Take The Leap

Banker-turned-bakery-owner Umber Ahmad knows how to make the most of a major career change.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of eating a pastry from Mah ze Dahr, we suggest you place an order, stat. The bakery’s name comes from the word “magic,” because, as founder Umber Ahmad explains, her treats leave you thinking, “I can’t put my finger on why, but this is delicious.” Maybe it’s a hint of rose added to bring out citrus flavors, or an undetectable bit of coffee to highlight chocolate’s taste. It doesn’t stop at her incredibly unique recipes—when it comes to her bakery, Umber isn’t doing anything by the book.Umber Ahmad
After ten years in investment banking and private equities, she left Wall Street to start an investment company, where she homed in on her passion—helping businesses grow. She specialized in helping companies develop a marketing presence, become competitive brands and expand internationally. It wasn’t until she worked with Tom Colicchio that she even considered turning her baking into a brand. “I boldly brought Tom Colicchio my food. He asked me what I wanted to do with it, and I thought he meant how I wanted to pack up the leftovers,” she says. He didn’t. He saw something special in her food and he wanted her to do something with it. “I told him I wanted to do for myself what I’d been doing for other people. I wanted to build a brand.” Since then, she’s set up shop online. Her goodies are available at Williams-Sonoma, and she has plans to open a storefront in New York City. She tells us why taking the leap into a new career is worth it and how to make it work.

1. Forget the rules

I don’t look like a traditional pastry chef. Most people start with brick and mortar and then move into online and wholesale. I did the opposite. It costs half-a-million dollars to open a store. I went online first, built my presence and reputation there—and through wholesale partners like Williams-Sonoma—and now i’m opening a store.

2. Think backwards

Bankers work backwards, asking themselves “What is the outcome I want, and how do I get there?” Usually people starting food business look forward at today, tomorrow and the next day. “How many cookies do I make today and can I sell them all? How can I serve them tomorrow?” They have less control over and less idea of where they’ll end up. As a former banker, I don’t do that—I think about five years from now.
Mah ze Dahr

3. It’s not just a bakery—it’s a brand

I think of this business as an enterprise, not a one-door shop. Growing up, food was a way to communicate and explore. I’d travel and learn about people and cultures through the food. It's not just about having a cute little store in the West Village. This is a food business that’s accessible to everyone (rather than tethered to one neighborhood location). It’s about creating a language for people who normally wouldn’t have an opportunity to connect. In all of the decisions I make for this business, I ask myself “How do I create that language for people? How do I introduce them to things that matter in other parts of the world through food?” That’s the foundation of the Mah ze Dahr brand.

4. Making a big career change doesn’t mean starting from square one

Some people are great chefs with no business experience. Of the many food businesses that fail, most do so because the business isn’t run well, not because of a lack of culinary talent. I apply everything that I learned throughout my career to running Mah ze Dahr. It’s critical to bring your experience with you to a new career, even if it seems totally irrelevant. You didn’t spend your whole career developing a skill just to leave it at the door. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but you can reinvent your energy. I separated my title (“banker”) from my skillset (business development, financial management, leadership, etc.), and it turned out that my skillset was easily transferable to opening a bakery. Make a list of things you’re good at. You’ll identify areas of business where you’ll be ahead of the game because you’ll have skills others in your new field don’t have.
Umber Ahmad and Tom Colicchio

5. Be kind to yourself

I forgive myself about timing, because nothing works out on my timing, but something better often comes along. I don’t try to create balance, because there is no perfectly balanced day—it’s just my day. Be open to the opportunities that come into your path when you’re trying to get something entirely different done. Remember that no one will ever get 100% of you except you, so you’d better create a life that makes you happy and consider yourself worthy of doing exactly what it is that you want to do.

6. It’s hard, but that’s okay

If anyone told me how hard this was going to be before I started, I would have said “Fuck that, I’m not doing it.” Running the bakery is hard, but every single day, I’m happy. Not all day—but every day.