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Rubana Ahmed - founder of Ethika Boutique - passionately and openly talks to Kucha about her incredible journey
in the creation of Ethika Boutique

As a young woman I watched a film called Baby Boom with Diane Keaton and I think it inspired a very strong feeling in me for the world of business. I craved this world of business, to strike a deal, come up with new products, work out how to market and sell those products, and have lots of fun talking to many different types of people along the way. Since I started to watch The Apprentice with Donald Trump I just have a huge untapped reserve of immense passion which seems to explode when I begin to think of where I came from as a child... to who I am today, and the hurdles I have had to overcome as an Asian, Muslim wife, mother, "home manager" and business woman, a woman who like many out there who does not like to be pre-judged.

I grew up in a house where we feared what the next day would bring, we lived in the moment and went through some hard times with my father. The day before I left for university my older brother, myself and my mum all packed our clothes and walked out of the house, seperating ourselves entirely from my father. This was the end of a hard few years that we were happy to leave behind, but it was also a source of strength for me, to see how determind my mother was despite all the odds, to raise us with good morals, love and courage, and to show that you can still come out of a challenging situation with options.

Cassidy Sailor Jacket, 75
After I completed my Textile Design degree I freelanced in embroidery design for a few years selling internationally through trade fairs. But it was only later, after I had settled down and had children, that I wondered about the course of my life, and what I actually wanted to do after my children had grown up. I started to sell a few imported asian clothes from Pakistan, as a little charity to help my aunt and uncle, and we managed to make 100 pounds a month which I sent back to the producers, essentially I was running a fairtrade business.

It was only later when I moved to another city and lost all my previous customers that I started to become really depressed, and quite fed up with my lovely, but monotomous life. I started to become guilty and every morning the first thing I would think about is, 'if only I could do more with my life'. So I started to look around for any opportunities for funding, or business courses, and wondered if I could use my previous charity of importing clothes as a real business idea. I wanted to have more than just a business. I dreamt of founding a social enterprise, a business that would (like the body shop) be - for the people, by the people.

My mum, loving all things hand-embroidered, had just brought back a beautiful garment from a young girl she had visited who came from a humble family in Faisalabad, Pakistan. When I saw the garment my eyes opened wide and my mouth dropped. The stitching was impeccable, and even after hand washing, the stitching remained immaculate.

This was it! I decided that I wanted to create change for the poverty stricken women and communities in Faisalabad, Pakistan, who have never had the luxury of having choices. To be able to help them afford things like school fees, or a little extra food. I also wanted to support the young orphans who had seen their whole families die before them in the earthquake in Kashmir. As a mother I felt so much love towards my own children, and I wondered how mothers in Pakistan coped not being able to feed their young ones, and that in today's world this shouldn`t be happening. I wanted to somehow bring all this together in a business.

Chiffon Dress, 135
I had no formal business training, business plans, cashflow, profit and loss accounts were all a mystery to me, but I had so much bubbling passion it just somehow pushed me on. At business funding interviews, I had people looking at me thinking, 'hhhm she's an Asian, Muslim woman with children, I don't think she'll go far', and that was that. I also had a very skeptical family, who all thought I couldn't possibly run a business. This was a huge blow to my confidence and I took the rejection very seriously and personally, but this was actually the start of my real world business training, that rejection is 80% of what we do, and it`s just another step towards getting you closer to where you need to go.

Another challenge I had to overcome, was finding a good fashion designer. I contacted universities in the UK, Canada, the States, Italy and even Australia. I also went into my local university to give a proposal to the students. I was professionally dressed and felt prepared but when the students saw me, many of them had a negative reaction, and from a room of 50 students I only had one great designer approach me who was willing to work with my company.

Stacey Haynes, a first year fashion student from University of Central England, was fantastic. She designed and actually made a mock up garment in her Christmas holidays; which to me proved how hard she was willing to work. I couriered it to Pakistan, and it was the first thing we ever created, a chic, cosmopolitan Grey Mac. It was the only thing that turned out, all the other items I ordered were a catastrophy!!!! I wanted right then to give up, I thought I just don`t have the money to teach them our manufacturing factory through all these mistakes, but Stacey's Mac really pulled me through.

