One of the four daughters of a lieutenant colonel, huge feats were expected from Rubina Mazhar. This National level Badminton player in High School studied all over India. After completing her graduation; she joined a travel agency and became a travel expert. Plans for volunteering in social organisations was ripe after college, but at 22 years, she got married and left for the Middle-East, where she carried on to work in the Travel Sector, fundraising and organising counselling workshops for expatriate domestic workers from Sri Lanka.
In 2002, Rubina sets up an entrepreneurial training (Travel and Tourism) venture, a first woman enterprise of its kind in Andhra Pradesh. She trained and placed over 700 youths in the travel sector. We catch up with Rubina Mazhar, the founder and CEO – SAFA, a self-funded organisation that believes in, and works for the socio-economic empowerment of women by income generation and education.
I returned after 9 years to India and set up an entrepreneurial venture in travel, training and placements. Ran it successfully for 7 years and set up my NGO whilst I was running the venture. In the course of time, I have trained myself on social initiative management, instructional skills, workshops, financial management of various enterprises. Franchised the venture in the year 7 and moved full time into my NGO SAFA. The passion called and I couldn’t resist.
SAFA was established with a vision to empower women from the minority communities with an innovative approach to “retaining the cultural fibre of the community”.
What inspired you to become a Social Entrepreneur?
The fact that NGOs need to earn money whilst creating required change in societies. The belief that social organisations need to be sustainable and funds run dry if grant driven NGOs depend fully on them.
What’s the concept of ‘SAFA’ and what is your vision behind it?
SAFA is an acronym for my father and grandfather who were the inspiration and powerful role models for me in early life.
My father always stressed that girls need to be self-reliant and have earnings of their own and when I saw the plight of women, irrespective of how literate, they were, they were totally dependent on their families for their sustenance. This sparked off many questions for me on the condition of women. I believe all the family members need to be equally participative for the well-being of the family and this can happen only with education and socio-economic empowerment of the woman and girl child.
Could you briefly tell us about your current projects and future plans?
We have established, successful models and intend to replicate them across similar demographics in India. We also intend to set up a production unit which provides income to women. Retail shops selling goods made by women entrepreneurs, NGOs or artisans and a periodic bazaar for marketing products.
What mission you’re trying to accomplish through SAFA?
SAFA was established with a vision to empower women from the minority communities with an innovative approach to “retaining the cultural fibre of the community”. Till date, over 900 women have been trained, 110 women are working on tailoring, domestic violence, after school tutors in slums, small enterprises, 32 young girls facilitated a junior college education and 160 children (mainly girls) sponsored for English medium school education. Around 600 youth trained and placed on computer education and conversational English.
How have been the responses from society towards your initiative so far?
We had initial teething issues of societal acceptance and have worked towards establishing the rapport within the areas we work in. We still face challenges when it comes to training women and educating young girls beyond high school.
Youth from underprivileged homes are not equipped to get into mainstream careers and hence stay marginalised.
Why does our country need more social ventures like yours?
Education has not reached the most deserving and the quality of government schools is not conducive to the dynamic growth requirements. Youth from underprivileged homes are not equipped to get into mainstream careers and hence stay marginalised.
What were the initial days like – what kind of challenges you’ve faced and still facing as an entrepreneur?
Financial challenges always remain coupled with the mindsets of the target groups we work with. These people have been exploited and ignorant over a long period of time. Remaining focused on your vision is a continuous process and has to be consciously worked upon or your work gets diluted and creates minimal social impact. We continue to face challenges in the marketing of products we make and we are in the scale-up stage and creating a strong operational base is also a challenge within the limited resources. Other than these, investors’ understanding of social enterprises is limited and they avoid funding us for marketing initiatives.
As we are in a hybrid model of “for profit ” and “not for profit” getting the right balance in a team is difficult. Steering clear of the hardcore business model is important as we lose our social angle like many other bigger organisations.
What skills do you think an entrepreneur must have to be successful, especially in your area?
To be a successful social entrepreneur, one needs to have:
- Risk taking abilities
- Remain driven
- Empathy for others
How is the digital boom in India empowering women? How has it helped your venture grow?
The digital boom has helped our organisation in marketing our products online. Social media also gets us much support, especially in the form of donations and orders. Our active and effective presence on the web has given us an edge over other similar organisations. We were awarded the NGO challenge prize (Manthan awards) as we have used the ICT tools effectively.
What are your passions other than running a social venture?
I am an avid yoga practitioner and I also learn vocals (Hindustani). I read 2 books at a time and enjoy movies, especially world cinema.
The rise of the women entrepreneurs – Do you think the term shaped up because of the digital boom in India?
Women are the same as their counterparts and I do not believe that the digital boom has shaped them. It’s just that the digital boom leverages all (male/female) to the next level. Women are now being noticed and are more aware – that’s all.
What advice would you give to fellow entrepreneurs?
It is important for entrepreneurs to
- Stay focused
- Have a plan B always
- Celebrate and learn from failures as they shape your future.
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