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Featured in A Path Appears

This is a reprint of Empowering Women Abroad at Home, from A Path Appears.

This is a story about a business started in a garage. It’s not Amazon or Apple – it’s a far more modest operation, though still with big dreams. Also unlike those tech giants, it was started by a woman. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Muhayo Aliyeva is an Uzbek woman entrepreneur who founded Bibi Hanum, a fashion brand based on traditional textiles, in her mother’s garage in 2006, after watching the challenges faced by her older sisters, who married strict, traditional men. One of her sisters is not allowed to work outside the home. The other was married at 17 and had two kids in rapid succession, curtailing her educational ambitions, and also suffered domestic abuse. Both marriages were arranged. Muhayo says that “seeing my sisters going through problems was very hard for me. I thought it was because they lacked education and they did not know how to solve problems. I did not want to have similar life and wanted to help women as much as I can. I think working women have a better life.”

Muhayo used her experience working with the U.S. Embassy to understand foreign markets, and cultivated mentors, all American women, who taught her English, nurtured her entrepreneurial dreams, and opened doors to foreign markets. One of them, Christine Martens, is a Central Asian textile researcher who, as Muhayo puts it, “knows a lot more than we do about our own textiles.” Christine took Muhayo on trips to meet artisans and learn the secrets of ikat, a textile technique that involves dying threads before they are woven. Muhayo credits her mentors with changing her life. And Muhayo is making a better life for her sisters.

As little girls, Muhayo would design clothes and her eldest sister Surayo would sew them, and they do that today at Bibi Hanum. Surayo still isn’t able to work outside the house, so she sews at home. Muhayo says that Surayo’s husband didn’t like her before, because he thought she would teach his wife to be independent and ruin their marriage. “Now when he sees that even at home she is earning money, he is ok,” and has blessed his daughter working for Muhayo when she graduates. Joining the company brought middle sister Saodat out of her isolation at home, and now she dreams of starting her own business. Bibi Hanum has trained over a dozen women in the past seven years, and some have moved on to work internationally. The company currently employs nine women, and has big dreams to expand its exports and provide a better income to many more.

Women pay it forward: worldwide, women invest twice as much of their income in their families and communities as men do. That means that every investment in a woman has a multiplier effect as she then invests in other women, and in the next generation. This is the core thesis of the social enterprise, Catrinka, that I founded last year – an ethical fashion accessories label that invests in women and girls.

We employ women to create our products, and invest a share of the proceeds in mentoring teen girls. As an American who spent much of her life outside the US and is now based in new York City, Catrinka is a way I can pay it forward to women and girls anywhere – by offering opportunities to envision a more empowered future, and the income and tools to leverage their traditional skills to get there. With each bag sold, Catrinka provides a week or more of education and mentoring in crucial life skills for adolescent girls on the margin, so that they have the tools to take charge of their own future. Girls who have the ability to postpone marriage and childbirth beyond the age of 12 or 14 can make a better life for themselves, and then invest in the next generation.

Handmade textiles may not be the next PC, but they are a stepping stone to a better life for the hundreds of women who Muhayo hopes to employ, and many others just like them around the world.

About the blogger:

Megan Reilly Cayten is a social entrepreneur who has lived and worked on four continents to enable more people to have more choices in their lives, by supporting their right to vote (Hong Kong), or making the lights turn on (Honduras). Throughout her career she has focused on developing, financing and operating sustainable core infrastructure and basic services, predominantly in emerging economies. Her company, Catrinka, is an ethical fashion accessory brand dedicated to investing in women and girls. Catrinka’s 2014 Fergana holiday collection was made by the women of Bibi Hanum.

December 10, 2014 by Megan Reilly Cayten