Leila Ismailova began her professional career at the age of 15 as a broadcasting star in Belarus, the Russian-neighboring Eastern European country that plays home to 9.3 million citizens. She continued in the role for 10 years, she says, before reaching what she felt was a “professional ceiling” and beginning a journey that led to Web3.
“I remember my audacity as a child, just sneaking into the buildings with newspapers and magazines — it was called the House of Press,” Ismailova recalls in an interview with Cointelegraph. “I would handwrite my stories and sneak into the building — because I didn’t have a pass — by making up stories that I was someone’s granddaughter, or by just going in when someone else entered. And I would find the doors that said ‘editor’ or ‘editor-in-chief,’ and I would just walk in and give them my articles. People smiled, and I’m sure they felt I was naive, but I felt they also had some respect for me doing this work.”
Her renegade news career led to television in a matter of years. She joined the country’s First National Channel at the age of 15, where she started on a show that covered news and culture for younger viewers.
“My first audition went horribly,” Ismailova says. “I turned purple. I was thinking really fast, but they still wanted me to come for the second round.”
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Ismailova moved to the United States in 2016, setting off what she calls a “season of migration” for her family, including her brother, Bahram, and sister, Esmira. Bahram is a serial tech entrepreneur whose inventions include Peech App and Yope, among many others, while Esmira is an author whose published works include On the Shores of Bosphorus. (You won’t find it in English yet, so don’t spend too much time scouring Amazon.)
Ismailova’s and her siblings’ success came despite hardship. Their father died when they were children (Bahram was just 1), fighting for Azerbaijan in the country’s war with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
“It happened very abruptly,” Ismailova says. “Of course, no one planned for it, so we went very fast from being a well-off family living in the capital of Baku to being a very scared family. We were pretty much on our own in a country that was going through the war with Armenia and, on top of that, separating from the Soviet Union. It was a very harsh time for everybody.”
Ismailova says that experience inspired her to launch a charity during her broadcast career that offered mentoring for orphans, an activity she would like to resume in the future.
“It seemed like these girls, even though the government provided very simple basics for them to start life, didn’t have parental guidance,” Ismailova recalls. “It seemed like a lot of orphan girls were insecure because no one told them they were beautiful. Our goal was to create that guidance and to give them a confidence boost. […] For me, it was very important to do, and I was so lucky that I had a chance and a bit of influence. Right now, I miss it very much.”
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Today, she’s a Web3 veteran after spending three years at Artisant, a digital fashion brand she co-founded — inspired, in part, by her career in journalism. “As a child, I didn’t have access to a lot of beautiful dresses,” Ismailova says. “But I always appreciated the elegant and beautiful part of fashion, and when I watched TV, I always saw TV hosts and red carpets. It always looked stunning.”
Ismailova left Artisant in July to launch a new chapter of her career as a consultant for digital-savvy fashion brands. “I’m sort of coming back to reality,” Ismailova explains. “Artisant was a digital fashion brand, but there was no physical product.”
1. You moved from Belarus, where you were a TV journalist, to the United States. What’s the story behind that?
I’m the only one from my family who moved, at first. I opened the “season of migration” for my family, as right after I moved, my sister moved, and then my brother. He didn’t just move — he ran away in August 2020, right after the Belarusian presidential election, when they started hunting people down. He had to run. His two co-founders were arrested.
My personal story is that I was a pretty successful TV host back home, I started when I was 15. I wanted to be a TV host because I wanted to wear beautiful dresses. I was very happy. It was my dream job! I started working early, and I think I was very hungry for success. I got all the national awards I dreamed of at a very young age, hosted all the shows I wanted to, and reached the professional ceiling back home.
2. What got you into crypto?
Well, my first stop in the United States was California — this was before I moved to Miami. I got into graduate school for a master’s program at USC Annenberg. (To be honest, I’m still struggling to connect to American society.) I’ve always been a nerd, and school seemed like a safe environment to connect to people. I started learning about entrepreneurship during the first wave of crypto in 2017, and then I invested in my first crypto… and “lost” it. I bought Litecoin at $250. But I started working in crypto only in 2020.
3. What brought you to Miami?
I felt very limited in Los Angeles with the COVID-19 restrictions, and very isolated. I couldn’t even walk my dog because they closed the parks. So, I got into digital fashion. It got me very curious about how something that didn’t exist could make someone feel so good. That was when I met my Artisant co-founder, Regina [Turbina], in 2020. We were talking, and I started helping with little things. In 2021, I joined Artisant full-time.
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Things were flowing, so I quit my job and took a leap of faith — which brought me to Miami. And since I joined crypto, never have I met so many bright, prominent people with open minds. Everyone has been very welcoming, even though I knew far less in the beginning than I know now. People were willing to spend hours on the phone with me, sharing knowledge. I think the welcoming environment encouraged me to stay.
4. How do you see digital fashion evolving over the next five years?
Looking at the last bull run, I think it was awesome, but it’s over. We have this romantic notion that we’re all moving to the metaverse, and our avatars will all need clothes someday. I want to see technology become a tool that makes people more well-rounded, sustainable — wholesome.
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We have this vicious circle in the Western world of buying goods we don’t need. Brands manipulate us into buying things. Consequently, we need to produce more goods, and we have this vicious circle of overproduction and overconsumption. We have a situation where fashion, the most beautiful business in the world, is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions.
We have a huge problem at hand, and I see digital fashion and technology as a possible solution. We’re moving from the notion of building digital clothes for the metaverse to looking at how digital fashion can be useful right now. Look at Dior and their B33 sneaker collection with NFC chips built into the sole. It’s an amazing technology that allows you to link them to digital assets. So it’s a very good way for brands to solve the problem of counterfeit products. Another example is LVHM, which is partnering with Epic Games to create things like virtual fitting rooms, immersive fashion, dynamic 360-degree product displays and more.
To me, we’ve reached a point of no return. Even with the bear market and many Web3 projects going into hibernation, we still see news about digital fashion every week. There won’t be a single fashion house that isn’t using digital fashion in five years.
5. You recently left Artisant. Where are you going next?
Seeing Artisant grow — not just in numbers but in real people who defined Artisant as their community — meant the whole world to me. But I came to a point where I gave everything I could to the project. Technology has a huge mission in reforming the world of fashion, and I want to contribute. While I am still pondering my next big professional adventure, I know it will be fun and will serve humanity.
6. What’s your life like outside of crypto?
I love having a balanced life. I have a dog named Rocco. (That’s a hobby, right?) I play chess. To me, chess is a very important game that helps me a lot in business and in analyzing situations by sharpening my analytical skills.
I also like sports. It’s very important, for me, to keep moving. Yoga has been part of my life for quite some time. Since I live in Miami, I do things like paddleboarding and kite surfing. And I take dance classes. That was one of my first dreams, actually —to become a dancer.
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