Tarsian & Blinkley - How We Work
THE INCUBATION OF AN IDEA
The idea of Tarsian & Blinkley was first born in March of 2000 when Sarah Takesh went on a jeep trek to the Northern Territories of Pakistan and saw the phenomenal impact created by the various projects of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). The communities supported by the AKDN were islands of tolerance and relative prosperity surrounded by poor and inwards looking communities forced to take handouts from “bad” sources, namely the Wahabi missionaries that spread an ugly, fundamentalist vein of Islam through their religious schools. In these isolated mountain valleys, poverty and economic limitations created a vacuum that could be filled by any form of aid. The source of that aid made all the difference in the way the community evolved. Takesh was deeply inspired to work in economic development and live in the region she had become so enamored of, but with no experience in the non-profit world, it had to be on her own terms -- as a designer and businessperson.
Having a particular soft spot for Afghans due to her own Iranian tribal ancestry, Takesh was planning on starting her handicrafts business in Peshawar, Pakistan where there was a very large number of Afghan refugees. Her essential belief is that war-ravaged and displaced people need straight financial assistance, in other words, MONEY IN THE FORM OF CASH, before anything else, to get them out of a repeated cycle of poverty and suffering.
9/11 made it possible to actually work inside of Afghanistan.
ALLIANCE WITH A LOCAL NON-PROFIT
Takesh came to Afghanistan in the summer of 2002 and discovered Maharat (formerly the Afghan Women’s Vocational Skills Learning Center), a local Afghan-operated non-profit organization that gave vocational training, mostly in the form of tailoring courses, to local women. The distinguishing feature of Maharat from the dozens of other Kabul non-profits, both local and international, was that it was operated by an actual master tailor who had an in-depth understanding of garment construction and quality.
Traditionally, Afghan women do not know how to sew but only to embroider. Yet the demand to learn is great because it allows them to bypass the tailoring shop and save a great deal of money on the majority of their garments, which are custom-made rather than bought off the rack. Maharat has a solid reputation amongst its alumni and to date, has graduated 6000 women in both Peshawar, Pakistan and Kabul since its inception in 1998.
When Maharat has funding, it is able to not only waive the 2 ½ month course fee of about $16, but offer stipends to the groups of women that attend. Otherwise, it has managed to operate on this very modest course fee.
Takesh began to work with Maharat’s network of women and tailors to create Tarsian & Blinkley’s collections. From the beginning, the relationship was a good one and two organizations have grown together over the years.
Tarsian & Blinkley’s philosophy revolves around the following ideals
To create beautiful garments that integrate, in a very modern fashion, the elaborate handicrafts talents of Afghan women, “transcend the category” of common ethnochic fashions, and link East and West at a unique level of artistry
To constantly pump money through the hands of a group of people who would otherwise have little or no access to income-earning due to poor education and low social standing
To place proper monetary value on the demanding work of embroidery and compensate female embroiderers in ways that will win them higher status in their own families and communities
FOR-PROFIT VS. NON-PROFIT STRUCTURE
Tarsian & Blinkley was incubated out of the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Business where “social entrepreneurship” was a primary topic area. The category of social entrepreneurship could include non-profits, but more importantly encouraged the creation of for-profit businesses that could demonstrate true sustainability through a genuinely integrated model of social and profit objectives. It is fashionable for non-profits to tout the “sustainability” line, but when push comes to shove, can still apply for “free money” in the form a foundation grant or private donation. Tarsian & Blinkley, as a for-profit, cannot do this. It is a difficult position, with the adverse circumstances of both the fashion arena and of Afghanistan, but it has also been a very rewarding one. As of January 2006, Tarsian & Blinkley has not made a cent of profit, but has managed to break even, create beautiful things, impress difficult customers, and keep a pool of workers and their families in Afghanistan fed and happy.
HOW WE WORK
Every morning, embroiders from different neighborhoods in Kabul stream into the Tarsian & Blinkley embroidery distribution room. The Tarsian & Blinkely production assistants match each embroiderer’s particular area of skill with the work available that day. Since there are, at any given time, 15 different styles representing varying embroidery needs under production, the matchmaking is a rather tricky and organic process.
The embroiderers leave with cut pieces of sleeves, collars, pant legs -- whatever portion of the garment that needs to be worked on -- along with the embroidery thread and/or beads, crochet yarns, sequins, etc. They are given between 2-6 items to work on so that they are earning a reasonable amount of money for their round trip commute. Kabul has terrible public transport and travel around the city is very taxing on all.
They return in days, a week, or sometimes even two weeks, with the finished product(s). More regular workers are smart enough to return every other day, or send one of their clansmen, because the emergence of new cut pieces is erratic, happening in ebbs and flows. Each embroiderer is paid on the spot for her work. Each month, Tarsian & Blinkley distributes THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS in cash to its workers. Due to the high demand for work and the never-ending flow of new workers that come in seeking employment, we tend to over-produce and carry inventory, which is definitely not good for-profit practice, but a fact of life for our situation.
The embroidered pieces are collected, assembled into production bags by the assistants, and given to the tailors for sewing. We have 1 cutter and 5 tailors in house who do all of our tailoring, and about 100 women working at home at any given time. Hundreds more have come and gone, working part time or based on their personal schedules. Such a set up is the only way to work with women in a society such as Afghanistan where women need to be close to the home and mindful of domestic duties.
Tarsian & Blinkley estimates that it currently benefits about 1000 individuals, both directly and indirectly, though its production work, and has to date, benefited many more if the total number of rotating workers is accounted for.
Tarsian & Blinkley has many social objectives that it would like to embed into its programs. These include:
- Putting about 100 women through a rigorous enough training process to transform them into factory-ready tailors. They would then be placed as in-house workers for the new Tarsian & Blinkley garment factory that is currently under construction at the Bagrami Industrial Park
- Making literacy compulsory for the long term and talented but illiterate women
- Creating a day care so that the women who pick up work from Tarsian & Blinkley would feel comfortable bringing their children to the embroidery distribution center rather than leaving them at home under possibly poor attendance
- Providing the regularly visiting embroiders with a commute allowance
- Creating an emergency fund for the very poor workers, usually widows or those with sick husbands, who face unmanageable burdens and cause undue suffering when they are unable to work. Would be named the “Roya Fund” after a particular women who was an excellent embroiderer but passed away, leaving her family virtually destitute
As not-very-profitable for-profit business, Tarsian & Blinkley cannot engage in these welfare activities with its own very limited and performance-oriented cash supplies. Rather, it will seek to register Maharat in the US as a 501 c3 organization that can raise funds to help with such projects, projects that have immediate and measurable impact on a clearly identified group of people.