For ten years Naushaba Brohi, founder of Pakistan-based fashion startup Inaaya, was an employee at a local television channel, producing shows centered on lifestyle and fashion. Describing the job as one she “hated”, Brohi found herself at a crossroads. She needed the money to tend for her two-year-old daughter, but found it impossible to motivate herself to work a “dreary and lifeless” job.
Prior understanding helped
An arduous path to success
As Pakistan found itself engulfed in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis caused by deadly floods in late 2010, Brohi was motivated to do something meaningful. She made a life-changing decision to quit her job and travel to the affected areas. “At the time I had no idea what I was doing. All I knew was, I’m healthy and I have two good hands. If nothing else, at the very least I could prepare meals for the starving families,” she tells Tech in Asia.
It was during this trip to the flood ravaged region of rural Sindh that Brohi witnessed firsthand the depth of suffering amongst the local community. At one point a woman begged her to take her daughter back to the city and give her a job. “I found this difficult to digest,” says Brohi. “I knew more could be done to empower the community.”
The silver lining of Brohi’s visit to the affected region was that she noticed the remarkable design and aesthetic standards of local artisans. Women were highly proficient in weaving cloth, making jewelry, and stitching bed sheets. More importantly, they adhered to cultural traditions that were centuries-old and had been passed down from generation to generation. She instinctively felt that much could be done to harness this potential by providing the local women with the right guidance and access to a mass consumer market.
Prior understanding helped
Brohi’s exposure to the fashion industry as well as experience gained from frequent international travel helped her realize there was a large market for ethnic goods and crafts. “Retail outlets such as Anthropologie and Pottery Barn frequently stock products sourced from rural communities in South Asia,” she affirms. “I knew the opportunity was there and I needed to grasp it.”
Despite candidly admitting that, at the time, she had “no idea what she was doing”, Brohi proceeded to place an order for floor cushions, intricately detailing the design and color palettes she wished to be incorporated. Her workers – women in rural Sindh – were confused. Why would a woman from Karachi be interested in their products? What was her agenda? Brohi – who had the advantage of being able to converse with the women in their local dialect – did her best to alleviate their concerns. She assured them that they would be paid in cash up front and that she wasn’t out to take advantage of their plight. Slowly, the rural artisans began to trust her.
“I didn’t know what would stick, what would sink, what would swim. Ended up doing a bit of everything and hoped for the best,” says the founder.
At the same time, Brohi approached home and lifestyle outlets in Karachi and pitched the idea of stocking these products in their stores. One store manager offered some words of advice. “Don’t waste your time making cushions. They won’t sell. People here want clothes, make those instead,” she recalls being told.
After quickly pivoting her model and diversifying the product range to include clothes and jewelry, Brohi went back to the same store. A couple of days later she received a call from the manager informing her that the stock had sold out completely. “He wanted to know how soon I could send another batch,” she adds, smiling.
Buried under issues of logistics and operations, the entrepreneur had not given much thought to building an online presence or investing in brand identity. It was at the behest of her ‘techie’ brother, Yasir, that a website and Facebook page was set up. After scouring through available domain names, they settled on Inaaya – the name of her four-year-old daughter.
Traction for Inaaya came from concerted efforts to have an active and visible presence on social media as well as tapping networks for publicity in the local market. Clothes and accessories made by the label were frequently featured in product shoots for magazines and, slowly, Brohi witnessed demand for her products rising significantly. An active social media presence helped – many of her clients were from western markets that had happened to stumble across her site. Most were highly impressed by what they saw and demanded more. Supply began to lag behind and Brohi struggled to keep up.
As interest around Inaaya spiked, so did requests for products to be featured in international fashion events. Brohi’s clothing and jewelry lines debuted in events held in the UK and US, to mostly rave reviews. Her seminal moment came in 2013, when Hello! Magazine featured Amal Alamuddin – then engaged to actor George Clooney – wearing traditional Sindhi jewelry designed by Innaya. The news went viral and the fashion label was covered by Vogue India and a host of local publications. “I made hay while the sun shined,” she laughs.
Amal Alamuddin wearing necklace from Inaaya
An arduous path to success
Despite what may seem as a straightforward journey of concept, planning and execution, Brohi admits she faced several challenges and repeatedly questioned her decision to be an entrepreneur.
“There were times when I yearned for stability and a recurring income. The fact that I have a young daughter who depended on me didn’t help. My family thought I was mad and pleaded that I go back to a regular job,” she adds.
An initial lack of business acumen was also a stumbling block and proved to be a hurdle in pricing products correctly. “I only accounted for expenses in sourcing raw materials and didn’t take into consideration other overheads such as traveling costs, phone calls, and deliveries. This hurt my bottom line,” says Brohi.
Redemption came in the form of an invitation to be part of the Islamabad-based social enterprise accelerator invest2innovate. Urged to apply by i2i founder Kalsoom Lakhani, Brohi initially thought that it would be an exercise in futility. After an immense amount of cajoling, she decided to apply, albeit “half-heartedly.”
Having recently graduated from the accelerator, Brohi admits that the three-month-long program has helped her immensely. Access to mentors who understand the business and the opportunity to learn key skills in logistics, operations, and finance has helped her to fine-tune the model. What is her advice for other budding entrepreneurs? “Keep a close eye on your financials and projected cash flow stream. That’s crucial.”
Brohi is similarly ecstatic about the impact that Inaaya’s success has had on the local community of artisans. After providing the team with smartphones, she coordinates with them via Whatsapp, saving her the eight hour journey which she would normally undertake to meet them – multiple times a month. Most of her workers now also have bank accounts – no mean feat given the fact that almost 86% of adult Pakistanis don’t have one. “Financial inclusion and empowerment of my workers remains a priority area,” she adds.
So what’s next for the fashion label? Brohi reveals that her plans are to streamline the business so that everything works smoothly and efficiently. She wishes not to repeat the mistakes made in the past and focus on building a quality brand that both local and international audiences can identify with. Expanding her pool of workers is also a key area – the entrepreneur reveals she is in advanced negotiations with a government-run agency which would provide her with access to a much bigger pool of talent. By tapping into that, she is confident that Inaaya’s product line will significantly diversify and other impoverished artisans will have the opportunity to benefit.