Four teenagers studying at The University of Winnipeg and the Collegiate meet in Riddell Hall cafeteria. They hang out together listening to U2, create some fun T-shirts that they sell to the Uniter staff and from there, go on to build a global active wear clothing company that today employs 100 people in the U.S., China, Hong Kong and at their head office in Winnipeg.
The birth of Mondetta is a quintessentially Canadian story about two families of Indian ancestry who became refugees from Africa. It’s about struggle and perseverance, blizzards and beach parties, pride and brotherly bonds.
Exactly 26 years ago, Mondetta was started by two sets of brothers- Ash and Prashant Modha, Raj and Amit Bahl and the Modhas’ cousin, Pratik Modha, who left the company shortly after.
The brothers – Ash, a 16 year-old in grade 11 at the Collegiate, Prashant and Raj both 19 and studying science at UWinnipeg with an eye to becoming doctors, and Amit, aged 20, enrolled in arts, struck up a friendship in Riddell Hall. “Raj had this pattern shaved into the back of his head that was eye-catching,” laughs Ash, “so we invited him and his brother to a big party at our cousin Pratik’s house. Raj and Amit were totally preppy. I opened the door and said – well, the geeks are here.”
“It’s true,” says Raj, “Argyle sweaters, tennis sweaters, tailored twill pants. That was Amit and I.”
Ash, Raj and Prashant gathered around their boardroom table in a nondescript red brick building in an industrial area of Winnipeg for a meandering interview with the Alumni Journal. The interview is punctuated with the teasing laughter and easy affection of close family who also remain long-standing business partners. Now in their forties, Ash is Mondetta’s President and Chief Executive Officer; brother Prashant is Vice-President, Finance; and Raj is Vice-President, Sales (Amit left the company in 1995).
Raj came to Winnipeg from Kenya when he was just four years old. “We like to compete – who came here the poorest, it’s like a badge of honour. We lived at the McLaren Hotel on Main Street when we arrived. There were fewer than 100 Indian families living in Winnipeg in the early 1970s, it was a tough mountain for my father to climb. He did pass the bar and became a lawyer with the City of Winnipeg, and my mother who has a big heart and needed to earn extra income, cared for mentally challenged adults who lived with us once we were able to get a home in Charleswood.”
The Modhas were expelled from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin who did not want Asians in the country. They arrived via England under a refugee program set up by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Ash and Prashant, three and six years old, remember joining relatives at a home on Corydon Avenue. “There were eight of us in a two bedroom house,” says Prashant. “Our mother worked steaming clothes, hard physical work. Our father applied everywhere and got a job as an accounting clerk with a trucking company. Our parents had so much in Africa. Basically they lost everything and had to start over.”
“We didn’t know about the cold,” says Ash. “We had rubber boots that froze in winter. We were always stamping our feet.” Eventually the Modha family was able to buy a home in the Maples. “There were maybe five other Indian families there. It is strange because we are from the Indian community but came from an African culture with British overtones.”
UWINNIPEG STUDENT YEARS
The brothers stumbled into the clothing business by accident. “We created some business cards for candidates to hand out in the UWSA elections,” says Ash. “The Uniter editor at the time saw those cards and was looking for some T-shirts for his team. So we created a logo for him and sold him T-shirts for $8 each. They cost us about $2.50. So we thought this is good, there is money to be made here!”
They put logos onto sweatshirts and started selling those on campus, out of their lockers. They hit the road looking for retail outlets, driving through a blinding blizzard one weekend to Saskatoon. “Truckers had pulled off the highway, but we persevered,” says Raj. “Although we did not sell one sweatshirt that weekend,” adds Ash.
Manitoba has one of the nicest beaches in North America – Grand Beach, with a large youth demographic flocking to the dunes on sunny weekends. In 1986-87, the Modha-Bahl’s set up a beach kiosk selling their clothes directly to customers. Ash took a trip to Jamaica and discovered a lightweight beach jacket and pants combination which they replicated. “This was important because it was our introduction to manufacturing, and sourcing our fabric,” says Raj. “I can remember driving around in my uncle’s mini-van with bolts of fabric strapped to the roof.” That uncle, Kish Mohda, offered loans, advice and guidance. “Because of him we were able to buy our first computer, in 1988. It was an Apple SE/30 that cost $6,000. We used it for 15 years.”
