When he came to Canada in 2010, Shoaib Rizvi experienced a culture in which women received support, resources, encouragement and were seen as a driving force in the country’s economic success. It was something he didn’t see much of back home in Pakistan.
Facing ridicule and opposition from his fellow countrymen, who thought he was wasting his time trying to help women create their own business ventures, Rizvi, a third-year Faculty of Information and Media Studies student, was not deterred.
“When I commit my mind to something, I go to the very end and achieve it,” said Rizvi, who returned from New York this past month where he had the opportunity to speak at the Youth Assembly at the United Nations. The 20-year-old was one of three exceptional youth – chosen from more than 700 applicants across 85 countries – to receive an Outstanding Youth Delegate Award.
It was four years ago when Rizvi began waging an uphill battle against the conventional patriarchy in Pakistan by initiating his ‘I Am an Entrepreneur’ campaign, which provides microloans and mentorship training to skilled women who have the passion and drive to start their own ventures, but lack the necessary resources.
“Truly this award is not for me, it’s for the all the women who have been part of this journey,” he said. “They are the backbone for all of this coming true.”
It was during Rizvi’s first trip back home to Pakistan – after spending two years of high school in the Toronto area – that he knew he had to act.
“It was the time when I needed to do something. I thought, if I could help just one woman … I never thought it would turn into a campaign,” he said, mentioning he first wanted to help a widow who lived in the urban slums of Karachi. After the death of her husband, she became financially dependent on her eldest son and with a simple microloan of $100 CAN, she was able to set up a thriving business as a cell phone credit provider.
“With that loan, and mentoring, she was able to set up this business, create a sustainable source of income and even send her daughter to school,” said Rizvi.
Other loans have gone to purchase a stitching machine for an embroidery business and a food cart to sell fries, he added.
Admittedly blind to the plight of such women growing up, Rizvi now knows what needs to be done if Pakistan wants to experience real development around gender equality.
Beyond the initial campaign, he is now investing in a shawl production vocational training program in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This training is complete and he is now in the process of linking the trainees to local shawl production businesses in the community to help find employment.
Rizvi is also helping to start a school in Sargodha, Punjab. While initially launched to educate girls, the school now includes boys and teaches young women and men about the opportunities available to them through basic literacy and gender equality.
“I encourage men to take action to make gender equality a reality,” said Rizvi. “For me, I am very close to my mother and father, and they have been so supportive of me throughout this journey. At times, I experienced great struggle but was able to persevere with inspiration from my mother and father who continued to believe in me. They set the example for me, so when I see a problem, it ignites me.”
With his plans to refuel a passion to bring change in communities around the world, Rizvi never thought his work would be taking hold in some of the most male dominated areas of Pakistan. His message includes the notion that women’s empowerment is not only a feminist concern, but requires collaborative action from social enterprises, NGOs, UN agencies, governments, banks, the private sector and, most importantly, men.
The women he has helped live difficult lives, and seeing how one loan can change the trajectory of their lives, and that of their children, motivates Rizvi to continue to grow his vision.
“I believe if a loan can empower a woman, it can empower a family; if we can empower a family, we can empower communities; if we can empower communities, then surely we can change the world,” said Rizvi, who hopes to continue working toward his broader long-term goal of one day establishing the first female micro-finance bank for underprivileged women in Pakistan.
“People talk about huge change but I think change starts small, with one person. It’s a part of me. It’s an extension of me,” he said. “If you can change one person, and one family, it is what I believe in. You just need to make that first step with your heart and mind and the doors of opportunity will open. When you see how lives change, how can you stop? Once you create hope in someone, once you give light to someone, you should never turn it off.”