Bags That Beget Bliss: An Interview with Saba Gul of BLISS
The Trailblazers for Good Q&A Series sits down with the most world shaking individuals leading the movement to align impact, profit and purpose. Here we pick the brains of top social entrepreneurs to learn first hand from their stunning accomplishments, utter failures, and stiff challenges in leading the revolution of doing well by doing good. Join us as we explore the collective consciousness that drives and inspires these individuals.
Saba Gul is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of BLISS, and a recent alumnus of MIT, from where she holds BS and MS degrees. She has a passion for social innovation, female education and entrepreneurship. 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 Club of Minnesota, and volunteers her time for the Association for the Development of Pakistan. Saba was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan.
Can you tell us a little bit about BLISS?
BLISS is dedicated to educating girls in Pakistan who are forced by poverty to choose working over attending school. It provides monetary incentives for girls to go to school, immediately making it more financially rewarding than work, while simultaneously providing skills that increase their earning potential in the long term.
Girls participating in BLISS help produce high-quality, trendy handbags to stay in school. The handbags are created as part of a skills class, which is a supplement to conventional curriculum. Girls spend an hour every day learning embroidery and needlework. The embroidered fabric is sent to local producers to be finished into unique handbags that are retailed at high-end boutiques. Profits from the sales are used to compensate existing students, recruit new students and create a sustainable income stream for the community. The more handbags produced and sold, the more students BLISS can educate and train, thus creating a “virtuous cycle.”
Over time, the girls and their mothers will also participate in other parts of our value chain e.g. design and marketing. Early next year, we are launching a business and financial literacy curriculum to provide the tools and training for participants to launch their own handcrafts micro-enterprises.
What inspired you to start it?
I was troubled, time and again, by the vast social disparities prevalent in Pakistan, where I was born and raised. More recently, as a graduate student at MIT, I was struck by the contrast between myself and the millions of Pakistani girls who would never even get a basic education. I heard one story that compelled me to visit the community that BLISS eventually chose as its pilot. This was the story of Azaada Khan. Azaad was a young girl who grew up in 1990s Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and masked herself as a boy for 12 years so she could attend school in a regime under which girls were punishable by law for doing so. When I visited this community, I could not forget what I saw inside the homes—young girls laboring at carpet looms for up to 14 hours every single day to support their families. There was no time for anything else—no play, no socializing but most importantly, no school. These girls and their families had been stuck in a cycle for generations. They were illiterate because they were poor, and they would stay poor because they were illiterate.
I firmly believe that the world cannot escape poverty if it does not harness the potential of the 600 million girls that live in the developing world today. And the first step is sending these girls to school. The problem is too grave to ignore, and what can be achieved if we see our mission to completion is so incredible, that dedicating my life to this cause became a no-brainer for me.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced building BLISS?
Building a world-class team on a shoestring budget!
We’re really early stage—I moved to Pakistan 5 months ago to work on BLISS full-time. We launched our first line of handbags in May. After using up a few small seed grants, we bootstrapped, and now we’re raising capital. Meanwhile, we need to keep building the business, and to do that well, we need a stellar team. Finding capital to pay this team and to sustain our operations until we become cash-flow positive has been one of our big challenges.
You were recently an Unreasonable Institute fellow, what was the most important thing you learned that you’ll take with you as you grow your organization?
Think big. And build to scale from the start.
As Unreasonable Fellows, we got mentorship from world-class entrepreneurs and development practitioners. Among them was Paul Polak, who has had extensive experience working with poor communities. He talked about some basic principles for building a business to scale. For example, outsource parts of your value chain that are not core competencies. An unnecessarily long value chain is a huge impediment when you start replicating your model. Another principle is to not rely on a single revenue stream—this is an important one for us because at the moment we are focused solely on high-fashion handbags, which are part of a much more seasonal market than say, laptop cases or wallets. As we grow, it’s important to both find other sources of revenue and diversify our product line.
Almost all the Unreasonable mentors are at points in their careers where the Fellows, as budding entrepreneurs, want to be one day. They have achieved what we aspire to achieve. And there was a common denominator among all these mentors—they were not afraid to dream big, and to have audacious goals. The Unreasonable fellows all have innovative solutions to pressing social problems, but to make a dent, to become world-changers, they all need to think big. That is the first step to achieving big impact!
Along the way, it’s also vital to build great relationships with co-conspirators. These relationships sustain your dreams, and support your vision. One of the biggest tangible takeaways from the Institute has been the relationships I’ve built this summer—with the other fellows, the Unreasonable team, and the mentors.
Where do you see Bliss in the next five years?
Our ultimate vision is of no girl left behind when it comes to education, of every young girl able to define the course of her own life, and lift herself, her family, and her community out of poverty. 5 years from now, we aim to impact the lives of 10,000 girls. In 5 years, I see BLISS running an efficient business, becoming a brand that people talk about, partnering with top names in fashion and retail, and changing lives in the process. I see our girls and women as successful entrepreneurs on the path to self-sufficiency. Beyond that, we also plan on scaling outside Pakistan—other countries in South Asia such as India and Bangladesh, as well as African nations that suffer from the same social problem that we are tackling in Pakistan.
How can our readers help you push your mission forward?
Volunteer for us! We need help us with a variety of things—among our top 2 needs right now are web development and fundraising.
- Connect us! If you know people who want to mentor us, fund us, carry our handbags (retailers), write about us, please tell us know about them.
- Talk about us! Tell your friends, family, and colleagues our story. You never know who’s in the audience.
- Write to us! We love hearing from people who support our vision.