eNotes Student of Change: Amena Mian, and the Fashionably Conscious NGO

“I dreamt up Project Sina in college and always thought that I would pursue the endeavor later on in my career. I guess there is a perception that one has to be of a certain age and have collected a number of accolades before doing something entrepreneurial… Frustrated by a narrow job market, I was compelled to create my own opportunities regardless of who or what entity deemed me qualified.” — Amena Mian

In our new blog series, we’re interviewing students and recent graduates who have taken their studies and done something profound with them. Some are doing great work at home, while others have traveled to far off destinations to help communities in need. Whatever path they’ve chosen, these inspirational Students of Change prove that being young and recently graduated are never hindrances to doing what you want to do.

amenaAmena Mian is a graduate of UC Davis, with a degree in Global Community Development. She has an extensive amount of experience working for mission-driven nonprofits both in the US and South Asia and she was selected as a Fellow for the IDEX Fellowship in Social Enterpise ’12-’13. Her non-profit fashion label Project Sina is “generating opportunity for women through a stitch,” employing Pakistani artisans to create beautiful, hand-crafted clothing and repaying them with fair wages and education. 

Amena’s efforts to promote literacy and equality for South Asian women make her our hero and this week’s Student of Change. Read on to learn more about her and her co-founders’ noble cause!

Tell us a little bit about your NGO, Project Sina. What inspired it and what does it do for women in Pakistan?

Project Sina is an ethical fashion brand based in Karachi, Pakistan that strives to provide its employees with a fair wage and educational programming for their hand embroidered shirts.

Growing up in a Pakistani-American household, I was surrounded by traditional garments and always wondered why I couldn’t find the same beautiful Eastern detail on modern, Western silhouettes. Pakistan’s culture is very much artisan driven, whereby ready made clothing is a novelty and most individuals are their own fashion designers. They choose their own fabric, trim, and have their own tailors.

Yet, after studying abroad in Delhi, I came to realize that the majority of artisans creating this beautiful hand embroidery, almost all of them women, live well below the poverty line. Furthermore, Pakistani women, although arguably the most underprivileged group, show the most potential in terms of their very specialized skills. So, starting Project Sina my aims were to fill both the gap for South Asian-inspired garments in the fashion market as well as the need for women’s advocacy in Pakistan.

Project Sina’s philosophy is simple: although underprivileged, the women we work with are never without potential. All they need is the right footing in the global marketplace and a venue for sales, and that’s where we come in. Having studied community development, I found that most development projects abroad only seemed to highlight what communities were lacking. Project Sina instead strives to highlight the talents and acute skills of women in Pakistan. Doing that, we’re able to bring their products to the world, rewarding them at the rate they deserve for their work.

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A Project Sina artisan holds up her entry to one of the charity’s design competitions

Starting an NGO seems like an impossible task to most people. Can you talk us through how you turned this dream into a reality?

I dreamt up Project Sina in college and always thought that I would pursue the endeavor later on in my career. I guess there is a perception that one has to be of a certain age and have collected a number of accolades before doing something entrepreneurial. However, lucky me, I graduated in 2011! Frustrated by a narrow job market, I was compelled to create my own opportunities regardless of who or what entity deemed me qualified. Immediately after graduating, I was also fortunate enough to re-connect with an old friend, Anum, who had similar project ideas of making beautifully embroidered garments that would help lift women out of poverty in Pakistan. It was through this re-kindled connection that the stars aligned in a way.

Obsessed with this idea, Anum and I put our heads together and began chipping away at our business plan. It took about a year for us to build up our network and get people excited about Project Sina. By way of Indiegogo, we were finally able to raise enough money to start operations and create our initial inventory.

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What are some of the most valuable things you’ve learned along this journey?

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned through starting up is that authenticity goes a long way. It is those individuals who I have genuine connections with and people who are really excited about creating greater opportunity for women in Pakistan that have been most instrumental in giving this project wings. So I guess you can say being open and honest about project challenges and opportunities is something I consider a best practice now instead of constantly trying to sell or solicit.

What advice can you give the students that use eNotes about pursuing their dreams?

The best advice I can give other eNoters with any kind of dream or entrepreneurial idea – stay consistent! Excellence is a habit, not a trait. Turning your vision from dream to reality does indeed require a lot of planning and work. I of all people know how difficult it can be to work on your skill or project in between a hectic work or school schedule. But if you stay consistent about it and don’t give up hope, good things will come. You never know who or what opportunity can be around the corner, you just need to keep putting that energy out into the universe.

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Sound advice! So, where do you see Project Sina in the future?

We have come quite far. Up to this point we’ve worked with about 30 women who receive a fair wage and are now some of the first literate females in their family. But Project Sina certainly has a long way to go in terms of expanding the number of women we reach and developing our product. We’ve definitely had a good run in terms of piloting operations in Pakistan and seeing how the market has reacted to our concept and product. The next step we’re currently working on is developing a new inventory of tops on high quality fabrics.

Within the next 2 years, I hope that Project Sina is able to really carve out a niche within the ethical fashion space, becoming a brand that is known for both our distinct aesthetic as well as the impact we make in the lives of women in Pakistan. Within the next 5 years, through the brand’s own success, I hope to prove to the larger fashion industry that you can indeed be profitable and create positive social change at the same time, rather than one at the cost of the other. By that 5 year point, I would like to expand operations into other countries, turning Project Sina into a truly global movement.

Everyday eNoter Questions:

The Everyday eNoter’s bookshelf is always full, what’s your current favorite read?

Maximum-CityI am currently reading Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. I lived in Bombay for a bit and felt that there was a profound complexity to the city that I never understood. The author Suketa Mehta, walks you through the dark underworld that you always knew existed but never had a tour guide for.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received from a professor or teacher?

I wouldn’t say advice, but I certainly had a very special Hindi Professor at UC Davis that appreciated my quirky personality and big mouth (few professors do). If it weren’t for him and that class, I probably would have never ended up India or started Project Sina.

If you could change one thing about the education system, what would it be? Why?

Tough Question! For starters, I would somehow try to reform the structural inequalities that exist in the education system, whereby those that are the right race and are privileged enough to go to a good school tend to stay in school and go to good universities. It breaks my heart when I look at a child and know that for the most part, a bright future has been robbed from them simply because of their race and the neighborhood they live in. I’m also really into the concept of child-centered learning, whereby a child’s curiousity guides their curriculum – whereby we highlight their talents as opposed to negatively conditioning them and reinforcing what they aren’t good at.

PS4Looking back, what advice would you give your freshman self?

I would have talked to my professors more! They are usually great resources if you actually talk to them like normal human beings and utilize office hours.

What’s your go-to music/soundtrack for homework or writing?

Right now I am listening to a lot of electronic music. Disclosure in particular. I’d like to think that I can still party when working.

Where to find Project Sina:

Follow the below links to find out more about Amena’s project and support the cause.

Projectsina.com

Project Sina’s Online Store

Project Sina on Facebook