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Priya Designs Her Dream

Priya becomes an award-winning designer.

Priya was eleven years old when her father died. He had worked a modest job, and while his income had not been substantial, it supported a family of four living in Chennai, India. Priya’s mother stayed home while Priya and her younger brother, Gopi, attended school. After their father’s death, they couldn’t afford rent and moved to a small cement-walled room in the slums without a toilet or water access. Priya and Gopi dropped out of school, and Priya and her mother found work as housekeepers, each earning a dollar or two a day. They relied on free meals, served twice weekly at the temple, or leftover food from an employer. Most often, they filled their stomachs with tea to survive the day.

“It was the most traumatic time of my life,” Priya said. The childhood she knew, though it hadn’t been lavish, was stripped away almost overnight.

And when it seemed life couldn’t possibly get more challenging, Priya’s family suffered another setback. A flood struck South India, completely submerging their home and destroying the last of their possessions. The family was displaced, along with nearly 2 million other Indians, and moved for a month to temporary housing in a government school.

When they returned, the economy struggled to recover. It became difficult for Priya and her mother to find housekeeping work. The government was offering seamstress training, so Priya enrolled. Her mother had introduced her daughter to sewing at an early age, and Priya had maintained an interest. By the time she finished the training, she dreamed of becoming a dress designer and opening her own business, but she needed capital and supplies to get started. She had neither.

Priya’s life changed in July 2016 when she learned about Zoe Empowers. “I had never heard of an organization helping orphaned children reach their dreams,” Priya said. And since she thought about her dream of becoming a dress designer often, she knew she had to discover what Zoe Empowers was all about. She joined the “Hard Work” empowerment group a few days later.

After the group formed, Zoe Empowers staff conducted entrepreneurship training and guided Priya and the other children in developing a business plan. From there, vocational training was arranged, and business grants were dispensed. Since Priya had already completed the training to become a seamstress, she could use her grant to purchase a sewing machine and begin working immediately. Neighbors and friends were her first customers, but demand increased once word spread about her talent. Eventually, she opened a shop in the market. With her profits, Priya and Gopi could pay their own school fees. She saved enough to move her family out of the slums and into a new home with adequate toilet facilities and space to plant a vegetable garden. Zoe also helped Priya obtain government health insurance and national identity cards for her family.

Priya with her first sewing machine, 2016.

Priya’s business not only lifted her family out of extreme poverty but also established her as a young entrepreneur in the community. She hired employees to assist her with trimming and stitching buttons and gained admiration for her talent, especially her ability to repurpose scrap materials. Women began seeking Priya to transform their old sarees–a long garment worn over dresses for special occasions– into fashionable dresses for their daughters. Her imaginative designs often brought tears to their eyes. Priya’s own mother was speechless the first time she wore a dress sewn by her daughter. “I could feel my daughter’s love and happiness,” Priya’s mother said.

Priya sharing her sketchbook. 2023

In 2019, Priya graduated from Zoe and studied fashion design at the Vellore Institute of Technology in Chennai. At VIT, she explored her interest in recycled fabrics by creating a collection of non-traditional blouse styles with bold patterns and sleek silhouettes. Of twenty-four students, Priya ranked among the top and received the “Best Designer” award, an achievement that landed her a paid guest teaching role at the college.

Priya’s mother transitioned from housekeeping work to helping Priya full-time. Gopi will graduate from Higher Secondary School (high school) next year and plans to attend college.

Priya with her brother Gopi. 2016

Sometimes, Priya, now 20 years old, imagines what her life might have looked like if it weren’t for Zoe Empowers. “Without Zoe, my talents and dreams would have remained buried inside of me,” Priya said.

But now that she has found some success as a designer, her vision has only gotten bigger. One day, she hopes to operate a more extensive shop to sell ready-made dresses and original designs. She also wants to create a fashion school to teach emerging designers, particularly young women, how to start a fashion boutique and manufacturing business. She wants to give others what Zoe Empowers gave her: an opportunity to achieve her dream.

“ If you have a dream, Zoe Empowers will show you how to achieve it.” – Priya