Sara Rajabli is an award-winning social entrepreneur based in Azerbaijan. She is the founder of BUTA Art & Sweets, the first social enterprise in Azerbaijan, to promote employment opportunities for women with special needs in Azerbaijan. Sara launched the BUTA Art & Sweets with 85 Euros bootstrapping. The platform involves 20 women with special needs, having more than 40 sweet menus, and cooperates with more than 70 companies and organizations. Also, Sara is the founder of Social Business Youth Center, aiming to provide the necessary skills and tools to young people on social entrepreneurship and support young people to launch their initiatives. Within two years, the Social Business Youth Center becomes the biggest online mentorship program on social entrepreneurship in Azerbaijan, accepting more than 5500 applications and more than 3500 participants. During COVID-19, she founded the Bir Fincan Kitab in July 2020, aiming to develop young people’s critical thinking through organizing book discussions, meetings with writers, and sharing thoughts on books in online and offline platforms. Within two months, the Fir Fincan Kitab has 200 memberships. Sara is the winner of the Eurasian Regional Startup Awards that recognizes her leadership and contribution to promoting women’s employment opportunities with special needs. She is the first young social entrepreneur to receive awards from the President of Azerbaijan and the winner Social Entrepreneurship Nomination Award by the Ministry of Economy and State Agency on SMEs.
[Below are some highlights from the interview that are edited for clarity.]
The story behind BUTA Art & Sweets
Sara: I started three years ago when I was 20 years old. I was an undergrad student at Azerbaijan University of Management and Hospitality. Since my first year at university, I was very much interested in social entrepreneurship. I researched different cases of social enterprises and social responsibility projects of worldwide companies. For me, it is very important to bring these business models to Azerbaijan.
Since the age of 16, I have volunteered with different social projects and international programs. When I graduated from university at the age of 20, I worked in a tourism company, hotel, and hostel as a tour guide and event manager. I tried almost all the tourism industry for commercial purposes. I understood that commercial prepose does not align with my personal value. I decided to bring social value in anything that I do. After studying all of these, I decided to launch BUTA Art & Sweets, with the mission to reduce unemployment problems faced by local women in special needs.
More than 290,000 women with special needs in Azerbaijan and 90% of them are unemployed. This statistic upsets me, and I decided to change it through a small step with a minimal budget. I have no experience in business management, no skills, and no connection. I was very enthusiastic and passionate about changing the situation.
Why women with special needs matter in Azerbaijan?
In most cases, women have more education and employment opportunity in a big city but not in villages. Because of mentality, psychology, and religion, women cannot get enough education and employment chances. Women with special needs are deprived of opportunity because they have a different appearance. People just focus on their weaknesses. People do not want to communicate with them. It is very sad for me to see this social situation since childhood. I need to give those women a chance to be integrated into society so that they could feel as valuable entrepreneurs who are producing wonderful sweets.
What you need to know to be a young female entrepreneur in Azerbaijan
Sara: Azerbaijan is a very conservative society, especially where I am from. I am not from the capital city of Baku. I am from Samgayit. People are quite conservative here. They are not open so much to innovation. They do not appreciate it when women want to build their start-ups and businesses.
It is the same case with my father and mother. They do not support me because of Soviet Union psychology. This psychology told us that after graduating from university, we should go to the public and private sector, to work for the office, to have a stable salary, and to work from 9 am to 6 pm, and that’s all. This fulfills the expectation of having a successful life.
It was a challenging time. I start my business alone, and no one supports me. I find women with special needs. I give hand-made products for free to organizations and companies in exchange for the partnership for sale. Understandably, no one supports me at the beginning because they have not seen anyone running a social enterprise before in Azerbaijan.
My parents told me every single day that you will never achieve your goals as a social entrepreneur. It will never be successful. Every day I fought with them and have an emotional conflict with them. Sometimes, I cried the whole night. I could not focus on my work because of personal challenges.
What motivates me to achieve results was that I promised those women and their husbands that they worked from their houses and sold their sweets. We would be responsible for selling their products to different organizations. After they gained their first incomes from sweets, they start to engage much more in society. It is the same with my family members. They changed their perception when they saw that I could be independent and cover my expenses and support others. They saw that the international community supports my initiative. My family members started to agree with me and stopped negatively, commenting on what I am doing.
How to cope with mental health pressure as a young female entrepreneur
Sara: Mental health is one of the challenges for a social entrepreneur, especially when they start and grow their businesses. It is about mental health, mental health, and mental health, especially when COVID-19 arrived.
We have our responsibility as an entrepreneur and team members. We all think about how we can manage it because we are taking the whole responsibility. At the beginning of BUTA Art & Sweets, when I was fighting with my family members, I communicated with psychologists and friends who listened to me without judging anything that I told them. They listened to me and supported me with everything they could. Your emotion is very important. When you cannot express your emotion, it can damage your physical health.
To manage my mental health it is a complex process. It is a life-long process. I meditate every morning. I dance as well because it brings me a very positive emotion. I want to have positive emotions in my life. Whenever I feel sad or depress, I start to dance in my house and forget about the challenges for a while. Then, I can focus on the solutions. It is essential to know yourself and what impacts on you positively. You can note it and keep it for yourself. You can use those activities much more often.