Nafisa Bakkar is a 23-year old Muslim woman living in London. Like millions of people her age, Nafisa has huge interest in fashion. But she struggles to find modest clothes that suit her needs. Or rather, she struggled.
She is the co-founder of Amaliah, a fashion platform that ‘makes shopping for a modest wardrobe’ easier.
A keen fashionista, Nafisa was finding it more and more difficult to express her style while covering her skin.
“Even in winter, you’ll see thigh-high slits and crop tops,” she explained.
“I would go on well-known fashion sites who stock hundreds of brand and look for a maxi-shirt, however, they would be short at the front, have a see-through panel or a thigh-high slit.”
It’s not that suitable items of clothing don’t exist, but “it’s just a long sifting process to find them!” a frustrated Nafisa recalls. “It was a frustrating experience and so I learned others were having the same experience as me.”
True entrepreneurs do something when they encounter a problem. Rather than continue to be frustrated by it, and hope someone else does something about it, entrepreneurs come up with the solution themselves. Nafisa was already encouraging and helping others to start their own companies as an entrepreneurship coordinator at University College London. Sometimes you need to take your own advice.
‘You’re never too young’
Amaliah isn’t an online fashion store. Not in the typical sense, anyway. It’s a community for fashion bloggers, brands and customers. Amaliah curates the best finds from the modest fashion world, allowing customers to head to the brand’s website to make a purchase.
“The Muslim fashion market is massive and our platform allows us to represent Muslim women in fashion in a way that the mainstream fashion market doesn’t.”
With a comfortable job, many people wouldn’t have taken the leap. But Nafisa told me how she came to the decision to leave and start her own business.
“In January 2014, I went to the Student Enterprise Conference run by NACUE (National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs), and it was there that I was able to really kickstart my journey,” she said.
“I met a number of valuable contacts, one of the speakers is actually one of my mentors now! Being in a room filled with young people who were achieving amazing things was incredibly inspiring. Meeting individuals like Ben Towers, who started his company at 14, just makes you realise that it really is a case of mind over matter. You’re never too young or too inexperienced.”
Once she left her job, Amaliah wasn’t far away.
“It all happened pretty quickly, but I guess it’s because I had been thinking about it and planning for a while. I left [my job] in July, had my site up by September, went to India [in the same month] as one of the entrepreneurs picked by the British Council, and by November I had been accepted onto the Ignite accelerator programme.”
Testament to the idea and platform Nafisa has built, Amaliah started making making an impression quickly.
“Within the first month we were securing sales. Initially, myself and my sister were in a little disbelief. We had really started this as a bedroom test and it was motivating to see the positive feedback and sales we were getting,” she says with a gleaming smile.
“In the first two weeks, we had 30 bloggers come on board and we have been getting a lot of interest and users coming through using the site. We haven’t spent any money yet on marketing either so it’s was a real boost to see these numbers go up without it.”
Her success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Amaliah has already been recognised by the British Council as one of the UK’s top 20 start-ups.
“It [being recognised] was so soon after I left my job, so it was really motivating,” Nafisa said.
“I spent two weeks in India [with the British Council] and it acted like an accelerator, I came back with more confidence and contacts, and I had developed my idea more than I had in the two months since leaving my job.”
So where do Nafisa and Amaliah go from here? With sales already reaching as far as Tunisia and the US, Nafisa is already taking on a small team of employees to help manage and grow the business. This time next year, Nafisa sees Amaliah being “the go-to modest fashion site in the UK”. And in five years, she hopes to have a global presence with her own range of clothes for Amaliah.
You can’t forget old habits, however. Nafisa started her career helping others on their entrepreneurial journey. And she’s not content with her own personal success, she wants to carry on helping other budding entrepreneurs.
“I would love to start an accelerator that would help young founders like myself. It is a difficult journey and I would love to have an accelerator similar to what Entrepreneur First are doing where taking the path of entrepreneurship is encouraged post-graduation.”