Robin Seyfert (’89) knows beauty can be found in people and places that are overlooked or even steeped in darkness. As the founder and managing director of Basha Enterprises Ltd., she sees women who have been trafficked or who are vulnerable to exploitation find hope and healing through dignified work in a safe environment.
Basha Boutique sells jewelry, kantha blankets, accessories, and Christmas items, all handmade by women who are rebuilding their lives. The kantha is a profound symbol of Basha Boutique’s work and mission.
“A kantha is a quilt made of old saris stitched into straight, even rows,” Seyfert explained. “They are all sewn freehand. We take old discarded saris and stitch them into a blanket that is really beautiful. As each artisan transforms the worn cloth, she is also rebuilding her life.”
‘Basha’ means house in Bengali, and ‘asha’ means hope. Basha’s products are sold wholesale to retailers around the world, including in Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Europe. Most Basha products come embroidered with the name of the artisans who made them, and the company’s website shares their individual stories.
“Our goal is that people love the products, and the story makes them love it even more,” Seyfert said.
Seyfert couldn’t have imagined where she is now when she was a college student.
“For me, I just had a really strong desire to do what God wanted me to do,” she explained. “Every step had a strong sense of God calling me … What I’ve learned from education is that you can learn anything.”
“I started the businesses out of passion instead of a skill set. As a person of passion, you are willing to put 150% into it.”
Seyfert’s own experiences are a testament to that belief. After graduating with a degree in child development, she started out in inner city ministry. She worked with Tony Campolo’s ministries in Pennsylvania and World Impact in Los Angeles. Then, after spending four years in the UK, Seyfert returned to work in child protection for the state of Oregon. She also completed two stints of service with the Peace Corps in South Africa and Zambia and earned a Master’s in Public Health from Oregon State University.
In 2006, Seyfert moved to Bangladesh to work with the nonprofit Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). With her public health background, Seyfert was working with MCC on HIV awareness, which is when she learned about women aging out of prostitution in need of support, training, and work.
“We found so many women desperate for the opportunity,” she said.
To help meet their needs, Seyfert and her team began a training program. Not only did they fill their class, but they had 500 more people on the waitlist. When women completed the training program, they were able to work for a handicraft group that supplied to Ten Thousand Villages. They saw that safe employment was an essential part of women building new lives. A similar training program in Dhaka was unable to find employment for their trainees, which inspired Seyfert to start a company where they could work. Recognizing the layers of need the women and children had in addition to employment, a nonprofit organization, Friends of Basha, which was created in 2017.
When it comes to running a social enterprise and nonprofit, Seyfert is self-taught.
“I read every business book I could find,” she said. “I started the businesses out of passion instead of a skill set. As a person of passion, you are willing to put 150% into it. The most important thing you can do is try to stay up to date and seek advisors.”
Today, Basha Boutique employs around 120 Bengali women. Meanwhile, at any given time, they also have 135 children in their daycare and about 30 women in their training and rehabilitation program.
“Early on, we realized that we also have to serve the children,” she said. “The daycare is very important and a lot of work and a lot of money. We have our own training program and holistic wraparound services, a children’s home, and a women’s transition home, and we have sites in five different cities.”
The rewards of Seyfert’s work include seeing women regain a sense of self-worth and purpose and seeing their children have opportunities their mothers never had to attend school and to grow up in a safe environment.
In 2018, she received a note from one of the women about her son’s growth in the Basha daycare program and how it was carrying forward in their lives. The woman wrote: “Before Shimanto came to daycare at Basha, he couldn’t read or write. Now he is in class four. I am feeling proud that now my son is growing. I am thankful to our daycare apas [sisters] for their help. I want my son to be a doctor.”
Then, last year, as Basha was celebrating its 12th anniversary, Shimanto took it upon himself to write to Seyfert. He said: “I went to Basha day care when I was only 5 years of my age. I didn’t know the Bangla alphabet or anything that related to academic education. My mother was working there. But I got love and care from day care. From day care, I started my pre-school education and now I read in class 9. All of my school teachers and my friends love me. I am doing good in my school. All the teachers know me very well although there are a lot of students in our government high school. They said I am good, I am kind, honest, decent and I know how to behave with others. Sometimes they asked me where I learnt this then my answer was I learnt this from Basha day care. Now I am 15 years old and I don’t stay at day care because of my school and study, but sometimes I visit the day care where I grew up very carefully. When I see the post of Basha 12 Anniversary, then I feel very proud because my mother and I were part of Basha. We love Basha. Basha means a lot to us. I am really thankful to Basha and also to the founder, Robin Apa [big sister].”
“Shimanto sent me this message and photos out of the blue on his own initiative,” Seyfert said. “This is the fruit: Seeing the next generation flourishing because they had some support when they needed it.”
Many of the women who come to Basha have pasts that are difficult to overcome. One woman who was in their second group of artisans struggled with overwhelming anger. When she would lose her temper, she would often be violent and later feel sorry about it. She had three children, and the Basha staff were able to get them into a boarding school where they could have a safe, stable environment but still be with their mother on holidays. The staff at Basha struggled to work with the woman, but since they helped her receive psychiatric treatment and tried different solutions, including sometimes allowing her to work from home, she’s doing really well as are her children. Seyfert said that the woman was “a street kid” who never went to school and experienced the horrors of drugs, prostitution, abuse, and rape. She called the woman’s improvement “a miracle over 12 years.”
Of course, working with a vulnerable and often traumatized population is often very challenging as this woman’s story attests.
“[It can be difficult knowing] when to have compassion versus when you say you have to get this done and have this level of quality,” Seyfert explained.
Basha also has to balance its purpose with its viability.
“We are running a company based on trauma history, not on work history,” she said. “Both bottom lines are essential to us. We are a legitimate business. Also, it is equally important that we serve the women that we exist for.”
When Seyfert isn’t working, she’s is often at home, which is by a botanical garden. She enjoys the peaceful setting and is kept company by her cats.
“I have a little side project of cat rescuing,” she said. “I have rescued a lot, especially babies. I have probably rescued around 30, and I have four permanent residents.”
Although Friends of Basha and Basha Boutique operate in a country that is predominantly Muslim, Seyfert and many of her staff are inspired by their Christian faith.
“We are inspired by Jesus’ life to share his love and compassion,” she said. “Every person is an image-bearer.”