23rd January 2020
In 1976 a 18 year old girl, (and I say girl intentionally instead of the word woman), a 18 year old girl who had said goodbye to her family and all she had ever known, stepped off a plane and was greeted by a family she had never met. The flight was from Pakistan and she was now in the UK. The next day, she married a stranger.
While she was adjusting to married life, in a new country, with a new language, living in a new home, with new parents, and eight new siblings, while it seems impossible for me as a second generation British born Asian to comprehend this, I know this girl was no different to most of the women and girls out there who came to the UK from India or Pakistan in the 60’s and 70’s.
To try and comprehend for a second what they must have been going through, I feel like a simple piece of text cannot do it justice, I would need a to write a book to truly capture what was going on in their mind, in their heart and how they coped and got through it all.
For now, for the purpose of this story, lets take it back to the 18 year old who this story started with. I’m going to skip to a part of her story, which is linked to mine – and that is one of the practical problems she had running a house with 12 people in it, she was constantly in the kitchen, cooking, and what was she cooking the most, roti of course. And can you imagine, if everyone ate two rotis each at least twice a day, that’s a lot of rotis….
She expressed her frustration to her new husband, how the never ending roti making was creating a never ending cycle of floury mess which has to be cleaned, only to be remade again in a few hours time – with that many people in the house eating at different times, it was almost a full time job just making the roti. Lucky for her, her husband was a mechanic by trade which made him a problem solver, he was also a dab hand at DIY, and so he crafted her a box out of wood where she could make her roti, the mess stayed in the box, and when finished, she would simply close the lid.
Over the years the box multiplied and found homes in other family member’s kitchens. When the time came for their eldest daughter to leave home, the husband, who was now a dad, made sure his daughter was equipped with her box so she would never be without her roti….
Who was this girl and the stranger she married? My mother and father. Why am I telling you this? Because every story starts somewhere. That is the beginning of my story. Now, let me tell you a little bit about me….
I grew up in the 80’s, in a small town in the North of England called Sunderland, on a council estate. My parents as mentioned before are from Pakistan, I was born in the UK, my childhood, like many other second generation Asians, was spent trying to navigate through life as a British born Muslim Pakistani. This is not an easy feat, a constant battle trying to hold on to your eastern roots (let's be real, at times forced) whilst being brought up in a western society, trying to fit in as much as you can. I was the only brown girl in the whole school. Forget the racial issues that this presented, (that's a whole different story), on top of that, due to religious reasons, I had to wear trousers to school, this is very common now but back then I was asked none stop, why I was wearing trousers, another additional reminder on top of the colour of my skin, the fact that I couldn’t eat meat (or the best sweets because they had gelatin in them!), that I was different and did not fit in. From the age of 5 to 11 I was always the odd one out, made to feel less than everyone else because I wasn't like everyone else. By the time I was a teenager, thing got worse, my friends were going out, drinking, had boyfriends and were "having fun". Due to my strict upbringing, I was behind closed doors, shielded from experiences that I longed to be a part of. As an adult, I now understand and am grateful as to how my parents brought me up, so I would never go "astray" from a religious perspective, but at the time, I wasn't happy, I did not rebel, instead I lived life accepting I could never do or be like my friends and as a result I had a belief that I would never fit in anywhere and I would never belong….
This can have a big affect on how you view life. Back then there were no strong Asian female role models, I thought all I had to look forward to after school was marriage, cooking and cleaning as that’s all I’d ever seen and known. Of course there is nothing wrong with that. But the fact is there was no one to inspire, stretch and instill the mentality that dreaming big is an option available to you, and believing that anything is possible is an achievable reality. Obviously, some aspects of our culture do not help, while culture does an incredible role of nurturing the character, values and traditions of our true roots, not all of the beliefs and behaviors are positive and as a consequence, culture can also inhibit the real you in fear of society and what people will think and say.
I can’t blame my parents for any of this which while I was growing up was very easy to do. I now know they did the best with what they knew at the time. Being the eldest child, when it came to my siblings, I also suffered from the “first born kid can’t do anything and the rest of them get away with blue murder” chip on my shoulder.
Now I’m older, I can see that my role models were always right in front of my eyes all along. A father, who started a business from nothing, worked 7 days a week without complaint. A mother who left everything to start a new life and kept going no matter what life threw at her.
When you’re a teenager, you don’t see those things. It took a school friend to say something very simple to me to realize and finally ACCEPT who I was, I was complaining to her that my dad would not give me permission to go to a party because "we were different", she looked at me and said "but you ARE different". I couldn't believe my friend was not taking my side! Instead her simple words made me see that I needed to embrace who I was, instead of fighting it. That one line made a massive impact on me. You may argue this is all I ever heard from my parents, I don’t know what it was, it took hearing it from someone else for the penny to drop. By the time I started University, I had completely accepted who was, this led me to redesign myself I was slowly evolving into someone different. I no longer wanted to be that shy, awkward girl afraid of the world. My whole attitude changed. I would no longer let society or culture restrict how I thought or how I lived my life. I was confident and no longer cared what anyone thought of me. In the words of the Greatest Showman, it really was a case of "This Is Me!". You could say I took it to the next extreme, I adapted a unique style, no longer did I want to fit in which is all I longed to do since I was child, I now wanted to stand out, stand out from the crowd, and I did. I was friendly, I was fun, I loved meeting new people and made a diverse group of wonderful friends who I am still friends with to this day. I let go of the fear, and finally I was free to be me.
