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Painting Success on a Blank Canvas

Nahema Mehta, co-founder and CEO of Absolut Art

My path to Absolut Art has been a jungle gym rather than a ladder. I'm lucky to call many places home – Antwerp, Nairobi, Geneva, New York, Hong Kong – having lived and/or worked in all of them.

I've always had a passion for innovation. I moved to America to study language and anthropology at Columbia University and became a judicial scholar at the Supreme Court, speechwriting for Chief Justice Roberts. I then parlayed stints at Merrill Lynch and Sotheby's into managing a $15 million art fund.

That's how Art Remba came about. I saw a hole in the art buying market between posters and Picassos. The gap wasn't due to a lack of great art, but rather to most people not knowing where to find it or what to buy. I started Art Remba to create an online entry point for people like me who wanted the trust and curation of the big galleries and the immediacy and accessibility of the Ubers and Everlanes.

I was at a conference speaking about my mission to democratize access to art and, unbeknownst to me, Absolut was there. They shared my mission and approached me with an offer to exit Art Remba and co-found Absolut Art. At first, I said no because I thought it was a marketing tool to sell vodka, but then the CEO, Paul Duffy, and innovations director, Lena Danielsson, assured me that Absolut Art would be a startup backed by Absolut — an autonomous venture extending Absolut's 30-year art heritage. They gave me an offer I couldn't refuse to do what I'm most passionate about on a global scale, and I haven't looked back.

With Absolut Art, we're able to bring the world's most exciting local art scenes – from LA to Stockholm, Berlin to Havana (we just launched a Cuba x Cuba initiative last month) – to the global market. Absolut Art is a sustainable, price conscious and seamless way to buy contemporary art. Each piece is signed, framed and delivered to your door in 48 hours. Artists are handpicked by our team of local curators and tapped to create unique limited-edition collections. Artists share in 50 percent of the profits, and many have shown at top institutions like the MoMA, the Guggenheim and Centre Pompidou.

Our goal from the start has been to close the gap between artists creating and people collecting, making it easy to live with art you love. Achieving this hasn't always been easy. The game shifts, the challenges change, and you'll have 100 different jobs – it is constant evolution.

Our first year was about building out production, fulfillment and distribution, but what made us successful in that is not the same as what made us successful in piloting Absolut Art, nor is it what will make us successful in scaling the business.

I read a quote years ago in "The Lean Startup" that said, "startups don't starve, they drown." When you build a business, you have an overwhelming number of options and opportunities, but not enough time or resources to do them all. Not only do you have to make the right choices, but you also have to throw a ton of stuff at the wall and train yourself to recognize if it's time to be patient or time for a change.

I've learned to spend time and energy hiring the right people, not micromanaging the wrong ones. In the early days, we made some hiring mistakes because we felt rushed to fill roles. My cofounder Marcus and I learned from those mistakes, and now we wait for the right fit, even if that means moving a little slower. Our job is to lead, not manage — to align our team on goals and support them while allowing them take ownership of their work. The only way you can do that is by building a team that you are inspired by, learn from and trust.

You don't find success in safe places. It was only when I stopped saying yes to my comfort zone and started taking risks and feeding opportunities — like starting a business or expanding an iconic brand — that I stumbled upon success and, more importantly, satisfaction.

About the author: Nahema Mehta is the co-founder and CEO of Absolut Art. Prior, she started her own startup, Art Remba, served as a Judicial Scholar for Chief Justice Roberts at the Supreme Court of the U.S., and worked for Sotheby's and Merrill Lynch.

Edited for brevity and clarity by Sammi Caramela.

Image Credit: Nahema Mehta