Just before graduation, as Saba Gul was finishing up her master's degree in computer science at MIT, she went to hear a woman talking about schools in Pakistan. The one story that really moved her was about a young girl who was not allowed to go to school because she was a girl. So she masked herself as a boy: the way she talked, walked, and looked, for 12 years. In time, she believed she was a boy. So when it came time for her to marry, she suffered great stress and confusion because her family wanted her to marry a man.
She could have been me, thought Saba. I could have been her. So I said, "I want to visit the schools and meet the girls."
After graduation, she did this. The organization she visited had been operating for 15 years. The girls were refugees from war. Their families had been living in Pakistan for 30 years or more, and their children who were born in Pakistan, were marginalized by society. Girls had to drop out of school at 10, and go to work for up to 14 hours a day, to help support their family.
So Saba Gul came up with a plan. "We set up a school where the girls could attend classes for three hours a day and then spend the fourth hour in a business and life skills class where they would be taught embroidery, and given fabric to work on.
The embroidery is then sent to manufacturers and placed on handbags that sell for $30 to $100 in the luxury goods marketplace. The girls receive $18 for each completed piece of embroidery. In this way, says Saba, they are able to financially contribute to their families, while gaining an education.
Although Saba's own MIT education had originally led to a software job with Oracle in Silicon Valley, and Thomson Reuters in Minneapolis, her first hand encounters with poverty took her out of her comfort zone. She had grown up in an upper middle class family in Pakistan; her father was a businessman. Although poverty was all around her, as a teenager, she took it for granted. Then she had to confront it.
In creating BLISS, the Business and Life Skills School, and setting up its Bags for Bliss program, Saba says: "It feels good to be doing something real and meaningful for humanity. Something that has real social impact. This is work that moves me!"
In the three short years since the launch of BagsforBliss, Saba Gul and her young students have been featured on NBC news. In addition, she has been honored as a Fellow at The Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and has joined in a partnership with MIT Sloan Entrepreneurs for International Development (SEID).
The Unreasonable Institute hosts a summer incubator for high impact social entrepreneurs. On the Bags for Bliss blog, Canadian Donna Morton describes her experience at the Institute this way:
It was like 'living in a chocolate fondue.'. It filled up your senses, it was heavenly and when it was over, you were left craving for more."
Saba agrees: "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."
Lessons learned from her summer Fellowship are now being blended with First World marketing and business techniques. As part of the SEID partnership four first-year Sloan MBAs will devise the strategy for launching BLISS products in the U.S. market. They will work with Saba Gul and Bags for Bliss over the next three months on product placement, pricing, branding and identification of retail partners.
"We're raising $20,000 in 60 days," says Saba. "The demand to enroll in the class is growing; and the demand for handbags is growing. At this point, we need to grow the school from 30 girls to 90 girls within one year. The money will go to pay the girls, in advance, to attend school, and for operating expenses."
When the campaign launches, you can follow them here.
Alexia Parks is an inspirational speaker, founder of the Focus on Success mentoring system for schools and business, and author of 12 books including the Amazon business and motivational best-seller, Parkinomics -- 8 Great Ways to Thrive in the New Economy.