When Jalila Bouchareb ’08 was 7 years old, she went for the first time to a hammam in Casablanca with her oldest aunt. A community steam room with separate areas for men and women, the hammam is a place where Moroccans go to detox and cleanse, including a vigorous head-to-toe scrubbing. “It may feel uncomfortable at first, but I went with my aunt who had been doing this her whole life,” she says. “I think it’s one of those things that you accept and start to enjoy.”
Bouchareb grew up thousands of miles away from Casablanca in Rock Island, Illinois, a small Midwest town surrounded by cornfields. But her father was from Morocco and her mother from Switzerland. Entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry, they had followed one of Bouchareb’s uncles to the Midwest to run their own business. To some in her community, Bouchareb had a strange background. “People didn’t know where Morocco was,” she says.
Bouchareb, however, would spend most summers traveling with her family to her parents’ homelands, one year vacationing in Morocco and the next in Switzerland. As Bouchareb and her two brothers grew older, sometimes her parents would split for the summer and let the kids choose which country to visit. “I loved going to Morocco,” says Bouchareb. “I like the culture, how warm the people are. There is a rustic beauty, and everything is very colorful, from the rugs to the pottery to everything you use on a daily basis.”
Bouchareb’s deep connection with her Moroccan roots helped inspire Amal Oils, the company she founded in 2010 that sells beauty products based on ancient Moroccan customs and made by local women. While studying at Babson, Bouchareb was introduced to social entrepreneurship, and upon graduating she wanted to found a socially responsible, sustainable company. At first she went to Peru, where a friend lived, to explore the idea of creating a micro-lending firm, but she quickly realized that the learning curve of a new language and culture was too steep. So she decided to go back to what she knew and felt comfortable with, the country and people of Morocco.
To explore ideas for a business, she traveled through Morocco for several months with a guide to help her with the languages. (In Morocco, people speak Arabic, French, and Berber languages, says Bouchareb, who speaks French and understands some Arabic.) “People thought I was a little crazy, doing a road trip to these rural areas,” she says, “but I was meeting wonderful women along the way.”
In one region where native argan trees grow, she encountered a beauty oil made by a women’s cooperative. The women would harvest and dry fruit from the argan trees, remove the skin to retrieve a nut, crack the nut to get at the small kernel inside, and press that kernel to extract its oil. The resulting liquid was then filtered and decanted to remove impurities before bottling. Moroccan women use the oil, which is naturally rich in vitamins and antioxidants, to enrich and restore their hair and skin.
The village where the women live was tiny, with dirt roads and clay buildings, and the women sold their product when the market was open and they had time to spare from their families. “There wasn’t a strong commerce going on in this town, but the women were really trying to do something,” says Bouchareb. The cooperative had been granted space to produce their goods, but what they needed was help with distribution. “At the time, the U.S. market for oils and beauty products was growing,” says Bouchareb, who decided this was the business for which she’d been searching. So she founded Amal Oils (amal means hope in Arabic) to sell the cooperative’s argan oil to the U.S. market.
Since starting the company, Bouchareb has helped the cooperative grow from eight women to more than 30, and she has expanded its offerings to include beauty products typical of other Moroccan customs. For instance, the company sells soaps, masks, and scrubs used in the hammam. To connect with the women and keep up on the business, Bouchareb tries to travel to Morocco twice a year. She also trained a cooperative member to handle the financing and accounting.
Besides paying the women for creating the products, Bouchareb donates a percentage of her profits to the cooperative. “Part of my intention was to allow the women to grow their own business and understand how to manage that growth,” she says. The money has been used to buy a machine to help with cold pressing the oil; the women also have given back to their community by helping build a school and park with the profits. “Oftentimes, these women are making more than their husbands,” says Bouchareb, “which doesn’t happen very often in Morocco.”
Although business initially had been strong, competition has made sales more difficult of late. Bouchareb has other commitments that demand her time as well, including a full-time job at Burger King headquarters. She also co-founded a new online apparel company, Quina, which sells T-shirts made from Peruvian cotton. So she admits that she’s not sure what the future looks like for Amal Oils, noting U.S. demand will play a big factor. To spur demand, she connects the women with other companies around the world interested in their products.
“I like helping these women see the impact that earning money can have on their lives,” she says. “They found a product and skill that they can do, and it has helped them come out of a not so desirable situation. It is very powerful, being able to see other people become entrepreneurs and contribute in some small way to somebody else’s success.”
Sharing Skills, Unearthing Talents
Growing up in New Delhi, one of the world’s most populated cities, gave Gayatri Jolly ’11 a sense of gratitude and appreciation for what she has been given in life. The prosperous and cosmopolitan capital also is home to numerous migrants who come in search of work and better access to an education. With little to call their own, many of these migrants live in the infamous slums scattered throughout the heart of the city. “People live in 10-by-10-foot homes, and up to 10 family members are sharing that space,” says Jolly. “They don’t have electricity. They don’t have clean drinking water. They may only get one meal a day, and it may not be nutritious. They don’t have access to health care.”
