PSU students help nonprofit create positive social change in Nepal
Author: Crista Tappan, The School of Business
Posted: December 11, 2019
A former child laborer from Nepal who escaped forced marriage has become an international entrepreneur. With the help of students from Portland State University’s undergraduate business capstone class, Nasreen Sheikh aims to improve the lives of others one sewing stitch at a time.

Sheikh is the owner and founder of the nonprofit Empowerment Collective. The nonprofit works to empower, support and educate women and girls in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities. It also advocates for their rights. To date, they have trained more than 100 Nepalese women in their empowerment center, providing a fair wage and future security.

After realizing she could help beyond just advocacy, Sheikh founded Local Women’s Handicrafts, a fair trade, eco-conscious sewing collective owned by the Nepalese women who make and sell their handicrafts both locally and online. The company strives to help women and children escape slavery, forced marriage and other injustices. 

Capstone Program Director Bill Jones believes Sheikh will inspire the students to become more involved in businesses that create social change.

“Nasreen has a compelling life story and is simply extraordinary,” Jones said.

Sheikh’s rise from child laborer to social entrepreneur

Sheikh was born in a tiny village of India that borders with Nepal. No birth dates or deaths are recorded there so she’s not even sure of her own age.

While growing up there, Sheikh witnessed women being murdered and girls forced into marriage at very young ages.

When she was around age 9 or 10, Sheikh moved to a city and worked 12-15 hours daily in a sweatshop, earning less than $2 a shift.

When the sweatshop closed, Sheikh had to live on the streets.

“I was fortunate to meet a well-educated man who taught me how to read, write and think for myself,” said Sheikh, adding she has also become environmentally conscious.

Sheikh started Local Women’s Handicrafts when she was still a teenager. While her life has changed dramatically for the better, many Nepalese women and children are not as fortunate. Of the 1.6 million child laborers in Nepal, 60 percent of them are young girls.

The ambitious young woman has also created an “empowerment center” in Terai, an unincorporated area outside Kathmandu, Nepal. It’s a safe place that provides local resources to assist with documentation, education, the freedom to report injustices, sustainability training and the opportunity for creativity, entrepreneurship and collaboration.

More than 100 women have completed the training programs and are now earning a livable wage in a healthy environment.

Business students help advance Empowerment Collective’s mission

Sheikh relocated to Portland in 2017 to gain more support for her efforts. She started hosting a booth selling textiles at the Saturday Portland Market and connected with PSU students to expand her business. The PSU students are helping Sheikh develop a long-term business, marketing and financial plan.

The students have reached beyond business planning by also brainstorming ideas for ways she can help more Nepalese women leave sweatshops and earn a living wage. With the culmination of their capstone project, they helped Sheikh open a pop-up retail space in the Karl Miller Center in November to sell handmade items and teach other students and the PSU community about the women of Nepal.

When Sheikh was a child, she was told, “The more silent you are, the safer you’ll be.” She is anything but silent and is having an impact not only on residents of Nepal, but also on the PSU students with whom she’s working.

“Nasreen has an incredible story about escaping forced marriage and sweatshops,” said capstone student Sam Ortiz. “She made a better life for herself and is bringing back help and power to the women in Nepal. She’s a wonderful person and her work is very impactful.”