Born and raised in Lahore, Saba Gul is the founder & CEO of BLISS, and a recent alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she did her BS and MS. She is an engineer turned entrepreneur/do-gooder, with a
Born and raised in Lahore, Saba Gul is the founder & CEO of BLISS, and a recent alumnus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she did her BS and MS. She is an engineer turned entrepreneur/do-gooder, with a passion for female empowerment.
Saba Gul has worked in Silicon Valley prior to her start-up, but gave up her life as a technologist to pursue social good. Saba was an MIT Public Service fellow in Sri Lanka, where she worked on low-cost solar lighting for post-Tsunami refugees. She has also conducted workshops on entrepreneurship at universities in Africa.
She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Shaper, as well as a fellow of The Unreasonable Institute. Her work has been recognized by the US State Department, and featured in the MIT Technology Review, Vogue Magazine, NBC News and Fast Company, to name a few.
She sits on the board of the MIT South Asian Alumni Association, and volunteers her time for the Association for the Development of Pakistan.
Saba Gul established Popinjay previously operating as the non-profit BLISS with the mission of producing fair wage jobs for the poor Pakistani women. Popinjay is a high-end handbag company that attracts customers with lush leather and hand-embroidered silk. The designs draw inspiration from Mughal screens, Turkish tiles and Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock. But the Pakistani women who embroider them were once deeply impoverished.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) educated Saba Gul had left a six-figure engineering job to launch the non-profit company and create an alternative for Pakistani girls often forced to leave school young and work for a pittance. For Saba Gul, it was too sharp a contrast to her own life.
In March 2011, with about Rs20,000,00 in personal savings and Rs9,000,00 in Indiegogo funds, Saba launched BLISS, which offered a living wage to 40 uneducated Pakistani women who otherwise survived on about Rs200 a day. It was personally fulfilling work for Gul, but by the third quarter of 2012, progress slowed. The venture was unable to launch a new collection, and sales channels were limited. By the fourth quarter, sales stagnated.
Since, BLISS worked directly with the underprivileged, a nonprofit formulation had seemed natural to Saba, but it came with unforeseen complications. Saba underestimated the frustrations of raising nonprofit money. She had a fast-paced, start-up mentality but faced funding cycles that were a year or two long. Also Saba Gul had a difficult time attracting the right team. As a non-profit, BLISS was unable to convince top-tier professionals to join the early-stage venture at a low pay scale, because equity couldn't be part of the package.
In January 2013, a couple of weeks from running out of money, Saba Gul began rebranding BLISS as the for-profit Popinjay. Production shifted from Attock to Hafizabad, which had high female unemployment and was closer to Popinjay's Lahore office. It was an identity shift for Saba as well as the company.
To salvage the venture, she went from reading reports on education in Pakistan to reading fashion editorials. The bags took a posh turn with trendy designs and improved quality, finer leather, top-quality hardware and silk instead of cotton. That meant retraining the artisans and tapping high-end suppliers, but it gave Popinjay access to retailers with much larger sales volumes.
Saba Gul did her own financials for BLISS, but Popinjay took it to a whole new level. She learned to build reports for investors and walked into board rooms knowing every cell of Excel spread-sheets and financial projections. For the company's first round of funding, Saba negotiated the terms herself, nearly halving investor's high-end hopes for equity and raising Rs265,000,00.
Saba believes, investors bring the right amount of pressure to deliver. Because they have a personal stake in the company, their networks became her network. Within ten days of shaking hands, one investor connected Saba with what she considers the best tannery in Pakistan.
She has also been able to hire staff suitable for a fashion label, rather than international development professionals managing production, marketing, sales and product design.
Popinjay officially launched with its first line in October 2013, and in seven weeks of sales, the company's revenue was equal to an entire year as BLISS. The brand is about to hit shelves in high-end boutiques, and in the spring, Anthropologie will begin selling the bags on-line.
For Saba Gul, the ultimate measure of success is the women who inspired her in the first place. Popinjay now employs 150 women who earn Rs250-Rs300 per hour, two to three times what they were making at BLISS. They work three hours a day, but still earn half of what their husbands do working full time.
Saba didn't set out to build a retail brand, but she says, now, I not only want to help the women, I want to create a brand that represents the values of justice and equality and opportunity for underprivileged artisans. I need a successful brand to help them.