Minnesota at Large is a new series featuring Minnesotans who are making an impact outside the state.
Soraya Darabi was 23 when she became the first social-media manager at the New York Times. She was used to being the new kid. Her mother, an immigration policy professor, had moved the family around the East Coast before landing at the University of Minnesota, as a dean, in 1996. They settled in the St. Anthony Main area, beside the Mississippi River. Darabi soon went to work, too, with an internship at the Guthrie Theater, where she was a costume model at donor events, highlighted scripts, and wrote the Playbill blurb for Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke.” She was 13.
Darabi accummulated jobs: barista at the Aster Café, coat-check girl at La Conga (“It was seedy,” she later recalled, “My mom made me quit”). During the day, as though on break, she went to The Blake School in Minneapolis.
When Darabi arrived at the Times, in 2007, she had the confidence to lead the Gray Lady, a digital agoraphobe, into the fresh air of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. By the time she left, a little more than two years later, her title had evolved with the field from Manager of Buzz Marketing to Manager of Digital Partnerships and Social Media, and the Times had millions of online followers. A veteran reporter, Pulitzer Prize-winning Nicholas Kristof, called her “the only reason” for it.
By then, Darabi had nearly half a million Twitter followers of her own. She quickly joined the digital sharing service Drop.io and co-founded the Foodspotting app. When both were acquired — by Facebook and OpenTable, repectively — she became something of a start-up guru, though she still scarcely qualified to rent a car.
She made tech start-ups seem as glamorous as everyone imagined, skiing double-black diamonds in Colorado with her Drop.io colleagues and becoming a regular at events like the Webutante Ball, a networking prom for Internet influencers. She began showing up on the cover of Fast Company, in Gawker’s Valleywag, and on lists such as “Most Creative People in Business” and “25 Media People You Should Follow on Twitter.”
Darabi was thinking about getting out, finding a desk job, when she reconnected with Maxine Bédat, an old friend from Blake. In 2013, they launched Zady.com, a source for stylish clothes produced as ethically and sustainably as possible. Zady has since been heralded as the Whole Foods of fashion, bringing transparency to a shady industry largely hidden on the other side of the world. But its values, as much as its co-founders, can be traced back to Minnesota.
Bédat grew up in Medicine Lake, the daughter of South African doctors.
“I was an insider and an outsider,” she says, “in the heartland but with international parents. A real American experience. I was a weird kid. I did tennis and track and that sort of thing and then I fell in love with “Strictly Ballroom,” the 1992 Baz Luhrmann film. She became a nationally competitive ballroom dancer with fake nails and a spray tan. Good enough that coaches began questioning why she was interested in college — which is when she quit.
She was a Blake lifer, grade school to graduation, steeped in the social responsibility the school has pushed in recent years to pierce the bubble of privilege that some of its students arrive in, “this feeling that you have a responsibility to the world,” Bédat says. She went to Columbia Law School and clerked one summer for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal in Tanzania, helping prosecute the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.
It wasn’t as satisfying as she’d hoped. The horror had happened; there was nothing to do but clean up the mess. Wandering the village markets, second-guessing her career path, she had an idea. And when she got home she worked out the details in the Caribou coffee shop near Lake Calhoun: The Bootstrap Project, a nonprofit online marketplace for artisans in impoverished places.
When Bédat returned to New York, she began swapping stories with Darabi on the sordid state of overseas manufacturing. Darabi, too, had absorbed the Blake ethos. Inspired by a Nicholas Kristof column on sweatshops, she once exhorted her high-school classmates to tear off the designer labels on their clothes, in solidarity with the workers who actually made them.
Zady quickly evolved out of their research. Collapsing factories. Child labor. All to produce cheap junk that is “billed as the democratization of fashion, but isn’t,” Bédat says. Good clothes don’t fall apart after seven washes.
Zady jumped in with better-made apparel, stories about the makers, and a small, durable line of its own. More timeless than trendy, it was hailed in Elle and Vogue as a “slow fashion” antidote to so-called fast fashion. The Zady sweater sold out in 48 hours. Fast Company named Zady one of the 10 most innovative retailers in the world.
This past fall, The Blake School honored Bédat and Darabi, who had both graduated in 2001, as its Young Alumni of the Year. Darabi has since stepped back from day-to-day operations at Zady, serving as an adviser while returning to the start-up life. Lately she’s been called an angel investor, a term she eschews: “It makes you sound fancy or a moneybags.” Dilettantes don’t usually learn to drive in their father’s taxi, as she did. And they definitely don’t get in the weeds of customer service, answering emails as Darabi did at Zady.
A few months ago, Darabi made yet another list … of the richest Iranian women. Darabi’s father is Iranian, but nothing else made sense. In an interview with an Iranian-American journalist, she joked, “I think my dad got a lot of emails from young men asking, ‘Is she single?’ ” When nearly half a million people follow you, things get weird.
Bédat, meanwhile, has pushed on, expanding the Zady line to menswear and taking the company deeper into advocacy. She’s become a regular on the sustainability speaking circuit, petitioned the federal government for more transparency in the apparel business, and compiled damning data on the clothing industry’s contribution to climate change. She’s appeared on spiritual guru Deepak Chopra’s Sirius/XM radio show.
“For us, commerce and conscience are one and the same,” Bédat says of Zady. “This is where we are as a society today — millennials, especially, want to be connected to the stories and data behind things. There isn’t a line between what we want and what we believe.”
In recent weeks, the profiles of Bédat and Darabi that accompanied Zady’s mission statement were pushed down the webpage by newly added statistics: 400 percent more clothes are churned out today than 20 years ago, emitting more carbon dioxide than any industry but oil. Then the women disappeared from the page altogether, as though they’d been absorbed into the mission itself.