Author: 13 Mar 2023minutes read
In many ways, Afshan Abbas, founder of Fuchsia Shoes, had already achieved the American dream. Growing up in Pakistan, she pushed herself to earn a computer science degree and then immigrated to the US after she landed a job at Microsoft. As a successful business analyst, she spent her days in a Seattle high-rise creating data models. It was a good, steady life but it wasn't the life she wanted.
"I was proud of the work that I was doing, but I felt a lack of purpose—I needed something else," says Afshan, who worked at Microsoft for six years.
She took paid time off to do some soul-searching and spent several weeks at her family's home in Karachi. She traveled throughout northern Pakistan, and began to interact with the vibrant artisan communities just outside the capital.
Afshan would strike up conversations with tanners, needleworkers, and shoemakers. She was struck by the immense talent of these groups. These artisans were often third- or fourth-generation craftspeople who had spent their entire lives honing their skills. The goods were of impeccable quality and made with a close eye on the details. Afshan was especially drawn to the crafters of khussas, a traditional women's flat worn throughout Pakistan.
"I was blown away to hear about the amount of effort and craftsmanship that goes into creating each pair and how undervalued it is in the local markets," she recalls.
Afshan purchased a pair of khussas, and brought them back to the US. A bright fuchsia pair of shoes with colorful pom poms, they grabbed attention in Washington State.
"I would wear them in Seattle and get tons of compliments,” she says. “I gifted them to friends and coworkers who loved them and wanted more.”
This sparked an idea.
The shoemakers in Pakistan are some of the best in the world at what they do, but their labor is not compensated fairly. Afshan says the footwear industry is rife with stories of worker exploitation and sweatshop conditions.
"To see how these skilled artisans are marginalized and forced into poverty is unsettling," says Afshan.
To make it worse, these artisans compete within the local market where cheaply made shoes constructed with cardboard are sold. They don't have access to a global market that can pay them the real value of their expertly crafted footwear. This is where Afshan would come in.
"In other parts of the world, craftspeople are paid for their expertise. If you're buying Italian handmade shoes, then you expect to pay a premium, so why isn't that the case for handmade shoes from Pakistan?” she questions. “I decided to do something about it."
Afshan's mission would become connecting native artisans in Pakistan to a worldwide audience that recognized the worth of their crafts. In doing so, Afshan could create a new, more meaningful path for herself while reviving an undervalued handicraft tradition in Pakistan. She would name the brand Fuchsia Shoes after the bold fuchsia shoes she bought that inspired it all.
She bought 200 khussas across different styles and sizes, then launched a Kickstarter campaign to validate whether her business idea could appeal to a Western market. The campaign raised more than $60,000 from 700 backers in fewer than 30 days, surpassing her goal.
That's when Afshan knew she was on to something. That was also when she decided to quit her job at Microsoft. Walking away from a comfortable job in the tech industry was difficult.
"The day I resigned was actually the day of my performance evaluation, and when I found out I was getting a promotion,” she admits. “It wasn't easy, but I had made up my mind about Fuchsia Shoes and needed to give it my full 100%.”
The decision was also hard because of everything she had been taught about making safe choices. She had already established herself in tech and now she was starting over, needing to learn everything there was to learn about shoemaking. Her family initially had trouble understanding her decision.
"I was finally able to convince my family by showing them my research and my progress,” Afshan says, “but it was still a challenge for me—resisting the urge to just do what everyone else does, get a stable job, and move up the ladder."
Now she's empowering Pakistani artisans with the proper wages they need to take care of themselves and their families. Her artisans make three times what they would typically make on the local market, giving them the income to afford food, shelter, education, and healthcare.
And on the other side of the world, she's providing Americans with premium handmade shoes that are durable, comfortable, and unique. Afshan innovated upon the traditional khussa, adding a shock-absorbing foam sole, a buttery suede lining and a wider toe to make them suitable for all-day wear. Her ecommerce site has a selection of more than 70 shoes to match every style, from the shimmering and ornate Gold Dust flat to the black and gold Sharma slippers.
Says Afshan, "When you buy from Fuchsia Shoes, you know that you're buying a product that will not only make you look good, but also make you feel good because you’re bringing a positive impact to the lives of the creators."
Logistics for a business like Fuchsia Shoes can be complex. The shoes are not made until an order is placed, so they're crafted in small batches, with each batch taking three days to produce. They then ship from Karachi to the US, which adds more time before they're finally on the feet of customers.
As Afshan looked for ways to scale her business further so she could continue to onboard artisans, she discovered Buy with Prime. She already used Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) for her most popular styles, so adding Buy with Prime to her ecommerce site seemed like a perfect next step to grow. Because these popular styles are already made and ready to be fulfilled in Amazon fulfillment centers, customers who check out using Buy with Prime get their shoes faster than they would with any other checkout option. Buy with Prime helps her capture impulse buyers who may land on her ecommerce site and want their orders right away.
"Buy with Prime just made sense to us because it makes it easier to buy,” Afshan says. “Most people are willing to wait for their order because they know the shoes are handmade, but there are shoppers who need the shoes right away as a gift or for an event. If they order with Buy with Prime, it ships as soon as the next day."
Buy with Prime improves the buying experience on her ecommerce site by streamlining the checkout process and simplifying fulfillment. This helps set up Fuchsia Shoes for growth, which matters because Afshan has an aggressive roadmap for where she wants to take her brand.
She ultimately envisions it as a global marketplace that connects local artisans to shoppers around the world. What she's already achieving for Pakistani artisans she wants to do for artisans everywhere by creating an ecommerce-powered artisan economy.
"Today's consumer is very savvy,” notes Afshan. “They want to buy quality goods, but they want to feel good about buying those goods. We can harness this desire shoppers have to create change and do good."
Support local artisans and explore Fuchsia Shoes. Between March 20-26, as part of the #WomenMake event, shoppers can use the coupon code "BUYFROMWOMEN" when checking out with Buy with Prime and get special deals from women-owned businesses.
And make sure to read the other inspiring stories of women entrepreneurs in the spotlight for Women’s History Month, including Mitzi Rivas and Elena Castaneda.