Archives for posts with tag: women

2012 promises to be a good year for BLISS, says Saba Gul, the Co-Founder & Executive Director of BLISS, Business & Life Skills School. Below Saba writes about BLISS’s new partnership with Sughar Women and her recent visit to their vocational training center in Thatta, Sindh.  This post first appeared on the BLISS blog. 

We’re starting off the new year with some thrilling news: BLISS is scaling to Mirpur Sakro, Thatta in the Southern province of Sindh, where we will start working with 100 women and girls. Thatta was badly affected by the 2010 floods, with devastating effects on livelihoods.

Our executing partner on the ground is Sughar – a program of PDI(Participatory Development Initiatives), founded by the indomitable Khalida Brohi, also an Unreasonable fellow in 2010.

This past weekend, I visited Sughar’s vocational center in Mirpur Sakro, accompanied by Khalida, Jeremy Higgs, Manager of Operations for EcoEnergy Finance, and a dear friend Seher Suleman (who shares with the rest of us a hunger to change the world).

A 3 hour ride from Karachi, much of it on a dirt road with agricultural wasteland on either side, brought us to a large wooden shed that served as Sughar’s vocational center for the village. Men and women from the village filed in with smiles on their faces.

The women were thrilled to be able to showcase their work, which was so beautiful that Seher and I couldn’t resist whipping out whatever cash we had to buy some of it off of them right there and then. While none of them spoke Urdu, Khalida patiently translated everything they said.

In conversations with the women, I found out that none of the girls in the village were enrolled in school beyond the age of 12. The main reason seemed to be a lack of female teachers, without which it was culturally unacceptable for the girls to attend school. The teachers had been sent/appointed by the government, and repeated requests to send female teachers had been ignored. The other reason was early marriages — most girls were married off by the time they were 15. We visited the only school in the village, with one classroom that was used for both boys and girls attending all grades.

Jeremy had a fascinating conversation with the men about selling solar lamps to them, since the village didn’t have electricity. We exchanged some laughs as the men told a story about how their mobile phones were taken to the nearby city every week by one of them to be charged. The women jumped in as soon as Jeremy asked what difficulties the village faced without electricity, all talking at the same time. They wanted to have lights for cooking, feeding their children, doing household chores. Their lives had to be paused from sunset to sunrise.

A few of the men wanted the solar lamps for free, even though the monthly installments Jeremy had worked out for them equalled the amount they spent on kerosene every month. Notwithstanding the fact that the lamp would be theirs to own in 8 months, that they would never have to pay for kerosene again, and that the lamps were far superior to kerosene in terms of the light they produced as well as safety and health-wise. But too many NGOs had come and gone and offered free solutions that didn’t last beyond a few months. Free was still attractive.

Jeremy did succeed in striking a deal with the men, and now has an order from a neighboring village as well.

I left the village as I had left Attock almost two years ago — a little heartbroken at the limited resources this community had available to them, but really excited about the opportunity this presented for BLISS.

I can’t wait for us to work with these women! And with Khalida, someone whose work I’ve admired since I first met her last year. Here’s to new beginnings — 2012 promises to be a good year!

Advertisements

Last month, there was a fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times titled ‘Generation Sell’.

The author, William Deresiewicz after his (fairly) recent move to Portland was on a mission to get a handle on today’s youth culture:

“The style is easy enough to describe…But style is superficial. The question is, what’s underneath? What idea of life? What stance with respect to the world?”

One of Deresiewicz’s students was told that the Millennial Generation was “post-emotional” – no anger, no edge, no ego. What is that about, asked Deresiewicz. After some probing, he realizes: “The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman…Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business”.

Deresiewicz extends his observation to social entrepreneurship and how the field has emerged as the Millennial Generation spin on do-goodery.

However, what I am most interested in (for the purpose of this post) is Deresiewicz’s statement of the millennial affect being the ‘affect of the salesman‘. When an entrepreneur sets up a business (or in our case a social enterprise), they cannot escape from their responsibility, their need to sell.

