Haute Hijab Founder Melanie Elturk on Making the Leap from Lawyer to Startup CEO
November 09, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Melanie Elturk always thought she’d be a lawyer—an achievement she checked off her list at 23, when she graduated from law school. As a side hustle, she also sold hijabs online, until the business got too big to manage in addition to her law career. Since 2016, Elturk and her husband have run Haute Hijab full time, and have grown the company into one of the leading brands for modern Muslim women. Here, she talks about the importance of the hijab in Muslim life, and a special pact she made with a friend.
I GREW UP IN DETROIT, AND BOTH OF MY PARENTS ARE IMMIGRANTS. My dad is from Lebanon and my mom is from the Philippines. They came to the U.S. on scholarship to study at the University of Detroit, and that’s where they met. I grew up in a strict, academically rigorous home. An A-minus was a big no-no. I also went to a very intense high school where every class was at the international baccalaureate level. As a result, I was able to enter college as a sophomore, finish in three years, and start law school at 20.
OUR HOUSEHOLD WASN’T VERY RELIGIOUS until I was older. My mother is Catholic and my dad is Muslim, but he wasn’t practicing until after my parents divorced, when I was five. The most formative person in shaping my Muslim identity was my childhood best friend, who is still my best friend today. She and I started wearing the hijab at the same time, when we were 13. In putting on the hijab, I was identifying as Muslim in a public way, so that other people could recognize it. That was a huge turning point.
WHEN WE STARTED WEARING THE HIJAB, my friend and I made a pact: We weren’t going to let the hijab hold us back in any way. We would still be ourselves, and be as loud, obnoxious, funny, and vivacious as we typically were. We were aware of the assumption that if you wore the hijab you were shy or meek, and we were the opposite of that. At the end of my senior year, I was voted class clown.
THE EXPECTATION FROM MY FAMILY THAT I WOULD WEAR THE HIJAB never came as a surprise. It was more a question of when to start, and it made the most sense to begin wearing it full time on the first day of high school, so that everyone would know me that way. There were probably about five other girls in our class who did it too. I had been wearing the hijab in Sunday school for a while, so it wasn’t anything new.
THE QUR’AN IS VERY CLEAR ABOUT WHY WE WEAR THE HIJAB. The word of God is that Muslim women are to cover their hair and themselves to be recognized as women of faith, so that they are not bothered or harassed. It’s not the garment itself that protects them; it’s their identification as women of faith. Islam certainly does not own the hijab; Christian and Jewish women wore head coverings before we did, and it’s a tradition that we carried on.
THE FIRST TIME I WAS REALLY AWARE OF THE HIJAB WAS AFTER 9/11. The whole Muslim community was shaken. Like the rest of the country, we were already suffering through that enormous tragedy, and then our community took the brunt of much of that anger. It was hard to navigate. People were saying, “Lay low.” Some girls were taking off their hijabs altogether. My dad was like, “Be careful. People might say or do things. Be vigilant.” I remember being in the local Meijer grocery store and being so aware, for the first time, of people looking at me. The only other time I have that feeling is when I’m getting on a plane and walking down the aisle. I never feel more aware or visible as a Muslim than at that time.
I’VE ALWAYS LOVED FASHION. I used to spend hours in my room cutting up magazines and making scrapbooks, and I went to the mall every weekend with my mom. I was never going to let the hijab get in the way of looking great and stylish all the time. But it was hard—I’d put together this great outfit and then the hijab would just bring me down. I only had two hijabs at the time, one ivory and one black. They were both from overseas and terrible quality. As soon as I got my driver’s license, I would drive to vintage stores, like the Salvation Army, and get scarves to wear instead. I started incorporating the hijab into my whole outfit so that it was one cohesive look.
A GOOD-QUALITY HIJAB is about sizing and fabric. There are certain materials that work better on the scalp; they need to be breathable. They also need to be washable, and they can’t be too small or too big. Too much fabric gets bulky, but you still need enough so that it covers your head.
I STARTED MY LEGAL CAREER WHEN I WAS 23, and I focused specifically on civil rights and social justice issues. That was my passion. It still is, and it’s the reason that I’m doing what I do today. If there was no social justice mission within our company, it couldn’t be my full-time job. Our mission is to empower Muslim women to feel confident wearing the hijab. This is a conversation we’re constantly having with our community: What are you struggling with? How can we help? What’s keeping you from feeling comfortable in your identity as a Muslim?
I MET MY HUSBAND IN MY MID-TWENTIES. We got married a year later and started our business together in 2010, but it was just a fun side hustle that we did in addition to our full-time jobs. At first, we were mostly known for selling vintage scarves. I would source them from around the country, clean them in my bathtub, steam them and iron them, and then photograph them in our living room. Then they’d go online and sell out within eight hours. We still continue that tradition—we do a weekly drop every Tuesday.
AFTER WE GOT MARRIED, my husband and I lived in Chicago for two years. Then he was recruited for a job in Dubai. We’d always wanted to live abroad, so we thought, Why not? Living there made me much more aware of the freedoms we have in the U.S.—I had never felt so proud to be American.
IT TOOK OVER A YEAR OF KNOCKING ON DOORS, but I finally got a position as a law clerk at the international court in Dubai, writing opinions for three judges. Meanwhile, I kept running our company on the side, and I got plugged into Dubai’s garment district. I created relationships with factories and suppliers, and we suddenly had access to fabrics that were perfect for hijabs, which you couldn’t find in Chicago. That’s when we really took off as a brand. I wanted to make sure that women could have a hijab for every occasion in their lives, whether it was a graduation, a wedding, the gym, the operating room because they’re a surgeon—whatever it was, we needed to have a hijab for them. And nobody else had focused on that before.
WE’D BEEN RUNNING THE COMPANY FOR A FEW YEARS in Dubai when a venture capitalist reached out to us about our business. We were like, “What? Is this for real?” We met with them a few times in New York, and they gave us a term sheet, which we wound up not taking. But that’s when my husband and I really started to take the business seriously. We decided to quit our jobs and move to New York City and focus on the brand full-time. It was a terrifying decision, and it still is. Now we’re a team of 11, and that feels huge—it seems like yesterday that we were just four. As we grow, I need to get more comfortable letting go of control over things that I typically have handled, and that can be scary.
MY ROLE AS CEO IS CONSTANTLY EVOLVING, and I’m always trying to figure out how I can be most effective in helping the company. One thing that will never change is my relationship with our customers on social media. No one can replicate me there. I control our Instagram page, and I’m the one doing the live videos. I want to be there for our customers, to serve and empower them, and that’s something I can’t delegate to anybody else.
I THINK IT TAKES A SPECIAL COUPLE to work together as intimately as my husband and I do. It’s not just about the love you have for each other—it’s about real respect. Do you trust that person’s abilities? Do you put your full confidence in them? And do you really like them? You can love somebody, but they may not be your best friend, the person you’d always choose if you had the chance to hang out with anyone.
MY HUSBAND AND I DON’T HAVE DESIGNATED ‘ON’ OR ‘OFF’ TIMES with work, and I don’t know if we ever will. We talk about our company all the time. What’s crucial is that we have complementary strengths. I’m the creative and he does operations. Since we manage different parts of the business, and we have complete confidence in each other, it works. I think any co-founder relationship needs that, whether you’re married or not.
Photographs by Rich Gilligan. Styling by Nyjerah Cunningham.