We had the good fortune of connecting with Leila Qari and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Leila, how has your background shaped the person you are today?
I am originally from Pakistan, grew up in Saudi Arabia, and moved to the States at the age of 21. Women from my background often don’t have the sort of career opportunities and freedom to pursue their passions that women in the West do. I always knew I wanted to live a career-oriented life, so I moved here with the purpose of finding meaningful work.
Initially, simply surviving as an immigrant doing any jobs that were available took all my energy and focus. Once I had found my feet, I went to law school, graduated at the top of my class, and landed what I thought was my dream job in complex commercial litigation. I realized pretty quickly that the practice of law wasn’t for me. The fact that I had sacrificed so much just to be in this country helped me find clarity about my career and life priorities, and being a lawyer gave me a lot of confidence to attempt other challenging things. Enter: the cat cafe, combining my passion for working with both people and animals.
When you grow up in a country like Saudi Arabia and see life in the third world first hand, it makes you want to seize every opportunity and really go for what you want in a country like America that empowers people to live their best life. I feel super fortunate to have been able to create my dream career, and I do credit my background with giving me the motivation to get it done.
What should our readers know about your business?
In June 2014, I decided to open the United States’ first cat cafe. Cat cafes are a unique concept that came to North America and Europe via Japan. By the time Denver Cat Company opened its doors to the public, it was December 2014 and the Oakland cat cafe had already opened two months prior. Still, we were one of the pioneering cat cafes in America and I faced a ton of challenges and a steep learning curve.
I’m proud that despite a lot of naysayers to my idea, I did not give up but persevered in bringing my vision to life. I also poured my heart and soul (and most of my waking hours) to getting my business off the ground, worked extremely hard to educate my public about the concept, and lived off savings until the business found its footing. Looking back, I’m astounded at how much work and effort this took over the first two years of the business, but when you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you are only grateful for the opportunity to be able to do it at all, and not really mad that it’s hard.
But because it is hard to build a business from scratch, my biggest lesson was that one must do it for the right reasons. It cannot be to make money or to be your own boss, although those are great goals to have. It has to be because you love what you do; otherwise, you’ll burn out.
I’m also super proud of being an immigrant-and-woman owned business that pays employees well, treats them with respect and love, and has a fantastic retention rate.
I’m probably the most proud that despite being an indoor-only business, we survived Covid, and we did so without our employees missing a single paycheck.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Obviously, Tennyson Street where my cat cafe is located! It is vibrant with boutiques, restaurants and gift shops. Outside my neighborhood, Barcelona is a great tapas restaurant in RiNO and Uncle is a terrific ramen place with two locations — I’d go to the West Wash Park one. I would love to walk 32nd street with them in the Highlands, and/or the Sunday farmer’s market there. Lunch at City o’ City, one of Denver’s oldest vegetarian restaurants, is always a treat. Nearby Cheesman Park is a charming place to go for a stroll. If we can, I’d want to take them to a show to Mission Ballroom or Red Rocks, two of Denver’s finest music venues.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My sister, Marwa Qari, has always been my biggest supporter. From helping me pass flyers at “cat” events to advertise the opening of the cat cafe to picking up shifts at the cafe when I was short-handed to showing up to volunteer for my rescue organization and serving on its board, my sister always shows up for me.
Second, but not any less important is my cat cafe staff, particularly my manager Helena Gallegos, who is the hardest working, most dedicated right hand any business owner could hope to have. I could not do this without her.
Finally, we couldn’t do our work without all the rescue organizations who have partnered with us, all our foster families, all our volunteers, and of course all our customers who have supported us over the last 7 years.