Rabia Farhang wasn’t looking to retire at 56. But after decades of working in the corporate fashion industry, she knew it was time for something different. 

“I wanted to take my business skills and apply them to work I was more passionate about,” she says. 

She’d experienced that feeling before, starting a nonprofit with her brother in 2002. “Our family is from Afghanistan,” she explains. “After the Taliban was kicked out, we focused on rebuilding schools.” Two years in, the project became difficult to manage remotely, and she shifted her efforts to part-time pro-bono work with established nonprofits that support women and refugees. 

Over time, Farhang began to feel that her volunteer roles, while rewarding, kept her on the periphery. She wanted to start a consulting firm focused on supporting purpose-driven companies and organizations. To be successful, she knew she needed to learn more about how nonprofits work.

Her solution? An Encore Fellowship with The Kota Alliance, a nonprofit social enterprise incubator, where she would contribute 1,000 hours of work over a year, collect a stipend, and learn the ropes. 

“It felt like a perfect match,” Farhang says. “They were aligned with my passion for supporting female entrepreneurs — and looking to launch a social enterprise that needed strategy and fundraising support.” 

Two things she had a lot of experience with. 

The plan was to create a co-working space in Harlem that would provide a physical space for collaboration as well as skills and leadership training. But four weeks into Farhang’s fellowship, the pandemic hit. 

Instead of having her fellowship put on pause, Farhang fought to stay and support the organization in making a major pivot. “We couldn’t just wait for the pandemic to be over,” she says. “We had to quickly figure out how to support 50+ partners, craft new messaging that addressed the pandemic head-on, and discuss our longer-term goals.” 

Jaana Rehnstrom, The Kota Alliance’s founder and president, is glad Farhang stuck around. “Rabia has been very flexible, efficient and focused during this time,” she says. “Together, we worked out a new strategy to refocus our programming, make it virtual, and look to foundations for grants to finance activities going forward for the next few years. My hope is to raise enough funds to keep her on board.” 

Farhang says the Encore Fellowship experience has already exceeded her expectations in spite of the pandemic. Not only has it given her something meaningful to focus on during these unsettling times, it’s helped her understand how to better communicate with social ventures while she continues plans to launch her sustainability consulting firm. 

“The nonprofit industry is not dissimilar from the fashion world in that it’s hard to establish credibility without the experience,” she says. “This fellowship is giving me the opportunity to learn so much while also demonstrating the value of my corporate experience.” 

Farhang hopes Encore Fellowships become a new norm. “There are so many skilled people out there who have a desire to do purpose-driven work,” she says. “I hope more organizations open their doors so people with varied skills can come in and help. That could be hugely impactful and important.” 


Learn more about Encore Fellowships at: encore.org/fellowships/impact/ 

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