Visible Women

Why charity CEO Asma Shah is Stylist’s Woman of the Week

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women who are making a difference to society. This week, You Make It founder and CEO Asma Shah explains how her mother’s death inspired her to set up a charity helping unemployed women from marginalised communities.

In 2009, Asma Shah’s mother passed away. She’d had a tough and remarkable life: having moved to London from Lahore, Pakistan before Shah was born, she went on to escape a violent marriage and build a successful career in education.

“When I was one, she ran away from my father with four daughters under the age of eight in tow,” Shah explains. The family initially lived in a women’s refuge before moving onto a council estate in Peckham, and the girls went to a school that “wasn’t great”. But throughout those difficult years, her mother was always an inspirational figure. And after she died, Shah began thinking about the support systems that had enabled her to thrive, against huge odds.

Even when her mother was “fresh in the country” with very little family around her, Shah says, there were people in her life who recognised her potential. “But what happens to women who don’t have that inspirational role model in their lives? What would have happened to us, her four daughters, if we hadn’t had her?”

At the time, Shah was living near Broadway Market, a rapidly gentrifying part of east London, and had worked in the creative and cultural sector for over a decade (her CV includes stints at Channel 4 and Camden’s Roundhouse music venue). Despite the fact that her lifestyle had become middle class, she still felt sharply attuned to the experiences of the working class women of colour she saw around her in the East End.

“I could see that all the changes in the East End weren’t really bringing those women along with them,” she says. That observation, combined with her mother’s death, made her want to help women who weren’t reaping the benefits of gentrification, and whose confidence and career aspirations may have been damaged by poverty or “not being in very nurturing households”. And thus, You Make It was born. 

Women at a You Make It workshop in London 

The charity, founded from Shah’s kitchen table in 2011, provides unemployed women in London aged 18-30 with what she describes a “holistic empowerment programme”. Over the course of six months, they are given the support they need to figure out where their passions and interests lie, connected with professional mentors in that field, provided with practical skills and training, and given access to work placements.

Mentoring is so important, says Shah, because most of the women who apply for the You Make It programme “haven’t ever experienced having one person who really champions them. They don’t have people in their lives who’ve really listened to them and pushed them to do well.”

The programme also includes workshops focusing on emotional wellness and self-esteem, which helps create “a sisterhood” amongst the women. Often, the women who come to the charity are very lonely – many are single mothers, or left school early – meaning that the bonds they form through You Make It can be life-transforming.

“Everyone needs friends to be happy, and it’s really important that they establish those relationships and a sense of accountability amongst their peers,” Shah says. 

“Our women are resilient, they’re strong, and those qualities are fantastic when it comes to employment” 

It’s not all rosy. Many of the women on the programme suffer from anxiety or depression or have traumatic backstories, often involving gender-based violent abuse. As a result, the programme also offers one-to-one therapy sessions with accredited psychotherapists and counsellors. You Make It used to refer women to external mental health services, Shah explains, but the waiting lists were usually so long that it has proved more effective to offer therapy in-house.

“When we’re concerned about a woman who’s disclosed something traumatic or who is struggling with her mental health, we’re now able to connect her to a therapist for between five and 10 sessions. And that’s amazing, because our women are from cultures that don’t traditionally address mental health. So this is the first generation to buck that trend.”

While Shah didn’t set out to support women of colour specifically, around 96% of the programme’s applicants are black or Asian. This, she says, reflects the fact that unemployment is proportionally higher among BAME women than in all other ethnic and gender groups. According to the Office of National Statistics, 9% of BAME women in England and Wales are unemployed, compared to 8% of BAME men and 4% of white men and women. 

Gentrification – something usually associated with an increasingly white and wealthy population – can exacerbate unemployment in working-class communities of colour, Shah says. “When we talk to our women about the changes in the East End, for example, they’re generally really angry about them, because they’re not [opening up] opportunities that they know how to access.”

Shah is keen to stress that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a neighbourhood changing over time. But she worries that when people move into a gentrifying area and set up new businesses, they often fail to “reach out and create opportunities for the people who are already here”. You Make It seeks to bridge that disconnect by forging connections between new businesses and the young women on the programme.

“Our women are resilient, they’re strong, and those qualities are fantastic when it comes to employment,” she says. “It’s about making sure the whole community is involved in the process of an area changing, so that everyone can benefit.”

“Everyone needs friends to be happy”

The You Make It programme is patently effective. More than 80% of the charity’s ‘graduates’ are now in paid employment, working on their own start-ups or have gained places in formal education. The same percentage say they have a wider social and professional network than before they started, and 100% report feeling genuinely “cared for and understood” after accessing the programme. Less than one-fifth of women stay on benefits after completing the programme, compared to 87% at the start.

Yet, like many grassroots charities, You Make It is struggling for financial survival, and the organisation is currently seeking donations on Crowdfunder to help it keep its doors open for another year (you can donate here). Despite its charitable status, Shah says that supporting You Make It shouldn’t be seen as a purely altruistic act.

“Ultimately, it’s in everyone’s interests to develop the talents of young women so they can contribute to society, grow the economy and make London a more amazing and vibrant place,” she says. “Our women don’t just come off our programme and get into paid work – they set up fantastic initiatives of their own, create jobs by setting up their own businesses and work on social change projects.

“They’re enriching society – so supporting them has to be good for everybody.”

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of You Make It