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U of T entrepreneur headed to international pitch competition, focused on empowering women in Afghanistan

“Love, humility and compassion – from that you can build anything,” says Diva Turial, a social entrepreneur and founder of Lead With Dignity (photo courtesy of Diva Turial)

Think about some of the things that take three minutes in an average day – boiling a kettle, brushing your teeth, listening to a song. Three minutes can pass in the blink of an eye. 

Yet, in just three minutes, University of Toronto alumna Diva Turial presented a detailed plan to a panel of judges to help young women in Afghanistan overcome hunger and unemployment. It was so convincing that she won the Falling Walls Toronto Pitch Competition and will be taking part in a larger competition in Berlin in November. 

“I believe it’s my responsibility to serve women in Afghanistan who have abundant potential, but lack of resources and opportunities, because I was once in their shoes,” she says. “Now, I have the privilege of living in a country like Canada that’s very resourceful, so I’m trying to do my part.” 

Falling Walls is an international competition where students, entrepreneurs, early-career researchers and academics pitch an innovative idea in three minutes, showcasing a breakthrough that can impact science or society.

Turial’s proposal outlined a microlending program to provide women in rural Afghanistan with raw materials to create handwoven carpets. The carpets would then be sold in international markets, offering the women a way of earning much-needed income.

“Diva put forward a very strong, innovative pitch through which her social entrepreneurial spirit shone brightly,” says Akshita Vincent, a technology analyst with U of T’s Innovations & Partnerships Office and one of the competition’s judges. “She presented very clear goals and objectives, and a very well thought-out and achievable plan to meet them.”

Turial, a member of St. Michael’s College who graduated from the Faculty of Arts & Science in 2016 with a bachelor's degree in science, has taken advantage of every minute since starting at U of T to become an entrepreneur and humanitarian.

Her pitch was the result of hard work paired with motivation from her own life. Born and raised in a small village in Afghanistan, “there was no education for girls whatsoever and my biggest dream was one day having a chance to go to school,” she says.

She remembers feeling frustrated and powerless. “You have the potential, you have the drive, you have the ability, but you have no resources or opportunities,” she says.

Turial’s family immigrated to Canada in 2011. “I started university the next year and in the beginning it was difficult in terms of culture shock,” she says.

Once the shock subsided, some of her psychology and philosophy classes – as well as supportive professors – had a profound impact on her outlook, teaching her “to be humble, to be compassionate, always ready to help others and seek out opportunities to do so,” she says.

She initially thought about going into medicine, following in the footsteps of her siblings. “My brother is a physician and three of my sisters are nurses, and another one is in biomedical physics,” she says. “But that’s not where my potential lies. My drive is more towards social entrepreneurship.”

That drive is what led to her winning pitch, and her founding of the Toronto-based non-profit social impact startup Lead with Dignity in 2017.

Lead with Dignity aims to support and empower marginalized and vulnerable youth – with a specific focus on women – between the ages of 14 and 30 who are at risk of hunger, homelessness, chronic unemployment, mental health and other related issues. The organization offers employment assistance and microlending as a way to start a small business and generate a sustainable source of income.

“I want to support people who have potential but don’t have access to opportunities or resources, or they lack the confidence to do something they want to do,” she says. “Self-confidence can have an amazing impact on someone’s life.”

: A woman weaves at a loom as Afghan carpet weavers, washers, and shearing "finishers" produce carpets at the Zinnat Rug Factory

“I believe it’s my responsibility to serve women in Afghanistan who have abundant potential, but lack of resources and opportunities, because I was once in their shoes,” says Daiva Turial (photo of female weavers in Kabul by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

Lead with Dignity began slowly and relatively quietly as a Facebook group. The startup’s first two years were filled with coaching sessions, workshops, training programs, networking, grant-writing and applying for funding – all while securing space in U of T’s ONRamp co-working space. 

Along the way, she’s helped other U of T students, providing internship, volunteer and academic credit opportunities to students like Eugenia Wong, who just graduated from the architecture and visual studies program at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. She completed her degree with a six-month internship at Lead with Dignity that wrapped up in May.

“I had a great time,” says Wong. “Diva delegates responsibilities to every member of the team and respects our efforts. I’m most fond of representing Lead with Dignity at U of T’s annual startup expo. I was able to connect with like-minded people and learn more about other startups.”

Now more established, Lead with Dignity is poised to take some big steps forward. “This is my first startup, so it’s been a learning opportunity,” says Turial. “But now, I know how to do more.”

“More” includes conducting a research project in Toronto “to find out the challenges that youth face in terms of finding employment,” says Turial. “Once we analyze the data and better understand the challenges, we’ll design a workshop inviting employers, youth workers, and people that work with homeless or at-risk youth to see the different ways we can design a suitable program.”

She is also working on a digital platform – a website and mobile app – where interest-free loans can be disbursed to at-risk youth who need funding to start small businesses. Funds will be a combination of grant money, donations and crowd-funding by investors who want to support youth-led initiatives.

Turial also envisions creating an app to act as a single source for at-risk youth to easily find the resources they need – anything from education and employment counselling, to locations around the city for shelter or a meal. Think Trivago for at-risk support services.

“I’m feeling good, but I feel like I need to do more,” says Turial, reflecting on Lead with Dignity’s progress. “I wouldn’t call it much of an accomplishment unless you see real impact.”

She intends to boost that impact by completing an MBA at the Hult International Business School in Boston this fall.

“Once I do my MBA, I’ll be making connections, applying to grants and the main focus will be to build up a proper curriculum or support system of different resources for at-risk youth in Toronto,” she says.

“Love, humility and compassion – from that you can build anything.” 

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