Shaherazad Umbreen poses with some of her models
Social entrepreneur Shaherazad Umbreen measures her company’s success not by the number of shoes she sells but by the number of women she helps, as Bryce Wilcock reports…
Shaherazad Umbreen is a real social entrepreneur. As founder of Shoes by Shaherazad, she donates 10% of her profits to help support women living in poverty across the globe. “For me, doing good deeds is the reason for being here,” she says when asked why she invests so heavily in CSR.
“It's the reason I set up my business and the reason I will ensure it continues to grow. In the last 12 months, I have supported 700 women in Pakistan, Peru, Kenya, Palestine and Sudan to gain an education to help lift themselves out of poverty.
“That's the best motivation I can think of. My target for this year is now to support 1,000 women and ultimately to grow the business so that I am helping girls and women in all countries where there is poverty.”
Shoes by Shaherazad is a footwear retail business which handcrafts ladies heels right here in the UK. The shoes are plain by day and then become sparkling by night through shoellery (shoe jewellery), a concept designed to take ladies from the boardroom to the bar.
But that’s not all. The shoes are also designed to be comfortable for up to 18 hours, through a technology inspired by how flamingos stand on one leg, and profits from every pair also support women and girls living in poverty to gain an education.
“My shoes are unique and innovative in a number of ways,” she explains. “Firstly, they are a desk to dancefloor shoe which can be worn plain by day and then turn sparkly by night through shoellery.
“The development of the heels was very challenging though. Understanding how to create a heel that allows women to stand for up to 18 hours with poise, grace and elegance took a lot of hard work, trial and error and innovation.
“I got there in the end however and the development was well worth it. I love my heels and wear them most days. My customers also love them. 60% of my customers come back and buy a second or third colour they are so delighted with the results.”
Prior to launching the business, she spent many years working for brands such as Boots, Superdrug and Comet. However, when she came up with the idea to launch Shoes by Shaherazad, she decided to quit her day-job and enrolled at the London College of Fashion. It was here where she learned how to sketch and bring her designs to life.
It took two years for her to master the designs but as she recalls, it was well worth it. “I've always been more of an intrapreneur than an entrepreneur,” she said. “Mainly because having a steady income through working for a large company is so appealing.
“I studied English and cognitive science at university and then went in to business management. I was a sales manager, then a store manager, then an area manager, and then got a head office buying role in fashion. I also headed up a customer and marketing function which gave me skills in strategy, business planning and finance.
“I had been thinking of launching my own business for some time and when I turned 40 last year, I knew that it was the time to give it a go if I didn't want any regrets - and there are no regrets here! I'm so glad I started up my business. It's such satisfying work, particularly since my motivation is the philanthropic aspect of the business. I've always wanted to find a way for women to empower women. So "good deed heels" does that for me.”
And it wasn’t just fashion college which gave her the platform to grow the business. She added: “Creating good designs is essential but having great business knowledge is a pre-requisite for a successful footwear business.
“My previous experience helped me to create a successful business plan; think through my processes carefully, raise cash to invest and build strong relationships with reliable factories. It also helped me to protect my brand through intellectual property protection. Mostly though, my experience gave me the confidence to give running my own business a go.”
Launching on Easter weekend last year, it has now been almost a year since Shaherazad's shoes hit the web and it’s not just at home in the UK where they are proving a hit. As an online retailer, she always had overseas markets in her sight but even she, as ambitious an entrepreneur as she is, couldn’t have foreseen just how much of a success they would quickly become.
“During my first year I was lucky enough be awarded a place on the Department of International Trade's "Passport to Export" 12-month programme. This provided me with lots of detailed training courses and advice on how to export.
“I also won some funding to support an export trip to Kuwait and Qatar where I gained lots of useful contacts. It's a brilliant programme and my DIT adviser, Jane Matty, has been a brilliant source of knowledge and expertise.
“The company has grown massively since then. We started off selling to the UK but now export to 21 different countries. My turnover has grown massively and I measure my success by the number of women helped, which is 700 so far!”
However, as previously mentioned, she doesn’t measure her success by the number of shoes she sells nor by the number of new markets she has penetrated. So looking forward, there is only one metric she will measure her success by.
“I’m currently helping women to gain an education in four of the world’s poorest countries (Pakistan, Palestine, Peru and Kenya). In five years, I want to be helping women in even more countries with my ultimate aim being to work in every country where there is poverty.
“One of my philanthropic projects in Kenya used the profits I gave them from the heels to open a sewing room in the school. This means that teenage girls who need a way to earn a living can learn how to sew and set up their own tailoring business. It's a sustainable way of helping girls to help themselves. I was so proud when I saw the sewing machines in place and girls using them.”
Shaherazad's top three tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
It's important to plan and take your time - success doesn't come overnight so keep at it.
Don't be afraid of innovation - just because no-one else has done it doesn't mean that you can't.
Stay close to your cash flow - it's the lifeblood of your business and you can only be successful with it.