Aisha Saraf Kothari is always on the move. She constantly shuttles between her home base in Antwerp, Belgium, and her family homes in Delhi and Dubai, also making pit stops for work across the globe and visiting the choicest destinations to relax. When we connect with her, she’s in Milan for fashion week. And next on her agenda is Boston to present a talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Paris for work, and finally back home in Antwerp — all within the span of 12 days! So we assuredly believe her when she asserts, “I feel like a global citizen. Like I belong everywhere.”
This jetsetter lifestyle shaped Aisha’s personality and led her to launch her brand AiSpi in 2017; it is an e-commerce platform for fashionistas across South Asia to discover and shop the hidden gems of international fashion. Her global exposure, knowledge of business and keen eye for trends quickly made her a name to reckon with in the South Asian retail space.
“South Asians deserve the world. They have taste, they have the spending power, and they are yearning for access to the best,” she shares. “I wanted to bring this exposure of the world to South Asia, for my family and friends.”
“As I’ve lived abroad for many years, I’ve had the opportunity to explore different places. There’s so much the world has to offer beyond what’s available for people to see on the internet alone. This is why I created a digital ecosystem that would offer access to shopping, food, sightseeing, hidden travel secrets and so much more.”
Originally from Visakhapatnam, Aisha spent the majority of her schooling years in Delhi. After graduating from Modern School, Barakhamba Road, she moved to Philadelphia in the US to pursue a bachelor’s degree in finance and management from the prestigious Wharton School of Business. She then joined Ernst & Young as an Associate, Commercial Advisory Services, and gradually climbed up the corporate ladder.
She worked with EY for over a decade across various fields like corporate finance strategy and innovation for big corporations and startups. It was this background in assisting companies launch in new, undiscovered markets that helped tremendously when it was time to launch her own brand.
At first, she treated AiSpi as a side hustle. But once things picked up, she quit her job to focus on her passion project. The initial concept was to curate a sort of Michelin Guide for boutiques across the world that offered beautiful, unique and well-priced products.
“I understand the Indian consumer base. Offering a product that’s couture and handmade isn’t enough because India is the land of gorgeous handmade things. So the prices had to match what they were getting in return, and the products also had to be fashion forward. This didn’t mean restricting items to those made with pure fabrics or only expensive things. It meant assured value that corresponded to prices.”
Over time, Aisha began curating pop-ups to raise brand awareness and bring products from renowned brands like Rosantica, L’alingi, Vanina, Marzook and CeliaB, among others, directly to the consumer. In just a few months this year, AiSpi has already participated in intimate pop-ups in cities like Indore, Raipur and Ahmedabad, as well as bigger ones in Delhi and Kolkata. Some were organised with local collaborators, while others were hosted privately, such as the events at Olive and Cosy Box in Mumbai and Delhi.
“I like to offer a restaurant-like ambience because we believe in ‘no pressure’ shopping. If you don’t love the item, don’t buy it. While shopping, people can drink, snack and simply enjoy,” she says.
Her gruelling schedule certainly keeps her on her toes, but she always makes time for family and friends. Aisha met her husband and business partner Ashin in 2008 when they were students in college. Their love story bloomed at an early age, yet stood the test of time. She moved to Belgium after marriage at the ripe age of 24, but instead of feeling daunted by the change, she adjusted to life in Europe quickly. Before long, she had learnt the basics of navigating life, like learning the local language and driving on European roads. She also quickly settled into her job and made friends.
“Europe is a lovely place for a young couple. After having children, you see a different side of it — your kids really become a part and parcel of your daily life!”
When it comes to parenting her two-year-old daughter, Aisha lauds her husband for lending an equal hand.
“As a parent, you begin to really value your time. It becomes clear after a point that if something is hindering you from being productive, it’s not worth the time and effort. I remember this advice I got from another entrepreneur — being an entrepreneur is not a solo decision. It’s a family decision because others need to sacrifice on your behalf. So it’s important to have that conversation with them beforehand. They will have to carry a lot of your weight. You need a support system that believes in your business, not just in you. And this is so true!”
For downtime, Aisha turns to her close group of friends in Belgium and other parts of the world. After a hectic and long work week, she considers her Friday nights and Saturday brunches sacred. Equally important are her holidays with family to favoured places like St. Tropez and Courchevel in France.
An avid fitness buff, she includes her daughter and her pet dog in her workouts to maximise the time she spends with them. “When you are really passionate about a lot of things, which, in my case, is my family, my work and my friends, it can lead to burnout. One has to learn to compartmentalise and understand that being consistent and showing up is half the battle won. Travelling for work is the toughest part, but I’ve learnt to streamline and take on only what’s most important.”
Aisha credits her exposure to varied cultures as the reason for this solid grounding in balancing the numerous demands of life.
“It’s so great to be able to take something different from each place and culture I’ve had exposure to. My warm nature comes from being Indian, my ambition and efficiency comes from my time spent in America. Europe taught me to slow down, pause and appreciate life. Through Dubai, I learnt how to take the best of everything and put it together seamlessly.”
Aisha’s clear-minded focus shines through in our insightful chat. She rounds off by sharing why she chose to pursue a business in fashion, despite having no formal training in the field.
“Fashion is a medium of expression that reflects your personality. You shouldn’t buy what’s in trend but buy something you can make your own. Buy it because you like it. This is what I want to encourage with AiSpi.”
Photos: Abhishek Khandelwal; Creative Direction & Styling: Amber Tikari
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s April 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!
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