By Sonya Rehman
Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, the Pakistani entrepreneurs behind the shoe start-up, Atoms, never fathomed how much their lives would change in the nine years since their foray into Pakistan’s – now thriving – start-up scene.
In 2011, the young entrepreneurs were still learning the ropes after the launch of Markhor, a shoe start-up which focused on sustaining the craft of handmade leather shoes in Pakistan. Working with a small group of master craftsmen in their hometown, Okara (a city in the province of Punjab, in Pakistan), Ali and Qasim worked closely with their artisans to produce shoes that not only looked good, but felt good too.
After landing a Google-backed grant program in Pakistan, roughly a year into their start-up journey with Markhor, things began looking up for the entrepreneurs. Fast forward a few years later, and in 2015, the husband-wife duo left for the United States after being selected for the Y Combinator start-up accelerator program in Silicon Valley.
“We started Markhor with big ambition, and that still continues,” states Qasim, “Though I didn’t imagine us ever making sneakers and building a company like Atoms.”
Based in Brooklyn, New York, Ali and Qasim have gone from strength to strength with their new shoe start-up that is built on the same foundation of careful, consumer-driven product design where craftsmanship is at the heart of their business.
“Markhor taught us so many lessons about product, design and community. We are carrying on the same ethos in Atoms. In fact, now when we have access to more resources and cultural awareness, we are able to execute our ideas better,” Qasim says.
While the past few years have been challenging in their own ways for the entrepreneurs, primarily their move from Lahore to Silicon Valley, spearheading Atoms in San Francisco, and then eventually setting up shop in New York, the trajectory of Ali and Qasim’s growth as entrepreneurs is not only fascinating, but also, awe-inspiring.
With 18 full-time employees, Atoms is rapidly creating a name for itself in the multi-billion dollar footwear market in the United States. But while some would balk at transitioning from artisanal, formal shoes to everyday sneakers, Qasim reveals that the shift was smooth-sailing for her and Ali.
Minimalist, comfortable and durable, the entrepreneurs took their time in figuring out and unraveling the Atoms prototype.
“We spent a lot of time thinking deeply about what the common element is in the products and experiences that one goes through on a daily basis,” Qasim says, “We realized that the answer was simplicity. The execution was a totally different game though! This might sound like an exaggeration, but making a shoe that is both comfortable and durable is incredibly challenging; it gets harder when you let simplicity be your compass. [Ali] and I also deeply care about the environmental impact and sustainability and big part of that for us is: will it last? We were spending a lot of time reading books in the Golden Gate Park of San Francisco, so we were quite inspired by nature and a big emphasis went into choosing to work with environmental-friendly materials.”
Having donated over 100,000 reusable Atoms face masks to healthcare workers and community organizations during the pandemic, Qasim states that Atoms hopes to continue to “respond to changes in a thoughtful way.”
Currently in the midst of launching their limited edition, eco-friendly, Tie-Dye Blue sneakers, this month, Qasim states that the past five years has been an incredible learning curve for her and her partner.
“Still,” she adds, “It feels like we are just starting off in many ways…I think that’s the most beautiful part about our journey.”