Revolutionizing Retail in Pakistan by Amneh Shaikh – Farooqui Polly & Other Stories

Polly & Other Stories has gained popularity among the creative community of Pakistan for empowering them in the last 4 years. Startup Guide Pakistan talked to the co-founder of Polly & Other Stories about their idea and how it has evolved with time.

Tell us about yourself and your social enterprise.

I started my career in International Development or as it is more popularly known in Pakistan, the NGO or not-for-profit sector. My co-founder, Angela and I met working on an economic development project that was trying to harness the potential of mainstream markets to pull poor, rural homebound women and their households out of poverty. This work was and continues to be very close to my heart and that is why it was disappointing to see so many of the market linkages that we worked to create die out once the project ended. And so we were curious to see if we could find a solution ourselves – outside of traditional development circles.

So part of what fueled the move towards social entrepreneurship was a clear gap in the sector – there were lots of people talking to us about how they could scale their businesses or asking for a design consult and we realized that a huge cross-section of small businesses in Pakistan, particularly those that were run by women from homes or at a small scale and those that worked with traditional artisans that were struggling in product development, in accessing markets and in taking their work to scale. So Polly and Other Stories was designed to revolutionize retail in Pakistan by bringing human ideals back into the conversation and changing the way Pakistani consumers perceive locally-made craft and art products. We did this by creating a platform to showcase the work of Pakistan’s artisans and small entrepreneurs.

We also create innovative designs and a small range of ethical own-brand products with traditional rural producers. Our marketplace is built around the concept that consumers want to know the makers, processes and stories behind their purchases. We use our online ecommerce store as well more recently, our brick-and-mortar concept store in Lahore, to celebrate art, entrepreneurship, fashion, culture and people from Pakistan in an authentic and engaging way. By doing this, we also support creative businesses and talented artisans to sell unique products based on local culture, aesthetic and crafts, enabling businesses and artisans to grow and make a living.

How did the idea come about and how has it evolved since you started out?

From our actual experience working on different projects to develop pro-poor markets and bring incomes to marginalised communities, we realised that even the most talented craftspeople and the most hardworking small business owners struggle to gain traction to benefit from the national and international demand for beautiful, authentic and handmade items which has surged in recent years. Since most of the prevalent business models exclude or marginalise small craft producers, particularly women and young people,  we decided to create a platform that would focus on the unique offerings from Pakistan that even people within the country cannot easily access.

We started off as an ecommerce store and in 2015, our model revolved around online sales and doing pop-ups around the country. But what working offline taught us was that people really respond to and enjoy the experience of shopping in a physical space where they can touch, feel and experience the product so a big change for us was to open up our first concept store in Y Block in DHA in Lahore last year and this has definitely been the right move. Interestingly, it has positively impacted online sales as well!

What is your take on social entrepreneurship?

I think the world is becoming increasingly aware that the ways it works at the moment is not sustainable – we can not afford the current rate of unsustainable growth and affiliated environmental damage, the climate change impacts and the persistent and appalling inequality that we are creating. The social entrepreneurship movement (and I use the term in its broadest and most global sense) can be a real driver for generating alternative approaches that may lead to a better way of running our world. I personally believe strongly in the power of social enterprise and sustainability, particularly in the context of traditional, family-centric skills and related livelihoods as well as cultural heritage and the United Nations SDGs.

Social entrepreneurship has the attraction that, if you can get it right, you can create something that is not limited by the size of scarce and very competitive grant funding but only by the scale of the solution it offers. The world is changing and it will become harder for businesses to operate in a manner where profit maximization is their only game. You cannot be a truly successful company if you are surrounded by slums populated by disentranced youth who have no hope of ever getting a job – that is 19th century thinking and the industrial revolution is long over. If you do not address poverty or create jobs in areas where skilled people can be employed, you set them up for a hard life – a life where they cannot afford to eat well, to go to good schools and make ends meet. This is not the sort of world we are happy to live in. So we work with skilled women and men and help them form collectives to sell their products.

We work with small businesses that value traditional craftspeople and pay them a fair wage as well as train them to do more innovative work. We work to create partnerships and alliances, to build a better place where no matter who you are and where you are based – if you have a good idea, then you deserve to be heard. Social enterprise, done right, can chart a course between the traditional charity and private sector in Pakistan, combining the best of both worlds, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of both. In our view, it is vision and strategy, and not just technology that drive both digital and real-life innovation and transformation.

We also talked to her about the business plan for a social enterprise. Here is what she had to say.

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