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This shoe startup’s immigrant founders have donated 135,000 masks—so far

When the pandemic hit, Atoms began making copper masks, with Alexis Ohanian’s help. Each time it sells one, it gives one away to a community organization.

This shoe startup’s immigrant founders have donated 135,000 masks—so far
[Photos: courtesy of Atoms]

Ten years ago, entrepreneurs Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim had never left their native Pakistan, nor had anyone in either of their families. They didn’t have passports and were barely able to scrounge together $250 to start their first business.

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Fast-forward to August of 2018, and the husband-and-wife team closed an $8.1 million investment round for their New York City-based direct-to-consumer everyday shoe brand, Atoms, led by Initialized Capital, the investment firm established by Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian. The company quickly made a name for itself by offering quarter shoe sizes (such as 10.25) and allowing customers to mix and match sizes, as most people have two different-sized feet.

Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim [Photo: courtesy of Atoms]
Though the pandemic threatened to upend their newly established business, Ali and Qasim retooled their production facility in April, selling reusable face masks at cost, and donating one for each one sold. Today, they’re announcing that they’ve surpassed a total of 135,000 mask donations to community organizations such as the New York City Housing Authority, Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp, and Seattle-King County Public Health.

After launching their footwear company Markhor from Pakistan in 2012 and running a succesful crowdfunding campaign in 2014, Ali and Qasim overcame incredible odds to come to America as part of Silicon Valley-based startup incubator Y Combinator’s 2015 cohort.

In 2018, the pair stepped away from the day-to-day operations at the formal footwear company to establish Atoms as an everyday shoe brand in New York City, raising capital and building out a production process that stretched from Pakistan to Korea to a fulfillment center in Brooklyn. Just as the business was starting to gain traction, the company’s Korea-based team began warning of a deadly virus that could soon reach American shores.

Though there was still little information about the coronavirus and the effectiveness of masks at the time, colleagues in Korea recommended supplying them to their staff as an extra precaution.

“Especially when PPE [personal protective equipment] was not available for healthcare workers, and you have so many people who can get infected, we started thinking about how we could shift our manufacturing,” says Qasim.

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“In Brooklyn, we were buying one-time-use masks in early March, and they were not cheap—they were like $5 to $8—and you could only wear them once,” adds Ali. “I was thinking how someone could afford a mask everyday, especially if they’re not making as much money as before because of the pandemic.”

Overhauling a manufacturing facility to accommodate a new product is enough of a challenge, but things only got more difficult as the world economy started grinding to a halt, and countries like Korea began restricting the export of personal protective equipment.

[Photo: courtesy of Atoms]
“It was not just making a product, it was making a product during a pandemic, with lots of political and logistical challenges that we did not know until we started making it,” Ali explains. “Instead of trying to keep fixing and changing that order, we started our own manufacturing setup [in Brooklyn] in less than 30 days.”

On April 15, Atoms began selling its hand-washable masks, lined with antimicrobial copper yarn and reusable up to 50 times. The company began shipping its first orders in early May.

Qasim and Ali knew that the Atoms Everyday Mask’s price point—$12–would be out of reach for many of those who most needed to protect themselves. “We were thinking about how we could create an initiative or a program where we could make it available to everyone,” says Qasim. “We wanted to help those people who needed our support.”

Working with Ohanian, the founders launched a program to donate one mask for each they sold. In its first week, Atoms sold 40,000 masks without spending a penny on marketing, and has since produced 270,000, half of which have been donated to those in need. Ali and Qasim have also personally distributed masks to Black Lives Matter protestors in Brooklyn. It’s a cause that matters deeply to Ohanian, who recently stepped down from Reddit’s board to make way for a Black replacement and donated $1 million to Know Your Rights Camp.

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Entrepreneurship at risk

The son of an Armenian immigrant, Ohanian says he’s had a front-row seat to the passion and commitment of the immigrant community his whole life. And he says that he sees it reflected in what Ali and Qasim are doing with Atoms.

Immigrants have an extra advantage when it comes to wanting to create and build here.”

Alexis Ohanian
“As outsiders, they really floored me with the fact that they were so high-integrity and so thoughtful about making a different kind of shoe,” he says. “I’m obviously very excited to back American-born founders as well, but I do think that immigrants have an extra advantage when it comes to wanting to create and build here; there’s just another gear, another level of appreciation.”

“I remember going to my mom’s swearing-in ceremony where she took her first pledge as an American citizen, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of a room that I’ve ever been in where I’ve felt more pride for being an American,” he says. “That’s exactly what we want out of an entrepreneur: that tenacity and hunger and drive.”

Alexis Ohanian [Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Collision / Sportsfile]
Those traits, according to Ohanian, are clearly demonstrated by Ali and Qasim. But with the Trump administration’s recent ban on visas for skilled workers, he fears that America’s greatest advantage—namely the ability to attract entrepreneurs like Ali and Qasim—is in jeopardy.

“There’s the policy, which is deeply problematic and is going to cut us off from tremendous talent and job creators,” he says. “But there’s also a chilling effect, which is to say a consistent set of policies like this—even when the policy gets changed—still decreases the talent flow for years or decades to come.”

Ohanian adds that Ali and Qasim’s tireless effort to support their adoptive community demonstrates the need for the country to continue welcoming those who have to work a lot harder for the right to call themselves Americans.

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“The fact that when this pandemic happened, Waqas and Sidra immediately thought ‘what can we do to help?’ really exemplifies what we would want to see our leaders doing when presented this opportunity to help one another and the communities they live in,” he says.

To Ohanian, his resignation from Reddit’s board, personal charitable efforts, and involvement with Atoms and its mask program are all interrelated, and all are about more than any single cause. “All of this is connected to using my platform to do more for making this a better country, not just for my daughter, but for everyone’s kids,” he says. “I haven’t done enough—or been successful enough when I’ve tried—in the past and I’m making a conscious effort to be better going forward. Our country has a lot of work to do in order to live up to our founding creed that all are created equal, and I want to actively be a part of the solution. It humbles me to see founders who exemplify the very best of those American values, especially knowing that they’re rather recent immigrants to the U.S. We all have a role to play.”

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About the author

Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist and public speaker born, raised and based in Toronto, Canada. Lindzon's writing focuses on the future of work and talent as it relates to technological innovation, as well as entrepreneurship, technology, politics, sports and music.

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