In her recent piece on her experience at the Unreasonable Institute, an incubator for social entrepreneurship, Saba quoted Tom Suddes’s advice to the fellows, “You’re in sales. Get over it!” If they could not show conviction and sell their idea to people, why would anyone invest their time or money in them?

As a result, a critical component of Saba’s experience (and training) at the Institute was learning how to pitch:

“We went from pitching to a few dozen people at the weekly ‘family pitches’ where the audience was other fellows, to pitching to a hundred or so folks at the ‘community pitches’ that were open to the Boulder community, to pitching to a packed Boulder Theater that seated more than 300 folks, at the Unreasonable climax event.”

Clearly, if you are a budding social entrepreneur, learning to sell is a skill that you simply cannot ignore. So what’s the first step towards making your enterprise attractive to investors and making a convincing pitch?

Kalsoom prior to starting Invest2Innovate, was on the funding side for nearly four years as head of ML Resources’ venture philanthropy wing. When deciding which initiatives to fund, she said her starting point was to check if the business was viable. “I first looked at whether the business made sense – what was the gap it was addressing, what was its value proposition, how did it distinguish itself from its competitors, and most importantly, how did it plan to monetize what it was doing.”

Zehra Ali, the CEO and co-founder of Ghonla also emphasized the importance of keeping the message simple.

“When I initially started pitching – I would get quite overwhelmed and there would be a lot that I wanted to include. After nearly four years of the process, I’ve realized one thing and that is to keep the pitch simple and engaging. You don’t need to overload with facts. With a pitch it’s always about getting others to buy into your vision- if they do, then they can also get in touch with you after for more details”.

According to Zehra, some basics your pitch should address are:

  • What you do?
  • Why you do it?
  • How is your approach different? In the case of a social enterprise- what makes your business sustainable and with the potential to scale?
  • What are your next steps? Where do you need help? How can the audience get involved?

The appeal of your pitch…in fact, enterprise as a whole also lies in your personality and the passion you display.

Kalsoom writes:

“I am not a fan of how the social entrepreneurship world props up individuals rather than enterprises…But at the same time, when assessing whether or not an early-stage enterprise should be funded, it’s important to also note the entrepreneur involved – how hungry are they? Would they go without a salary if it means getting their enterprise off the ground? Would they take the plunge and leave a well-paid job for a very unstable lifestyle…So I looked (and still do) for that in entrepreneurs – that passion, determination, and hunger…Those are the people who weather through the storm, as that is part of what takes a business from concept to a legitimate enterprise.”

Social entrepreneurs while pitching have to straddle a fine line between inspiration and pragmatism, innovation and simplicity. Not an easy feat but this is precisely where the passion, hunger and determination that Kalsoom mentioned come in handy.

On that note, we will leave you with Jean Brittingham’s 10 ways for Female Entrepreneurs to Get Funded (Some key lessons for male entrepreneurs as well!)

Saba Gul, the Co-Founder & Executive Director of BLISS, Business & Life Skills School, describes below her incredible summer spent at the Unreasonable Institute, a summer accelerator program where 26 social entrepreneurs live in a house…and have their lives taped. This post first appeared on the BLISS blog:

After raising $8000 from 212 supporters in 26 days, I got on a plane this June to Boulder, Colorado to attend the Unreasonable Institute, an incubator for high-impact social entrepreneurs. Below is the post-mortem of a summer I will never forget.

Life In A Chocolate Fondue

Donna Morton, an Unreasonable Fellow from Canada, summed up this summer pretty eloquently—she said it was likeliving in a chocolate fondue’. It filled up your senses, it was heavenly and when it was over, you were left craving for more.

Imagine being put in a house for 6 weeks with 26 people whose ideas, experiences and passion will blow your mind and force you to think about the world in a radically different way.

