MEDITATION CHANGED MY LIFE. Imran Amed is founder, editor-in-chief and CEO of The Business of Fashion, often known as BoF, a modern media company dedicated to the world of fashion, luxury and beauty. He is one of the fashion industry’s leading writers, thinkers and commentators.
Imran Amed, your Indian origin family were living in East Africa before moving to Canada where you were born and grew up and eventually went to McGill University. You went to Harvard Business School and worked internationally for McKinsey, a global management consultancy. What did this background give you?
A perspective to see the world in a different way than people who stay and live in one part of the world and see the world through one cultural or geographic lens. People talk about being global citizens or being multicultural or having multiple identities. My family’s history and my personal history reflect who I am, and, as an editor, my unique perspective on the world.
You have not always been an editor, and if I am not wrong you could have had a career as a singer or in the theatre?
I was one of those kids growing up who had a lot of different interests. Thanks to my parents I was trained from a young age in music, drama and public speaking. I thrive on engaging with lots of different types of people. I didn’t have one group of friends. I hung out with the drama and music people, and with the nerdy kids who were doing the International Baccalaureate programme, and some of my friends were the cool sporty, athletic people. I’ve always been a floater that can bridge between different groups.
Your parents relocated back to Nairobi when you were still at McGill University in Montréal. Why did you come to London?
There were no direct flights between Montréal and Nairobi, so I had to stop somewhere. On those two or three day layovers in London I got a taste of what was here. I wanted to expose myself to cultures that were different than the ones I grew up with. In 1998 I went to the managing director of the Deloitte Consulting office that I worked in and said I would like to transfer to Paris or London. He told me it was impossible because I was 22 years old and my skills were not so special that they could justify shipping me over to another country. But I wanted global experience, and I managed to get a fellowship in Bangladesh. The day I was going to quit and tell Deloitte that I had just got this fellowship, the managing director called me to the office and said, “I have good news for you. I managed to find you a way to get to London for 12 months.” I loved it, but I wasn’t here that much because doing business strategy consulting at 5 am Monday morning I’d get on an aeroplane and fly to Switzerland or Norway or somewhere.
“People are very interested in fashion. It’s like catnip.”
Imran Amed, then you were accepted by Harvard Business School (HBS)?
Yes, I thought business school was the natural next step to build my CV. I got into McGill so I could get into a good company, so I could get into a good business school, so I could get into another company. That was how I directed my energy at the time, ticking these boxes.
What did you learn?
University education for me is about learning to process large amounts of information, developing critical thinking skills and learning to choose between the various competing priorities there are for what you can do — and who you want to spend time with.
You were at HBS when the 9/11 terror attacks happened. How did they affect you?
It was a very emotional time on campus. Understandably people were very upset. This was September, the beginning of the school year. I was in my second year, but a lot of the Muslim students who had come from Egypt or Saudi Arabia or the UAE or Turkey had just arrived in the US; and the sentiment amongst some students on campus very quickly became Islamophobic — more out of ignorance than hatred. I grew up in the Ismaili Muslim community. Being Muslim is part of my identity. So, in an institution like HBS, when people start saying terrible, misinformed, ignorant things in class and they’re not challenged by the teachers, you start to feel a little bit vulnerable. So we gathered all the Muslim students together and said to them that it was our responsibility educate our classmates about Islam. I had to do that in a classroom one day. When I looked in that whole classroom, not one of them was Muslim. The only person who could speak up in that room was me. So I did it.
What did you say? That you disassociated from what had happened, that you were not responsible and that it was as terrible for you as for the others?
I said all of those things. I also said that there’s more than a billion people in the world who are Muslim, and if there’s a small group of people who take an action you cannot hold that against a billion people. “The tenets of Islam are not based on this abhorrent violence and terrorism, and Muslim people are just as upset about this as other people are. It’s terrible.” This was one of those first moments where I realised that leadership can be very uncomfortable at times. And even now, when I talk about it, I can feel my body and my energy change because it brings up these emotions. It was one of those defining moments that really helped me understand what my purpose is.
Before you became an entrepreneur you worked as an employee. What was your title at McKinsey?
Engagement manager. My work was intellectually stimulating and I worked with very bright people in Australia, in South Africa, all across Europe, and I was having a very rich, professional experience, but I didn’t care about construction or real estate or pharmaceuticals or financial services or the other industries I was working in. I worked in all of those industries and there was no passion.
How did you find your passion?
I’m lucky to have done it. After three years I asked for a sabbatical. I had to write a business case for why it was a good idea for me to have some time off. I had been in India for a holiday with my parents and I was feeling really low. I’d lost a lot of weight and I was burnt out. I was in an airport to go from New Delhi to Dhaka in Bangladesh, to visit a friend of mine who was on that same fellowship that I had originally applied for, when a man came up to me in the airport and said: “I need to tell you about your life.”
