Social enterprise advocate and a champion of education for women globally, Debbie Farah never expected to be known for either. However, her love of fashion and a rare job offer as a young Arab girl, that afforded her the chance to go to college, set her on a path to impact countless lives around the world. Farah launched Bajalia International Group (BIG) on HSN March 8th 2011 – the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.
BIG is a Fair Trade retail and wholesale provider of home, fashion and jewelry goods handmade by artisans in underdeveloped economies. BIG “gives women a voice around the world through jobs” and distributes through major retailers. We’re “changing the world while shopping the world,” says Farah. With manufacturing workgroups in 28 countries including India, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Haiti, “we work in some of the places where it’s hardest to be a woman in the world.”
Farah sees BIG’s purpose as “beyond fair trade” – where in addition to ensuring living wages and workplaces free of exploitation, it is imperative to ensure that girls stay in school. Farah understands the life-changing and community building impact of educating girls. She also knows that while developing economies require outside investment – only “trade over aide” will provide long-term sustained success.
With a successful career as creative director for Neiman Marcus, Farah had established herself in the high-end fashion industry. After accepting a volunteer opportunity to photograph non-profits working with women overseas, Farah began spending an increasing amount of time exploring sustainable solutions to the challenges girls faced. Her own opportunity to work at just 14 years old provided her a voice and pathway to college. Education had made all the difference.
Farah brought together her love of fashion and desire to help empower women by creating BIG as a social enterprise. The idea began as a non-profit, allowing Farah to test and experiment before launching the for-profit initiative. Today the non-profit focuses on the development of training and helping to scale the artisan work groups. BIG avoids owning the operations on the ground, preferring instead to facilitate the connection of NGOs in support of their empowerment training and life skills education mission. “Social enterprise has a much bigger meaning then ever before,” says Farah, who has been honored by the U.S. Department of State (US-DOS), for providing opportunities to global artisans. The US-DOS recognizes that in communities where money is put in the hands of women, guns are taken out of the hands of children.
Back in Orlando BIG is a diverse company of people “looking for a career that matters,” says Farah. The company often recruits from top fashion schools and has a staff that spans generations and ethnicities, providing a conscious culture of respect and creativity. For her team and in her interaction with social entrepreneurship students at UCF and Rollins College, Farah emphasizes that success is dependent on “showing up everyday and persevering and being preset everyday.” The skill most important in today’s economy? “Strategic problem solving,” says Farah. “How well do you persevere through problems.”
Retailers see value in social enterprise and are interested in better stories themselves. BIG works with retailers to be “their bridge to social enterprise,” says Farah, “to take the things they are doing and make them more valuable.” “Social mission must be authentic to be effective,” says Farah, who notes that Bill Drayton, CEO and founder of Ashoka, expects that within 15 years we will cease to use the words social enterprise. That corporations without a social mission will simply cease to exist. Similarly, practitioners of Conscious Capitalism envision a future where capitalism as a whole matures and the default model for business is to balance the needs of all stakeholders. Farah believes this future is possible and that global businesses like BIG are making significant contributions to bring this vision into focus.