I’m talking former child soldiers from Liberia who went on to form organizations that rehabilitate other former child soldiers. I’m talking entrepreneurs from Uganda who put on their first pairs of shoes at age 13. I’m talking 25 year olds who had already lifted over a thousand local producers out of poverty in Brazil. I’m talking recycling businesses that had generated over $1M in revenue in 18 months, and life-saving medical devices that had been recognized by the World Health Organization. I’m talking entrepreneurs who grew up in the slums of India and are now running the biggest bike-sharing system in the country. The first few days were spent being inspired by something new every single hour.

What a group, I thought to myself. How had they selected these people? What could we not accomplish together if we put our minds to it?

There was this pressure that something incredible had to be squeezed out of every minute of every day. There was a fear that once the summer was over, there would be a big void in our lives.

                                                                                            ***

Oh To Dream Big…

Perhaps the most enticing part of the Institute for me before I landed in Boulder was the mentors. The promise of living with and learning from the best of the best. Admittedly, it was slightly intimidating at first. I mean, how do you start a conversation with the CTO of Hewlett-Packard when you find yourself sitting at the dinner table next to him? Or when you run into Paul Polak in the hallway?

My first impulse: “Holy crap! You’re Paul Polak!” Knowing Paul, he would’ve responded with a witty quip of his own. When asked by Daniel Epstein (the Institute’s founding president) what he hoped to get out of being with the fellows, he replied with a straight face: “At least seven girlfriends.”

The intimidation however, was extremely short-lived for the reason that is the Unreasonable Institute’s secret sauce.  You’re made to live and work alongside these mentors, to be in all kinds of situations with them. So you’re playing volleyball with a bloody-kneed Jigar Shah. You’re not sitting in an audience of a hundred, listening to him talk. You’re out having drinks with Kevin Starr. You’re having a bathroom-sink conversation with Kim Scheinberg. You’re hiking with Kamran Elahian. You’re going dancing with Kevin Jones.  You’re sharing lunch on a sunny balcony with David Kyle.

And you realize what you’d known all along but found hard to believe—they’re human after all. But they have achieved what the Fellows all aspire to achieve. And the common denominator among all the mentors—they are not afraid, or ashamed, to dream big. They have audacious goals of changing the world. They share a sense of urgency at shaking up the status quo. Some of them are furious that the world is not doing more to tackle poverty. They have the willpower and determination to turn ideas into reality. And they’re just a little bit crazy. And unreasonable.

Back in April, I had been heartbroken by the Greg Mortenson controversy and had written a blogpost about it. I’d linked my post to Kevin Starr’s thoughts on the matter, citing him several times. He was someone I viewed as an admirable changemaker. So it all seemed a little surreal when I found myself at the Institute one day, sitting face-to-face with Starr as we lounged in the dining area, lost in a discussion about the controversy.

                                                                                     ***

On Learning

There was a lot to learn.

How do you build to scale? How do you hire and fire? How do you raise capital?

Influx of knowledge from people who had done it many times. 1-on-1 mentoring sessions. Ripping apart of business models. Workshops on impact, scaling, sustainable design, venture capital, communication, how to make the ask, improving the customer experience, legal structures, corporate partnerships, business modeling.

Session on impact with Kevin Starr
And then there was the pitching.

We went from pitching to a few dozen people at the weekly ‘family pitches’ where the audience was other fellows, to pitching to a hundred or so folks at the ‘community pitches’ that were open to the Boulder community, to pitching to a packed Boulder Theater that seated more than 300 folks, at the Unreasonable climax event.

Tom Suddes told us we were all in the ‘selling business’ whether we liked it or not. “You’re in sales. Get over it!” he would say. If we could not show conviction and sell our idea to people, why would anyone invest their time or money in us?

Some of us, like Luis Duarte of Yo reciclo in Mexico, were not scared to get on top of the dining table and pitch their venture to everyone as many times as it took to get the point across.

Before the San Francisco Investors’ pitch, I found myself pitching in the shower, in the car, over dinner, every chance I got. My roommates and I would pitch to each other as we brushed our teeth. There was a strong sense of us all being in this together, of having a common goal—to change the f-ing world, as Daniel Epstein famously liked to say. And we had to convince everyone we were the right people, the best people to do it.

