

I felt a lot of responsibility. I already read the story. It came to me in several drafts, and the final draft too. But then I read the story with the audience. That was completely different. Like you read that one chapter, and then you read how people are feeling about that. And then you feel a responsibility. And you feel good. It was extreme happiness.You read that one chapter, and then you read how people are feeling about that. I was not sad, but it was very emotional. The other emotional part was that a lot of people have gone through similar experiences. They were looking into their life, and they mentioned this is happening to me. That was very interesting for me. I was continuously thinking, My story is commonly lived, but not commonly told. We received a lot of love from people. To handle this much love is overwhelming.

How did your family feel when they read the story?

My younger sisters, they read the story first. And they were waiting for the next story. Because the story was published in 11 chapters. I did not share with them any detail beforehand. So they were reading on the platform. They were sending me text messages and they were crying. And they were saying, “Oh, you know you were in front of us. We did not know this much detail.” My parents read the story over the weekend. My father read before, my mother read later on, so they were both discussing the story over the weekend. They felt great, like I had a call with them. My father told me in Urdu, “You know I am so proud of you. You keep on doing amazing things.” He was very emotional. He said, “Wherever you are, it’s because of your hard work.” Then I had a call with my mother. She was so happy. I felt a sense of satisfaction and pride in her voice, which was very important to me. If I look back I have more resentment towards the women in my life than the men. The reason is I expected more from them, that they would understand. You shouldn’t have to explain so much because most of us are going through the same circumstances. Listening to that from my mother and my sister was very important for me. It was the most important moment of my life. I was happy about Atoms, but I was more happy to hear from my father, my mother, and my siblings.

What has been the response for both you personally, and for Atoms?

The Humans of New York community is, like he said, very human. People look at you as a human. This community is so much different than any other community that is on the internet because of the stories that have been told on this platform. I would have not been able to find any other platform to tell this story. I felt satisfied because we all connected and we are not an emotional family. My father was financial support. My mother was on the forefront. She was a strong woman. I identify with my mother. She is the person who is making the investments. With my friends, and my colleagues and people who I knew for so many years, I was able to connect with them in a very different way, a deeply personal way. There is something with this story that came out from everyone, where we build that connection. For Atoms, we all saw that big spike of sales. A lot of the progress that we made in these last three days from Humans of New York, it was bigger than what we did in our first year of the company. It’s huge. I’m more excited about the people who are connected to us because of that story now. They are connected to us, not just from a transactional side of the business, but also they are kind of connected because we are human. There was a desire to actually build a company where there can be more transparency, like we can share, even when we make mistakes. Sometimes you have to show vulnerability.

How do you feel knowing that sharing your story will inspire countless other little girls of color to dream big?

So if you see his last chapter, he mentioned a little girl instead of a woman. It was intentional. When I was talking to you, you still have lots of fears and doubts and all those and there was a lot of curiosity from that point of view. We talked about that there should be a redemption story at the end like you know the relationship because it started with the household relationship so it should end with that where it is right now. If I look back my life was not just like, hey, it was around my home. It was also like not of it is outside where I was doing struggles, how I lived in the hostel so there was a lot of like small stories to living in girls hostel, or kind of environment, over there was how people were looking at me, and not getting enough admiration for for the work lot of, like we both were working together but every time Waqas was mentioned more. Like I would go with him, and they would mention, This is Waqas’ business. I remember Waqas corrected them, and said, no this is her business, you know it’s both of us. So I think like coming from that kind of small sensitivity to also facing some bigger challenges. Now where I am, I feel like really good about that and I feel a sense of responsibility.

What's next for you and what's next for Atoms?

My real work just started. I connected with a lot of people, and want to figure out how I can help. For Atoms again like. It's a great start, I would say, and you actually also mentioned that, now we have to take this forward, and think about what we can do more. Our main focus is right now to deliver the 17,000 shoes with best experience as soon as possible. The second thing is like there are some exciting projects coming up throughout the year. That is going to give us another shape. Then how we take this community along. They should be a part of us from now on. They should be able to see what we are doing, what we are not doing, and create excitement, because they want to see us successful. They would be here for us, even if we fail. So that’s what I’m excited about — a large number of people who are looking at us from a human angle instead of a business angle.

Great, and congratulations on your story and sharing it with the world. Thank you so much. That took so much strength.