Pakistan's 'Rising Stars'
Mahbina Waheed ‘95
Founder of Clayworks
By Debra Michals / Photographs by Insiya Syed / Getty Images
More than a thousand boys and girls attend the free schools opened by entrepreneur Mahbina Waheed '95. She hopes their education leads to a more tolerant, open-minded generation of thinkers and peacemakers.
Extremism and terrorism may be global threats, but from her hometown of Lahore, Pakistan, Mahbina Waheed ’95 is working on the kind of local solutions that could make a real difference. For six years Waheed and several friends have been raising the money to open five grade schools—in places like the remote and mountainous Swat Valley—which local children, who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity, can attend for free. She calls her initiative Rising Stars.
“The idea,” she says, “is to teach children to become critical thinkers and open-minded citizens who are productive members of society, are tolerant of other people and other religious beliefs and who can reach their own conclusions about the world around them.”
More than a thousand boys and girls (in roughly equal numbers) attend the schools, which are built on land donated by the communities they serve. The project began in 2009 as Waheed’s group initiated a fundraising effort. Each school costs about $28,000 per year to operate, and last year Rising Stars received an extra boost in the form of a three-year program grant from the Malala Education Fund, launched by Nobel Prize–winning activist Malala Yousafzai.
Entrepreneurship, whether in business or social causes, comes naturally to Waheed. In 1999, she founded a ceramics business called Clayworks, which creates colorful contemporary pottery (see “Feats of Clay”). Beyond achieving success as a business, Clayworks, since its start, has provided job training and employment opportunities—especially for women—that otherwise might not exist.
Running a business is no easy task, but Waheed is determined to also keep her focus on creating schools; for her, it’s a mission. The most important part of the schools is that they are free, she says. “In Pakistan, most good schools are not free, and in poorer regions, parents will send their children to madrasas (seminaries for religious instruction in Islam), where they learn to read the Quran and where they can get free food,” she explains. “But the madrasas are not regulated, so they can teach the children whatever they want.” Often the focus is exclusively on the Quran and Islamic law as interpreted by the madrasa, Waheed says, and that has led to erroneous or extremist representations of Islam.
Demographics in Pakistan—a nation of 190 million people—add urgency to the need to bring good schools to regions where there are none. “About 70 percent of the population of Pakistan is under age 30; if they are not getting an education that opens their minds and teaches them to think for themselves, we’re headed for problems,” Waheed says.
To build a student population, the Rising Stars team knocked on doors, convincing parents of the benefits of this free alternative to the madrasas. The group works particularly hard to persuade parents in this predominantly Muslim country to send daughters—a focus of the Malala Fund.
“The communities do want the girls to be educated, but after grade four or five, some parents worry about having boys and girls in the same classrooms due to propriety,” explains Waheed. After grade five, the Rising Stars schools have begun offering classrooms segregated by gender.
Waheed’s commitment to bettering her homeland dates back to her childhood. The daughter of a Pakistani diplomat, she at times lived in Europe, where her father’s role was to help promote Pakistan and where her mother organized events celebrating Pakistani culture. “Growing up with a father in the Foreign Service made me very patriotic,” she says. “I remember being at international student orientation for Smith saying that I wanted to make a change in Pakistan.”
The passion that comes with activism can be exhausting, but Waheed remains determined. “I’m not the kind of person who gives up,” she says. “There are days when it’s hard, and you wonder why you’re doing it, but for me, it’s just a fleeting thought because I enjoy what I do.”
When Mahbina Waheed ’95 founded Clayworks in 1999, it was partly to keep manufacturing jobs in her home country, and partly to offer a modern take on traditional Pakistani pottery. “I wanted to create jobs that would in turn put money into the economy, as well as a product that makes people happy,” Waheed says. Today Clayworks has annual sales of $700,000, with 400–500 designs and products from mugs to plates to tiles. Her client roster—including British chef Jamie Oliver—extends to military units, retail shops and hotels and restaurants seeking unique dinnerware.
Major: Economics and government
Senior House: Friedman
Influential Professor: Patrick Coby, Philip Green, Velma García and Greg White. “Their government classes were enlightening and mind-blowing. They showed me how politics function around the world.”
Lasting Influence: “We spent a lot of time in our houses, chatting away about global politics, feminism, current events. A lot of my friendships were formed in those conversations and around those issues.”
While she has long had a love for pottery, Waheed, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs, knew nothing about manufacturing when she started. She visited small pottery factories and asked lots of questions before finding a factory to make her first collection. It wanted bigger orders than she could provide, though, so with $20,000 from her mother and land owned by her father, Waheed launched her own factory and hired ceramics experts. Now she’s a ceramist and product designer in her own right. “Everything I know, I learned on the job,” she says.
Waheed is proud, too, of the company’s social value. She employs 40 workers and intends to expand the business as much as tenfold. She actively recruits women, who make up 30 percent of her workforce. “I am trying to build in systems to help women stay, to bring in the husbands so they see this is a fine place to work,” she says. “When I do hire women, they are better employees.”—DM
This story was originally published in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2017 and written by Debra Michael. Debra Michals, Ph.D., teaches women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College and is completing a book on the history of women entrepreneurs.