Jolly doesn’t just know of the slums. She has connected with people in these communities for more than 10 years as a volunteer for Adharshila, the NGO her mother co-founded. Adharshila aims to improve the lives of New Delhi’s underprivileged people, mainly women, through such initiatives as free skill development, health care, and education. In high school when her mother started the NGO, Jolly and her sister would help in whatever way was needed. Sometimes they would assist with technology, such as using Word to create a funding proposal. Other times they would help set up for an event, such as a festival or holiday celebration. Often, they would go into the communities to persuade skeptical residents to attend the free classes.
When Jolly came to the States to attend Babson, she began looking at the NGO through the lens of entrepreneurship. “Being surrounded by so many ambitious students, you start thinking in an entrepreneurial manner,” she says. “It made me realize that I needed to empower these women and help give them the opportunity to start their own businesses. Because what differentiates me from these women is opportunity. It’s not that they can’t do it. They need the means.”
One of the many programs offered by Adharshila is cutting and tailoring, a common service in New Delhi. “In India you have access to tailors who come to your home for a lot less money than it would cost in the U.S.,” says Jolly. Fashion was always a passion of Jolly, who remembers experimenting with her own designs for clothes as a youth. She would come up with a concept, buy materials, and then the family tailor would make the outfit. “Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it was a disaster,” she says. She and a cousin talked about one day going to Paris and New York City to be fashion designers.
After graduating from Babson, Jolly, following her interests, talked to her mother about creating an entrepreneurship development program at Adharshila, starting with the cutting and tailoring class. In addition to basic skills, the new program would give the women sewing machines and offer mentoring. “We’d talk to them about how much money to charge for what they are making, what labor and fabric are worth, how to reach out to customers and get more business, how to make sure their quality is good,” says Jolly.
While working closely with the program, Jolly also came to a self-realization. “I needed to give design a chance,” she says. After graduating from Babson, she had worked with her father in the family business for a year and a half, and he had trained her in all aspects of how the business operated. But she knew that she wanted to study fashion. “In India, people used to think if you’re going into the arts, you must not be good at anything else,” she says. “But my father believed in me and said I’ll invest in you.”
She applied to and has since graduated from Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York City, and she has her own design firm, Gayatri Jolly. Focusing on costume design, she counts singers, DJs, and other artists as her typical clients. “I’ve started developing a brand,” she says. “I love seeing the journey of other artists and translating that into a garment.”
Jolly has brought the skills she honed at Parsons to Adharshila as well. On her first summer break back in New Delhi, she met with the NGO’s teachers and updated the curriculum for the cutting and tailoring program, creating two sections, one for basic skills and another for advanced, and she taught the teachers the techniques she had learned. While at Parsons, she organized donations for Adharshila, collecting tools and fabric scraps from students and mailing them to India. After graduating, she started conducting workshops on subjects such as draping, embellishment, and how to deconstruct old garments to create new items. She also is bringing a design perspective into the curriculum at the request of the participants.
The women participating in the program show tremendous promise, notes Jolly. She recalls a woman’s day held by the NGO that was sponsored by Air India. The airline donated 10 saris worn by their in-flight hostesses, and Jolly challenged the advanced cutting and tailoring group to use the uniforms to create as many outfits as possible with no waste. The women came up with 15 outfits, which were then showcased in a fashion show featuring women pilots from Air India. “The women who had designed the clothes came down the runway holding hands with the women pilots,” says Jolly. “Everyone in the audience started clapping. After that, there was this aura of confidence from the women in the program.”
Knowing the importance of having someone who believes in you, Jolly offered an internship at her studio to one promising young woman who wanted to study design but couldn’t afford school. “She already had learned the basics from our program. I’d seen her and trusted her and invited her to intern,” she says. “But she spoke to her family, then came back and said she didn’t want the job. Her family wasn’t behind her. It was heartbreaking.”
In some communities, women are not encouraged to be independent, says Jolly. “We once had to move out of a community overnight because the men didn’t like what we were doing and it was unsafe,” she says. “But that is not typical. Like with any outsider, people are wary, but then they warm up once they understand that we’re not going to take anything from them. We just want to give. Come once, and let us show you what we can teach you.”
Jolly hopes to offer women the chance to use their talents in her collections one day, noting how women from different parts of India bring unique skills, such as embroidery and weaving, from those regions. “They have these skills, but they don’t think they have value. So the skills are becoming extinct,” she says. “I want to encourage them and help them get jobs. I’ll do workshops and have them do different mock-ups. It provides me with inspiration, and when they make products for me, I pay them. They get to use their creativity, and I try to show them, this craft is coming from you.”