This brings us to the last part of the story. I call this part, “the awakening”.
After uni, I joined the corporate world and shortly after got married and had children. I am truly blessed and have no complaints with my life and am eternally grateful to God for all I have. Having said that, if I’m completely honest, I did always believe in my heart that there had to be more to life, I was in a cycle of working 9 to 5, kids, housework, TV, sleep, repeat, and believed that until I retired, that was it, I was “OK” with this, I was content, you could even say I was happy, of course I was, but like I said, I did in my heart wonder if there was more - then, I would feel guilty for having these thoughts, thinking I was being ungrateful for wanting more, and so the feelings in my soul just wallowed inside and I carried on with another day, like we all do.
It wasn’t until a birthday meal with my closest friend, that I had “the awakening”. Out of the blue, she got deep and philosophical and asked me what my dreams were, she asked me where I wanted to be in 10 years time. I couldn’t answer. I had never dared to dream, I have never allowed my brain the audacity to do that – like I mentioned earlier, no one had every encouraged or inspired me to do that, and after all, who was I? I’m nothing particularly special, only extraordinary people do extraordinary things right? So why should my thought’s be any different to that of others, why should I dream of something else? That conversation with my friend was the first step to discovering a whole new world of what I CAN do. Through personal development, through turning off the TV, reading books, attending courses, blocking negative people (or redlighters as I call them who always block your path), through understanding the power of the mind, positive thinking, realising that I did have a dream, a dream of making a positive difference to the lives of others, in fact, I had lots of dreams! Through believing in myself, believing that anything is possible and that God would not have put a dream in my heart without a reason, with this new mindset, a new chapter in my life started.
The box that my dad had made for me to make roti when I left home, had always got a lot of attention and I always knew that there was a business opportunity there. Over the years I had dabbled with the idea of turning it into a business and had even made the logo with my brother many moons ago – I just didn’t know what to do or how to do it, so it was years of all talk no action. But after my awakening and with my new mindset - I was ready. I made the decision; I was going to make this dream a reality. What happened after was irrelevant, I knew I had to try and that I never wanted to look back and think to myself, “what if…?”.
The trigger to finally take the first step and take action happened in March 2016, an unexpected Saturday night alone left me watching the movie ‘Joy’- I was inspired. That very same night, I sat down and wrote a project brief for my new creation which I named “rotibox”. I sent it off to numerous suppliers in China.
Whilst working with these suppliers, I decided to move away from the original wooden version and created the rotibox you see today. I wanted to make something better than before that was truly unique. I wanted it to do it’s job of containing mess, but I also wanted it to be more hygienic and stylish than other boxes. I based the shape on my iphone and even drew around it for some sketches! After many, many months, phone calls, skype’s, emails and discussions we eventually got there… the sample was signed off, the moulds were made and by October 2016 we were ready to move to production!
But! Business life is full of ups and downs, which I learnt the hard way. Having taken a 3-month sabbatical from my full time job to launch rotibox. The rotibox sample arrived and it was not what I was expecting. It was not what I had signed off, in fact it was a disaster. The factory’s response was to “take it or leave it”. With a heavy heart, I decided to leave it, despite spending thousands. I wanted to launch a quality product that I could be proud of and this was not it. I took a week to wallow and then I picked myself up and started again. I wasn’t going to give up, so I wrote a new and improved product brief.
As luck would have it (or as Samuel L Jackson would say, divine intervention), a month later I was contacted by a factory in Wales. They convinced me that China is not always the cheapest or best solution and they wanted to take on the project. The initial timescale was 3 days in design and 3 months in production which sounded great, however once again I was met with trials and adversity, at one point the project died as the designer could not give me what I wanted and I could not compromise on my vision, that’s a meeting I will never forget. Eventually, my engineer did unexpectedly find the solution (while he was in the shower apparently!) Then, after a lot more back and forth, 3 days in design turned into 2 years (yes, 2 years!), but finally we had a design that ticked all the boxes.
In December 2018 the final rotibox design was signed off and production of samples began. Six months later the moulds were ready and setup in Wales. I love that my product is made in the UK. Many more ups and downs were in store with machines breaking down and the product not being produced to the correct standard, I could write a whole book about that topic alone, but by December, we got there, and now in January 2020, I am happy to have finally launched rotibox.co.uk.
I launched my business on 17 Jan 2020. I have no idea what will happen next. Will it be a success? Who knows? I will continue to work hard and hope and pray that it is. Regardless of the outcome, that dream that I spoke of earlier, that dream to make a positive difference in the lives of others, to inspire others to be all they can be, maybe I can do that by sharing my story, that’s the hope.
My aspiration is that my story makes other women like me see that anything is possible, that you have every right to have a dream and you have everything within you to make it real. If that northern girl, with the two greasy plaits (cos of the the dabur amla oil) and green trousers from the council estate can create a new product and bring it to market to help make the lives of women easier, trust me, if she can do that, you can do anything.
Remember: Dream, Hope, Faith and Believe. And don’t stop till you get there.