Laura Rana – Creating opportunities whilst embracing chaos!

My name is Laura and here is a little bit about myself and my career. I’m setting up a social enterprise (Khushi Kantha, which means ‘Happy Blanket’ in Bengali) creating opportunities for mothers in Bangladesh to provide for their children with dignity, alongside my ‘day job’ helping organisations that inspire me to measure their impacts, and my ‘24/7 job’ as the mother of 20-month-old, half-British, half-Bangladeshi (and 100% cheeky!) twin daughters Opi and Mahi. 

A typical day in my career involves at least one of my twins being usually up by 5am, so my days start quite early! The girls go from 0 to 100 in seconds – they are absolute bursting with energy upon waking, and I try and embrace the chaos and get on their vibe, with help from a large pot of coffee! They go to a lovely nursery three days a week. On those days, I focus on paid work to justify the double nursery fees! 

I have fourteen years’ experience in the international development and humanitarian sectors. I went freelance when the girls were born. My professional background is in accountability and impact measurement – helping charities to understand, measure and communicate their social impacts, and establish systems to collect ongoing feedback from the communities they serve and use it to improve the work that they do.

‘I try and embrace the chaos’

I’ve finally admitted to myself that once I’ve got the girls to bed, I’m shattered after having already been on the go for a good 14 hours, and therefore highly unlikely to be able to develop a marketing strategy AND complete two sets of nursery registration forms AND digest a 38-page product safety standard. I’ve realised that it makes more sense to pick one thing to focus my remaining energy on – like figuring out how to get donated deadstock fabric from the Bangladeshi garments sector to the communities where our blankets are hand-stitched, drafting the script for our recently launched crowdfunding campaign – rather than trying to fit in so many things that I don’t tackle any of them properly.

Like many working mothers, I’m operating about 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, but it’s nothing compared to how hard the mothers Khushi Kantha partners with work, day in day out, using every resource they have to offer their children the future they deserve. 

I went into the aid sector because I wanted to make a difference. I’ve been lucky enough to work for lots of amazing organisations, from well-known charities like Save the Children and the British Red Cross to tiny organisations doing incredible things in their local communities on shoestring budgets. It’s been a long-standing dream of mine to use everything I’ve experienced and learned over the past fourteen years to start my own initiative, working directly with women whose position I could be in if circumstances were different.

When I became pregnant while working on the humanitarian response to the Rohingya response in Bangladesh, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the opportunities my daughters would have, compared to the children of the mothers all around me. 

It was this feeling that motivated me to start Khushi Kantha.

‘Take-make-waste’

How I got to where I am now: When I moved home to London and my daughters were born, they were gifted a large collection of traditional Bangladeshi ‘kantha’ blankets. I was a bit overwhelmed to receive so many and wondered what we were going to do with them all! But I soon learnt that they could be used for pretty much every task on my daily to-do list as a parent – and their bright colours and traditional ‘kantha’ were drawing compliments wherever we went!

I realised there could be a market for them….and the idea for ‘Khushi Kantha’ was born!

I was really excited to head back to Bangladesh and set up production last year. But like everyone else, my plans had to change. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic represented a major setback – but they also provided me with the opportunity to start testing the market. When thinking through how to turn my social enterprise vision into a reality, I’ve been reflecting on the various well-meaning initiatives I’ve encountered while living and working in Bangladesh and other countries around the world that ultimately failed to gain traction because there wasn’t a sufficient market for what they were selling.

I realised that I needed to come up with a product I could sell at a scale that would enable the Bangladeshi mothers I’m partnering with to generate sustainable incomes. Predictability of income is vital in order for families to make the kind of long-term decisions that really lift them out of poverty – like investing in sending children to school.

The last thing I wanted to do was raise expectations I wouldn’t be able to meet if there weren’t enough people who wanted to buy the blankets!

So, I created a first, limited-edition collection of blankets in London, with support from an incredible group of volunteer stitchers, and sold them through an online auction. The success of the auction encouraged me to keep going and figure out the logistics of setting up production in Bangladesh – and we’re finally ready to get started!

I am passionate about promoting a shift from take-make-waste to reclaim-repurpose-reuse.

Becoming a parent is a big incentive to shift to a more sustainable lifestyle. Our children will inherit the planet – and we want to pass it down to them in the best state possible.

‘Motherhood is the most rewarding job in the world’

‘Kantha’ refers to the Bengali tradition of mothers repurposing their old cotton saris into ultra-soft, multi-layered blankets for their babies.

I’m reworking the ‘kantha’ approach to meet global hygiene and safety standards, while retaining the principles of reclaim-repurpose-reuse and bringing Bangladesh’s rich textiles heritage to a wider audience. 