What kind of man?
A Sikh with a big turban. I said to him, “Listen, I’m leaving India. I don’t have any money to give you.” Then the sound system said my flight had been delayed by 2 hours, and he said, “I don’t want your money. I’m on the same flight to Dhaka. Sit down with me.” I spent a bit of time with him, and after a few minutes he said, “You’re not listening to me.” He took a piece of paper, wrote down some stuff, crumpled the paper up and put it in my hand. Then he asked me: “What’s your favourite colour?” I said blue because at McKinsey they were telling me I should wear blue shirts. “What’s your flower?” I said, lily, because my cousin’s wife had lilies in her wedding bouquet. He wrote my name down and put the numbers from 1 to 5 on top of my name. He said, “Which number do you pick?” I picked 3 because it was right in the middle. And he said, “Open your hand.” I opened my hand. It said: Blue, Lily, 3 on the piece of paper he’d given me five minutes earlier. He said, “Now, will you listen to me?” It was like a lightning bolt. He gave me a lot of advice, but at the end of that advice, he said to me, “I want you to go practice meditation.” In our culture and our religion there’s a form of meditation that happens every day at four in the morning, and my maternal grandfather did this every single day, and I never managed to learn how to do it. I went back to London and I asked McKinsey for time off. I went to New York to finish a project I was working on and met up with an Ismaili friend of mine from business school, and she said, “What’s wrong? I can tell something’s not right. And I told her what was going on and she said, “I have a specific meditation I want to recommend to you. It’s called Vipassana meditation. It’s very intense. You have to spend ten days in complete silence. No reading, no writing, no music, no eye contact, zero engagement with the outside world.” I ended up going to South Africa to do this meditation course. I stayed in a room with one other person who I was not allowed to engage with or talk to or look at in the eye for ten days. Vipassana meditation changed my life.
“We no longer call BoF a blog. It’s a modern media company now.”
Imran Amed, how did Vipassana meditation change your life?
It rewired me. It rewired the way I understood myself. It rewired the way I think about struggle. Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation. Basically, it says don’t crave or get attached to things, and if bad things happen don’t reject them, don’t respond, don’t react to them. Just remain equanimous. I was a very mercurial person who used to react to things a lot and to worry a lot, and I lacked the confidence to go out and carve my own path but when I finished that meditation course I flew to Nairobi, sat down with my parents – who were very worried about me because their overachieving son had taken three months off of work and gone into a forest in South Africa to do a meditation course. I said to them, “I want to make some changes to my life. You’ve given me everything. You gave me the best education, you gave me the best opportunity. I’ve done everything I was supposed to do, but I don’t feel happy.” So they said, “We’ll support you. Do whatever you want.”
What did you do?
I quit my job and started talking to people in fashion, music and television. I knew I wanted to work in a creative industry. I had met with young fashion designers who told me how much they were struggling because they didn’t know anything about business. I was looking back at the history of fashion: Yves St Laurent had Pierre Bergé, Giorgio Armani had Sergio Galeotti before he died, Tom Ford had Domenico De Sole, and Marc Jacobs had Robert Duffy. Maybe I could be the business person and they would be the creative person and we’d build something together. I set up this incubator for young fashion designers, where we would provide the support on the things that they wouldn’t be able to do and they could focus on their creativity, and I raised a little bit of capital but it didn’t last. It lasted eight months, but while I was setting it up I had started writing a blog behind a password for my friends and family to follow my journey from McKinsey into the fashion industry. It was for fun and I really loved the process of writing things down.
What were you writing?
I did not come from the world of fashion, and all of a sudden I was starting to see the inside of this world, things that you only ever saw in magazines. The industry was filled with all of these interesting characters and creative people. At McKinsey, my job was to go inside organisations and industries and try to understand them, so I was basically forming a mental map about how this whole industry works because I didn’t know anything about it. But then, of course, the company failed and I had to lay off the two people we had hired. It was probably the first really big failure in my life. But I remember having this thought go through my head: “I know there’s something for me here in this industry. I just don’t know what it is yet.” That January I took the password off that blog. I made a little banner in PowerPoint and I called it The Business of Fashion (BoF). And I just started writing. And now anyone could read it, because there was no password.
Did they pay for it?