Lessons Unanticipated

For myself and BLISS, it was the perfect time to be at such a place. We had just finished our pilot in Attock, Pakistan. After almost a year of designing and prototyping, we had launched our first line of handbags. In the weeks following the launch, we had sold out our stock, and had been approached by a top retailer in Pakistan, as well as two high-end fair-trade shops in London and Dubai. The girls were beaming with confidence and pride; many more wanted to join. It was time to go bigger!

I had gone into the Institute looking for help on very specific challenges—building the team on a shoe-string budget, raising capital, scaling. And while I did get help on these, I also came out with questions about things I thought were set in stone, such as our legal structure. I went in defending a nonprofit model despite knowing that we had the financial structure to be a for-profit. It came up over and over again. At the Investors’ pitch, in meetings with mentors, in discussions with other fellows. Why were we not a for-profit? My simple answer was, the perception of the organization, especially within Pakistan. We were working with young girls, and it was easy to be skeptical of our mission if we were a for-profit. Our organization’s reputation was especially important because the marketability of our products partially rested on it. Plus, our mission was mainly social—the products were merely a means to an end.

In San Francisco, I met Scott Leonard, the CEO of Indigenous Designs, which sources premium fair-trade and organic clothing from artisans in the poorest regions of South America. The questions he asked as he argued for a for-profit model stuck with me. As a non-profit, could we really rally the kind of skills and build the kind of team we could as a for-profit? Could we pay smart, motivated young folks enough to stick with us? Had I seen any examples of successful global businesses built by a non-profit? Did I really need to worry about the organization’s reputation if there was financial transparency? Could we raise enough capital and scale fast enough as a non-profit? I found myself digging deep to answer these questions.

But along with the questions came validation. The feeling of walking away having learned how powerful my story was, how compelling the model, and how mind-blowing the potential of the work.

What struck me time and again in my time at the Institute, was how incredibly valuable the collective knowledge of the fellows’ pool was. Every week, at the family pitches, where a few of the fellows pitched and got feedback on their models from the others, I would realize as we went around the room, that we had people present there whose collective geographical spread and knowledge base was so vast that the feedback was amazingly comprehensive, the ideas shared disruptive, the contacts offered game-changing. In our last week, the Unreasonable staff scheduled a session to brainstorm just how to capture and harness this collective genius in the medium and long term.

                                                                                          ***

Peer-To-Peer On Crack

The takeaway from the Institute that will last me my lifetime is the friendships.

And when these friends are as obsessed with changing the world as you are, the energy and inspiration you draw from each other is just as valuable as the next round of funding.

These friendships were built over shared meals—3 times a day every day. They were built on the dance floor as we would unwind after a long day, on breathtaking hikes through the Rocky Mountains, over games of volleyball and foosball, over late-night guitar sessions, at quaint little tea-shops, gelato places and sushi bars in downtown Boulder, around campfires as we sang. They were built over celebrations like Gaurav Manchanda of OneDegree Solar getting engaged to be married, and sometimes, they were built over sharing deep grief—when Donna Morton learned that she had to leave the Institute mid-way because of potentially life-threatening health issues (she is well now!). They were built at the pitching events, as we whispered much-needed words of encouragement to each other before facing an audience of investors. They were built over 4am conversations atop hills overlooking the gorgeous city of Boulder. They were built sitting on the patio—reflecting. Dreaming. Laughing. Talking.

Sometimes these friendships were built over a single shared moment of vulnerability. The kind that you allow with someone you have known for a very long time. I’ll never forget the lunch I had at the Trattoria in downtown Boulder with George Deriso, one of our mentors and a professor at University of Boulder, Colorado. As I talked about my work, the girls, their dreams, my dreams, I was on fire, which was very normal when I start talking about BLISS. But as he prodded me more and I started sharing more stories, my eyes welled up with tears. As I glanced up at him I saw him shedding a few as well. We laughed at ourselves through the tears, and it felt like we had known each other for years, not weeks. It just didn’t make sense. It was unreasonable. Like so many other things this summer.

