This Young Woman Took Over Her Father's International Business at Just 20 Years Old
Determined to preserve her father’s legacy, Meral Kathwari took over her family’s textiles business while maintaining her status as a full-time student at Iona College.
photograph by DOUG Schneider
On the morning of November 7, 2014, 20-year-old Meral Kathwari began her day as any other carefree student — enjoying college life and studying Mass Communications at Iona College in New Rochelle with aspirations of one-day reporting on and producing the news. But her life as a typical college student would be forever changed when she received the devastating news that her father, international businessman and renowned textiles artist, Tariq Kathwari, had been caught in a riptide and drowned during an ocean swim.
“It happened overnight. The day I found out my dad tragically passed away, I knew my life was going to take a drastic change. Not only had I lost one of my best friends, but I knew that it was up to me to continue to protect him and his business,” she explains.
As an only child, protecting her father meant looking after his legacy as an artist and businessman — and that meant taking over Kathwari of Kashmir, the high-end textiles company her dad started from scratch in the early 1980s. In the ensuing 30 years, Tariq had earned international acclaim as an artist whose textile designs have hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Smithsonian American Museum in Washington, D.C., and Galleries Lafayette in Paris. During this time, Kathwari of Kashmir had grown into an international brand, selling one-of-a-kind collectible rugs, carpets, kilims, pashminas, and Crewel-embroidered textiles to some of the poshest retailers around the globe, including Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan, Bijenkorf in Holland, and Stockmann in Finland.
Born in the New Delhi region of India, Meral relocated to the US when she was five years old, a move prompted by her poor health. “I had terrible asthma, and my lungs just weren’t strong enough for the pollution where we lived. So when my mom and I took a business-related trip to New Mexico with my dad, my parents realized that my asthma was much better here.” This move meant the close-knit Kathwari family would be split up, living on two different continents. “It was a sacrifice, but my parents decided my mother and I would live in New Mexico, while my father continued to run his business from Kashmir. We would always be together for all of the important holidays and events, and that’s how our family worked from then on out,” she explains. Eventually, Meral and her mother moved to Mamaroneck, where Meral graduated from high school. “The thing I loved about growing up in Mamaroneck is that feeling that everyone knew everyone. I’ve never had that in any of the other places I’ve lived － that feeling of coming home, walking down Mamaroneck Avenue and always seeing someone you know.”
Now, 15 years later, Meral knew it was her turn to sacrifice for her father. “I wanted to carry on his legacy to help the struggling artisans of Kashmir. Kashmir is known for its handicraft business. It’s the main tourist attraction, and many of these artisans depend on financial relief from his business. I’ve heard many say that [my father] alone helped the local economy so much,” she explains.
So, shortly after burying her father, Kathwari set up an office in the Mamaroneck home she shared with her mother and took over the family enterprise. “During my junior year of college, using any break I could get from school, I started to travel to Kashmir to take care of the business,” she explains.
Kathwari of Kashmir is headquartered in Kashmir’s fashionable, famed Polo View District, a shopping corridor often compared with Manhattan’s 5th Avenue. This is where the company’s showroom, four full-time employees, and suppliers are also based. “I was able to manage the business through Skype and email at night, while attending classes and studying by day,” she says, jokingly describing herself as student by day, international businesswoman by night. “I could honestly do it because of the time-zone difference. When I got home, everyone in India was just waking up, so I was able to set up an agenda and check in on everything before I went to bed. I’d get up early sometimes to make sure everything was running smoothly throughout the day.” Kathwari explains that during this time, she also had a great deal of support from her mother, who would travel to India to visit friends and family, and while visiting, she would also find time to act as her liaison to suppliers, buyers, and employees.
Yet, somehow, Kathwari still remained a constant presence in the Iona student community. During her senior year, she became the first and only female president of the Iona College Men’s Rugby team. “I didn’t play the game, but I loved the sport and the team. I managed their funding, media coverage, schedules, events, community-service hours, etc. I did this all while going to school and managing a business,” she says. She also made sure to carve out a little downtime for her two favorite pastimes － dishing with her tight-knit circle of high school friends and dispensing travel-and-lifestyle advice on her blog, brunettesecrets.com.
Even more difficult for Kathwari than the challenges of balancing school with the demands of business ownership, or overcoming the geographic distance, were her young age, gender, and the social climate in Kashmir. “Sometimes I feel like I have to work extra hard to be taken seriously in a district that’s ruled mostly by older men,” she explains. “The fact that I’m American, speaking broken Urdu, as well, presents a challenge itself, but I manage to get by. Another main thing is trying to run a business in a place like Kashmir, which, for the past few months, has been in turmoil because of a political situation in the territory that has been causing curfews and lockdowns throughout the state. During times like these, I see it as a positive for my business that I can be in the US to receive client calls and inquiries, when there are power and media outages [in Kashmir].”
Not one to wallow in the negative, Kathwari is quick to point out that the people of Kashmir have embraced her. “Everyone who’s worked for my dad and the shop-owners in the area and around Kashmir have my back! They knew my dad and were so happy I was continuing to run his business. They always try to help me, and most of them are very overprotective. No matter where I am, they keep an eye out to make sure everything is running smoothly when I’m gone.”
Today, Kathwari is a college graduate, splitting her time between her work as a freelance writer/reporter and her work as a seasoned international business owner. As to whether she will eventually be forced to choose between her love for reporting and passion for running Kathwari of Kashmir, she says, “Time will tell. Perhaps the business will become so big someday that it becomes necessary for me to put all of my energy into it. But for now, I am able to pursue both dreams, to do both of the things I love, side by side.”
For now, Kathwari is making good on her promise to grow her father’s business. In 2015, she opened a second showroom in New Delhi, with plans to reintroduce many of her dad’s classic designs and introduce her own collection of chainstitch rugs. “Even though I will never be my dad, I’m proud that I’ve continued his legacy. His designs are one-of-a-kind. It makes it worth it when I get an email from one of his old clients in another country, placing orders and telling me they’re so happy that everything is continuing on,” she says.
A freelance journalist based in Croton Falls, Ali Jackson-Jolley frequently covers business and entrepreneurship. She is inspired daily by the movers and shakers who make up Westchester’s business community.