green sneakers
AKS Sneakers, vegan-embroidered sneakers made by women in Pakistan. (PHOTO: Courtesy)

Fairtrade green sneakers are the AKS founders’ answer to helping women improve their lives in Pakistan.

Today we are learning how we can help women in Pakistan to become more independent and invest in their daughters’ future. In 2019, a bill introduced by Pakistani female senator, Sherry Rehman, was passed in the Pakistani Senate to increase the minimum age of marriage for females from 16 to 18. The bill aimed to end child marriage in Pakistan with a focus on girls who are the most at risk.

In 2013, UNICEF estimated at 21% the number of girls who got married before the legal age.

Interview with Drakhsan Khan, co-founder of AKS Sneaker,

The 2014 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum ranked Pakistan as the second-worst country globally in gender equality after Yemen. Forced marriage is one of the causes of illiteracy and low education for girls.

Senator Sherry Rehman and the bill she sponsored. (PHOTO: COURTESY/ Sherry Rehman/Twitter)

In this article, we are talking with Drakhsan Khan, who has decided to be part of the solutions to change women's reality in Pakistan.

How did you start your entrepreneurial journey?

My name is Drakhsan Khan, and I am the co-founder of Purple Impressions [note of the editor, the company has been renamed AKS since this interview]. I founded the company with my sister. We have similar values, and I can’t think of a better partner than my own sister. Purple impressions started with being an artisan brand and we are branching out of that towards sustainable (green) sneakers. What we have done is connected farmers with artisans and factories, and we’ve brought them together to produce a clean sneaker.

When did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I never honestly thought that I would be an entrepreneur. My background is in finance and economics. You know, I love economics a little bit more; just studying communities and how we can uplift communities comes from that side of me. So social entrepreneurship, I guess it was a natural path to my calling I guess. And I love how the green sneakers turned out.

How did you get the idea to start a green sneaker company?

Oh, it’s a bit of an interesting story. We started our co-op with the apparel. One day, my sister and I traveled on a sourcing trip for the apparel and my sister needed shoes for herself. Being sustainable buyers ourselves, we were looking for just sustainable sneakers there. But what we found on the market were, very limited in variety and bland for our taste. So this crazy idea popped up in my sister’s head and she was and she told me, “You know, I really wish that we could put our artisans’ hand embroidery on sneakers.” And that’s really where the idea was born. Right there and then began a journey of now three years and our green sneakers are getting more and more popular.

What happened afterward?

What began as a business trip for our apparel, Purple Impression, ended in our coming up with a new idea. We are now phasing them out and branching more into the sneakers Fuse sneakers. The sneakers are kind of like a fusion of hand embroidery and a classic sneaker.

Drakshan Khan, woman wearing a scarf

Why did you choose Pakistan to create a sustainable green sneakers line?

Yeah, actually, it is a little bit of a personal story. I spent two years living in Pakistan when I was about eight or nine years old. I’ve lived in artisan and farming communities over there and I’ve seen the lack of gender equality in that country. And that was something very hard for me to see. I see myself in a place of privilege, and I wanted to give back to them in some way. And I guess just knowing what beautiful skills they have, it was just only natural for me to go back and use their skills in a creative way to produce our green sneakers.

What has been the impact of your company in Pakistan?

Yeah, so for us, really, the goal was to provide a clean product. I mean, we had been doing artisan goods for some time, but we were doing something new. When you are putting something as unique as hand embroidery on something, you want it to last. You want it to be meaningful. Something good that you can pass on to the next generation. I mean, traditionally, that is what hand embroidery was used for. So we wanted to make sure that whatever product we were producing had a clean supply chain. And thus, our green sneakers made all the sense.

When you say ‘good’ what do you mean?

So what we mean by that is good for the people and good for the planet. Again going back to the farmers. We decided to use organic cotton, which is tied very closely to women’s development. 80% of cotton pickers are women, and their health gets deeply affected, especially in cotton farming, through the pesticides that get used. That is why we decided to use organic cotton to make sure that the cotton pickers' health was taken care of. And our cotton is also fair trade certified. So again, we offer a fair price for the farmers. So that is one level of impact. On the second level, we have hand-embroidery where we have our own co-op that we use.

green sneakers
What makes our product good for the environment (PHOTO: Courtesy)

How else is your factory beneficial to the locals?

So all of the artisans are our own employees and we give them a fair wage for all the work they do for us. And at the third level, we have our factory partners. 10% of every shoe that we sell actually goes into garment work, the Carmen factory workers fund, very separate from the factory. Then that fund gets distributed for workers, kids, healthcare, education, and they have a full say on where that money gets spent. That ends up being three levels of impact through a purer and clean product. This is good for people who are producing green sneakers and for the planet and the people who are wearing them.

What does it look like to work in Pakistan?

The short answer would be that, just like any country, there are thriving cities that are more forward-thinking. So Pakistan is no different. There are cities in Pakistan that are where women are thriving and doing some great work. But at the same time, there are rural villages where there is a need for women’s development. It was interesting to me that Pakistan is amongst one of the four countries that lack gender equality.

women equality
In a 2020 survey, Pakistan ranked as the third-worst country in global rankings for gender equality according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020. (PHOTO: COURTESY)

The amount of child marriages in Pakistan is quite high. This is something that I can testify to because I have seen it and I also come from that community. So our work is very focused on that. There is a lot that can be done. Unfortunately, not a lot of people are going to Pakistan due to the perceived political climate. Honestly, I think I was able to give back, and I decided to do so. But the reality on the ground is different. You know, it is not as bad as what we hear.

There is some great tourism over in Pakistan. There are great opportunities there. There are amazing talents and a lot of Pakistan is undiscovered. So there is definitely an opportunity to do a lot more.

When you empower women economically to get out of poverty, it usually impacts the whole community. Is it the same in Pakistan?

Yeah, absolutely. We have definitely witnessed that. Whatever income our artisan women earn, they invest directly in their children or their family.

And our hope is that when we empower women financially, that money would be reinvested back in their daughters’ education. So the whole idea is to prevent child marriages and invest more in girls' education.

How did you decide on the go-to-market strategy?

So we used the crowdfunding campaign. We were able to raise $30000 from selling about like about 300 pairs of green sneakers. Remember, we are a small business and dealing with a handmade product that cannot be scaled very quickly. Crowdfunding for us was a little bit challenging. I find that crowdfunding works a lot better with more scalable products. But in terms of planning, it took us about two months to plan the campaign and put it all together.

What challenges did you experience?

Crowdfunding is definitely a great way to enter the market. There is no doubt about that. It served that purpose for us, but I would tell entrepreneurs not to fall for the million dollars raised. I mean to say that you have to have a scalable product to raise that kind of money. Cause you know, with handmade products, you are limited. So you have to how many orders you can take as well. Cause at the end of the day, you have to deliver on that promise of providing quality goods. So that is something to take into consideration. We ran the campaign for about 30 days.

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Who has inspired you to become a change-maker?

Yeah, my mom definitely has a big role to play in getting me where I am right now. I also believe our values come from our parents. But you know, whatever it is, your religion or your faith, it is just those inherent values that see right from wrong. That is really what it was that got me to make or start whatever I did.

How can people create an impact on the society they live in?

I want to leave people with if that fits in your head, go for it. You know, it is really a matter of taking that first step. That is really what it was for me.

I waited my entire life. I knew there was a problem in society when I was eight or nine years old. I think that is really when it all started for me. I waited for someone else to come solve the problem. It wasn’t really until I decided to step up and say, okay, that someone that I’m waiting for is me that I took that first step. So if you are thinking about it, you are passionate about it, that is really all that it takes.

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