SALEM — Each of the colorful scarves, printed shorts and decorative pillow covers that line the shelves and tables of Aasma’s Dream clothing store tell a story traveling all the way from Pakistan.
Each item is handmade by women in Pakistan from organic, chemical-free cotton. Aasma Aziz Sahotra, 26, opened her shop on Lafayette Street in Salem this May.
The young entrepreneur left her small village in Pakistan in August 2015 to pursue her master’s degree. Sahotra was interested in studying social work, which she said is an inaccessible career path in her country.
She applied to three colleges in the U.S. and decided to attend Salem State University, where educators at the Center for International Education aided her transition. But the original idea to open her shop began with $100 in her pocket and 10 scarves.
“I came up with Aasma’s Dream by helping myself at that time,” says the Beverly resident, who was trying to think of creative ways to pay for school and living expenses. She began selling jewelry and scarves on the university’s campus and in class. “I sold out of everything,” Sahotra said.
Aasma’s Dream allows women in Pakistan to have a job and use their sewing skills to earn money and become financially independent. “The women are not allowed to go outside alone at home,” she said. “There’s less opportunities for them to get a profession.”
If she stayed in Pakistan, Sahotra said opening her own business like this would be impossible. “I started studying English secretly,” she said. With support from her four siblings, she convinced her parents to let her study abroad.
“I’m very passionate and determined,” said the 26 year old, who was frustrated staying at home. “I didn’t want my struggles to go to waste.”
Boarding a 26-hour flight to America, Sahotra finally landed in Boston. Through one of her father's connections, she said a host family agreed to let her stay with them for free while she was in school in exchange for part-time work in one of their stores.
Once she arrived, Sahotra said they changed their minds. She convinced them to let her stay two nights then went to Salem State for help. Sahotra found a temporary home with a pastor’s family, where she stayed for four months and adjusted to American culture and the education system.
“Very small things were difficult for me to understand,” said Sahotra, like interacting with male peers.
In May 2018, she graduated with her master’s in social work and was chosen to be the commencement speaker. At that moment, she also announced plans for her nonprofit, One Little Light, which works to empower women and support children’s education.
“I decided I wanted to help more people,” added Sahotra. “I wanted to create something to help students.”
The nonprofit, which now includes seven countries, provides school supplies for children in grades one through five, and works to provide scholarships for international students, like herself, who don’t have the means to continue higher education.
“It’s a small light giving people a hope,” says Sahotra. Ten percent of sales made from Aasma’s Dream go directly to the charity. She chose a red butterfly for her store’s logo — speaking of its transformation from “something raw into something beautiful.”
She says her eco-friendly business, which also has a location in Danvers and is looking to be a kiosk in the Northshore Mall, is one way to raise awareness of her products and its mission.
“People are really liking it and love to touch and see everything,” Sahotra added, who’s now on a work permit. Each item is designed by her older sister. Two women are working for her in Pakistan, with two others training.
The North Shore Community Development Coalition provided Sahotra with her storefront space at 104 Lafayette St., which sits a few doors down from their office. Director of Community Engagement Jake Lefker said he worked with Sahotra from the start.
The North Shore CDC’s Small Business Initiative offered free consulting services to 35 local business owners in Salem and Peabody this year.
Lefker said Sahotra is the first client to be in that space, which is part of a new trial program within the initiative that provides a rent-free space for start-up businesses owned by women, minorities or immigrants.
“Right away she had the drive and put her plans into action,” Lefker said. “It’s incredible, she’s the best fit for this.”
As for the future, Sahotra plans to expand her business and spread awareness of her nonprofit and the importance of creating sustainable clothing. Even the wooden fixtures in her store are sourced from natural materials she found at the beach.
The entrepreneur said the goal would be to bring her manufacturers to the U.S. and provide jobs for immigrants just coming over.
“They can work with me,” she said, adding how women usually always know how to sew. “I want to count how many people I help,” she added.
Staff writer Alyse Diamantides can be reached at 978-338-2660 or email@example.com.