Farrukh Lalani | A Path to Prosperity for Women Artisans in Northern Pakistan

“This isn’t just another jewelry business. We’re changing lives, and we have accountability not only downstream to our customers, but upstream to our artisans.”

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Isolated in the mountain villages of Northern Pakistan are communities of resilient, strong women artisans who have stepped up to support their families by cutting gemstones and making jewelry. They not only handcraft beautiful bracelets and earrings, but they also radically challenge the status quo and prove that women are integral contributors to society.

None of this would be possible without Farrukh Lalani’s determination, passion, and desire to help these women prosper. She is the founder of Daria Day, a jewelry business that works with 50 – 60 artisans from three collectives in Gilgit Baltistan. Through partnerships with key NGOs in the region, Daria Day gives economically disadvantaged women an opportunity to provide, to learn, and to flourish.

Before reading the FAQ, please watch this video. It speaks volumes to Daria Day’s impact and illustrates better than words can the good that Farrukh is doing in the world.


Can you tell us a bit about your background? 

I started my career in management consulting, but 7 years into it, I started feeling that there was more to life, more than flying from one city to another implementing systems and processes. So I took a step back and went to graduate school at Tufts University, studying economics and international relations. And it was liberating! To think, to write, to explore, to use those years to really do what I wanted to do, which was to get into development and work on creating opportunities for women.

After I finished graduate school, I went to work for the Aga Khan Foundation. My first posting was in Damascus, Syria, where I worked on issues of government affairs and funding. I was there for 2 years, from 2008 to 2010, just before the Arab Spring and before the civil war in Syria started; following that I was in Afghanistan, where I worked for the Aga Khan Development Network’s communication mobile company called Roshan. We knew that advanced communication technology in developing countries was important for speeding up development by connecting remote communities, so the goal was to connect the rural areas to the center. My role was to look at growth opportunities to see where Roshan could expand in Afghanistan.

What was it like living in a conflict zone? 

I never thought I’d live in a conflict zone, and it was unlike anything I had experienced. When I landed in Kabul, I looked outside the plane window and all I saw was military, and I thought, “What have I done? Is it too late to go back?”. But I got off the plane, got through immigration, and drove in an armored car through the streets of Kabul, which is really just a normal, bustling city! When you think of Afghanistan, you think of war and oppression. But there are people on the street selling goods, women are walking around — I have this poignant memory of a man on a motorcycle with balloons weaving through traffic. It’s just normal life! 

But, living conditions in a conflict zone are different. I lived in an enclosed, secure compound with high walls and a strong steel gate with a sliding door that they used as a peephole. I went through that gate when I first arrived — they checked our vehicle, then I went through another gate, then I had to go through another security checkpoint (kind of like airport security), and finally I got into the compound. And it was beautiful. There was a lush garden with roses and flowers and picnic tables. It’s all just very disconnected, since you go through intense security screenings and then you come into this very serene, quiet place, into a compound with all these amenities. 

I traveled mostly between the compound I lived in and the one I worked in. If I wanted to go out to dinner, I’d have a Personal Protection Officer come with me to make sure I was safe. The biggest threat isn’t an attack, it’s that as an expat, you might be kidnapped. I lived there for a year, during the time of withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, so I lived through some crazy things -- the attack on the British Embassy, the attack on the American Embassy. 

How did your work in Tajikistan lead to you establishing Daria Day?

After Afghanistan, I moved to Central Asia — to Tajikistan — to work for the humanitarian assistance arm of the Aga Khan Network that helps people in the developing world reduce their dependence on humanitarian aid and become more self-sufficient. I worked in Disaster Risk Reduction, building communities’ resilience to natural disasters and Climate Change Adaptation.

And that was a turning point, because that’s where I started working directly with people in local communities and in the field. I lived in the capital, but our field activities were in the heart of the Pamir Mountains, a 45-minute flight or a 16-hour drive away from Dushanbe. I realized during this time how remote communities exist and how precarious their living conditions can be. The World Bank had already declared the area we worked in as the most vulnerable to climate change because it’s home to some of the world’s largest glaciers. With those glaciers melting, it was creating more landslides, more floods, and more glacier lake outbursts which were extremely destructive. The first winter I was in Tajikistan, we experienced 37 avalanches, which was eye-opening and scary.

The team I worked with trained villagers on how to build dams and walls to contain landslides, helped establish early warning systems, taught them how to build seismic-resistant housing using locally-sourced material. And as we were working in the region, we came across these large female communities, with a lot of older women and single female heads of households. The men had all left for better economic opportunity in Russia or other parts of Central Asia, so there were these villages of women, children, and the elderly. We realized we needed to find alternative livelihoods for women because they needed sources of income. 

Within these communities, I met women artisans who had been trained by various NGOs on how to make jewelry and how to process gemstones. Some had been given a gemstone processing machine so they could make beads and sell them. But the issue was 1) where they were getting gemstones, and 2) how were they accessing markets?

When I finished in Tajikistan and came back to Canada, I couldn’t stop thinking about those women. That’s where I got the idea that I could help those women get access to markets for selling their goods.

Why is Daria Day focused on empowering women in Pakistan and not Tajikistan? 

