Marketing consultant Afshan Nasseri on building a life around her passions
By Samia Abbasi
Afshan Nasseri is a half-Indian, half-Iranian digital marketing & brand consultant, who was raised in Massachusetts. She is a fashion & culture blogger with over 34,000 followers on Instagram. As a recent alumni of McGill University, she holds a degree in Strategic Management and a minor in Arabic. She builds with communities and brands through her work with Awadh Clothing, Pursuit Advisory, and Lifes for Social.
Ramadan during COVID-19 is a unique experience—no prayers at the masjid, no in-person celebrations for Eid, and no late-night food runs with friends. Ramadan is rooted in both individual and collective spirituality. While the ‘collective’ part has been shifted to Zoom and centers the loved ones we’re quarantined with, the ‘individual’ part is front & center. I recently came across Afshan Nasseri’s Ramadan Mubarak post, stating: Faith can be a process / journey, it’s not always perfect or consistent. I was struck by how relatable and meditative this was, as a young South Asian-Muslim woman myself. This is the part of the intro where I tell you to drop everything and go check out Afshan’s Instagram (@lifesforliving). Not only is her visual content scenic and vivid, her captions are thoughtful, digging deep into her experiences and passions. Read on to learn about Afshan’s journey as a young entrepreneur spreading cultural awareness, how she serves breath-taking looks, and what Ramadan means to her.
photo credit: Sanjida Bintekamal
Finding her footing with her blog & freelancing
“Growing up, I went to a prep school in Massachusetts. There weren’t that many South Asian people around me. I'm mixed-race; my parents are essentially first generation, and I'm second gen, because my mom came here when she was 7 years old from India. So, she doesn't remember that much about India. My grandparents immigrated to Canada in the 60s, so I think my immigrant story is not very usual. In my house, there was a really good balance of maintaining your roots and understanding your culture, but also, ‘Of course, you can go to the party. That's what everyone your age does.’ So, I think having that balance was really nice, and I think it made me more confident in my culture. It was much easier for me to get over the barrier of, ‘Oh my god, I'm so different.’
My parents raised me to understand that I was different from my classmates, but I was cool because of that. I never felt like my culture held me back.
In fact, it was something that I wanted to talk about, even since I was little. My parents are really big inspirations for that. For example, my mom works in the pharmaceutical industry and she would wear kurtas to work. That showed me that there was nothing to be ashamed of.
A lot of my connection to India and South Asia as a whole is because of Lucknow, my hometown in India. I run a nonprofit there, so I go to India very often.
I started going to India by myself as a teenager, and I think that’s a very different experience than when I go with my parents.
My house is in a place where there’s all kinds of economic backgrounds. Going down into my gully, you can see the fruit-sellers and people just doing their thing. So, my connection to India was maintained throughout the years, and I started to really love South Asian fashion. Noticing the kinds of opportunities that were in India, I realized that a lot of young Indians and Pakistanis abroad see their homelands through their parents’ lens. They don’t necessarily care to see the cool parts of pop culture in South Asia.
I was lucky that my grandfather was always there to teach me about the history of India and his experience. From there, I developed this passion for South Asian history. I started learning a little bit about the crafts that are famous in Lucknow. I work with an artisan there, who had a wholesale platform set up. Because of her inability to speak English and for related reasons, she wanted help to grow her business. I told her, ‘I can be a retailer for you,’ and I would be able to tell the story that I wanted to tell about Lucknow and the culture there.
I had so much to document, and I was learning so much. I started writing a little bit, here and there. Then, one of my friends, who's a photographer in New York, said, “Let's just try to do a photo shoot.” When we did that and I posted the pictures, people responded well to it. So, we just kept on going and going. I kept pumping out new ideas to bring them to life. At that time, there weren’t many South Asian bloggers talking about South Asia or Indian fashion.
My blog acts as my portfolio. A big reason why I started my blog is actually for that portfolio aspect. I was never keen on becoming a fashionista; it was always about showing my creativity and how I could mold that into real, tangible projects. In 2017, someone reached out to me about a gig for social media management. Pyarful got in touch with me through Instagram, so I started doing projects with her. It was very cool to explore my niche of marketing to South Asian people here in the U.S. and also to the South Asian diaspora.
