Getting to Know You: Abdul Shiil, Co-Founder, Sahan Cares

Abdul Shiil Co-Founder of Business Champion Awards finalist Sahan Cares tells Business Matters what led him to start the family-run social enterprise.

What do you currently do at Sahan Cares?

I’m the Co-Founder and Director of Sahan Cares, a family-run social enterprise started in 2012 in London. We give employment opportunities to refugees, specifically Black and ethnic minority women, by teaching them English and training them as care workers for the elderly. I deal with Marketing and Operations.

What was the inspiration behind your business?

One of the reasons we decided to set up a social enterprise was to empower the community that once empowered us. My family arrived in the UK as refugees and received so much support that I feel it’s my duty but also my privilege to pass that on – and on a larger scale.

The inspiration for Sahan Cares, therefore, comes from my mother. She used to run a charity that empowered disenfranchised Black and ethnic minority women, especially other refugees, by bringing them together as a community, teaching them some English and letting their kids get to know each other. Sahan Cares was started, in a way, as a prolongation and expansion of that community and as a way to create positive changes in these women’s lives.

The older I become, the more inspired I am to help people that come from the same background as me to visualise a different life for themselves. I find it incredibly motivating to know that it’s possible to earn a living and uplift your community simultaneously, and that’s what I’m trying to share.

Who do you admire?

Definitely my grandmother. She’s still based in Somaliland and, despite not knowing how to read or write, is an entrepreneur who inspires many people within her community. In Somaliland, women are not encouraged to earn their own living, but my grandfather never thought that way, and they set up a farm together, which she still runs after his death.

She would always tell her children to strive for independence, be the master of their own destiny and never compromise on their beliefs and values. She has a natural love for caring for people and has helped so many women in her community to think outside the box; she also sponsors orphans and donates to several charities and, despite having no access to TV or the internet, she’s very switched on about current affairs – she recently installed solar panels on her farm because she wanted to do her bit for the environment.

When you’re young, I think you look for inspiration from classic icons in the business world, like Richard Branson and such. Still, the older I get, the more I appreciate all that my grandmother accomplished with her limited resources and the more my admiration for her grows. She believes in giving without expecting anything in return because the good you do will come back to you somehow, which can be used in business today, especially after Covid.

I see aspects of my mother and grandmother in the women at Sahan Cares – that natural sense of caring and so much power – and we want to help them reach their full potential.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

When we started the business, I wasn’t very patient – I wanted us to grow so quickly! However, I needed to learn that you have to build the proper foundations to support sustainable growth. Even after all these years, we’re still implementing this; Covid, especially, was a time of reflection. We realised that in order to keep growing, we needed to rebalance and keep reinforcing our foundations.

What defines your way of doing business?

I believe that our way of doing business is actually what separates us from other businesses: we are a care organisation, but one that cares about our staff – they are central to all that we do. For example, we’ve never had zero hour contracts and we’ve always given our staff options, such as access to early pay and extended leave. What’s more, our office is their home, and they bring their kids there. In fact, we’re so proud that some of the children of our carers just graduated from universities like Oxford, Cambridge and King’s College and that’s the generation of kids who would come to our office and use the Wifi to do their homework.

That’s what we’re most proud of: doing our work to empower these women and seeing how that filters down into the next generation. Caring has a domino effect – our care workers go above and beyond for their clients: they’ll visit them on their days off and put money together to buy them flowers or a cake to celebrate their birthdays. We feel like because we go the extra mile for the carers, they go the extra mile for their clients.

During Covid, we knew our carers were suffering from burnout so we launched our Therapy Thursdays program and brought in a psychologist to support them and encourage them to share ways to deal with the issues they were facing. They often live in disenfranchised communities and it’s important for them to share their experiences and support each other, especially when it comes to dealing with their kids and the negative influences from the community. And then, on top of that, they have so much other trauma because they fled from war, and now they’re able to work through that, too.

When we found out that our carers would need to be vaccinated, we knew there would be some backlash because there was a lot of fear and mistrust in the Black and ethnic minority communities. So we started to use some of the mental health and wellbeing time to dispel myths and appease any doubts about the Covid vaccine and, by March 2021, we had a 100% vaccine rate. We received a letter from the Prime Minister to thank us and our process was adopted by local NHS groups – we even had the Oxford vaccine taskforce asking us for tips. That’s a great example of the ripple effect – we started from a place of wanting to look after our staff, which became a great wave that helped and inspired others.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

I try to be mindful about giving advice because everyone is on their own path and what works for one person doesn’t always work for the other. However, I’d definitely go back to the patience element here – it’s so important to learn but hard to teach. Be patient, have good people around you that you trust because setting something up can be lonely.

When times get tough, always remember why you started and keep it in mind when times are good, too. It’s natural to get complacent, but when things are going well, you have to work even harder because nurturing that drive will help you when times are hard. And times do get hard! People think that running a business is such a high, but it’s during the low points that you build resilience. Keeping your mission close at heart is the way to get through the ups and downs and always stay true to why you started.

Read more:
Getting To Know You: Abdul Shiil, Co-Founder, Sahan Cares