Written by: Marcela Lessa
Paris, January, 2015. It is the middle of the night and a strange young woman knocks on Adam’s door. It is cold and there is no one else on the street anymore. Even though he is by himself at home, Adam feels the urge to welcome this person in for the night. She looks scared and alone, so he decides to lend her his daughter’s pajamas and makes her a warm cup of tea.
Yunus&Youth Fellow Sara Rajabli was 18 years old when she decided to go on a low-budget, solo trip across Europe. Passionate about other cultures and languages, Sara couldn’t wait for a chance to travel across the world, get completely out of her comfort zone, and break all the stereotypes she had learned growing up in a very traditional community.
On her first night, she had planned to wait in the Paris airport for her early-morning connection to Milan, not knowing that the airport would be closed and she would find herself in Paris at midnight with no money and nowhere to go. Desperate, she started knocking on door after door until, when she was about to lose hope, Adam welcomed her into her house. He offered her a spare bedroom in exchange for helping him practice his English skills. This was a life-changing experience for Sara, who learned just how courageous she could be.
Sara was born in Sumqayit, the third-largest city in Azerbaijan, located near the Caspian Sea, about 30 kilometers from the capital, Baku. She studied at the Azerbaijan Tourism and Management University (ATMU), and had traveled to Europe through the DAAD Foundation scholarship from the German Ministry of External Affairs to study at the Jade University of Applied Sciences (Jade Hochschule) in a small town called Wilhelmshaven, near Bremen, Germany.
Sara returned home a completely different person; during her time in Europe, she had studied, worked, traveled, and came into contact with the concept of social enterprises for the first time. During the next few years of college, she received ten short-term scholarships to learn about even more cultures in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Russia, Turkey, Sweden, Latvia, Belgium, Poland, Morocco, and France.
“Thanks to these projects, I learned that with the right approach to problems, passion to what we do and persistence, nothing is impossible for us! Through such programs, I could develop the necessary skills for every entrepreneur, like critical thinking, public speaking, negotiation, partnership building, networking, and intercultural communication. They also taught me how it is so important to invest in yourself, in your education, especially in travels, in your memories! Every project had its own impact on me and I am super grateful to all organizers and participants for those moments and memories”, shares Sara.
During her travels, Sara recognized how women were discriminated against just because of their gender; women with special needs, unfortunately, suffered even more. “I saw how people reacted when they saw people with special needs on the streets. I hate the word “disability”. I have never thought about these people as “disabled”. It is so comfortable and easy for most of us to ignore and to be indifferent, so we even forget how much we can learn from each other despite our differences.”, says Sara.
She felt compelled to take action on this issue and created her own social venture: Buta Art & Sweets. “This social business taught me that diversity is the best thing can happen in teamwork, and every day I learn so much from these women. I think, if you want to solve any problem, it is not necessary that it should be directly connected to your past experiences. It is enough to be empathic, it is enough to just be a human”, says Sara.
Buta Art & Sweets is a platform aimed at reducing unemployment among women with special needs through the sale of homemade sweets, prepared by them, to individuals and companies. There are more than 290,000 women with special needs in Azerbaijan, and 95% of them are unemployed. Buta Art & Sweets addresses social exclusion by empowering these women through training programs that provide them with an additional income.
“I understood I could not be indifferent. A lot of problems in our community come from people being indifferent”, explains Sara. She saw how much power these women had despite all the challenges they faced, and knew the strength of empathy and emotional support. She recognized that she could prove that by changing this mindset and demonstrating that these women actually have special skills, and not special needs, she would be able to connect to even more people.
In the beginning of her venture, Sara struggled to establish her business model and find the right market. There were already many well-established competitors in the pastry & bakery industry and her research found that people believed that sweets made by women with special needs would not be of good quality.
Today, Buta Art & Sweets employs 17 women with various special needs that make more than 20 types of delicious traditional sweets. In less than one year, the company broke even, building more than 30 successful partnerships, and proving that women with special skills can be successful entrepreneurs. Sara’s goal is not only to employ these women, but to teach them all the skills they need to run their own businesses and become financially independent. Sara’s fight is against indifference.