Well, my family is from Pakistan and I speak the language, so it’s easier to communicate. 

And when it comes to the political climate, it’s much harder for us to import goods out of Tajikistan than Pakistan. So I decided to start in Pakistan, refine the business model, and expand from there as we can. 

And the situation in Tajikistan is very similar to northern Pakistan, so we’re still working with mountain communities, with similar groups of people, facing the same issues around climate and vulnerability. 

What does the name Daria Day mean?

“Daria” is the Persian word for prosperity. So I wanted to promote prosperity for the artisans, and for the people who wear our jewelry. 

How does the business itself operate?

It all comes down to the network we’ve built between an NGO in Pakistan called the Rupani Foundation and the Aga Khan Foundation -- through those two organizations I was introduced to artisans. Last fall I formalized an agreement with the Rupani Foundation, who directly works with artisan groups. They help us manage the artisan collectives, they ensure that work is distributed to those groups and that ethical practices are followed (fair wages, good working conditions), that funds are distributed to the artisans, and connect us to miners from whom we source gemstones. 

How have you seen lives improve through making jewelry and sourcing gemstones? 

Over the last year, we’ve conducted interviews with artisans to understand the impact not of just working with me, but of working in general. Many of the women we work with save their earnings, because most have aspirations of owning their own business or workshop, or of pursuing further education. They’ll also use the funds to send their siblings to school. And they’ll use the money to provide for their families or aging parents — many are the primary breadwinners. So we’re seeing an increase in household income, allowing them to be self-sufficient and improve the livelihood of their families. 

Isn’t that breaking some cultural norms? 

Normally it’s the brother who would be expected to provide. It’s a very patriarchal society and many women have no brothers, so they have to take care of themselves. The fact that women are providing is really changing the gender dynamics. 

And those women are starting to feel empowered, and like I mentioned before, we’re seeing many start their own businesses. They pool their money, open their own workshops, and start taking orders for cutting gemstones and making beads. They’re determined to make their own living and they overcome a lot of bias to do so. There was one group whose landlord told them that women had no right running a business and that he was cancelling their lease. And those women in particular were pretty feisty, so they went three stores down and rented out another workshop right on the same street. They now employ 6 additional women and have a storefront where they’re making and selling their jewelry, they travel to Islamabad every 6-8 weeks to sell their goods at the markets, and they didn’t let that landlord stop them from pursuing their business. They’re definitely challenging the norm!

The media focuses predominantly on the conflict in the Middle Eastern, which paints a very negative picture. How do you hope to change perspectives on the region? 

One of the things we really want to do is show a different side of Pakistan. We hear about Pakistan and we immediately think about conflict and the Taliban, but that’s only a part of it. We want to change that perception, and we want to do that through the stories we tell of our artisans and the historic stories of the region.

What have been your personal learnings in starting Daria Day? 

This has been such a learning curve. For me, it’s been about learning how to run a business. Setting up the operations wasn’t the difficult part. The challenge has been how we’re going to find our place in the jewelry market and understanding the nitty gritty about marketing and sales. How do I tell people that our bracelet is different than someone else’s? It’s different in quality and in the story behind it, but how do we articulate that to the broader market? I know we’ll be able to make a dent in the market if we can get that out there.

I’ve also been so amazed at the women that I work with. Seeing how hard they work, how dedicated they are — that’s also my motivation. This isn’t just another jewelry business. We’re changing lives, and we have accountability not only downstream to our customers, but upstream to our artisans.

What are your thoughts on the rise of conscious consumerism?

We’re definitely seeing a shift in the market. There’s a lot of talk about sustainability, going green, fair trade — and we fit right into that market. But at the same time, we also know that fast fashion isn’t going anywhere. People are still consuming at a higher level, for less money. The challenge I find is that while we as a business obviously say “buy from us!”, I also want to say “consume less, but consume better.” You could go buy 10 cheap crystal bracelets, but somebody got paid pennies for making those bracelets. Instead of doing that, buy one quality Daria Day crystal bracelet and know that the person who made it was paid fairly and you’re really making a difference in someone’s life by buying it. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a business?

Understand the market that you want to enter and what segment you’re targeting, and what is going to be your differentiator. That’s key.

How do you move the needle?

Not only are we moving the needle by bringing more ethical goods to the market, but we’re empowering women by increasing household income and allowing women to fulfill their own dreams, and to feel like they can do something and contribute. It would be very easy for those women to feel helpless and uneducated -- but instead, they’re proud and saying “I’m making money, and I’m able to do XYZ with it”. So we’re moving the needle in terms of giving women in northern Pakistan a voice and room to stand on their own two feet. 


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ABOUT FARRUKH

Farrukh has worn many hats over her career from Mangement Consulting to Humanitarian Assistance and now as a social entrepreneur. After working in corporate America for several years, Farrukh felt the urge to do something positive with her life and skills. So, she quit her job and started pursuing a career in International Development. After living and working in Central Asia and Northern Pakistan and witnessing the vulnerability of the communities living in high mountain societies, Farrukh founded Daria Day to provide artisans with a sustainable livelihood and a path towards prosperity.

Farrukh holds a Bachelor of Commerce In Marketing from McGill University and Marts of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.