March 8th is International Women’s Day, and what better way to celebrate women on ThinkChange Pakistan than to highlight female social entrepreneurs doing incredibly innovative and awe-spiring work? In this contributed piece, Saba Gul, the co-founder and Executive Director of Business and Life Skills School (BLISS), talks about her amazing social enterprise and the work she is doing to empower young girls in Pakistan:

It all began with a girl, who wanted to be a boy.

Unlike other girls in 1990s Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Azaada Khan walked with her head uncovered and her gait fearless. She changed her name to that of a boy’s— Azaad, which means freedom; her attire and haircut followed, all so she would be allowed to attend school, and get the same chance at changing her future as a boy. Arti Pandey, Program Director of Barakat, an educational NGO that operates across South Asia, met Azaada in Afghanistan’s northern province of Faryab in the summer of 2008. She heard about the tragic fate Azaada’s father, Kamil Khan, had met due to his overt support of female education—murder at the hands of the Taliban.

Back at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Sloan School of Business, Arti related Azaada’s story to a small audience. I sat in that audience, captivated by the struggles of a girl who had lost her identity by following her passion for education, inadvertently drawing contrasts between her life and mine. I had probably done everything in my power to not be made to go to school at her age. And here I was, by a combination of good luck, good mentorship and some hard work, at one of the country’s top schools.

In my dorm room that night, I googled fervently until I found two articles on Azaada, written by Arti in the NY Times and the Boston Globe. I read them and relived Azaada’s story, wishing I could meet this remarkable young girl, or any of the thousands of others like her who undoubtedly had similar struggles.

Work or School?

Four months later, I was in Attock, northern Pakistan, where Barakat built the first three schools for the nearly 30,000 Afghans that inhabit the city—mostly refugees from the Soviet war of 1979. There is no dearth of inspiring stories in this close-knit community. One shining example is Saleema Rehman, who belongs to a select group of Afghan girls that finished high school, and who, later that year, enrolled at Rawalpindi Medical College. She was the first from her community to do so, in a province that, despite being the country’s most populous, has a medical school quota of one Afghan per year.

But what really grabbed my attention were the discouraging trends, like the teenage girls driven by poverty to work at carpet looms instead of attending school. Barakat’s schools are entirely free of cost, but the contrast between female enrollment rates for primary school, when parents are happy to send children to school to get them off their hands, and middle school, when girls become productive at work and can generate income, is stark. The girls’ mothers often get emotional as they relate their financial bondage to the carpet industry.“My hands are tied”, one of them says. “I need the money my daughters make. But my heart cries every time I see them working on the loom with their little fingers.”

“They’re still reluctant to send their girls to school once they’re over the age 15,” says Sumera Sahar, Barakat’s country director in Pakistan. That’s because many of the families want to send their children out to work. “So our overcrowded classrooms are in the lower grades, and gradually when you move to the senior classes, the enrollment is very low.”

The numbers bear out that challenge. Since Barakat’s Ersari School opened its doors 15 years ago, only 15 girls have gone on to college.

The Genesis of BLISS

In October 2009, we launched our solution to this challenge. BLISS – Business and Life Skills School, which received seed funding from the MIT IDEAS Competition and the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, is a social enterprise that makes it possible for families to pick education over work.  The model is self-sustaining—the monetary incentives are funded by the sale of products created in the skills class.

During our pilot, 38 bright-eyed teenage girls have been attending a one-hour after school skills class that pays them for their time in school. The money offered is more than the amount they could make by skipping class and working at the carpet looms instead. Girls are taught traditional embroidery and needlework; the embroidered fabric is sent to professional workshops in Karachi to be stitched into trendy handbags.

Young girls can only enroll in BLISS if they also attend regular English, Urdu and Math classes offered earlier in the day. At the program’s onset, demand for enrollment was so high that dozens of girls and women had to be turned away.

BLISS increases school attendance and retention by making it a realistic option for families who cannot afford the opportunity cost of an education. Simultaneously, the curriculum teaches skills that enable girls to continue contributing to family income in an ethical and responsible manner, ultimately boosting lifetime earning potential. In Phase II, the girls will be taught a business and financial literacy curriculum that will allow them to be involved in more parts of the value chain—designing, marketing and business development.