Staying Put, but Coming Home
Esmeralda Lambert, MBA’11, grew up in the Dominican Republic with entrepreneurial parents. When Lambert was a toddler, her father, a former national cycling champion and civil engineer, and mother opened a retail bicycling shop, Aro & Pedal, in Santo Domingo where they lived. Lambert, the second of five children, remembers helping out in the store from a young age. “My older sister and I worked at the shop every summer and Christmas,” says Lambert. “I was about 8 years old, and we used to fill up the tires with an air pump. And at Christmas, when people would leave the store, we had to ask for the invoice and confirm their orders.”
Focused on high-end gear, the shop flourished and today has five locations as well as its own line of products. When Lambert was 15, she sometimes traveled to trade shows in the U.S. with her father to meet with vendors. Having studied English for years, she acted as a translator for her Spanish-speaking father. Upon graduating from high school, Lambert worked full time for the company, earning her undergraduate degree in business in the usual four years by attending classes at night. Although her days were long, often ending in the early morning hours, she loved being able to apply many of the concepts she learned to her job.
Lambert’s father had started her as a cashier, but she slowly worked her way through the company, taking on various roles. She helped out in the computer department and then moved into international purchasing, again traveling with her father and acting as a translator with vendors. “I learned a lot,” she says. “My father is an amazing negotiator.” She moved into accounting, then operations, and then sales, each time improving the company’s performance.
Four years out of college, she was ready for her next challenge and came to Babson to earn an MBA. “My parents were like go get your MBA, and then come back to the Dominican with fresh ideas, with a new way of doing business, and we’ll start something new,” she says.
But a kink ended the plan: Lambert fell in love with classmate Matt Lambert, MBA’11. “I was afraid to tell my father that I wasn’t coming back. He’s such a good negotiator, I thought he would convince me to go back,” she says, laughing. “He only had one request, that the first week of every year I be in the Dominican. It’s Three Kings Day and the busiest season for my parents’ business.”
Lambert agreed. She and Matt were married and settled in Medford, Massachusetts, and Lambert took a job as a product manager at a nearby company. That holiday season, as promised, the couple traveled to the Dominican to help out with the rush. The visit left Lambert’s mind racing with ideas. “It was so empowering to be in the family business again,” she says. “It was so much work, because you work crazy hours, but it was so different than my work here. I went from this calm, 9-to-5 job to this week in my parent’s crazy business. It was so invigorating.”
On the plane ride home, Lambert told her husband that she intended to start her own business. He asked in what, and she answered, jewelry. “Everybody always compliments my jewelry, and it’s all made by women in the Dominican, and I had so many people that wanted to buy what I was wearing, so I’m going to start a jewelry company,” she says. “Matt said OK. Literally, that’s how it started.”
While still in flight, the two wrote some ideas on their iPad, and during a layover in North Carolina, Lambert called her mother. “I said, ‘Hey, mom, I’m starting a business.’ She asked, ‘In what?’ And then I told her, and mom said, ‘I love the idea, this is perfect. We can start with jewelry, then we go into purses, to belts.’ In two seconds, she had an idea of a whole big brand,” says Lambert. “I was like OK, OK, let’s start with jewelry.”
Lambert’s business has come a long way since its inception. Working with her mother, Lambert has hired seven artisans in the Dominican Republic who collaborate with her on designs and make the jewelry. Lambert realizes that she easily could have found artisans closer to her U.S. home, but she wanted a business with ties to her roots. “I told my husband that I came to Babson to start my business in the Dominican,” she says. “There is so much talent there, and there are so many really good people who just needed the chance.”
For the first few years, Lambert sold her collection through her website as well as craft fairs and festivals. She also negotiated her way into 30 retail stores. This fall, she is branching out, opening a retail store in Harvard Square, Cambridge. She is looking forward to having a place not only to showcase her products but also to interact with customers. “I want to hear directly from the people who are wearing my jewelry,” she says.
As the company grows, Lambert hopes to hire more Dominican artisans. To that end, she has established a system in which lead artisans can hire and train other artisans as needed. “The whole idea is for these women to be able to get other women within their communities to grow our network. The lead artisans will manage their teams,” says Lambert. “These women are so talented, but it was tough for them to actually make a living out of this. We help them earn a steady income.”
A longer term goal is to be in a position where she can donate 10 percent of the business’s profits to a worthy cause in her homeland. Lambert has seen poverty, she says. Both her parents grew up in low- income families in the countryside, which she visited as a youth and remembers fondly. But she hasn’t seen the extreme poverty that she knows also exists. “I have an aunt who has dedicated her life to helping people,” she says. “She goes to places where kids have literally nothing and helps out directly. I hope with this new venture we’re able to do that. Who knows, if I go with my 10 percent, maybe I can motivate others to go and help, too.”