FOO CHEE CHANG
Bright and warm hues - red, orange and green, among others - seem to dominate the aesthetics of Higher Ground, a small establishment comprising a Jawalakhel cafe, and a bakery and crafts department in Bhanimandal, Lalitpur.
"We wanted to create a welcoming environment, and also inspire optimism," explains owner Bimala Shrestha Pokharel. It's clear she's also referring to the fact that Higher Ground actively seeks at-risk individuals and those in need, providing them with training and employment opportunities.
Even before she bought Higher Ground Cafe from friends in 2005 and transformed it into the socially conscious business it is today, Pokharel was conducting baking classes in her own kitchen. She trained women from low-income households in the hope that they would go on to start their own baking micro-enterprises. But she harboured dreams of setting up a bakery of her own, too.
This materialised in 2007 once Pokharel revamped the caf? she had acquired. She made it a point to hire only individuals, mostly women, who desperately needed a job to sustain their families. She recounts the particularly poignant story of a woman whose husband went to work in Malaysia and has yet to be heard from, six years hence.
The crafts department came next. It originally started as an experiment after one of the bakery girls expressed a desire to revive her previous vocation of making bracelets and necklaces. Pokharel threw her support behind her.
"I like to encourage women to do what they want to do, and are good at doing," she says. She sent samples of the craftwork produced to her friends and contacts in the United States, and they proved popular. The crafts aspect of the business is now on a solid footing.
Higher Ground has also managed to reach out to a few girls who worked in dance bars and cabin restaurants. It offers them viable employment alternatives and equips them with skills that will hopefully keep them from having to go back to professions they are often compelled to take up to survive in Kathmandu.
But while Higher Ground started out with a focus on girls and women, it is now turning its attention towards family units. This means men are also being employed as service staff. Gopal Tamang rejoined Higher Ground after a two-year stint at a restaurant in Malaysia. In spite of Pokharel encouraging him to move on should a better opportunity arise, he has no plans to leave Higher Ground, which he considers family.
To date, Higher Ground has trained dozens of women in baking and crafts. It currently employs 22 individuals, with that number set to increase as the business expands. But Pokharel recognises that she can't give a job to everyone. So she is considering setting up training centres for employment skills. Also in the pipeline are plans to register Higher Ground as an NGO and partner other organisations to hand out scholarships to children in rural areas who would otherwise have to work.
Despite being the full-fledged businesswoman that she is today, Pokharel never considered a corporate career prior to Higher Ground.
"Before I went to the United States to study, I never thought of doing business. I hated business," she says. She had initially aspired to be a doctor, but a story about micro-enterprises in Kenya, where women were weaving and selling baskets to support their families, proved a revelation. She realised there were more ways than one to help others.
"Now," she smiles, "I really find joy in doing this."