Success doesn’t come easy because anything worthwhile never comes easily. Bimala Shrestha Pokhrel, the founder of Higher Ground, is a social entrepreneur and social activist. She has been in the field for almost 13 years now.
Here is what she has to say about her experience and journey with Higher Ground.
1. Can you tell us the story behind establishing Higher Ground?
There is a long story behind the establishment of Higher Ground. Actually I was pursuing a medical degree in the US but ended up becoming a Social Entrepreneur.
I traveled to Kenya for a month during the college days, where we visited slums, villages and listened to the stories of women. The women there were involved in a micro-enterprise. After listening to their stories, I came to know how a group of women has not only helped themselves but also transformed their community. I saw how a community is developing through small businesses for the very first time. This story really inspired me and from that day on, I have had the dream of helping marginalized women and children through micro-enterprises development.
In 1998, I decided to transform my dreams into reality. I ended up changing my major with the help of my advisors. Seeing my interest and passion, my advisors suggested me to take some business and community development classes which I didn’t initially want to join because I never wanted to do anything with business. But my advisors told me that I should have some knowledge about business if I am to help a community. So it all started with a small dream and advice from a few great people.
In addition to this, I also wanted to become a role model and to encourage young people to grab opportunities present here. There is a pool of opportunities available and you can make a difference even though a small enterprise. So that is the whole story behind Higher Ground Nepal.
2. When did higher ground actually start and what are its core functions?
Higher Ground started in 2006, as a full-fledged café and in 2007, I also started a bakery. So this is actually the second branch and at the end of 2007 we also established Higher Ground Crafts. In 2010, we then started operating as an NGO; we started working with women and youth, who had been trapped in sex tourism and dance bars and needed help to adapt in the proper job market. Even though we were only working with women, we realized that we cannot simply leave the rest of the community behind. So ultimately, Higher Ground’s mission became to restore the lives of individuals at risk of trafficking, abuse, and exploitation through awareness.
We also have education support, scholarship programs to focus on the children of the victims or those who are at risk so that they can at least be prevented from being trafficked. Doing so, we want to set an example that you don’t have to be a big organization or be dependent on donors and write big proposals to do something for the community. Considering this, we do a lot of awareness, education and counseling programs. Moreover, we also provide skills training, business development loans, especially to women and youth at risk to eliminate the complicated procedure of finances. As a social enterprise ourselves, we look into ways of solving the problem prevailing in our own society through our business. As said before we employ single women, exploited, trafficked and rescued individuals to make our crafts. The social benefits that we derive are then sent back to those individuals through salaries. We also provide them transit homes to stay at.
3. What is the legal status of your company and who are the founders?
Higher Ground started as a simple coffee shop then I registered the bakery in 2008 under the cottage industry. Later, Higher Ground was established under sole proprietorship business even when it functioned as a Social Enterprise due to the absence of facilities and guidelines.
As time passed, we needed to frequently visit the court and police stations due to our involvement with women from different areas like sex tourism and individuals that had been exploited. So operating and registering as a business was not sufficient, I needed a whole new entity that could work with the Government and other concerned bodies. Given that, I then registered Higher Grounds as an NGO which has its own body, BODs, and staff
4. Where do you think the company is at right now? How many people did you start with initially and how many staff do you have now?
We are in a growth stage and in the past, we’ve made lots of mistakes and learned from them as well. We have the vision to grow in order to provide training and employment opportunities to as many people as possible. I started with 3 people in 2006. Now we have about 40 to 45 staff combined.
5. How much funding have you raised to start the company?
3 lakh rupees which I got from my own family and friends.
7. What are the challenges that you faced when starting the business?
One of the major challenges was the unavailability of raw materials to operate the bakery and the craft due to which we were dependent on the foreign market. With the ever-increasing inflation, it was quite difficult for us to have the raw materials of the same quality and the same price all the time. Moreover, in the initial days, Nepal was backward in terms of basic infrastructures like electricity, water, gas and so on which now has definitely improved. In addition to this, economic instability, increased competition, and absence of proper guidelines, rules, regulations, and laws were also great challenges.
8. What do you think is the market potential for the industry you are in right now? How many customers do you have locally and abroad?
There’s a huge market potential to tap into this industry right now. We have both international and domestic customers that we can target and provide our products to. Although laws regarding shipment to foreign countries and exporting can be tough, I believe that if they’re made efficient then we can grab a huge market. Out of our total customers, 60% are international customers and the remaining 40% are local customers.
10. What are the basic business model of Higher Ground and other umbrella foundation?
20% of the profits that we generate from our business are injected in the NGO. Apart from this, we also organize a lot of events and partner with community organizations to create a positive impact. We believe that organizations will attain their common goal if they work together, share resources and not compete with each other. Therefore, we work in cohesion and cooperation with other similar organizations.
11. As of now what are the key needs of your organization and what are its future plans?
We’re really in need of Marketing for now. As we lack the funds to get a marketing professional for ourselves, we’re in dire need of someone who can help us reach more customers.
13. Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur?
Yes, I do. As a student, I always felt that business was not my cup of tea. But after being a part of Higher Ground, I have come to realize that I have a very entrepreneurial mindset and today I consider myself not only a social entrepreneur but also a social activist.
14. What are your thoughts on impact measurement? Have you been doing that for Higher Ground?
Yes, we strongly believe in impact measurement and that’s why we maintain all NGO related documents such as the number of people we trained and mentored and employment provided. Doing so gives us an idea of the lives we have been transforming positively.
15. Is there anything you would like to share with people?
There are a lot of new things happening in Nepal right now regarding startups. The thing is to not get overwhelmed and instead strongly focus on your passion to make your dreams come true.
For more information about this company, visit their website Higher Ground Nepal or contact Bimala Shrestha Pokhrel at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interviewed and article by Priyadarshani Shrestha.