The budding entrepreneurs were juggling school and business. “We would go to class during the day, do homework, then pack boxes in our parents basement until two o’clock in the morning, watching America’s Most Wanted on TV,” laughs Raj.
The second summer they headed to Grand Beach they had a rude awakening. A competitor had set up shop.
“It was the May long weekend and we did really badly in terms of sales,” says Raj. “It was a watershed moment because the year before we had owned the place.” The brothers gathered at Ash and Prashant’s house to figure things out.
The next trip up Highway 59 they brought along a team of skateboarders dressed in their signature beach wear. They set up a show directly next to a stage where a local band was attracting huge crowds. The band was Crash Test Dummies. The lead singer, Brad Roberts, had his locker next to theirs on the UWinnipeg campus. They hit gold.
“It was our first taste of marketing,” says Ash. “While the skateboarders did their show Prashant and I walked through the crowds handing out cards with a 10% discount.”
“We made $7,000 that weekend,” says Raj. “We got home and we were throwing money in the air. Our mother stopped us – she said don’t ever throw money around. We were learning fast.”
Just one year later, in 1988, Ash spotted a German flag on a Volkswagan Beetle and was inspired to transpose the flag to a sweatshirt. That Flag Shirt catapulted Mondetta to the forefront of Canadian fashion. The global theme came with a tagline – ‘A Spirit of Unification’ – promoting global unity. Mondetta was on the cutting edge of recognizing the emerging interconnectedness of youth culture. Even the name implied a global consciousness – Mondetta combines the French word world, monde with the Latin suffix for small, etta to form ‘small world’.
Philanthropy is an important part of the Mondetta ethos. As immigrants from Uganda and Kenya, the Modha-Bahl’s feel a strong allegiance and desire to help Africa. The Mondetta Charity Foundation, a separate entity from the Mondetta Clothing Company, provides assistance to ease some of the suffering in Africa due to devastating problems such as AIDS and poverty. Their charity focuses on helping children who have lost one or both parents.
“We have to do it,” says Ash. “We think it is important to be giving back. It is part of what we do.”
“We had families with initiative, and not every kid has that, we are fortunate,” says Raj. “Helping in Africa allows us to come full circle.”
Uncle Kish, their earliest supporter and investor, spearheaded and today runs the foundation.
Winnipeg charities also receive help. Over the years the Mondetta Charity Classic Golf Tournament has raised and distributed $750,000 locally.
ADVICE TO YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS
Not everyone would pick Winnipeg as the choice location for a global fashion company, and that suits the Mondetta guys just fine.
“The beauty of this city is that you have easy access to all kinds of people, it’s the perfect size.” says Ash.
“The spirit of this city is entrepreneurial, and there are tremendous cost-efficiencies here,” says Raj. “And I can drive from home to the airport in 12 minutes. You can’t do that anywhere else.”
“And the incredible diversity here,” says Prashant. “It is very cosmopolitan.”
The brothers have strong advice for business students looking to create a company from scratch one day. It goes something like this. Start when you are young and take risks, because you don’t have much to lose when you are 18 to 25 years old. Be creative. Whatever product you decide on, make it world-class. Be ready to do everything, stay committed and pay your dues. Learn from others and if possible, find a good mentor.
Their last bit of wisdom is surprising.
“Don’t worry about a business plan,” says Ash, Prashant and Raj. “That will come later. Start small, go with your instincts and stay agile.” And most importantly, remain grounded.
“We don’t get caught up trying to be cool,” says Ash. “We are not cool. In fact I’d say we are uncool. That’s what makes us cool.”
Article By Diane Poulin
Ash Modha graduated from UWinnipeg’s Collegiate in 1987 and obtained his BA in Economics at The University of Manitoba. Prashant Modha studied science at UWinnipeg then went on to obtain his MBA (UManitoba) and CFA. Raj Bahl studied science at UWinnipeg where he completed the majority of his coursework but eventually graduated from UManitoba with a degree in Applied Economics.