I Am Sawlf

On Saturday, March 9, hundreds of South Asian women will unite for Congress 2013 in New York City.

As part of our "I AM SAWLF" campaign - - and countdown to Congress - - we invite you to meet some of the remarkable women who plan to attend this year's extraordinary event as profiled by journalist Aarti Virani.

Mumtaz Mustafa

Senior Art Director, HarperCollins Publishers

Just this month alone, Mumtaz Mustafa, a senior art director at HarperCollins Publishers in New York City, has designed 25 erotica covers, a trend she attributes to the unprecedented success of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy. “We were using a lot of naked people before,” confesses the Karachi-born artist with a conspiratorial giggle. “But I’m glad we’re edging towards a more sophisticated portrayal now.”

Mustafa, who has overseen the design of hundreds of covers during her 10 years at the prestigious publishing house—at 33, she’s one of the youngest senior art directors there—cut her teeth at the renowned Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she began as a fashion design major. “Ultimately, I felt if I was going to go down that track, it should be in a cosmopolitan city,” she explains. “Rhode Island is sweet and quaint but wasn’t the hub of fashion.” Eventually, she traded fashion for graphic design and elected to fuse her two longtime passions: books and design. “I decided if I wanted to get a job, I wouldn’t just be designing pretty cards for Hallmark,” she recalls.

Just months after graduation in May 2001, Mustafa faced a number of threatening roadblocks, including a sluggish economy, a hiring freeze and widespread reluctance when it came to sponsoring her work visa. After a brief stint as a catalog designer for a toy factory, Mustafa eventually got the much-anticipated call from HarperCollins—“I pursued them, practically stalked them,” she reveals—and started as a designer in 2002. “I was the first Pakistani to get hired at Harper,” she says. “When I asked my old boss, who is no longer at the company, about the possibility of getting a green card, he said, ‘do you think you’re exceptional’?”

Alongside the daunting immigration gauntlet, Mustafa has gracefully tackled various challenges at the publishing house, where she sometimes manages employees who are nearly 20 years older than her. “I’m not very confrontational,” she admits. “I leave anything that’s personal at the door. I always emphasize that we’re a team and I’m here to help, guide and art direct.”

In addition to creative prowess, Mustafa has provided unmatched logistical support to HarperCollins: she was instrumental in acquiring “Reconciliation,” the last book penned by her late aunt, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The book, which secured a spot on the New York Times Best Seller list, was a volume Bhutto finished just days before she was assassinated in 2007. “I was grateful to do it because I felt close to the process, but it was so sad,” divulges Mustafa, who was responsible for selecting the image of Bhutto’s signature, sidelong gaze that adorns the book’s front. “That cover is the closest to my heart,” she adds, pausing momentarily.

Mustafa, who regularly makes room for a range of causes that are close to her heart (she frequently returns to RISD, her alma mater, for career fairs and portfolio reviews), was a host and mentor at SAWLF’s “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” in 2010, an experience she enjoyed immensely. “The fact that a lot of these girls were high-schoolers from Queens who had parents working blue-collar jobs meant they were really disconnected from the corporate structure,” she emphasizes. After taking the girls on a tour of HarperCollins, letting them raid the office’s free bookshelves and engaging them in a lively Q&A session with her art department, Mustafa was thrilled to discover she had piqued their interest in the publishing field. “A lot of these girls, who were always told to become chemists and doctors, were re-thinking their careers,” she adds, excitedly. “It’s not easy to get a job in my field, but I’m very grateful that I was able to, which is why I help as many people as I can.”

Meet Mumtaz Mustafa at Congress 2013.

Aarti Virani is a New Jersey-based arts, culture and lifestyle writer. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vogue India and Travel + Leisure, among other publications.


2013 South Asian Women's Leadership Forum (SAWLF). All Rights Reserved. Congress Images by Seshu Photography. SAWLF Event Images by Mamta Badkar