Afghan woman whose side hustle helps employ about 30 refugees in Utah: 'For me, money is freedom'

How I built a business a few years after coming to the U.S. as a refugee
Key Points
  • Free Women is Hanifa Javadi's sewing and handicraft business, based out of Salt Lake City, Utah.
  • Between 2020 and 2021, Free Women brought in $130,000 and employed close to 30 refugees.
  • "I love to create," says Javadi. "I love to make something we can use."

As a young woman in Afghanistan, Hanifa Javadi dreamed of owning her own business. Each day at 5 a.m., she would take a seat beside her in-laws and meticulously weave a rug by hand for the next 15 hours. 

Seven years went by like this, and Javadi never saw any earnings from her labor. 

"All day I was working. Like a cage," says Javadi. 

Over a decade later, Javadi, now 35, is the owner and founder of Free Women, a sewing and handicraft business based in Salt Lake City, Utah. It has become a successful side hustle for Javadi and her employees. From 2020 to 2021, Free Women brought in $130,000, and employed close to 30 women refugees. 

"For me, money is freedom," says Javadi, who spoke with Grow from her home in Utah on an icy spring day. "That's why I put Free Women … right now I'm free."

Hanifa Javadi at her home in Utah.
Tasia Jensen

'I love to make something we can use'

Javadi and her three children arrived in the U.S. in 2016 as refugees from Afghanistan. They settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. Not long after, she divorced her husband, who did not travel with them to the U.S., ending a marriage that began, for both of them, as children. 

For her first two years in Utah, Javadi worked odd jobs around the clock, taking night shifts and early morning shifts, and driving for Uber in her free moments. She earned less than $2,000 a month.

"For two years, I had a lot of problems," she says through tears. "I never see my kids."

Eventually, she landed a full-time job at a high-end tailor in 2018. Still, she endeavored to run her own business. "I love to create," says Javadi. "I love to make something we can use." 

She formed an LLC and attempted to start her own tailoring shop, twice. Both times she failed to make the business sustainable. 

Then in 2020, she met Melissa Sevy, the founder of Ethik Collective, a for-profit company that bridges the gap between artisans and a global marketplace for handmade products. 

"My business start with Melissa," says Javadi. "Everything change."

'People need jobs'

Sevy began her own endeavor of partnering with artisans nearly 15 years ago, while she was working as a public health educator in Uganda. Several sessions into a class about the impact of soap and disease prevention, she realized that many attendees couldn't even afford soap. 

"What we realized is that, before we can even talk about soap and access to health care, people need jobs," says Sevy. "We had really come with a solution that did not take into account the real context of what was happening."

Melissa Sevy (left) of Ethik Collective shares a laugh with Javadi (right).
Tasia Jensen

It's a pitfall that plagues the global development industry, where money is poured into projects, sometimes resulting in questionable outcomes. For example, researchers at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management found evidence that NGOs can "crowd out" local, government-provided services, leaving villagers worse off.

So in 2009, Sevy started the Mabira Collective in Uganda, an artisan group of women with a mission to pay its workers fair wages. While the collective grew and thrived over the years, Sevy struggled to make the model profitable for herself.

When companies began to approach her for custom corporate gift orders, a lightbulb went off. "Artisan groups around the world have very similar issues where they have beautiful crafts but lack access to the global market," she says. "If we can be this connection point, we can do this."

Javadi pays a visit to two Afghan women refugees at their home to instruct them on a Free Women project.
Tasia Jensen

She created Ethik Collective, which has since expanded to include 40 groups from around the world. From 2020 to 2021, the company worked with nearly 3,000 artisans, creating 108,909 fair-pay workdays and 555,639 handmade products. 

"We're doing global business, and we value our partners as business partners, not as charity cases," Sevy says about Ethik's mission to promote dignity on all sides of its business model. "They're not beneficiaries, and we're not donors."

'This business is not only my business, this business is our business'

In early 2020, when global supply chains, travel, and more ground to a halt due to the pandemic, Sevy met Javadi in her home state of Utah, and the two of them went to work. 

Sevy brought Javadi two large custom orders for a Utah-based company. Over the course of 2020 and 2021, 29 women refugees and Javadi assembled 12,500 charm necklaces and produced 10,000 small bags made out of cork. 

"Sewing, it's the thing in Afghanistan. Every woman, they know how to sew," says Javadi. That makes it a perfect side hustle for Afghan women refugees who have young children at home or are not able to work traditional jobs due to cultural and linguistic barriers. 

Javadi at work in her new office space.
Tasia Jensen

Of the $130,000 Ethik Collective paid Free Women for the two projects, each artisan received an average of $2,100 per project. Javadi made nearly $23,000.

"[To] all the women working with me, I say, 'This business is not only my business, this business is our business,'" she says. 

Since U.S. troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, Utah has resettled 900 Afghan refugees, the largest refugee resettlement effort that state has undertaken. As Free Women expands, Javadi, along with Sevy, hope to employ more women and provide more consistent work for them.

In April 2022, Javadi went part-time at the high-end tailor, and moved into her own office space in Salt Lake City. She continues to fulfill orders from other companies and her Etsy shop, FreeWomenCo

"I feel power," she says. "That's my dream, for long time, for 20 years, finally I get it." 

After a day of fulfilling orders from her Etsy shop, an interior design company, and dropping Christmas ornament supplies off to women at their home, Javadi wraps up her day. "Always I'm afraid, you know, if I wake up, everything is dream," she says with a laugh as she drives. "I hope it's not, it's real." 

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