Then another really talented student from Winchester University got in touch just when I really needed her, the lovely Hannah Poole. She had graduated and gone to Italy for a brief placement, and I was at that point in Portugal for our family holidays. I was popping in and out of all the internet cafes to keep up with her emails, and she designed some beautiful items that we are featuring as limited editions over a number of collections.

I picked my self up again, and threw myself forward. I managed to put myself thorugh a flexible business training course, that I could do mostly online, which I completed straight away, I went on to complete another business course with NES and managed to successfully complete the course and gain a grant, I even went on to hand in a proposal to The Birmingham City Council and was sponsored by them for a launch event. So in the end I managed to get enough funding to start up, and found some wonderful friends that were willing to loan me some interest free money.

Sweeping flower print and subtle beading from Ethika Boutique's Sweet Sunshine Dress, 63.99
Finding a clothes manufacturer in Pakistan was probably our biggest challenge. and we were constantly looking for months, we actually went through six factories, that all took our samples on but then later decided actually, no thank you. So, although daunting, we decided the only way we could make this happen was to open our own offices and employ a tailor. We now employ a male cutter, a female tailor, and five widowed women that help create some beautiful exclusive embellishments for our designs. We also help provide undergraduates/graduates some excellent hands on business experience to help them get further and become more employable.

Finding a fabric manufacturer was equally frustrating. After many phone calls I finally managed to get the holy grail of list of contacts of fairtrade certified mills around Asia. In the end I found one mill, who was impressed with the fact I was calling from the U.K, and who agreed to post me some fabric to pick and order. They sent me the samples which I was overjoyed with and so I asked them to send some of the fabric over to Pakistan, which went through fine. So with a huge gulp I ordered a larger amount - 20 metres of each sample - at which point they kindly told me, "actually mam, we only take 10,000 metres as a minumum order per fabric swatch!". I was absolutely gutted, but then I thought okay there must be a way around this, how about some end roll farbic. The factory again happily posted over the fabric, this time getting stuck at the Indian/Pakistan border. In short I never got the fabric.. the border patrol from India was asking for a huge bribe, which I decided it was best not to pay.

Unfotunately since then I have tried various other mills from China through to Pakistan and even thought of shipping over some fabric from here to Pakistan. I really would like to enrich the collection with hemp prints, soya bean, bamboo fabric, but it's turned out to be such a challenge that it's more a hinderance than a selling point. I do hope very much to work on this and turn it around though.

So as an alternative I decided to sourced all the fabric from the local bazaars in Pakistan, they have beautiful cottons, silks and chiffons and I'm happy to increase trade in these local bazaars. We also use low impact traditional dyes used for centuries by block printing artisans. It's normally factories that use harsh, polluting dyes, so I have avoided using these factories.

This past first year of setting the business up, and getting the first collection out, has been hard on both myself and my family. There were many times along the way that I just wanted to give up and run away, but something has always stopped me from doing so, something just always happens to turn things around, and I think that my upbringing and my mothers courage certainly helped me stick with things.

To find a work-life balance has been a real challenge. I was so passionate in the early days, that I would just eat, sleep and dream business. I was up from 7 and would go to bed until 2-3am in the morning. It has been a rollercoaster for me with many high and lows, and I have felt guilty for snapping at my two young boys when I should have been more patient. I have really tried to make up for it on the weekends as we absolutely love parks. It`s a total release when I stroll round a pond with ducks, see the open sky and look at the beautiful trees. I realise now that I placed too many expectations on myself and what I had to achieve within a certain time frame, where in truth it takes years to mould a successful business, not months, and we can only try our best and do so much, the rest we have to leave to destiny.

Mauricio Black Chiffon Top, 65.99

Now I savour each moment and look at the blessing we all have in life and now I do spend much more time with the children and I'm more focused on getting the essentials acheived, rather than emailing for hours for the sake of it. I think we could all overcome any challenge, we can all find courage in the worst of times and go on to better days and find blessings and joy in our acheiving our dreams and loving our families.

Click here to view Ethika Boutique at The Natural Store (SS08 collection available from mid-May onwards) >>

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