With her unique social enterprise Ballare, entrepreneur Amira Nimerawi has managed to solve a problem for busy working women while helping to provide an education for young girls living in refugee camps in Palestine.
Growing up in a remote mountain area of Australia, Nimerawi's parents made sure that they instilled in her a strong understanding and connection to her Palestinian identity and cause. "The emphasis on the culture and the history, pre- and post-1948 Nakba, really shaped who I am," Nimerawi told MEMO.
Passionate about healthcare, she began a nursing career with the hopes of one day establishing an NGO providing health services to Palestinian refugees. "I actually ended up working in finance, and it was in that space that I started to think of the idea for Ballare," she explained.
Working at a financial institution, she knew, would help her gain the business and finance know-how that she would otherwise not be able to get through nursing. This enabled her to take the first steps towards establishing an NGO.
She came across a concept known as the girl effect, the belief that when given the opportunity and a sound education, girls are able to lift and empower their communities in their various fields. It was then that she began to think of ways in which she could empower Palestinian girls, particularly through education. The idea for Ballare was born.
"I started thinking of products that were specific to women that they might love to buy, and it would have a one-to-one business model behind it." A shoe problem often encountered by Nimerawi and her colleagues gave her the idea to craft a solution that would eventually help fund education for young girls in Palestine.
I wanted to address a few problems in ballet flats to create the ultimate flat-soled shoes for busy women who want to be able to throw them in their bags whether they are going to a client meeting, a party or a wedding and want to swap for high heels, or whether they just literally want to wear them all day.
Ballet flats bought on the high street for 150-300 Australian dollars were either painful to wear or would start to fall apart too quickly when compared with the more expensive Italian brands.
Nimerawi's shoes needed to be comfortable, elegant, high quality and reasonably priced. "It was really important to me also that the manufacturing process was really ethical."
Although she explored manufacturing options in South East Asia and visited a number of factories in Cambodia while on a field trip with UNICEF, her fears over unethical manufacturing left her determined to have her flats made in Italy. "Italy is synonymous with quality and there is that history there."
It was also really important for her that she connected with whoever it was that was going to be making the shoes. "They needed to understand the vision beyond the actual shoe and fashion, the ethical aspect and what I was trying to do in terms of helping children in Palestine."
In Italy, she came across a second generation family business in the Marche area, a region known for its leatherwork and designer production. After some online correspondence with the face of the business, a man named Gabriel, Nimerawi went to Italy to view her first sample and to get to know the family. She was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was in fact his wife, Eleanor, driving the business at a time when many family businesses in Italy were closing down due to competition from China. "Behind the brand and the business there was this really strong Italian woman," she said, "and they loved the idea and loved what we were trying to do beyond just selling shoes."
"Dignity is Priceless"
Nimerawi partnered up with UNRWA's "Dignity is Priceless" campaign, launched in response to the unprecedented funding cut to the organisation's budget announced by the US recently. Every pair of ballet flats sold goes towards funding the education of a Palestinian girl.
"I chose UNRWA because it has been in the region for a long time and has the necessary infrastructure and access to places like Gaza that I would never be able to go and visit," she pointed out. "My research into UNRWA found that the agency's projects are evidence-based. The social impact is evaluated to see how to reiterate and evolve in that space."
There is a connection with UNRWA in Nimerawi's family. Her father fled from Palestine as a teenager and went to an UNRWA school in the Wahdat Refugee Camp in Jordan. "I grew up hearing about that and about people who were even less fortunate than we were."
She went to Hebron in the occupied West Bank last year. "I was hearing reports that a lot of the schools were being bulldozed on the first or second day of term, but through all of that my emotional resilience has been strengthened and my commitment to ensuring that Palestinian children have access to education has only been galvanised." Ultimately, she added, you just need to stay focused on bringing about whatever small change that you can, and hope that there is a ripple effect from that point.
It has taken Nimerawi almost three years to do the research, come up with the business model, find the right manufacturer and launch Ballare. Her first collection went live earlier this year.
Having incorporated customer feedback and her own testing of the samples to refine the product, she has preliminary targets and an agile approach in terms of testing, learning and doing small production runs. "There are a few things I've done deliberately from the design perspective, from having rubber soles — which give some flexibility and grip and enable you to fold them up into your bag quite nicely — to other little details of not having stitches in certain places so the shoe doesn't rub."
It was exciting for her to get feedback from customers in Dubai and Canada who were outside her usual sphere. "They loved the shoes and thought they were very comfortable."
For her next design, Amira Nimerawi is hoping to incorporate traditional Palestinian embroidery. "Ballare flats are not mass produced," she stressed, "they're ethically produced and are going to a good cause, and that's a really great model for me as a start-up." Hopefully, even more Palestinian girls will soon start to experience the result of her brainchild, and ballet flats will indeed be sending them to school.