Saba Gul Fellow 2011
Living in: Lahore — Pakistan
Venture: BLISS: Business & Life Skills School
Entrepreneurship training for girls previously driven by poverty to pick work over school
Operating in: South Asia
Impact Area: Education, Enterprise Development, Fair Trade and Organic...
"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
Describe yourself briefly.
Saba Gul is an engineer turned entrepreneur/do-gooder, with a passion for female education and empowerment. She is a recent alumna of MIT, from where she holds BS and MS degrees.
Saba was an MIT Public Service fellow in Sri Lanka, where she worked on low-cost solar lighting for post-Tsunami refugees. She has also conducted workshops on entrepreneurship at universities in Africa. She sits on the board of the MIT South Asian Alumni Association, and volunteers her time for the Association for the Development of Pakistan.
Saba was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan.
Describe your Unreasonable Venture in 100 words or less.
BLISS is dedicated to lifting adolescent girls and their families out of poverty through education and entrepreneurship.
We target girls who are driven by poverty to pick work over school. We bring them to school by turning their classwork into income, so they get compensated for the time spent in school and away from work.
We supplement the regular English, Urdu and Math curriculum with a one hour skills class and lessons in entrepreneurship. The girls are trained to create, design and market beautiful, socially conscious handbags, which can be viewed here: http://on.fb.me/j9dT16
The profits fund their education and provide savings for the community. One handbag keeps a girl in school for 4-6 months.
Describe your relevant experience (especially entrepreneurial).
Prior to BLISS, I have worked on various grassroots development projects globally - ranging from design and installation of affordable solar lighting for tsunami refugees in Sri Lanka to teaching entrepreneurship workshops in Ethiopia, to designing engineering curriculum for universities in China.
As a board member of the MIT South Asian Alumni Association and the MIT Club of Minnesota, I bring valuable leadership experience to my venture. As a volunteer for the Association for the Development of Pakistan - a philanthropy organization that funds development projects - I have developed a keen eye for vetting development projects for the most promising.
I hold B.S and M.S degrees from MIT, where I studied Computer Science with a concentration in Economics.
Why is your team uniquely qualified to run this venture?
The BLISS team comprises individuals with varied skill sets but with a common passion for social change.
Our product designer, Maryam Tahir Khan, is a graduate of the National College of Arts in Lahore; her work has been exhibited at many prestigious galleries across the country. Our operations team comprises of individuals with 5+ years experience in the handbags industry, as well as many years of experience in the NGO and social enterprise sector in Pakistan.
Read more about our team and our work on our website: http://bagsforbliss.org
What is the urgent social or environmental need you're addressing?
Imagine, as a teenager, laboring 14 hours a day for survival, leaving no time for school. Imagine, with no skills or education, accepting this life for your future generations. Globally, 49% of secondary school-age youth attend secondary school. Parents with limited resources prefer to educate their sons, retaining their daughters' contribution to family income. 54% of out-of-school youth are girls, most of whom work as cheap labor. Unable to forego the wages from their work, and unable to escape poverty without an education, they are stuck in a cycle. They remain illiterate, unskilled, oppressed, and poor.
In our pilot community, poverty drives about 10,000 youth to pick work over school. South Asian women constitute 21% of the world’s female population but 44% of its illiterate women.
What is your solution to this need? Describe your business strategy.
BLISS does a 'conditional skills transfer' that directly battles the opportunity cost of education. Conditional on school attendance, we offer a business class that provides the training and tools to launch community-owned social businesses. These sustainably fund schooling in the short term and boost earning potential in the long term.
BLISS not only enables families to send girls to school without foregoing their day wages, it also gives them practical, income-boosting skills that change their attitude towards the utility of education, and break the inter-generational cycle of poverty and illiteracy.
The micro-enterprises sell products that come out of the business classes. Currently, embroidered crafts created in class are professionally converted into trendy handbags for sale.
Convince us it will work. What milestones have you achieved?
We have enrolled 30 girls in Attock, Pakistan, hired local staff, and started handbag production. Our first line of 65 handbags was launched in May 2011, where our stock was sold out. We are now struggling to meet the overwhelming local and global demand for our handbags.
There is also overwhelming demand from the families to be a part of BLISS, and enroll their adolescent girls as well as older women in the program.
BLISS was an MIT IDEAS Competition winner, a grantee of the MIT Legatum Center, incubated by Social Venture Partners Rhode Island, and 1 of 16 finalists from 500+ entries at the Global Social Venture Competition. Our founder Saba is also a 2011 StartingBloc fellow. Her work was recently recognized by the US State Department via a dinner invitation from Secretary Hillary Clinton. We have been featured by NBC News, MIT Technology Review, Providence Business News, the Express Tribune, and various other publications.