That education empowers financial freedom has never been lost on Reema Rasool.
The 39-year-old entrepreneur and social activist from Long Island, New York, has traveled extensively to India, where her family is originally from, and seen women in the poorest parts of the country trapped in a cycle of dependency. Without career training, some were unable to leave an unhealthy relationship.
“It really bothers me to see that,” said Reema, who just completed her first round of seed funding to establish a trade school for women in Jammu, India. The school, the first phase of her social impact startup, called ElleBhi, will teach women in poverty how to tailor and embroider clothes so they can generate an income on their own. Those admitted to the program will be paid a small stipend while in school, and their children will receive a scholarship so they can continue their own studies, while their mothers complete their training.
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“Even if we just help 20 or 30 women a year, that’s so much,” said Reema. “Here in America, we are used to the idea of social change and we are lucky to grow up with a sense of, ‘OK, you don’t like it, so change it.’ I do believe that’s the American in me.”
Reema is quick to credit her grandmother for the inspiration. “My grandmother was extremely intelligent, but she grew up in India and she wasn’t allowed to study after the eighth grade, so she made sure that her daughters and granddaughters understood that education and financial independence equals power, especially for women,” she said. “This idea has been passed down from my family.”
That message also paved the path to professional success for Reema, who broke from family tradition when she opted not to pursue a medical degree. After graduating from New York University, she started working as a writer and publicist in the fashion industry in New York City, and later was hired to promote high-end brands in India for a top New York public relations firm. She had her first child, and started a side business selling luxury silk scarves and pashminas. But her original business plan, to mass produce products for retail, never panned out.
“That did not work because I knew nothing about retail or working with vendors in India,” said Reema, who embraces both her successes and her failures and uses the lessons learned to mentor students at Columbia University’s entrepreneurship startup lab. “I fell on my face tons of times.”
As her pashmina business evolved into a boutique product line for private clients, she started her own marketing consultancy, mostly working with startups in the fashion space.
“One of my clients, a finance and banking entrepreneur who was looking to connect with high-net-worth investors in India, asked me to look at his marketing material, and it was a turn into a new marketing focus,” she recalled. “I told him that he was marketing to wealthy clients, essentially making his company a luxury brand, and that his digital presence needed to reflect that. He introduced me and mentored me into specializing in marketing and PR for financial products internationally. He was very instrumental in helping me forge this path that has led me to be able to where I am today.”
Reema helped him reshape his brand image, craft public relations campaigns, and plan marketing events across India. It worked, and new clients — mostly New York-based investment banks and financial services firms looking to court Indian investors — starting rolling in.
Along the way, Reema, a proud, single mother of two, has remained passionate about helping other South Asian female entrepreneurs and learning their stories. She now serves as executive director of the trade association she founded, South Asian Young Women Entrepreneurs — or SAYWE.
“I started SAYWE because I was always connecting with South Asian women, who are just incredibly entrepreneurial, and I met this really great network of people,” she said. “I decided that there needed to be a resource for all of us.”
Empowered by education and fueled by social activism, Reema inspires her community every day. To hear her tell it, however, she gets much more than she gives.
“Everyone always says, ‘she’s so friendly or such a good mentor,’ but I promise you that I get way more out of talking with students and other entrepreneurs than they get from me. I just love their energy.”
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