Starting Out: Amna Akhtar and GirlDreamer
By Amna Akhtar
My name is Amna and I’m a British Pakistani woman from Birmingham. I spent my childhood living in an environment I felt completely disconnected to and was desperate to change. I set-up GirlDreamer so I and others around me could be the change we wanted to see. Designed as an empowerment platform for millennial women, our mission is to ensure that every girl and young woman is provided with the tools, support and opportunities she needs to make her dreams come true. We have now worked directly with over 700 young women in person and thousands digitally via our social media and website platform. As a result of our work, we’ve seen girls with little or no self-belief choosing to push themselves; picking college or university courses ranging from film-making to neurosurgery, and pursuing hobbies they had once never heard of.
Dream Girl, Dream
From my earliest memory, I can say that I have always been an advocate for the empowerment of women. I knew I wanted to create a platform where young women felt unified and comfortable connecting with us. When setting up GirlDreamer, we wanted to position ourselves between the young girls in inner-city communities and the high-rise, city-centre companies, and start to bridge that gap which has seemingly widened over time. By connecting the two, we would be able to provide opportunities and accessibility that have not been understood or tackled previously.
In order to achieve this, myself and my co-founder Kiran looked at what GirlDreamer could provide whilst still staying true to our ethos of breaking the traditional rules around ‘female empowerment’. As such, GirlDreamer focuses on leadership development programmes, adventure sports and digital content initiatives, empowering and elevating young women of colour to know they can achieve whatever they want to.
Challenges of starting out
My journey to starting GirlDreamer was not straightforward, and I had to make some big decisions along the way. My parents were so proud when I went to university, but I was only there for a week before dropping out. I realised quickly that I wasn’t passionate about what I had chosen to study and instead joined a youth and education charity, mentoring teenagers from local inner-city areas. Inspired by the positive impact we were having, I became even more motivated to set-up my own platform - so although the decision to drop out of university led to some challenging conversations, it ultimately worked out for the best!
Initially I had no clue about how to run an organisation; the legalities, the logistics, the confusing terminology and the mental willpower required, but I knew I had passion, drive and most importantly lived experience. I learnt about business and finance through Googling terms I didn’t understand and watching YouTube videos about, well everything!
As a young person starting a business outside of the UK’s capital, I found challenges in accessing the right networks and support to expand and move quickly – even in a city as big as Birmingham! I knew my local community was where I needed to start though, and sought out other like-minded women and entrepreneurs who were looking to achieve similar goals. I also travel regularly to London to further boost my creativity and connect with new people. With everything that’s going on it’s important to look out for yourself when starting something new, so I also listen to a lot of music, make time to meditate/stay fit and enjoy watching documentaries to keep myself feeling fresh and inspired.
Boarders Without Borders
One of my favourite initiatives of ours is Boarders Without Borders. Growing up I had such a keen interest in art, music, creativity and sports but there was nowhere to turn to further these passions. School wasn’t able to provide the right environment, and there was a lack of safe spaces within my local community, and the wider city, for girls like me to go out and explore what they did and did not enjoy. I had long been watching longboarding videos on YouTube and had fallen in love with the sport. However, without the space to physically experiment longboarding, I felt I was missing out on something.
So we at GirlDreamer got thinking... maybe there were other women of colour wanting to access a sport like this but didn’t know where to start. We put our business hats on, found a small pot of funding and applied to essentially create the UK’s first women of colour Longboarding Crew – Boarders Without Borders. I created a single poster and launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to buy boards and safety gear. Once we not only reached, but exceeded our target, we put a call out on social media and started gaining attention from girls wanting to join us for BWB in the summer!
‘There is no dream too big for us’
I want GirlDreamer to become a household name and for women of colour everywhere to know that there is an organisation out there that genuinely cares about them and the futures they desire. We hope GirlDreamer will embed itself in our society as a frontrunner in all things unconventional, authentic and limitless. This may sound a bit far out now, but it’s exactly why we love being GirlDreamer - there’s no dream too big for us.
For Boarders Without Borders specifically, I want it to put Birmingham and the UK on the map for leading the way in creating inclusive sporting movements. I’m motivated by the fact that my work is helping to put my stamp on this city. It is encouraging other young women to see what is possible if they believe in themselves. I want our girls to be professionally trained and keep doing what they love doing, positively impacting other aspirational young women along the way. By creating a cycle of empowerment these young women will feel they are part of something bigger than themselves. It’s their time to be the superstars and shine!
Starting Out: My Top Tips
1. Stop rushing. The world is moving at the speed of light; churning out new iPhones, fashion, or latest fad, often leaving us feeling irrelevant and unsatisfied. But what I’ve learnt is to take your time and enjoy when life moves a bit more slowly. By allowing yourself the time to evolve and transition into the upcoming chapters of your life, you free up the headspace to explore your passions and create new opportunity. I’ve learnt that when you ease up and let something be, it naturally flows to where it needs to be.
2. Know why you are doing what you are doing. Having a strong foundation is key, as you will meet people who do not believe and being resolute in your ambitions will be needed to convince them to your point of view. Having a clear vision will also help you to protect your future, by helping you to build a team around you who believe in the same future that you do and ensuring that the people you are aiming to support know what it is you stand for.
3. Build a strong gut. You will need to rely on it for intuitive decision making. There are so many unknowns when starting out, particularly for young leaders that sometimes you’ll need to take a leap of faith and hope it all works out! Balancing risk and ambition is in the nature of start-up businesses, so trusting yourself and knowing that it’s OK to fail will stand you in good stead to keep moving forward.
4. Lay it out. Before executing anything, get all your ideas onto a paper or screen so they’re out of your head and in front you. This way you will be able to edit your vision and see how it may affect the process ahead.
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