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How the Founder of Free Women Built Her Business as a Refugee in Utah

As a young woman in Afghanistan, Hanifa Javadi dreamed of owning her own business. Every day at 5 a.m., she would sit next to her in-laws and meticulously hand-weave a rug for the next 15 hours.

Seven years passed like this, and Javadi never received any income from his work.

“All day I was working. Like a cage,” says Javadi.

More than a decade later, Javadi, now 35, is the owner and founder of Free Women, a tailoring and crafts business based in Salt Lake City, Utah. It became a successful stampede for Javadi and its employees. From 2020 to 2021, Free Women has grossed $130,000 and employed nearly 30 refugee women.

“To me, money is freedom,” says Javadi, who spoke to Grow from her home in Utah on a freezing spring day. “That’s why I put Free Women…right now I’m free.”

Hanifa Javadi at her home in Utah.

Tasia Jensen

“I like to create something that we can use”

Javadi and her three children arrived in the United States in 2016 as refugees from Afghanistan. They settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. Shortly after, she divorced her husband, who did not travel with them to the United States, ending a marriage that began for both of them when they were children.

During his first two years in Utah, Javadi worked odd jobs around the clock, taking night and early morning shifts, and driving for Uber in his spare time. She was earning less than $2,000 a month.

“For two years, I had a lot of problems,” she says in tears. “I never see my children.”

Eventually, she landed a full-time job at a high-end tailor in 2018. Still, she struggled to run her own business. “I love to create,” says Javadi. “I like to do something that we can use.”

She formed an LLC and attempted to start her own sewing shop twice. Both times she failed to make the business sustainable.

Then in 2020, she met Melissa Sevy, the founder of Ethik Collective, a for-profit company that bridges artisans with a global marketplace for handmade goods.

“My business started with Melissa,” says Javadi. “Everything changes.”

“People need jobs”

Sevy started her own artisan partnership business almost 15 years ago, while working as a public health educator in Uganda. After several sessions in a course on the impact of soap and disease prevention, she realized that many participants could not even afford to buy soap.

“What we realized is that before we can even talk about soap and access to healthcare, people need jobs,” says Sevy. “We had really come up with a solution that didn’t take into account the real context of what was happening.”

Melissa Sevy (left) of Ethik Collective shares a laugh with Javadi (right).

Tasia Jensen

It’s a trap that plagues the global development industry, where money is poured into projects, sometimes leading to questionable results. For example, researchers from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management have found evidence that NGOs can “crowd out” local government-provided services, making villagers worse off.

So, in 2009, Sevy launched the Mabira Collective in Uganda, a group of artisanal women with a mission to pay its workers fair wages. As the collective grew and prospered over the years, Sevy struggled to make the model profitable for herself.

When companies started approaching her for personalized corporate gift orders, a light bulb went on. “Artisan groups around the world have very similar issues where they have beautiful crafts but don’t have access to the global market,” she says. “If we can be that connection point, we can do it.”

Javadi visits two Afghan refugee women in their homes to teach them about a free women’s project.

Tasia Jensen

She created Ethik Collective, which has since grown to include 40 groups from around the world. From 2020 to 2021, the company has worked with nearly 3,000 artisans, creating 108,909 fairly paid workdays and 555,639 craft products.

“We do business globally and value our partners as business partners, not charities,” Sevy says of Ethik’s mission to promote dignity on all sides of its society. business model. “They are not recipients, and we are not donors.”

“This company is not just my company, this company is our company”

In early 2020, when global supply chains, travel and more came to a standstill due to the pandemic, Sevy met Javadi in his home state of Utah and the two went to work .

Sevy brought Javadi two large custom orders for a Utah-based company. During 2020 and 2021, 29 refugee and Javadi women assembled 12,500 charm necklaces and produced 10,000 small cork bags.

“Sewing is the thing in Afghanistan. All the women, they know how to sew,” says Javadi. This makes it a ideal for Afghan refugee women who have young children at home or who are unable to work in traditional jobs due to cultural and language barriers.

Javadi at work in his new office.

Tasia Jensen

Of the $130,000 that Ethik Collective donated to Free Women for the two projects, each craftsperson received an average of $2,100 per project. Javadi won nearly $23,000.

“[To] all the women that work with me, I say, ‘This business is not just my business, this business is our business’,” she says.

Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, Utah has resettled 900 Afghan refugees, the largest refugee resettlement effort the state has undertaken. As Free Women expands, Javadi and Sevy hope to employ more women and provide them with more consistent work.

In April 2022, Javadi went part-time to the high-end tailor and moved into her own office in Salt Lake City. She continues to fulfill orders from other businesses and her Etsy store, FreeWomenCo.

“I feel power,” she says. “It’s been my dream, for a long time, for 20 years, finally I get it.”

After a day of fulfilling orders for her Etsy shop, an interior design company, and delivering Christmas decorations to women in their homes, Javadi ends her day. “I’m still scared, you know, if I wake up, it’s all a dream,” she laughs as she drives. “I hope it’s not, it’s real.”

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