There is no substitute for being part of a network of extremely smart and motivated people who really and truly understand what it means to be a struggling entrepreneur.  Some fellows, like Tiago Dalvi of Solidarium are where I see our business in 3 or 4 years. We would often sit and discuss our businesses; I would confide in him about our struggles, and learn how he had coped with the same.

Everyone had a sense of humor. Nothing was politically incorrect (a theme that was tested often with a group that came from 17 different countries). As Luis (from Mexico) and Mohamed (from Mali) helped lift some furniture into a truck, they would joke about how the Mexicans and Africans were doing all the dirty work. We would imitate each other’s accents, even do role-playing games that left us in fits.

My roommates—Shivani Siroya of Inventure Fund and Cynthia Koenig of Wello—and I often stayed up till the wee hours of the night talking about our businesses, about the mentors, about what we hoped to get out of the Institute. Sometimes we would dissect the whole day. Sometimes we would just ramble, or gossip, each perched on her own bed. In many ways, it was like being a freshman again. I lived in a triple, slept on a bunkbed, was learning new and amazing things every day, living with people that had come together from across the globe. And the first day kicked off with a scavenger hunt!

Capturing all of this was a TV crew that was pure, unadulterated creative genius. The cameras that surrounded us at all times were distracting at first, but by the second week everyone was used to them. The experience of living and working at the Institute is still making its way to periodically-released episodes of Unreasonable TV.

***

Reasons to Dance

Every week, the fellows gathered to share reasons to dance—things that our ventures were accomplishing through and while at the Institute. Emails from dream funders, a stellar contract, coverage in the country’s biggest business magazine, a new board member.

About two months after the Institute is over, the excitement has not withered, as the 26 of us share notes, thoughts, pictures, lessons, opportunities, and of course, reasons to dance. Yes, thank you Facebook. Thank you, Twitter. And thank you, good old email.

We are still helping each other make some of the biggest decisions of our lives. I recently gave up two offers to work at places I would’ve jumped at a year ago, and the first people I turned to when making the decision were the Unreasonables. Some of them had faced similar decisions many times over. And they were quick to tell me that over time, the opportunities that would present themselves to me were only going to be more enticing. That what I decided to give up defined me as much as what I decided to pursue.

In some ways, it was a summer of extremes—extreme inspiration and optimism, extreme emotions, extreme amounts of Red Bull, extreme sleep deprivation, extreme fun, extreme learning and extreme friendships.

But above all, these 45 days of summer have given us all many reasons to dance.

The Palestyle Clutch

(This article was cross-posted with CHUPWhen was the last time you looked down at your trendy-but-questionable harem pants and asked yourself, “Where did these come from?” No, they did not claw its way out of the ’90s, fresh from an MC Hammer video, as much as your friends might like to tell you (don’t worry, they’re just jealous). Aladdin didn’t call, asking for his pants back (honestly, you might need new friends). No, harem-pants person. Those pants were the result of a long and complex value chain, and in some instances, players (often the people making the garments in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan), were exploited in the process. The ethical fashion movement aims to address and remedy some of these issues – many labels using fair trade or ethical practices or producing eco-friendly products. Ayesha Mustafa is the Pakistani founder of Fashion ComPassion, a UK-based ethical online retailer that markets socially responsible luxury brands. In the eight months since Fashion ComPassion was established, she has worked with companies like Polly & Me (with Chitrali women in Pakistan), Palestyle (with Palestinian refugee women), andBeshtar (Afghanistan). Below, she tell us more about her organization:

Q: What inspired you to establish Fashion ComPassion? How did your past interests or background converge for the creation of this innovative organization?

Fashion and giving back to society have been my two biggest passions and Fashion ComPassion is a combination of the two. I had been toying with the idea of creating my own fashion company for awhile, and just decided I needed to make that call and switch careers.

Growing up in Pakistan and the Middle East where one sees discrepancies in wealth, poverty, and a lack of opportunities for girls and women, I wanted to create a platform that could directly support the most marginalized. I also interned at Grameen Bankwhen I was 17 and saw the transformational impact it had on women, their families and society. This stayed with me and throughout my life, I have worked and volunteered with organizations that supported women causes/rights.