I was actually in the beauty industry just for a few months, right after I graduated from McGill University. I was leading marketing at a South Asian-inspired beauty company, in the skincare space. I very quickly realized that that's not what I wanted to do. I love marketing, but I think the capacity in which I was working there was not really for me. So, I had a freelance client already, and I thought maybe I could put more effort into my blog and freelance business. It's been around 4 months now; the first 3 months were very difficult, both socially and mentally. I think I'm getting to a good place now. I'm seeing progress, which is all I ever wanted.
Besides freelancing, my second priority is Pursuit Advisory. We basically do college counseling for students from abroad, predominantly students in India and Pakistan. That includes helping them find the right college fit for them and pairing them with mentors who have actually gone to those schools for more of a qualitative approach to the college process. My third priority is the blog I’m running. Content is scarce during the pandemic. I think I've used all the sections around my house for photos, haha. I also run a shop called Awadh, and it’s a fun side project that’s been on pause lately.
photo credit: Ammy Photography
Ramadan: fashion, tradition, & spiritual roots
For Ramadan growing up, we would usually all be fasting. We honestly used to skip sehri early in the morning because we had school at 7 AM and it was hard to get up. Which is bad, but now we make sure to eat during sehri. My mom and I would cook iftar: fruit chaat, samosa, pakora, daal. We would invite people over for Iftar and have parties. On Eid Day, I remember coming downstairs—getting ready for morning Eid namaz was always crazy. I was always very stressed out, because I wanted to look good at the masjid—obviously, some very superficial things I used to think about. I would help my mom make seviyan the night before, and we would always serve them in silver bowls. When my grandfather was alive, he would say a dua for all of us, and we would head off to Eid namaz. We’d always have a little fight on the way to namaz about why we’re late, and there would never be parking. After prayer, my masjid would serve donuts and chai. We usually have lunch at our house as well.
For me, religion is something that I had come to understand on my own.
My experience might be a little different from other Muslim-Americans, because we weren't that involved in the mosque growing up. I went to Sunday school and I hated every second of it. To be quite honest, I was bullied at Sunday school. I think it was because my parents were not like the other parents at the mosque, and I wasn't like other Muslim kids. I was never really taught to learn about religion on my own terms; I was mostly handed things to learn and that was it. I wasn’t very close to the community. My dad’s side is not very religious either. So, none of my family’s Islamic practices are influenced by Iranian culture, which was largely impacted by the Iranian Revolution. Because of that, my dad adjusted to Indian-Muslim culture from my mom’s side.
Ramadan hasn’t changed much for me due to the pandemic, quite honestly. I will say that quarantine has made me more focused on Ramadan. Which is good, because I probably needed this. I don’t remember many instances growing up where all of my family members were praying. I notice that we’re definitely praying more during quarantine and have more time to reflect. For those who want to stay connected to their community, I definitely saw more lectures, khutbahs, and halaqas on Zoom this Ramadan because of COVID. Eid is most likely going to be at my house this year. We still have to wear new clothes—it’s tradition—so we’ll put on a new kurta. We don’t have to look good for the boys at the masjid this time, haha.
My parents tell this funny Eid story of when I was little: before Eid namaz, I was frantically running around. I ran into my parents’ room and said, ‘Dad! Dad! I need help!’ And he asked, ‘What?’ And I said, ‘I can’t find my neck shalwar!’ I really called my dupatta a neck shalwar. And my dad didn’t know how to help me, because he doesn’t speak Urdu.
My mom would always supply me with Indian clothes for Eid, because she would go back to India quite often. I think she dressed me well when I was younger—I hope. I actually hated Indian clothes when I was growing up. Not that I thought they were ugly, I thought they were itchy, and I had a very specific taste, like wanting kundan, diamond-like designs sewn in. As I grew up and was able to choose my own clothes, I started seeing what was out there and experimenting with patterns and colors. I started delving into the Middle Eastern fashion world, as well. A few years ago for Eid, I wore a really nice jalabiya from Saudi Arabia. This Eid, I got an outfit, similar to a kaftan, when I went to Dubai in February. It’s become a mix of Indian and Middle Eastern fashion.
“Beauty is about enhancing my features, rather than creating new ones.”
