Mehreen Khan, a 24-year-old accounting and finance graduate, was able to kickstart her high street fashion brand named Dawar even before finishing her degree. Living in outskirts of Islamabad, she launched her clothing business from her small three-bedroom house that she shares with her family of six–who are accustomed to seeing her using her bedroom wall as a backdrop for photoshoots and white bedsheets as light diffusers. Everything happens at home; be it the product photography, product display, design or brainstorming. Mehreen says that in five years she wishes to see her brand displayed in big shopping malls in Islamabad.
Growing up in North Waziristan – where she studied till second grade – she remembers that the classrooms were overcrowded where all the primary students sat in the same room. They used to practice writing with black ink on wooden boards instead of notebooks. “We would draw over the rough pencil sketch that our teacher would make for us. I didn’t even know how to write my own name,” she said. When she moved to Islamabad, she was the oldest student in her class because she had to start her education all over again from first grade. She felt sad at times because she was the oldest student in her Bachelor’s programme. “But then looking at my friends and cousins back home who got married at an early age - I am thankful that at least I got an education,” she added.
In the year 2020, few months before the pandemic started, she was presented with an opportunity that not only compensated for the lost years but also brought her ahead of her classmates who were still looking for jobs in post pandemic economy. She was ecstatic when she received a call from her university to become a part of Business Incubation Training offered by USAID funded FATA Economic Revitalization Programme (FERP), implemented by UNDP for the women belonging to merged districts.
Mehreen started the training in the summer of 2020. The training was held online because everything was closed due to the pandemic. It was an opportunity for her to learn how to brainstorm ideas, the steps involved in establishing a business, and how and where to start.
“We had this idea since a long time but had no investment – It [the training] gave me a final push to do something,”
The Business Incubation Training not only provided technical assistance to participants but also offered grants of up to $1500 to kickstart their businesses that was awarded to promising ideas. After Mehreen developed her business proposal and presentation with the help of her trainers, she gave a presentation in front of a panel of independent judges and then anxiously waited for the result.
“I used to check my phone first thing in the morning for messages from FERP Team,” she said. “The day I finally received the message that I had received the grant, I shouted with happiness and hugged my brother again and again!” she added.
She received a grant of PKR 225,000 in two installments. From the first installment, she bought a computer and browsed the internet looking for ideas and inspiration from Pinterest and YouTube videos and reading stories of other brands. Soon, Mehreen and her brother started their operation on ground. While Mehreen scoured the markets of suburbs areas in Pindi and Islamabad looking for fabric--her brother went to faraway cities like Faisalabad and even Karachi to buy raw material and also to find factories to place orders for their products. Throughout the process she had the support of her trainers who were available to answer any questions or queries.
Because of their earlier groundwork, they were able to make samples that included winter collection consisting of leather and denim jackets. These products were an instant hit among the friends and family and flew off the racks.
“We invested the profit that we got from the sales, back in our business because at this moment our aim is not to earn money but to grow our business,”
Mehreen says that her heart aches by looking at the state of education of women and girls back home. While the men in the family are highly educated professionals, most of the women can’t continue their education beyond 10th grade because there are no colleges for women in the area. She says that she would have been married by now, instead of running her business, if she was still back in her village. But assimilating in Islamabad was not that easy either. Despite living most of her adult life in the city, she still hears stereotypes related to her area.
“We named our brand “Dawar” after our cast - and we want this word to get internationally recognized. Most people here [in Islamabad] think that we are from backward areas but once we get successful – it will motivate more people from our areas to come up in the limelight and do something,” she said.
Once her business becomes profitable, Mehreen aims to donate a portion of the profit for the development of her village by funding small entrepreneurial ventures for other women. She says this will be her way to pay back what UNDP has done for her personal growth.
Story by: Srosh Anwar