For an introduction to this series, Moms Uninhibited, please read here.
Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui is a development professional who focuses on economic empowerment, environment and health initiatives. She also runs a small music and movement programme for young children called Boogie Babies and is a curator for the Women of the World festival in Karachi.
Over the years, Amneh worked with a range of international and local development initiatives and found that local economic issues were very close to her heart. Through her work, she was able to observe firsthand how even the most talented craftswomen and men were unable to connect with buyers in the mainstream market and thereby unable to benefit from the increased demand for beautiful, authentic, and handmade items. As most online retail business models in Pakistan largely excluded small or craft producers, Amneh and her friend, Angela Briad, decided to create an online marketplace that would focus on bringing to market unique and carefully made products that people can only stumble upon in the tucked-away workshops, inside home-based enterprises or in remote villages during their travels. Polly And Other Stories is not just an online retail store, but a direct connection between the artisans, designers, artists making the merchandise and the person buying it. It is what truly defines the term global village. Perhaps for the first time ever you get to know the story of the person who made that wallet you carry. Amneh manages this online revolution while taking care of her home and two little ones, Anya, age 8 and Zidane, age 2.5, who have been raised in a very democratic fashion, each having their say and their right to veto. Her significant other, Imran Farooqui is a wonderful father and incredible husband besides ‘the best sounding board anyone could ask for’. The two have been friends since high school and are best friends still. He works for Loreal Pakistan. Here we try and take the proverbial leaf out of Amneh’s book with some intrusive questions…
How did you get your idea or concept for the business?
I have always been passionate about the power of entrepreneurship and small business and its ability to effect real change in the lives of people. My mother was a pioneer in microenterprise and value chain development and we would often accompany her on trainings or to remote villages where we chased after goats while she worked. So really, I was “incubated” (such a popular term for startups now!) in my own home.
When I started working in the same sector and with my experience in developing pro-poor markets and bringing incomes to marginalized communities, I realized that even talented craftspeople and small business owners struggle to gain traction to benefit from the national and international demand for beautiful handmade items which has surged in recent years. Since most of the prevalent business models excluded or marginalized small or craft producers, we decided to create an online platform that would focus on the unique offerings from Pakistan that even people within the country cannot easily access or even know exist. Polly and Other Stories assists entrepreneurs to develop and sell products to a global audience while enabling businesses and artisans to grow, learn, and make a living.
The idea had been something we had discussed over the years and one evening last August, Ange and I were sitting and chatting over chai (yes literally!) and talking about our frustration with this issue and voila! In a caffeine-induced high, we decided we’d fix this problem ourselves. This was quite a leap of faith since neither of us is a techie and had never written a line of code in our rather crunchy, boho lives!
If you had one piece of advice for someone just starting out, what would it be?
I know it sounds hackneyed but– believe in yourself! Trust yourself, trust others and put yourself out there. The rest will come!
Have you ever turned down a client?
Do you mean do we turn people down when they want to feature on the website? Sadly yes! We have very stringent selection and quality assessment criteria as well as rigorous assessment of fair payment mechanisms. We receive a large number of applications from across South Asia and we take time to get to know each partner, their producers and processes before we bring anybody on board. This means a small lag at the time of application. If brands do not meet our criteria, we try and help them if we can – again, sadly we can only support a small number of businesses in their development and we are working on making this a bigger part of what we do.
Describe any challenging mom-moments faced when working
A start-up has lots of challenges, including a lack of resources to grow as fast as we would like (but this makes us insanely entrepreneurial and creative!), and a super overworked lean team (long hours as there is lots to do!). But being lean makes us faster – our turnaround time on big decisions is probably in microseconds, which translates to being able to make decisions quickly and in practice allows us to change and evolve every day. The fact that the crafts value chain in Pakistan is extremely fragmented and includes everyone from individual craftspeople to producer companies all over Pakistan with many folks in remote areas makes it harder to get things done. But I love meeting new people and I love making things happen so we go with the flow on this one! Being a mom is a full-time job in itself and some days I am wearing so many hats, it can get a little crazy but I enjoy challenges and hate saying no so I keep at it! One of the things I have learned from being in the development sector is self-reliance and resilience. To get something new done, you have to be focused and you have to be patient, sometimes to the point that other people find unreasonable. But that is when real change occurs. When you commit to the long haul and know that if it is broken, you have to fix it!
Our success is often shaped by our world-view. How do you manage to stay so positive while juggling it all?
I had the tremendous fortune of being raised by incredibly selfless and loving parents. I learnt it from them. My mother, even though she worked in a demanding field, was somehow always present. Which is why I always get confused by questions about how I manage the kids and work. I just model my mom! She is and was an amazing role model – now if I could only be a quarter as organised and patient as she is.
How many hours a day do you work (on average)?
I don’t really have an effortless routine – in real life, I think I am probably more like a lyric from Manic Monday and it is only the fact that I chug along like ‘the Little Engine that Could’ that gets me through the day! When it comes to the personal and professional, I am all about blending! I have small children and a part-time day job in a lovely NGO so I cannot say I that have a typical routine. It is really flexible and the great thing about technology is that I can work on the go.
I tend to follow the children’s patterns during the day – morning cuddles, cooking and eating, the school run, etc. I do go into the office most days (when the kids are in school) but generally to connect/catch up with the team or to get to meetings. On holidays, the kids come along – otherwise I work from home in fits and bursts through the day (while the children nap, read or play outdoors). I am very good at switching personas all day but get a lot done once the little ones are in bed and will always check back on email before hitting the sack myself. Unanswered emails give me nightmares!
I am lucky to have a great family and some incredible friends that are ‘my village’. My husband is super supportive (if he wouldn’t do the daily morning school run and let me have that one extra hour of sleep – I would have quit years ago!). I’m hands-on but I don’t pursue life with the goal of having it all – what makes me and my loved ones happy works for me!
What is that one thing you find to be true that most people would disagree with?
I truly believe (and am told I am naïve ALL the time) that people are intrinsically good and want to do good – even if they sometimes have to be nudged along the way. I trust everyone unless they give me a clear reason not to. I am friendly and open, will believe anything you say (until you lie to me so often that it becomes hard to persist!) and am very keen to believe the very best about anyone and any situation. People often view this as a character flaw. I honestly don’t know how to be any other way. Believe me, I’ve tried!
What were you doing as a ten year old?
Writing my first novel and daydreaming about being astronaut!
Name two things you can’t leave home without
My phone and my sunglasses
Name three books your children should read when they turn fifteen.
3? Oh this is tough. My kids devour books! Anya has read everything an 8 year old could and should read. We will soon run out of space to stock books and have to move into a tent pitched in our garden to make room! This makes me insanely grateful that the British Council Libraries have reopened!
But what would I like for them to read as they enter their teens? The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Also Oranges are not the only fruit by Jeanette Winterson and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Definitely Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I recall being fairly obsessed with Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand) at that age myself . I adored Jane Austen and also loved The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood and Perry Mason series by Erle Stanley Gardener were favorites!
And yes, I know that is more than 3.
What movie, (no matter how many times you have seen it) do you have to watch when it’s on?
I don’t get much time to watch television so if I see a movie once, it is a pretty big deal! I’ve seen The Matrix more than once though! As a kid, I watched Little Spies and Short Circuit 50 times at least!
Name the first 90s pop song that comes to mind
Nothing compares to you