A first-year student at QF partner university VCUarts Qatar collaborated with Italian businesswomen to import and sell their hand-crafted items in Doha
Last March, when Italy went into lockdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19, many Italian women found their arts and crafts home businesses being forced to shut, endangering their livelihood. Nearly 2,500 miles away in Doha, 20-year-old Italian entrepreneur Valeria Mazzei felt the suffering of these women – and decided to find a way to help them.
“I heard stories of how local businesses back home were facing a major setback. Families who were supported by income generated from the sale of arts and crafts were on the brink of poverty,” said Mazzei. “Some of these artists reminded me of my nonna (grandmother); women passionate about their craft, and proud of their culture. I had to do something to help them.”
In 2016, Mazzei had founded a successful retail outlet in Qatar, Venus Karma, that specializes in streetwear. She and her mother had been planning to expand Venus Karma into more than just a clothing brand, and their determination to help the Italian artisans under lockdown provided a new opportunity: selling home décor items in Qatar hand-crafted by women back in Italy.
“We were able to create a wonderful interconnected net between all Italian independent women artisans,” explains Mazzei. “We collaborated with very small businesses that are deep-rooted in Italy and pay extra attention and care to each of their hand-made products, so committing to a quite large production in the Middle East was something quite far for them to think about.”
Today, Venus Karma’s home décor offshoot is as successful as its streetwear products. Collectively, the brand has tens of thousands of followers on social media and a thriving e-commerce website.
Within a few weeks, I realized that what I’d started merely to provide as a means of livelihood for my countrymen back in Italy was actually generating interest and demand in the community here
“Within a few weeks, I realized that what I’d started merely to provide as a means of livelihood for my countrymen back in Italy was actually generating interest and demand in the community here,” said Mazzei. “People really did want to buy the pieces of home accessories that are lovingly hand-crafted by these women.”
Mazzei has now embarked on a new chapter in her journey by starting her studies at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar), a partner university of Qatar Foundation (QF), where she hopes to further enhance her skills by studying fashion design. Currently, she is taking online classes from her Venus Karma office, while also taking care of the business and supervising interns.
Something that resonates between my business experience and my initial experience at VCUarts Qatar is that the secret is really in the details
“Something that resonates between my business experience and my initial experience at VCUarts Qatar is that the secret is really in the details,” she said. “If I pay attention to the little things, people feel and appreciate the higher level of care and love that is put in the projects, and consequentially in products.”
Mazzei’s entrepreneurial undertaking did not have a smooth start. In fact, her enjoyable start to university life is in contrast to the beginning of her school years in Qatar, a difficult time that pushed her to start her own company.
“When I landed in Qatar in 2014, no school was willing to accept a student who didn’t know how to speak English fluently,” she said. “It was a challenging time; my self-confidence had taken a beating; I was in a new country; I was struggling to make friends; and, my nonna had recently died. But something inside me fought back – I told myself I had to take life by the hand and pull myself out of the frame of mind I was in.”
“Not being able to attend regular school, and taking private lessons to improve my English proficiency, gave me time to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life. My first point of action, despite a shaky belief in myself, was to summon the courage to do something that I always wanted to do – set up my own business.”
“My mother supported me, as I tried to find my niche. My first venture was to design and sell luxury handbags. I was barely 15 when I stepped into the world of trade, learning how to procure raw material from abroad and discussing my ideas with designers.”
Mazzei says the initiative took off much more than she had hoped for and proved to be a “morale booster”. Six months after coming to Qatar, a delighted Mazzei was accepted into a local high school. And though that meant having to work hard and devote her time to coursework, she wasn’t willing to wind up something that – for the first time in her life – she was truly beginning to enjoy.
“I started out with caps, and patches to be sewn on to them. I know it sounds simple, but that was how I transitioned from designing handbags to retailing streetwear. The collection expanded and now I import customized high-quality streetwear including jumpers, hoodies, sweatshirts, sweaters, and t-shirts under the brand name Venus Karma.”
I see work as a collaboration. I am neither working for someone, nor is someone working for me; we are working with each other
Following her foray into streetwear, Mazzei soon identified another gap in the clothing and textile market in Qatar – industrial uniforms. With the growth of organic businesses, companies needed high-quality uniforms for their employees. Sensing this, she felt the time was perfect to step into this field.
Her instincts paid off, as, with her streetwear collection, she built up a steady stream of customers. Yet, her unique selling point remained the same.
“I tell my customers that my products – whether they are streetwear or uniforms – are not cheap because quality has a price; that they only need to invest in my products once, and they know the difference,” she said. “Thankfully, for me, customers in Qatar are discerning. They would rather pay a higher price, once, for durable, high performing and aesthetically pleasing products than shell out money on cheaper, flimsier items.”
“The last five years have made me strong yet sensitive. I see work as a collaboration. I am neither working for someone, nor is someone working for me; we are working with each other. When I treat others as equals – be it a customer, a designer, or an Italian nonna who pours her heart and soul into what she is creating with her own two hands – they feel valued; everything else falls into place. It’s an ethos I live by; it’s the reason why I named my enterprise Venus Karma. Venus is a nod to the Roman goddess of beauty and my Italian heritage; Karma denotes the results of one’s positive intentions and actions.”
“I was also fortunate that I arrived in Qatar at the right time; organic businesses were increasing; e-commerce was taking off; the local market was discerning; and whereas I would have been one among thousands in Italy, I was one among a hundred here – I stood more of a chance.”
As Mazzei starts her university journey, she is not only excited but also hopeful that it will open new prospects for her business.
“I’ve always been keen to enhance my knowledge of fashion through a related degree, and VCUarts Qatar is the perfect choice,” she said. “Personally, I feel this is an advantage; my operational trajectory is especially suited to a post-COVID-19 world where young people like myself are going to have to seize opportunities born of these unprecedented circumstances, irrespective of what their university degrees are.”