In January of 1971, Raj Shah was 16 years old when he immigrated to Edmonds from his native Kenya. With an older brother working for Boeing in Everett, Raj moved in with his new host family, Frank and Dorothy Neal in Edmonds, where he enrolled in Edmonds High School. It was a houseful — Raj was joining the mix with host brothers Bill and John and their sister Teri. Raj’s younger brother, Akhil, joined the Neal family a year later when he also turned 16.
“It was very unusual for kids of our age group to be sent outside the country,” says Raj. “But even back in the ’70s, America was the dream—and we saw that dream through reading American comic books. We started bugging our family, and they said, ‘Raj, you go first, and if you like it, Akhil will go, too.’”
Raj arrived with a passion for fashion and an entrepreneurial spirit. He made his first sale of dashikis (a colorful African garment for men and women) to the Edmonds High School bookstore. With confidence from this first successful sale and sell-thru, Raj asked Akhil to join him to launch a new fashion apparel business.
“It was a great adventure having Raj and Akhil live with us,” Teri Neal says. “They introduced me to a bigger world. I even stayed with their family in Kenya for a summer and eventually lived abroad for seven years. They still feel like family”.
With the combination of two supportive families (one in Kenya and their adopted family in Edmonds), and an insatiable interest in business, the stage was set for the brothers to become a new international fashion player.
Raj and Akhil Shah founded Shah Safari, Inc. in 1975 to provide trend-setting apparel for young men. In 1982, Raj and Akhil — along with their late partner Mike Alesko — launched another fashion company, International News, Inc. In 1985, the partners opened the ZebraClub store in downtown Seattle at the corner of 1st and Stewart, just above Pike Place Market. ZebraClub was opened as a “laboratory” for fashion brands to test out new designs and concepts for young men and women’s clothing — and drew top fashion executives from all over the world to check out the innovative retail concept.
The brothers established international offices in Bombay (Mumbai), London, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Nepal and Bangladesh to support and manage the company’s global growth. At one point in the late ’80s, the Shah Safari brand enjoyed nearly 25% of the market share for young men’s woven tops in the U.S.
In the late ’90s, the brothers launched Mecca USA, which spearheaded the original urban hip-hop fashion movement. Today’s active clothing brands include: Road Apparel, Punch, Reactor, Raw Edge, A. Tiziano, Ably and Americaware.
For the past 15 years, the Quest division of Shah Safari has been one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of personal protective equipment apparel to the medical/hospital industry in the U.S. The manufacturing facility is FDA registered. Shah Safari recently donated thousands of re-usable masks to United Way of King County, which were distributed to over 25 charitable organizations. Masks were also donated to United Way of Snohomish County.
Fast forward to 2020. Raj and Akhil have built a company that reflects their values of investing in their people and the community. “Our dad used to say, ‘The value of your name will be worth more than any asset you’ll ever acquire,’” says Raj. Inspired by the success of their own venture at such a young age, Raj and Akhil created a venture fund 30 years ago to support start-up companies.
The Shah brothers have been recognized by the World Bank as well as the governments of India, Nepal and Bangladesh for their work in helping to build the apparel manufacturing sectors into billion-dollar export industries. They have also been the recipients of various national and international awards, including the Northwest Entrepreneur of Year sponsored by Ernst & Young.
Raj and Akhil were the principal donors that helped finance the creation of the Counter Balance Park/An Urban Oasis located at the corner of Queen Anne Avenue and Roy Street in Seattle. In addition to their business ventures, the Shahs have contributed to causes that support peaceful and healthy communities locally and internationally.
Raj and Akhil diversified into real estate development and have built several multi-family residential buildings over the years.
The brothers’ passion for the fashion industry has not waned over the years. They recently introduced an award- winning technology called Filium to the textile and apparel worlds. Natural fabrics such as cotton that are activated with Filium creates high-performance and eco-friendly fabrics that shed liquids, resist staining and odors, and require less laundering. Brands such as Ably Apparel and Zenkai Sports Apparel have adopted Filium technology.
Over the years, Raj and Akhil have stayed in touch with the Neal family. “We have always wanted to find additional and meaningful ways to say thank you to the Neal family” said Akhil. At an event hosted by Rick Steves last November, Raj and his wife Dilu were introduced to the Edmonds Waterfront Center project, now under construction on the Edmonds waterfront. They were inspired by the commitment of project management to building a green building and creating a multigenerational gathering place to learn and celebrate.
Raj, Akhil and their families have just announced a gift of $50,000 to the Waterfront Center Capital Campaign. The Shah family gift will be acknowledged with naming of a room in the new Waterfront Center. The inscription will read, “In recognition of the generous contributions made by Raj & Akhil Shah and their Families as a thank you to the Neal Family for their Love, Kindness and Support”.
In addition, the Shah brothers have offered to host a pop-up store for the month of September in Edmonds as well as online sales of curated clothing items to raise additional funds for the project, which is replacing the former Edmonds Senior Center building at 220 Railroad Ave. Online sales will also be included for the fundraising effort — visit the link here.
The pop-up store will hold a soft opening Thursday, Sept. 17 at 186 Sunset Ave., in Edmonds’ Salish Crossing, from 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. The store will be open Friday-Sunday, Sept. 18-20, closed Monday and Tuesday, then follow a Wednesday-Sunday schedule through Oct. 18.
— Story and photos provided by the Shah brothers and the Edmonds Waterfront Center