Q: Fashion ComPassion currently supports four labels with four different influences – Polly & Me from Pakistan,Palestyle that empowers Palestinian refugee women, Beshtar from Afghanistan, and Savannah Chic, which is designed by African artists. How did you go about forming these partnerships and did you initially want Fashion ComPassion to be global in scope?

The mandate of the company is to create a platform for women artisans in the developing world, i.e Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, so from the onset I wanted it to be global but focus on countries that are war-torn and where there is a real need to help and empower women. I started with a vision document about the company and first i approached Polly & Me, and the rest just fell into place with research and referrals from friends and family.

Currently, I have added new brands in the portfolio: (1) Bhalo is a limited edition clothing and accessories label that works with women in Bangladesh. The products are made from ethically hand woven and naturally dyed cottons and silks. Bhalo works with two fair trade organizations, and provides employment, healthcare, child care to women who otherwise would not be employed due to mass production. Bhalo works with the same fair trade organization as People Tree. (2) Lost City is a NY label that works with artisans in Lucknow, India to revive their traditional craftsmanship with contemporary style.

I am no longer working with Polly & Me and Savannah Chic at the moment and in the midst of creating a new online website for the garments and goods.

Q: According to your philosophy, “Not only do we source responsibly from brands that contribute to society and empower women, our aim is to also donate a percentage of our sales to charities that support marginalized women in various communities around the world…” How does Fashion ComPassion do the due diligence in ensuring their brands empower women? What charities do you currently support?

We have strict criteria when we look at brands to partner with and support. Some of the things we look at are:

  1. Why was the company formed? Was it created to address a social problem, and what is the mission or mandate of the company?
  2. Does it have a strong social development ethos?
  3. How is fashion and social development combined to form the label?
  4. Does the brand work or partner with any local fair trade or women right organizations?
  5. How are the artisans paid?
  6. What are their working conditions?
  7. Are the artisans trained and given creative guidance?
  8. Are they given any other assistance in terms of health care or child care?
  9. Does the label support the community and give a certain percentage back?
  10. Can the label provide evidence and documents to support how they are helping and empowering the women they work with?

Fashion ComPassion is also committed to give back 2% of its annual profits to various women organizations that are fostering positive change and impact on women. I am looking at three at the moment, but since I am part of Women for Women International’s Junior Leadership circle, I would like to help with one of the countries they are setting up a Country Office in or a project they are focusing on.

Q: Where do you see Fashion ComPassion in the next year? In the next five years?

In the coming year, I would like to build greater awareness of Fashion ComPassion and its brands by focusing on various events and collaborations with organizations that have a similar mandate. The new website will be launched with an online shop which will allow customers to buy products directly. I am also looking at pop up stores to sell some of the brands.

In the long term, because my biggest industry inspiration is Joan Burstein, the founder of Browns, I want to make Fashion ComPassion follow Brown’s footsteps and be the one-stop shop for high-end and unique ethical fashion.

Q: The convergence of fashion and social impact is a really fascinating marriage right now with organizations like Elvis & Kresse and Goodone, which supply ethical and eco-friendly clothing to fashion stores. In the value chain, how does Fashion ComPassion market these brands to the larger or more mainstream markets?

Fashion ComPassion’s purpose is to bring together high-end socially responsible brands from the developing world and create a market for it in the UK and other countries like the US. We are starting with an online website that will sell to customers globally, we also organize events at galleries, boutiques, and form partnerships with other ethical fashion brands and women organizations. We have also taken part in fashion shows and plan to be part of trade shows for ethical fashion. With time, we plan to supply our brands to other online fashion sites in the U.S. and ethical fashion boutiques there.

Q: What has been the reaction so far to Fashion ComPassion? What has been your biggest success and failure so far?

The reaction so far has been phenomenal. I honestly didn’t except such a positive response from customers, press, retailers and other individuals. I think I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have had it not been for the help and support of numerous people that have believed in me and the company.

