Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  ‘I’m the Only Woman On The Factory Floor’: A Soho Story

A couple of years ago, I got an email inviting me to speak on an international panel about gender-based violence, to raise awareness around the issue and funds for CARE International. I wrote back politely, declining. The organizer, Salma Merchant Rahmathulla, wrote back, again, and invited me, again. I said no, again. A few days later, she wrote back and invited me for lunch. Whoa, I thought, persistent. I wrote back saying I would love to have lunch but I still wasn’t going to be on the panel. She agreed, turned out to be a delightful person, treated me to lunch, and here we are.

Salma is a force of nature. She’s a New Yorker, a Londonite, a Mumbaikar, a Parisian, a business tycoon, a mother, a wife, a fashionista, a philanthropist, and rather unfairly dazzling to behold. Just another average Muslim woman in Manhattan.

She is the director of Pelicans Group, a family-owned multinational design and manufacturing company making bespoke items for the luxury market. In plain language, she helps churn out high-class leather (mostly) products for fashion houses, hotels and automobile companies. She spots trends, works with her design team, meets with clients, manages teams in several countries, and develops strategies for new products and markets.

The customers include Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, Aston Martin, Tom Ford, Tory Burch, Dorchester Collection, Oberoi Hotels and Resorts and Kensington Palace, to name a few. I wish they included me but no such luck, someone borrowed my Aston Martin and forgot to return it.

Salma’s father began the business 32 years ago in the UK. Now they have more than 1,500 employees on three continents. The factory workers are both Hindu and Muslim. “It’s quite beautiful how all faiths work together in harmony, celebrating Diwali and Eid together," she tells me.

She didn’t always work in the family business. After getting her master’s at the London School of Economics and Political Science, she worked for the BBC and helped create a human rights programme on genocide in Africa. Then she worked as an analyst for JP Morgan in London and Paris. Then she went to India where, in Mumbai, she worked with the not-for-profit Akanksha in a mentoring programme for street children. In Uttarakhand, she helped evaluate a youth and health initiative among rural Himalayan communities for another not-for-profit, Chirag. After that it was off to New York and Washington, DC to work for the United Nations and the World Bank. Only after all this experience was under her (leather) belt did she go to Mumbai/London to join the family business and help set up the India operation.

She wanted to impress her father. “I was very corporate in my plan," she tells me. She created a detailed dossier. “We went out for a meal. After the appetizer and the meal, when it was dessert time, I said, look, I have this whole presentation. He didn’t even look at it. He said there’s nothing to discuss, just do it."

So she did. “There, I’m the only woman on the factory floor," she says.

She ditched the suit and got a separate wardrobe for the factory in Nashik. She had to be taken seriously. Khadi kurtas and saris were deployed.

In New York, she scouts for ideas and works long-distance with her team. She remains deeply involved with philanthropy and culture; not long ago, she held a fund-raiser for Syrian refugees. A few months ago, I attended a fascinating evening at her house involving Sufi dancers, a talk by author William Dalrymple, scintillating guests and, of course, lip-smacking food (I did not smack my lips in public, but my mind was smacking its lips) wafted about by delicious-looking servers.

“We want the home to not just be a place to have fun but where good things happen," she tells me. “That’s our little mark on the world." She is pleased about how the Sufi evening involved the beautiful side of Islam, culture, history, connections, and music.

Why is she back in New York? “I moved for love." Of course. What is a good story without romance? A friend set her up with Adil Rahmathulla in 2011 and they got engaged in 111 days. Adil proposed to her in Mumbai, where he had taken her to Ghatkopar to show her his Tamilian Brahmin roots on his mother’s side. Now they have a son, Armaan.

Salma loves wandering around New York and finding trends for her design team. It could be gift items for men. It could be technology accessories for women. She chooses the colours that are fashionable, and predicts what will come into fashion. Right now she’s working on a project for a major New York fashion house. She analyses hotel trends: For example, she knows that at the moment public spaces are more important than private rooms, which are shrinking in size and importance.

“I love being a mum but also being able to follow my own passions. I’m very fortunate to have good help. If you can focus on a couple of things really well, that’s a beautiful life. It makes you a better mum, a better wife, a better human being."

Here is a person who has privilege and brains, and uses both well. She buys lunch for a churlish writer who keeps saying no. She is a boss. She is a friend. She is a family woman. She has a cheery spirit.

Sometimes Salma and I meet and have a cup of tea in a nice little café on 11th and Broadway. I hope we can do it again soon, before Donald Trump decides to deport us both.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also read | Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns.

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