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Saba Gul '06, SM '09

Reaching out to Middle Eastern girls in need

When Saba Gul arrived in Sri Lanka as an MIT Public Service Center (PSC) fellow in 2005, she started to look at poverty in a new way. In her homeland, Pakistan, she had seen plenty of people in need, but “you come to accept it as a harsh reality,” she says. Through the fellowship, she saw a way to take action. “That’s where my passion for social service really started,” Gul says. “Working in a small village installing solar panels for refugees from the tsunami was far more gratifying than anything I’d done before.”

After the fellowship, Gul returned to MIT to complete two degrees in computer science. “I always wanted to be an engineer and chose to come to MIT because it was the best,” she says. “Engineering gives you a strong basis for problem solving and critical analysis, and a rigorous way of thinking.” Gul solidified her computer science credentials with an 18-month stint as a software engineer at Oracle between degrees. And she combined her technical skills with global outreach in several projects, such as designing an engineering curriculum for MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) China, conducting engineering workshops in Ethiopia, and working on a clustering algorithm for XML documents during an internship in France. She now works as a software architect for Thomson Reuters in Minneapolis.

The project closest to Gul’s heart, however, is the Business and Life Skills School (BLISS), which she and Eleni Orphanides ‘10 cofounded as students. Seed money for the social enterprise, which is dedicated to empowering adolescent girls in Attock, Pakistan, came from a Legatum grant and PSC’s IDEAS competition, which they won in 2009. Gul now leads the project as executive director—working evenings and weekends—with on-site staff. So far, some 30 Afghan refugee girls, previously employed full time at carpet looms, have been able to attend school thanks to BLISS, which teaches them embroidery and entrepreneurial skills in after-school classes. Sales of embroidered handbags (www.bagsforbliss.org) help replace the girls’ lost income, which is essential to getting family approval to attend school.

In September, Gul was honored as one of 70 young American Muslim leaders whom Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited to break the Ramadan fast at a U.S. State Department dinner. She can now draw on contacts at the State Department as well as connections she has made with area faculty and Pakistani government officials to help BLISS grow into a model that could be used in large cities in Pakistan and neighboring countries.

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