I used to do a lot of eyeliner or go too heavy on the contour and create cheekbones that didn't exist. But now I always feel the best when I feel like I look good. It comes from within. I haven’t been wearing much makeup lately because of quarantine, and I still feel good.
In terms of skincare, my skin isn’t too fussy. I started derma-rolling, and I actually really like it. But on an everyday basis, I take off my makeup with Vichy micellar water, and then I rinse my face with Himalaya neem cleanser from India. If I want to exfoliate one day, I'll use Dr. Organics Manuka Honey Scrub, which really helps me glow and leaves my skin soft because of the Manuka honey. My dad is a doctor, so he likes to play around with skincare. He made me a moisturizer and the top ingredients in it are: water, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, cetearyl alcohol, oryza sativa rice bran oil. I used to live in Canada, which was very cold, so my skin would get really dry. His moisturizer—hands-down—has always kept my skin hydrated. My other favorite product for a little hydration pick-me-up is a Biotherm plankton face mask. You leave it on overnight, and it seeps into your skin. Oh my god, my skin after using that is so soft and smooth.
With my makeup routine, I always have to fill in my eyebrows with a MAC felt pen, because I have very little eyebrow hair. I would typically say that I use NARS concealer, but my skin has been getting it together these days. I think it’s good to use if you’re someone who wears foundation on an everyday basis. But if you're looking for something a little bit more light, I use Bare Minerals concealer. I really like Dior Face & Body foundation, because it's super light. I don’t use foundation that often, though. For mascara, I use Too Faced Better than Sex mascara—I feel like everyone likes that one.
I once filled in my brows with a mechanical pencil. I was desperate at that point in my life, okay?
I started using blush, and I love it! I think blush is every brown girl’s secret for our skin tones. I use a Color Pop blush from their Mulan collection. I would also recommend BOBBI BROWN blush, especially in the color Tawny for brown girls. I think it's really, really good. I end it with a gloss and lip liner by MAC. For photoshoots, I’m not actually used to having so much makeup on my face, and I’m still learning how to do makeup for photoshoots. A good trick I learned with eyeshadow is packing it on with your finger, instead of a brush. That's one of the only ways that enough shadow is going to get on your lid for it to really pop.
Culture Fused into Fashion Favorites
I usually try to put in some element of my culture in whatever I wear, even on a daily basis.
For example, I have a sweater with Persian calligraphy at the bottom that I love. If I could describe my ideal outfit, it would be a tight-fitted top and a really fun pair of patterned, loose-fitted pants, like palazzos or cargo pants. My body is very lanky, and I grew up thinking that the only pants I could wear were skinny jeans, because that was the trend at that time. And one day, I put on cargo pants and I really liked how they looked. I was like, ‘Wow why was I doing this to myself, looking like a little lanky Ninja?’ I also really like playing with different forms on my body; like loose-fitting pants or a nice waist belt, things like that. I usually only shop when I go abroad, though.
My favorite piece of clothing was something I wore for my first professional photo shoot for my blog. They are these bright yellow dhoti pants from Saudi Arabia that my friend gave me. The pants literally come as a square, and you have to wrap them yourself, so it gives you a nice fit on the waist and that palazzo flare on the pant leg. Those pants just speak to me. They will always be in my closet.
photo credit: Ali Reza Malik
Advice for Gen. Z aspiring entrepreneurs
When I started out as an entrepreneur, my mom once said, ‘You know what you’re doing and talking about, so why do you sound so apologetic?’ I think that's important.
Everyone should learn to be confident in their skill set and business plans, but also be realistic.
Use everyone in your network to check through your idea and look for any holes and then fix them before it gets too late. We don’t often see how people in our network can help us in different projects—just because we don’t view them in that way. Perfecting your pitch is really important. Whether that's through email or on the phone, really understanding and highlighting what makes your business different.
I’m looking forward to building my college counseling business. I definitely want to help people in Lucknow, because there aren’t as many resources there. And growing my freelance business has always been a dream of mine. I’m getting to the point where I can take on people to help me with different projects. That’s super important to me, because having a mentor in the freelance world was always very difficult for me to find. It was hard for me to figure out how to draft my proposal, price my services, optimize my LinkedIn, and things like that. If I’m able to be a mentor to other people, I would be super excited.”