Hero Parent and social entrepreneur Nuria Rafique-Iqbal is the force behind ‘Labour and Love’, the Pakistan based handicraft company that designed and handmade our loveable lion mascot - Sheru. Nuria talks to us about how she shifted gears, from an international law career, to raising her growing family while running a company that is empowering hundreds of women and helping end the cycle of poverty.
I am a British born Pakistani and was raised in a lovely suburb outside London. After school, I studied Law at the University of Exeter. My first job was at an international law firm, Norton Rose, working in the London and Paris offices. I also practiced at the US law firm, White & Case, with an amazing opportunity to work in Moscow as one of the few UK corporate lawyers.
In 2004 we moved to Lahore, Pakistan as my husband – Walid wanted to come back to be with his elderly parents. My eldest child was 7 month at the time. I was filled with so much trepidation about coming “home” to Lahore, because unlike my husband, I had never actually lived in Pakistan. But in 11 years, life has come full circle. I now feel I am exactly where I am meant to be.
When I had my first child I decided that I would take time off from my legal career to be with my child. I got involved with a charity called CARE Foundation educating underprivileged children in Pakistan, helping them with their marketing and fundraising. After my second child, I decided to step away and care for my growing family.
In those initial years it was frustrating to not use my skills, but at least I was able to step out and socialize. In stark comparison, women like my cook’s wife would just spend the entire day inside her room. Independence simply didn’t exist for them. I started thinking of ways I could help these women become productive members of society, and give them the financial means to care for their families.
I have always loved craft, and living in Pakistan I would go to every craft fair. There was great skill, but the colours and designs were not aesthetically pleasing. And to compound matters, the artisans had put in so much effort into their handicrafts and were paid so poorly for their work. It was clear that with just a little bit of design training, their products could hold wider appeal, and fetch a living wage.
These two thought processes – good design and fair prices, came together in the form of my social enterprise - ‘Labour & Love!’. Labour is for dignified employment opportunities, and Love stands for humanity. Together, these could improve their lives and give them the respect and dignity they deserve.
It took a year for my idea to materialize. And the universe made it happen through a series of serendipitous circumstances. My son’s former ayah (nanny) - Salma, who had always been great with needlework came to me one day, desperate for some work. She she had left her job as an ayah to have a baby. However, her husband who had been living off her salary while she worked with me, was unable to provide for the family. She was desperate for money.
Around that time, I had started a charity with some friends to instil patriotism into Pakistan's youth. I asked Salma to make the Pakistan flag using sequins and stitch it onto a t-shirt. I gave her an old t-shirt, purchased the threads and sequins, made the design and gave it to her create. Within a week she returned with the coolest looking t shirt I had seen! We immediately decided to produce these t-shirts to raise funds for our charity. As we needed to move quickly I told Salma to start teaching women from her community how to do the sequinning. Salma did exactly that and soon after we had about 30 women working with us.
I realized we had stumbled onto something. The women were thrilled to be working with us because they were being paid immediately for their work while working flexibly from their homes - something they had not seen before!
I was going to need to think of other items for them to make as there were so many women and they all wanted more work. Whatever I gave them, they would finish quickly so they could get paid quickly. Nothing like money to incentivize people! And so started our full range of products – hand embellished greeting cards, money envelopes, pouches and t-shirts. Our products are not ethnic; instead we try to take their handicraft skills and apply into a contemporary style.
The main challenge I faced along the way was the fact that the majority of our women are illiterate. Salma could not read or write so in the beginning everything I designed, I would colour in, so Salma knew exactly what threads to purchase. When giving her the order, I would draw each item on the paper and write in figures next to it the quantity that was required. Now, things are much better as we have some literate women at the stitch centres. At the stitch centre in Mehmood Booti (on the outskirts of Lahore city) we have an Urdu tutor coming in every day to teach the women after they have finished their work. I have made it a condition for all the women who come to the stitch centre that they must learn how to read and write so they can really participate in society.
Women at Labour & Love stitching our loveable lion mascot - Sheru!
We have established an ideal working system, which includes educating them about designs, production in a flexible home environment, and hand-off done at a stitch centre. We don’t have to actively recruit women – they just come to us!
What makes me the happiest is hearing about how working with Labour & Love has changed their lives – there is so much pride and ownership in what they have achieved for themselves. I showed them our Facebook page and the articles that have been printed about us. They were amazed their work was there for all to see and that people loved it. The women always tell me how their ability to earn money has made their husbands respect them more, because these are women who never stepped a foot outside the house.
The future looks bright for L&L. I feel that we have only just started. Our main market at the moment is Lahore and we need to expand our presence to other cities of Pakistan as well as the international market. We are also setting up our website (www.labour-and-love.com) to expand our online sales and appeal to a wider clientele from all over the world. If we continue to build on what we have and keep improving ourselves then I think we can really make a difference to the lives of many more women and that’s what it is all about.
I have been watching the progress of Baby Hero from my home in Pakistan and am really happy to see how the brand has been growing. I love the concept of two mothers starting up a business and the corporate social responsibility aspect of it is fantastic. So many mothers die in childbirth and this is unnecessary if the correct steps are taken. I love the idea of funding the provision of sterile birthing packs to women in developing countries - mothers should not have to die to give birth, their lives are just as important. I am really happy for Labour & Love to be collaborating with Baby Hero, through our collaboration we are giving back and helping women around the globe!