No, it was free. I had managed to get some independent consulting work in the fashion industry and in the evenings I would write my blog on my sofa for fun. Soon, people were calling me from all over the world to give speaking engagements and to talk to their executive teams. I was teaching a course at Central Saint Martins. I had started writing articles for the Financial Times. I was doing a thousand things just because this blog had opened up so many opportunities for me. I was so excited and I was so passionate and I was learning so much and it was amazing. But I wasn’t sleeping. I didn’t have a proper infrastructure to run the website. I had hired a few people and had an assistant who was helping me and a couple of contributors. An editor in New York was helping me edit articles, but it was a very rickety, unstable infrastructure. And BoF just kept growing. In 2012, a variety of different organisations, investors, venture capitalists all started coming to me saying, what do you want? What are you going to do with this? I realised that potentially the website could be a real business, so I spent some time with one of my best friends from McGill and we raised some money. I stopped all my consulting work and in February 2013 four of us set BoF up as a proper business.
How many are you now?
Today we’re 100 people. More than 75% of our revenue comes through subscriptions that cost $300 on an individual basis. We also sell bulk subscriptions to companies who get a volume discount. We have about 100,000 subscribers today in more than 125 countries who can read our articles and in-depth case studies. We have a little bit of advertising. We do events. We have a careers business. We have a new business which is around data and analytical insights for the industry. We have one of the most popular fashion podcasts in the world. We’ve just moved into the beauty industry, cosmetics, skin care, wellness, fragrance. That’s a new priority for us. We no longer call BoF a blog. It’s a modern media company now.
Imran Amed at BoF VOICES 2022
Imran Amed and Naomi Campbell, BoF 500 Gala
“I keep working hard. BoF is my metaphor to express the world that we live in.”
Imran Amed, what is your job now?
As Editor-in-Chief I set an editorial vision and the agenda for our editorial goals. I have five very strong senior editors who each are responsible for different topics. For instance, we have one editor that’s overseeing luxury, sustainability and global markets, and another that’s overseeing retail, beauty, workplace and talent. I’m creating expertise pods, so each of those editors has writers and correspondents that report into them. Our chief sustainability correspondent joined us from the Wall Street Journal, where she used to cover the energy industry and its contribution to the climate crisis, worker’s rights, emissions and the environment, biodiversity, and she now applies that to the fashion industry. I hire amazing people who care about those topics and we take these issues and we go really deep.
Is it because you don’t have advertising that you are able to be independent?
We do have advertising, but we’re not bound by it. BoF is the Switzerland in fashion media. We engage with everybody. We aim to be fair and balanced in our reporting. If our analysis based on data, expertise, and reporting says that something is true, then we’ll say that that’s true.
Fashion is immensely popular, but there are still so many poor people in the world today. What does this provoke?
One of the biggest risks we have in the world today is the growing inequality between rich and poor. When protesters stormed into the LVMH headquarters in Paris on April 13 it had a revolutionary feeling to it. The strength of modern societies depends on the social construct we create that everyone can feel safe and secure, and we’re living at a time where a lot of people don’t feel safe or secure. Directly juxtaposed with that is the creation of immense and extreme wealth, and the luxury fashion industry is now very closely associated with that level of wealth and that inequality and disparity. This is not sustainable, not just for the fashion industry, but for the world at large. I cannot predict what’s going to happen, because what I’m talking about is not just a fashion thing, it’s a society thing.
Is there an ethical aspect to your articles?
There is a sense of values. We will have articles that are written more as opinion, and we will have articles written more as analysis, but our analysis will always be grounded in facts and data.
Where do most of your millions of readers live?
Our five biggest countries are US, U.K., India, France and Italy. We have large followings in Brazil and China and Germany.
What do you personally want to achieve now?
My drive before was a lot about what job I wanted to have, what company I wanted to work, what school; and therefore, who am I? Now it’s more about why? Now that I’m sitting in this position where I have a voice in the industry, where people pay attention to the ideas that we share, the topics that we raise, the people that we’ve put on our website, or on our stage, it gives me a sense of real meaning and purpose around why I’m doing what I’m doing. To see if I can open the eyes of leaders in the industry to see the industry in a different way than they’ve been trained to see it.
Don’t these business leaders simply want to make money?
Businesses have a responsibility to contribute to society. Some people call it stakeholder capitalism. If I look at the way they taught us things in business school in the early days, the only stakeholder people cared about was a shareholder. Those days are over. Companies are aware they now have a responsibility not just to their shareholders, but also to other stakeholders, including their employees, the communities they live in, and the societies in which they operate.
Is that what you try to do?
We have a voice and we can start those conversations and we can create awareness around it. That is why I keep working hard. BoF is my metaphor to express the world that we live in, because what’s happening in fashion is a mirror of what’s happening in the world.
And is the world fluid nowadays?
The world is super fluid, fashion is fluid, and I’m fluid to go with what’s happening in fashion. People are very interested in fashion. It’s like catnip. Everyone gets attracted by the glamour of fashion. If we can use the glamour, the sheen, the desire of fashion, to draw people into more serious conversations about the world, then that’s really meaningful.
Imran Amed, thank you very much.
Portrait of Imran Amed by Kalpesh Lathigra
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