Bangladesh is famous for its garments industry. Sadly, lots of fabric gets wasted at various stages of the supply chain. I’m collaborating with sustainably minded factories to give ‘deadstock fabric’ a new life, by using it to form the inside layers of our blankets.

I think I got the drive and determination to succeed from wanting to create opportunities for other mothers whose position I could so easily be in myself if circumstances were different.

Time and time again, I’ve been amazed by the resilience and generosity of Bangladeshi mothers living below the poverty line. Motherhood is the most rewarding job in the world – but it’s also the hardest. Every day brings new challenges. For the mothers I’m partnering with, these challenges include being able to meet basic needs, like food, clothing and education.

Being a female in my role is great because when you become a mother, you become part of a global community of women who will do everything they can to give their children the best possible start in life. I love the fact that I’m able to partner directly with the women I’m working with, mother to mother – no middleman.

‘I want to change the narrative’

My hope is that my daughters will be proud of me – and of their Bangladeshi heritage. I want to change the narrative – and turn the words ‘Made in Bangladesh’ into a statement of pride and happiness. 

The biggest lesson that I’ve learnt along the way is that patience is not a virtue I am ever likely to adopt! I am the least patient person you will ever meet – with the possible exception of my mother!!

It’s lovely that so many people have welcomed the slower pace of life that COVID-19 has brought. But I’ve come to accept that I’m not one of them. I’ve finally stopped trying to fight my natural restlessness. Instead, I’m channeling it into Khushi Kantha’s mission!

I’m very aware of my privilege as white, British, middle-class woman. I’ve worked in more than 20 countries around the world, and in most places I’ve been, my status as a ‘foreigner’ – and, importantly, as a ‘white foreigner’ has ‘trumped’ my status as a woman, to the point where I have been pushed to take on leadership roles that my local counterparts would be able to play much more effectively. 

Outside of work when I’m not trying to keep up with the relentless energy of my one-year-old twins, I am pouring every ounce of my time, energy and heart into Khushi Kantha. Between motherhood, trying to get my social enterprise off the ground, and my ‘day job’, I don’t have an awful lot of spare time!

The mantra I live my life by is ‘Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want’.

My top three tips I would you give to young females starting their careers would be:

  1. Find a mentor – it doesn’t need to be someone who ‘you want to be when you grow up professionally’, it just needs to be someone who will support you, challenge you in a positive way, and go out of their way to open doors for you.
  2. If you’re lucky enough to find something that makes you spring out of bed in the morning, put everything you have into figuring out how you can both (a) make a living from it, and (b) use it to make a positive contribution to an issue that matters to you!
  3. It’s ok to spend the first few years of your career figuring out what you DON’T want to do!

The best bit of advice that you have ever been given would be to ‘Embrace serendipity – that’s when the magic happens!’.

One woman who has impacted my life would be a mother I met while working on the humanitarian response to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh. Despite being one of the poorest parts of a very poor country, the local population have welcomed nearly 1 million Rohingya men, women and children who have fled across the border from Myanmar to escape human rights atrocities.

‘Embrace serendipity – that’s when the magic happens!’

During the year I spent there, I got to know the mothers from the communities hosting the refugees and was able to hear directly from them how it was impacting their lives. I was prepared for animosity – with so many hundreds of thousands of refugees settling nearby, and the associated challenges making their lives even harder, surely, they would be resentful?!

Instead, I was overwhelmed by their compassion. When I arrived at the home of one mother, despite struggling to provide for her own children, she told me she had shared some of her vegetables with the refugees, as she had heard that children were not being provided with enough during food distributions in the camps.

My advice for women aiming for leadership positions would be ‘Getting the balance’ right can be a case of trial and error. I’ve already invested more than I can really afford right now in turning my social investment vision into reality. 

But opportunity cost is by far the most significant cost I’ve incurred to date. Every hour I’m spending on Khushi Kantha means an hour that I’m not spending with my daughters, earning money through my ‘day job’, doing laundry, planning meals, exercising – or indeed sleeping! 

I’ve learned from experience that having a never-ending to-do list isn’t the most effective approach, and I’m trying to be a bit more strategic with my time!

‘Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world’

Most importantly, I’ve learned that sometimes you need to forget both the ‘daily to-do list’ and the ‘big picture strategy’ and just spend the day giggling and building dens with two cheeky little girls who are growing up far too quickly.

One key leadership lesson I’ve learned along the way would be: Roald Dahl said ‘somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world’ – but I think it makes sense to focus on depth versus breadth of impact. My ultimate goal for Khushi Kantha is to break the inter-generation transmission of poverty by strengthening the fabric of the communities I’m partnering with. But my fourteen years of experience of working with struggling mothers around the world has taught me the importance of starting small, and taking things step by step. 

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