When I visited the schools in September, the energy was palpable. The girls were eager to learn, eager to please, eager to make something of their lives. “Thank you for starting this class for us”, said thirteen-year old Fareeba to me, with a sparkle in her eye. “We love coming to school to study and embroider.”

And of course, the extra disposable income helps.

Already, the contrast between the older women who received no education and the younger generation that is attending school is tangible. Most of the former do not speak Urdu and rarely mingle with non-Afghans—a tendency our team observed first-hand when visiting their homes. The women do not go out without their burqas, and they seldom venture outside their homes. “We only go out a few times a year,” one woman told us. “Usually when it’s Eid, or there’s a wedding, or a death.”

The younger girls, on the other hand, speak 3-4 languages, including Urdu and English. Many, like Saleema Rehman, accompany their fathers when they go out. Coming to school and meeting other girls makes them more confident and hopeful for their futures—they want to become doctors and teachers. They learn basic hygiene and good health practices. They are more likely to educate their own children, and change the alarming statistic that South Asian women make up 21% of the world’s female population, but account for 44% of its illiterate women.

Handbags That Look Good And Do Good

After 16 challenging months of prototyping and quality control, the team is ready to start selling its first line of handbags. The value chain is long—from the designer in Lahore who sketches the motifs, to the girls in Attock who embroider the motifs on fabric, to the karigars (or bagmakers) in Karachi who produce the final handbags.

The motifs on the bags are inspired by various parts of Pakistan—the ceramic pottery of Multan, the Jisti needlework of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa—and set into contemporary shapes with leather straps and metal rivets/buckles to create a unique fusion of traditional and modern, appealing to the Pakistani urban masses. Each handbag is a work of art that requires an iterative design process to complete.

Initially, sales will happen only in Pakistan due to limited human capital, (a team of five), a limited marketing budget, and wide variations in design preferences and buying power across geographical boundaries. In Pakistan, the handbags will first become available at outlets in Karachi via limited-edition exhibitions, and later across Pakistan through partnerships with handbags and accessories retailers. Announcements about the availability of the handbags will be made on BLISS’ blog and Facebook page.

The proceeds from the sales will go back to the girls in order to continue paying them for their time in school.

An Unreasonable Pursuit

Last month, BLISS was selected to be one of 45 finalists for the Unreasonable Institute, a prestigious incubator and accelerator for high-impact entrepreneurs. In order to qualify as an Unreasonable Fellow, BLISS had to be one of the first 25 ventures to raise $8000 on an online marketplace that featured all the finalists. Donations could only be made in small amounts—the donation cap started at $10, going up in small increments, necessitating the mobilization of hundreds of contributors to raise the $8K. It was a test of the team’s entrepreneurial mettle as well as a way to pay for the lodging, travel and food expenses associated with attending the Institute.

BLISS raised the $8K in only 26 days, finishing in second place. This summer, I will join 26 others in Boulder, Colorado, to receive hands-on guidance from world-class mentors, seasoned entrepreneurs and international development specialists. Workshops and training will range from prototype development, legal structure, raising capital, marketing, cash flows and more. Fellows will also travel across the country to pitch their ventures to impact investors in Silicon Valley and other places. Unreasonable’s capital partners include 30 of the world’s top funds and foundations in the impact investment space, including Acumen Fund, Good Capital and Echoing Green — and each partner will send one lead investor to live with the Unreasonable Fellows in Boulder, affording them a chance to build relationships and trust vital to the investment process.

This week, I am moving to Pakistan to work full-time on BLISS. The traction we have gotten in recent months has been heart-warming, but the road ahead is long and at times, daunting. Already, the girls are more excited to come to school than ever before, but the impact we seek to create will take years. As I leave corporate America, a fat salary and a comfortable life to take BLISS to the next level in Pakistan, the words of George Bernard Shaw that inspired the name of the Unreasonable Institute ring truer than ever before:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in adapting the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.