Beshtar Burqa Dress

My biggest success was when Beshtar’s Burqa Dress was one of the pieces of Vogue’s Green Carpet Challenge. In less than three months since I started the company, the dress was included in this prestigious selection which included some of the most well-known designers that are working on their ethical lines.

I wouldn’t call it a failure but not being able to find the right socially responsible brand from Pakistan that I can work with and make a name for in the UK. This is something that I am researching and have talked to various individuals in Pakistan both in social development and fashion. I hope that very soon, I can get a brand from my own country and create a positive image of Pakistan through fashion.

You can become a learn more about Fashion ComPassion by visiting their website or joining their Facebook page

MDG5: Improve Maternal Health

When I was little, my mother used to brush my long brown hair before I’d go to school, sometimes pinning my locks back with barrettes that corresponded to the day of the week (hey, it was the 80s), and sometimes yanking and pulling them into a painfully executed French braid. When the boy I liked made fun of me or when I fell and scraped my leg/elbow/insert-body-part-here, my mother would hold me, hugging away my tears. When someone told me I wasn’t good enough, she would push me to prove them wrong. Throughout the years, she has been my biggest cheerleader, my partner-in-crime, the method to my madness, and really, one of my closest friends.

On Mother’s Day, we are reminded of why we need to celebrate our mothers every day. Because damn it, they’re special. And we are better people because of them.

But Mother’s Day should also remind us of the many who grow up without mothers. Today, the issue of maternal health continues to be one of the world’s most pressing problems. According to Every Mother Counts, an advocacy and mobilization campaign to increase education about maternal and child health, a woman dies every 90 seconds from pregnancy complications. 90% of those deaths are preventable. Pregnancy is the biggest killer of women between the ages of 15-19 in the developing world, with nearly 70,000 girls dying each year because their bodies are not ready for childbirth.

Although the numbers are especially dismal in sub-Saharan Africa, where 1 in 30 women is likely to die in childbirth, the statistics are also shocking in Pakistan. According to the 2006-7 Pakistani Demographic & Health Survey, 1 in 89 women in Pakistan will die of maternal causes during her lifetime. The highest rate of maternal death is in Balochistan, and the rate is nearly twice as high in rural areas as it is in Pakistan’s cities.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, while maternal mortality in Pakistan is still high,

The percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care and skilled medical care had been increasing, a positive indicator for mother’s health. The percentage of women receiving prenatal care from a skilled health provider (nurse, doctor, midwife, or “Lady Health Visitor”) rose from just 33 percent in 1996 to 61 percent in 2006-07.

However, noted PRB, less than two-fifths of babies are born with the assistance of a skilled medical provider. The UN Millennium Development Goal’s call for at least 90 percent of births attended by skilled health personnel by 2015 “seems unlikely in Pakistan.”

During the flood disaster last summer in Pakistan that affected millions of people, women and children were the most vulnerable, and many pregnant mothers were without access to health care. The UN Population Fund estimated that nearly 500,000 flood-affected women were pregnant, and of that number, 1,700 women would go into labor each day. According to the Population Fund, “More than 250 of them will experience complications requiring medical care.” Organizations like Naya Jeevan and SHINE Humanity worked diligently during this period to help full-term pregnant women deliver their babies safely, with Naya Jeevan instituting a Safe Delivery Initiative and SHINE Humanity offering sustainable solutions and resources, [see this Global Giving page]. But the need was so great, and many mothers were left without access to the care they needed.

I am not saying that these problems can be solved tomorrow. But child mortality and maternal health are two issues that are so pressing that they each merited their own UN Millennium Development Goal. These goals are intrinsically linked, much like a mother and her child. We should not only care about this issue because it’s largely preventable, but because many of us were lucky to grow up with our mothers to nurture and guide us, to raise us the way their mothers did. That’s why we should remember that every mother, not just our own, counts.

Below is my favorite video in honor of Mother’s Day – from Acumen Fund’s Search for the Obvious campaign:

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.

%d bloggers like this: