Case study – Rubana Ahmad, Ethika Boutique

An interview with Rubana Ahmad of the Ethika Boutique, from the Prowess archive.

What is your enterprise?

Ethika Boutique is a social enterprise, selling ethical fair trade fashion through our online boutique. We work directly with a co-operative of widowed women and young girls that hold incredible embroidery skills, but are poverty stricken and lack the opportunities to be able to work, earn an income, or even pay for basic essentials that we take for granted like, food, clothes, electricity, and their children’s education.

So I set out on a mission, with a dream to empower these women through trade, and help to increase trade for other artisans, and tailors alike. I wanted to take our women out of their diminishing jobs of washing floors from morning to night every day day for a mere £4 a month. We have now taking them away from this, and set them up so that they can work from the safety of their own houses, and we pay them what they ask, and we don`t haggle their prices down.

I also wanted to not be a typical business and support a charity at the same time, so I involved myself with KYDS Foundation. They work directly with the Kashmir earthquake victims and orphans to build water wells, and support sustainable initiatives, such as buying land for all the people to farm and grow vegetables for themselves, to give them a purpose to live and have hope. Many women in this region are committing suicide, as they have witnessed their entire families die in front of them. The KYDS Foundation is trying to address these very issues. I was very impressed and touched by this, and wished for my business to make a real difference in many people’s lives, so I decided to allocate a percentage of my profits to support them. In addition, I wanted to somehow benefit the students to gain hands on, valuable work experience, to help further their chances of employment. So I went directly to the fashion designers, and PR undergraduates, and have worked with three students to date.

When did it start?

The idea was inspired two years ago, when I actually founded the company in November 2006. I actually had a lot of major problems in finding a manufacturer so I couldn’t launch until September last year.

What motivated you to work in the social enterprise sector?

I wanted to work, but as an Asian woman, a Muslim woman, a mother of two and a housewife, I found it very, very hard to find a suitable job. I had been through jobs in fashion retail and felt discriminated against, especially when I found that I was not called back into work after wearing a headscarf – which was not black and very presentable!!! I hated that people pre-judged me, but I wanted to make a difference and knew I had a lot to contribute if I found the right cause. I also had a zest to grow and learn and not be stuck in the same 9-5 job that went no where. There was nothing that could accommodate my family! I also felt motivated to do more with my life in the service of others, and I found other types of work unfulfilling. I actually felt guilty about the types of lives and luxuries we take for granted in the UK compared to others in the east. I made a
passionate decision and I decided that nothing was going to hold me back.

Have you used any business support?

Yes, I found the Women’s Business Development Agency (WBDA) and the New
Entrepreneurship Scholarship programme very helpful, as well as working with Co-
Enterprise, and Creative Launchpad. These are all different agencies from social
enterprise support, to private and artistic business support, I looked for it all and went
everywhere I could.

Have you found any networks particularly useful?

I found NES to be the most useful, they helped me understand about cash flow, profit
and loss, which was totally new to me. They provided me with an excellent flexible
training course to fit in with my family. I wanted to be able to do justice to the
business, and not waste money in experiments that would fail. WDBA, were also a
crucial form of support in the very early days, they are really great for mentorship and

What are the highlights of running a social enterprise?

To know that you are making a real difference in a few lucky people’s lives. Hope is
a special luxury, and now our workers too can have real hope for the future.
I have also had the joy of meeting some fantastic people, and have found how many
others are enjoying social enterprises as a rewarding job.

Have you experienced any particular challenges?

I have faced many challenges, I could write a novel!!!
I had a family who where highly sceptical and thought I wouldn’t go very far, I had NO
start-up funds, no business acumen, no idea how, or who to sell my products to, or
how to find my target market, it was all a total abyss. I had real problems finding a
manufacturer in Pakistan, I went through 6 factories, no-one would take a new
business with zero orders on! I couldn’t get out to network at any business meetings.
I worked hard for a year, educating myself and reading, Anita Roddicks and Richard
Branson’s biographies. I had so much passion, that it just carried me through.
Surprisingly, now looking back, there was always a challenge with a big lesson that I
learnt, it was all for my education; to make me thick skinned. I went through a lot of
stress too, and fell into depression and developed asthma too. I was taking too much
upon myself, thinking I have to do it all today, at the expense of my family and health.
I have leant my lesson, that my family comes first.

Do you feel social enterprise is a growing sector?

Yes, I do especially with all the ethical businesses about, I also found a good
representation on the web for social enterprise that was very encouraging too.
What more do you feel the government could do to support social enterprise?
I think the government could do a lot more for social enterprises, we really need help
with more funds, and cutting through all the red tape, as there are so many
complicated issues that I had to deal with, like, vat, tax, customs ect.
I also think they need a much wider network of contact like the Princes Trust, I mean
real business leaders/directors, who can become our mentors and help with contacts
– this is what I found really lacking.

Do you have any advice for other people thinking about starting a social enterprise?

Yes, be passionate, make a decision, and stick to it, but do your homework first and find support. You will have to put in a lot of money for triple the time period you think. If you can live with the worst outcome, then just go for it.

This article is from the Prowess archive 2003-2008

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