Popinjay: Bagging a Fair Day’s Pay

SLIDESHOW: Popinjay helps its artisans break the cycle of poverty by not only training them in an indigenous skill but providing them with fair-wage employment.

Billionaire.com interviews the founder of Popinjay, which has built itself into a leading producer of luxe women’s handbags and clutches while providing a fair wage to the Pakistani women who provide the beautiful embroidery for the bags.

Luxury handbag company Popinjay marries unique designs with a social consciousness. It has successfully built itself into a retail brand while maintaining its goal of providing fair wages to the Pakistani women who embroider the bags. We speak to its founder Saba Gul who gave up a high-paying job as an engineer in the US in order to embark on this very fulfilling adventure.

Melissa Lwee-Ramsay: How was the idea behind Popinjay conceived?
Saba Gul:
It started when I was in graduate school and I heard the story of a young Afghan girl, Azaada Khan, who disguised herself as a boy for 12 years to be allowed to attend school. Azaada changed her name, cut her hair, the way she dressed, walked and talked. I could not stop thinking about Azaada’s story — it was so real and raw. Even though I had grown up in next-door Pakistan, my life had taken a radically different course from Azaada’s: while Azaada had to change her identity to get a middle-school education, I was getting my second degree at MIT. That summer, I travelled to the community in Pakistan that was being helped by the same NGO that had enabled Azaada to get an education. I started a pilot to provide girls and women access to basic education and skills training. Eventually in 2011 I left a corporate job in the US to return to Pakistan and work on this full time. What Popinjay is today started as a pilot with 25 teenage girls in Attock in 2011, and got rebranded into the luxury, accessories fashion brand, Popinjay, in the fall of 2013.

Tell us more about the artisans that you work with at Popinjay.
At present, 150 women are learning the art of hand embroidery with silk or resham threads. Every morning, the women congregate for three to four hours at our beautiful community centre in Hafizabad, Pakistan, to embroider the motifs seen in each bag using silk threads. Popinjay pays our artisan women up to three times the market rate. Most of our artisans are women who were unable to get an education when younger due to a lack of financial resources, and lack marketable skills that would allow them to earn a living for themselves. Popinjay helps these women break the cycle of poverty by not only training them in an indigenous skill but providing them with fair-wage employment. Most importantly, they are able to earn their living with dignity, feel pride that their handiwork is sold across the world, and now see a path to self-sufficiency for themselves and their families. Earning money also gives these women confidence to contribute to important household decisions in this highly patriarchal community. The money they earn from being part of our programme is spent on education for their children, health care for their families, and basic household and food needs. Our artisan women are the raison d’être of Popinjay.

What is the unique selling point of Popinjay’s products?
Popinjay’s products are driven by two uniquely paired objectives: luxe design and global impact. In particular, Popinjay combines exquisite craftsmanship with ethical business to create one-of-a-kind handbags. Each Popinjay bag features a signature element: hand embroidery done in silk threads, that is then set in the finest leather. Through the sale of these handbags, the company enables livelihoods for our 150 women artisans in Pakistan, preserves traditional craft, and adds timeless style to the fashion-forward woman’s closet. We firmly believe that good fashion can also do good for the world.

What is the business model behind Popinjay?
Financial sustainability and ethical business are not duelling objectives but complimentary objectives at Popinjay. Without producing a profit, there would be no ethical business to run. Without an ethical business to run, there would be no way to turn a profit. We strike a delicate balance between these two objectives by having just the right amount of autonomy to maintain our ethical business standards while also holding ourselves accountable to shareholders’ expectations of a return on their investment.

Can you share with us some of Popinjay’s future plans?
We are excited about the possibility of diversifying the line to include apparel, tech accessories, or even shoes in the near future. In fact, we’ve already started to tinker with the option of offering smaller leather goods such as coin purses and wallets. Ten years down the road, Popinjay aims to offer more economic opportunities and training to skilled artisans around the world, not just those in Pakistan and not just in hand embroidery. Ultimately, Popinjay aspires to be a global brand that stands for justice and gender equality while creating inspired fashion pieces.


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Saba Gul (left) and some of Popinjay’s Pakistani artisan workers.

Saba Gul (left) and some of Popinjay’s Pakistani artisan workers.

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