Small business uprising: How a Muslim student became an entrepreneur during the COVID-19 pandemic by starting an online hijab business

Business aims to empower women by offering innovative, lightweight and comfortable hijabs and accessories

The owner of Azelefa Co. Azelefa Khan, 20, is standing outside her newly bought storage space in North York, Ont. on Monday, May 31, 2021. Due to the uprising of her business she had to expand her storage space. Khan is seen holding one of her most popular product which is the square sized hijab magnet and a main thank you card that is placed in every packaged order.  COURTESY Azelefa Khan

When the pandemic hit last March, the dramatic shift to online learning in Ontario forced many students to rethink their plans. The pandemic initiated a young student to launch Azelefa Co. an online hijab business.

For Azelefa Khan, 20, a University of Toronto Scarborough student, the pandemic was an opportunity to reflect on her future career plans.

Currently, a third-year student, working toward a double major in immunology and psychology, Khan was fascinated by science, particularly the anatomy of the brain.

“I had an interest in what I was studying, but I didn’t have the passion to pursue a career in it,” Khan said. “I always knew I had a business-driven mindset because I enjoyed taking business classes and I always spoke about wanting to start my own business to my family and friends.”

When classes ended in April 2020, coinciding with Ramadan, Khan went on a spiritual journey to help her figure out what to do with her time during the pandemic.

“During the quarantine, I got so close to my religion, Islam. When Ramadan came in 2020, I started praying and asking for guidance, and one of the things I mentioned was that I wanted to have an influential role on young girls and be a positive role model for them,” said Khan, who is from Abbottabad, Pakistan. She also lived in the United Arab Emirates before moving to Canada in 2012.

The conversation that launched the hijab business

Before Ramadan 2020, Khan had a conversation with her father about wanting to start a clothing brand. At first, she was thinking she would start a line of modest dresses to sell online, then the idea of launching a hijab business came to mind as it was a way to stay close to her religion.

“A hijab is simple and plain” and it was a product that was easier to manage than dresses, Khan said.

The launch date for Azelefa Co. was August 14, 2020. Located in North York, Ont. Khan ships worldwide, and orders can be placed directly through the website.

“I wanted my launch date to be on a Friday because it is a blessed day for Muslims,” Khan said. “Also, of course, it was Pakistan’s National Day.”

Hijab business designed to solve problems

Rather than switch her major to business, Khan relies on Google, informational and influential videos.

“Google is your best friend when starting a business. Google everything and anything that you don’t know,” Khan said. As soon as she got the idea of starting her hijab business, she began researching and finding manufacturers.

She expanded her line to include hijab magnets, because “I feel it solves problems about hijabis and girls who want to wear modest clothing,” Khan said. It’s a popular product that keeps the hijab in place “and it doesn’t leave any holes or snag your hijab.”

Azelefa Khan the owner discusses one of the most popular items which are the hijab magnets. COURTESY @AzelefaCo.

Mahnoor Fatima, 21, a student from the University of Toronto bought hijab magnets from Azelefa Co. to replace the hijab pins she used. “Hijab magnets don’t ruin my hijab and are very strong,” Fatima said. Her hijab stays “in place all day.”

Azelefa Co. so far has sold more than 2,000 pairs of the hijab magnets.

The preparation before the launch

Khan began her business working from the bedroom of her family’s apartment.

She sold her bedroom furniture and downsized her bed to make space for two sectional shelves to hold her inventory. She also got a large table to use to prepare orders for shipping. Her room was soon filled with hijabs.

“For me, customer service and quality was the biggest thing and a major priority. I never want to sell something I don’t like. That’s why in the beginning I got so many hijab samples and colours,” Khan said.

“I ordered and spent a lot of money on samples. If I was to give you an estimate it would be anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500. I wasted so much money you should be getting samples, but not too many.”

Khan worked hard to find the right supplier after she found that most of the items she received when she first launched the business were not good quality.

“I have known Azelefa since middle school. I was super excited for her before she launched, I loved helping her choose colours for her hijab business and answering any questions she had with making decisions.” Fatima said. “The quality of her hijab and stitching is phenomenal.”

Khan has since moved her inventory to storage space that is 10 x 15, but she still continues to package all her products at home.

