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Escaping the Velvet Ghetto for Good

At first glance, a poor young mother seeking work in India seems to have little in common with a female PR account manager in Toronto whose career is stalled thanks to her agency’s glass ceiling.

But both women are hoping to advance their station in life. And in both cases, the solution may lie in other women reaching out to help.

Giving the poorest women in India the chance for a better life is what motivates Shahnaz Taplin, founder and board chair of Invest in Muslim Women, which funds non-profits and NGOs aiding marginalized Muslim women around the world.

 “We have a very clear-cut mission or mantra as we would say, which is to educate, employ and empower Muslim women,” says Taplin. “It’s very simple, but it’s like the whole universe. It can create a paradigm shift in the women's lives.”

Taplin joins More magazine editor-in-chief Lesley Jane Seymour and advertising guru Cindy Gallop to explore how women move forward collectively in the fight for gender equality at the IABC Foundation Luncheon during the 2014 IABC World Conference in Toronto. The theme “The Velvet Ghetto Revisited,” is inspired by the groundbreaking 1986 "Velvet Ghetto" study by the IABC Research Foundation, which found women in PR made less money and had fewer opportunities to advance than their male counterparts.

“We’re in the world together,” says Taplin, a native of Bombay, who came to the U.S. at 18 and built a life there.

Sitting in the family room of the San Francisco home she shares with her husband Carl Pope, she’s casually dressed in a lime green tunic.  A colorfully eclectic mix of Oriental carpets striped chairs and silky pillows from India delight the eye. But the one motif repeated is that of women: in sculptures, in paintings and on pillows.

She’s spent her career working for non-profit causes including Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Goldman Environmental Prize. But she’s found her greatest joy and opportunity to effect global change with Invest in Muslim Women.

“Advancing women is advancing the entire nation and society,” says Taplin. “When they are employed the GDP goes up. It’s the best investment you can make.”

Studies by numerous organizations including The World Bank have shown that investing in women has a ripple effect, that lifts the entire country now and in future generations. Women tend to invest earnings back into their families, on things like food, better housing and schooling for their daughters. And being a breadwinner helps keep women from being abused by husbands and mother-in-laws upset over a small dowry.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton has been quoted as saying: “Investing in the potential of the world’s women and girls is one of the surest ways to achieve global economic progress, political stability and greater prosperity for women – and men – the world over.”

Taplin recently traveled to Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India. And of all the economically disadvantaged people in the state, Muslim women rank the lowest in terms of education, employment and income. But a small amount of money can have a profound effect.

Invest in Muslim Women gave a $10,000 grant to an NGO, the Lucknow Mahila Sewa Trust, which trains Muslim and other women for jobs in the fashion industry. For just $60 a head, they’re helping 150 women get the skills to increase their earnings five-fold. The program is open to women of all faiths.

“Currently, a lady who’s making $12 a month can get a job at the end where she’ll make $60 a month,” says Taplin. “There could be a push for corporations to think more about their investment.”

In Afghanistan, they've just funded a study by NECDO to study the importance of setting up women-only pay toilets at key bus stops around Kabul.  It seems like a small thing, but many places in the world have no sanitation. Many women must go to the bathroom before dawn or late at night when men aren’t around. Without safe places to bathe, women cannot seek jobs.

The survey is the first step to determine women's sanitation needs and whether pay toilets at bus stops would help. The plan is to help build a women’s toilet, and then hire local women to take care of it. It’s a perfect combination of empowerment and job creation.

“The high you get in doing this work is phenomenal; it’s completely off the charts!” says Taplin.

Tickets to the IABC Foundation Luncheon: “The Velvet GhettoRevisited” are $75 to $125 per person. A portion of the cost is tax deductible. For more information, visit

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