Educating a nation: Seema Aziz is giving Pakistani children a brighter future
Businesswoman and philanthropist Seema Aziz has changed thousands of lives through her vision that it is every child’s right to have an education. Through the Care Foundation, she gives the children of Pakistan a brighter future, Samar Al Sayed writes
Her children have long left school, but hundreds of thousands more can thank a Pakistani philanthropist and businesswomen for their own education.
At 63, Seema Aziz continues to run her business and foundation with equal passion.
“Some told me education would do these children no good,” says Ms Aziz. “But I knew that equipping them with a future would be better than just giving them temporary resources that they may never cultivate.”
In the late 1980s, Ms Aziz visited villages in the Punjab, which had been destroyed in floods.
“I had never witnessed such devastation and poverty at close proximity,” she says.
“Thousands of villages had been totally wiped out.”
“A group of us went to a village to see how we could help. Our business was still very small. We had experienced limited monetary success at the time, but I had witnessed such horrors in the aftermath of the floods that I decided I wanted to give these children something that no flood can ever take away.”
The result was the Care Foundation – Cooperation for Advancement, Rehabilitation and Education – that now has 177,000 children enrolled in schools across Pakistan.
Ms Aziz, who was in Dubai last month as part of the judging panel for the million-dollar Hult Prize for education, says that schooling was always a priority for the people she was trying to help.
“Many women from these villages had, in fact, urged me to abandon the idea of building houses and focus on getting a school built in the area.”
The first school was set up on January 17, 1991, with just 250 children enrolled.
“By the following year, the number increased to 450, then 800 the year after that,” she says.
The fees were set at 10 rupees (60 fils), because Ms Aziz “did not want any child to grow up thinking they were educated on charity”.
“We firmly believe it is their right and duty,” she says.
“More than 80,000 have cleared their matriculation exams and graduated over the years, and we have never looked back.”
Care builds and runs its own schools, with no government or donor funding. In 1998, the government invited Care to adopt 10 failing state schools.
“We managed to turn these schools around and enrolment increased by several hundred per cent,” says Ms Aziz.
“Through our espousal of state institutions, we helped to pioneer public-private partnership for the first time.”
Care runs 270 schools, with another 100 holding evening classes.
“Each school is different in the way it was set up. The very first school we had built, for instance, was in a village with no electricity or sewerage systems,” says the philanthropist.
Twenty years later, about 2,000 boys and girls are enrolled in that school.
The first medical student to have finished his studies there went on to attend King Edward Medical University in Lahore, an acclaimed medical college in the country.
More than 25 million children are out of school in Pakistan, which has the second lowest literacy rates in the world, a situation that has been declared an emergency by the United Nations.
How much support the Care Foundation gets from her business empire is something Ms Aziz is uncomfortable talking about.
“We don’t like to discuss that aspect,” she says.
But if the reported 1 per cent of revenues is correct, it means a substantial sum.
Her company, Bareeze, is Pakistan’s fastest-growing women’s wear chain, and has expanded into countries, including the UAE and the UK.
Growing up in a middle-class family with no business background, she and her brother faced obstacles when setting up the textiles firm.
“There was no concept of brand in Pakistan when my brother and I started out,” says Ms Aziz, who graduated from the University of the Punjab, and later from Harvard Business School.
“We wanted to make and sell local fabrics that are equal in quality to the best in the world. My father and many others were sceptical of the idea, saying I was mad to think we could ever rival premium brands, but we continued in our path.
“We wanted to bring Pakistani textiles to the international scene and market them to be as good as any other label.”
Through Bareeze, which runs under her umbrella company Sefam, the siblings design, make and sell their fashion ware and have since gone on to create 11 brands.
With 460 outlets in Pakistan, five in the UAE and three in the UK, the multimillion dollar business is thriving.
In 1994, she took her business to Dubai. “We now have one store in Abu Dhabi, one in Sharjah and three in Dubai,” says Ms Aziz, whose mother is a silent partner in the business.
“Though Bareeze and Care are run separately, I juggle the same type of managerial skills in the day-to-day operations of both projects, and in equal measure, to keep them going.” The Hult Prize is the world’s largest student competition, and aims to find budding entrepreneurs to solve the world’s pressing social issues.
Ms Aziz was one of 12 judges who helped to select a team in the first round and chaired the decision for the final round of the prize, which will be announced by former US president Bill Clinton in September.
She says: “I met a senior member of the Hult Prize at a retreat in Maryland, who then asked me to become a judge.”
Ahmad Ashkar, chief executive and founder of the prize, says he chose Ms Aziz as the “unofficial authority in this domain”.
“Who else has put more than a quarter of a million children through school and had the poor outperform the rich?,” says Mr Ashkar.
“She not only built a commercial empire through Sefam, but pioneered education for the poor. Most people wrote off poorer parents, accusing them of choosing to send their children to the field instead of school.
“Seema helped these parents prove them wrong. She created an education system that serves as more than just a daycare centre.”
He says: “Seema served as our anchor social enterprise expert for education for the prize. She worked with business experts to select the Gulf region winners for this year.”
Mr Ashkar predicts Ms Aziz’s huge effect on education in Pakistan, combined with business success both at home and abroad, will lead to much more international recognition.
“Seldom do you meet someone who is as successful in philanthropy as they are in enterprise,” he says.