Hijab empowerment

For many Muslim women around the world, modesty and the hijab have a significant meaning. “The hijab reminds me of my faith in every decision I make,” Fatima said.

“I know a lot about hijabs, and it empowers me when I go outside. People recognize it as a hijab. They know I’m a Muslim,” Khan said. A hijab is so much more than just a scarf on the head, she said it “is a part of me and it gives me a sense of freedom.”

Azelefa Co. sells hijabs made from a variety of different materials including jersey, ribbed jersey hijab, chiffon, and premium chiffon. She also carries tie-dye hijabs, turbans, and velvet hijab scrunchies.

“One of my favorite hijabs that I would recommend are the jerseys specifically the black one (Nairobi),” Fatima said. She likes them because they are lightweight, don’t slip, and are perfect for any season.

The black (Nairobi) jersey hijab (left). One of the customer reviews left on the online website. COURTESY Azelefa Khan.

Khan also recommends the jersey hijab collection because it can be dressed up or down.

“Jersey hijabs are extremely soft and lightweight…feels like a cloud on your head. Made with 95 per cent cotton and five per cent spandex which allows it to stretch without any limitations,” Khan said.

Uprising of social media and advice

The two main social media apps used to promote Azelefa Co. are thriving. All the marketing is done through TikTok and Instagram. Azelefa Co. has almost 10,000 followers on Instagram and more than 60,000 followers on TikTok.

“TikTok has such an amazing audience and one of the richest audiences in the world. It helped my business scale. The way TikTok’s algorithm works is just so amazing,” Khan said.

Khan said hashtags are really important and help target the right audience. They should match the content in the video, she said. For Azelefa Co. the focus is on hijab and modest hashtags to target the right audience.

Packaging is also an important part of Khan’s business strategy.

“Packaging is so important because it really comes down to customer experience. If your packaging is good, customers want to post a story on Instagram, share it on Snapchat, and on TikTok,” Khan said.

The packaging that the customers of Azelefa Co. love and request on TikTok. COURTESY Azelefa Khan.

“People have asked me to record their packages on TikTok to see behind the scenes. Sometimes that is the reason why people even order, and especially being a small business, I feel like I can relate to my customer,” Khan said. Including little gifts in her packages, such as candies or a handwritten note, also helps her connect with buyers.

Fatima says she genuinely cares about her customers.

Azelefa Co. social media content is created to help anyone that is interested in getting tips, tricks or interested in wanting to wear a hijab. “If I make any video with a purpose behind it, or give knowledge and solve an issue for them, those type of videos always do really well and I get a lot of following and orders from that,” Khan said.

Build a support system

When her business started, she was invited to her high school to speak to the students in the same business marketing class that inspired her.

Three pieces of advice and quotes provided by the owner Azelefa Khan.

One of the biggest motivators Khan found has been entrepreneur Gary Vee.

“Sometimes you just need that energy in your system that good positive energy,” Khan said.

Azelefa Co. does not have any employees, but Khan says she receives a lot of support from friends and family. Her parents are the first ones to help her out, her father helps with packaging. A friend helped Khan design the website, and a friend’s father does photoshoots for her.

Recently, Azelefa Co. launched its first-ever dress on the site during this year’s Ramadan and Eid. It was a satin dress in two colours and it is very modest.

COURTESY Azelefa Co.

Act of giving

When Azelefa Co. launched an exclusive tie-dye collection, it was a huge hit. There aren’t that many tie-dye hijab collections available, said Khan, and the one company she came across when researching only sold tie-dye hijabs made from jerseys. To be competitive, Khan launched a tie-dyed collection in chiffon.

“From the tie-dye collection, I donated like 10 per cent of the proceeds. This was during Eid time and it went to buy Eid gifts for women in shelters,” Khan said.

Khan also supports Islamic Relief Canada to help people in need across Palestine. She launched a fundraiser for 48 hours and 100 per cent of all sales were donated to the cause.

“I chose the most reliable source and the one I use all the time,” Khan said, who raised $500 from the fundraiser. It was an accomplishment, she said. “I was happy.”

Khan said she will continue building a stronger community by making women feel empowered through innovative design after the pandemic ends.

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Posted: Jun 19 2021 8:19 pm
Filed under: Business Features Shift to Online Spotlight On Small Biz