A young mother struggling with work-life balance, impresses Risham Khan with her dedication and effortless charm
As a young girl growing up in Karachi, Sophia Kasim Kasuri lived in a joint family and was almost always surrounded by lots of children. She organized fun play dates with her cousins and enjoyed her early years to the fullest.
Little did she know that her innocent passion for children would turn into something so extraordinary. Now a 38-year-old, Sophia is the leading early childhood education expert in Pakistan known for bringing the global phenomenon of ECD (Early Childhood Development) to the country.
I met Sophia on a humid August afternoon at her office in Gulberg, Lahore. As I made my way through the guarded gates and metal detectors, I found myself at the core of the Beaconhouse Head Office. Sophia’s right hand woman, Quratulain, walked me through the massive maze-like building. “I haven’t seen the entire place in my six years here!” she said as she led me up the stairs to the Gymboree lounge.
We enter Sophia’s office: a comfortable, contemporary space decorated with flamboyant pop art on the walls. When asked about the artwork, Sophia jokingly tells me she stole it from her husband, who loves collecting art and found these pieces in Koh Samui, Thailand. Sophia is decidedly casual – her hair down framing her face, just the perfect amount of make up and wearing cotton pants with an orange blouse that match the Gymboree logo. “I never thought I’d have this much orange in my wardrobe,” she says playfully.
“My mother-in-law is a doer. I remember this (a music class for kids) as a casual discussion between the two of us. She took it up immediately and then there was no shortage of guidance and direction from her. It just felt so easy to do”
Sophia’s beauty does not go unnoticed; her perfect features and enchanting green eyes make it hard to look away. What’s more captivating than her beauty, however, is her effortless ability to make everyone around her feel comfortable and included.
Sophia moved to Lahore from Karachi at 21, after she married Kasim. At the time, she barely knew anyone in the city. She didn’t have much on her plate, and decided to get a few friends together for a casual music class with their children.
Sophia brought up the idea with her mother-in-law, entrepreneur and educationist Mona Kasuri, who urged her to take this up as a project. “My mother-in-law is a doer. I remember this as a casual discussion between the two of us. She took it up immediately and then there was no shortage of guidance and direction from her. It just felt so easy to do”. And there began the story of Sophia Kasim Kasuri, who would later go on to win the award for Woman of Inspiration as a Trendsetter Educationist in Pakistan.
But how did it all begin? How did Sophia decide to introduce the ECD program in Pakistan, a concept alien to the country? It started with a trip to the US where Sophia stumbled upon a Gymboree center, a platform that encourages the emotional, social and physical development of young children aged 0-5.
She loved the idea and started something similar with The Early Years program. But there were challenges aplenty. A few years later, she got in touch with Gymboree about franchising in Pakistan. A couple of trips to the US and some hectic training sessions later, she successfully opened the first Gymboree center in Pakistan.
She talks about Gymboree with a passion. Her eyes light up as she excitedly describes all the different programs. Frustrated with the flaws that lie within our education system, Sophia says, “Asians are very academically oriented. We are obsessed with grades, we are obsessed with teaching our children ABCs and 123s. But the question is, is this all that is important? Or is the rest just as important too? We emphasize play – but play should be done in an academic way as well. That is what we do at Gymboree. We don’t try to structure play, instead we try to create an environment where children are able to bring in their own creativity.”
I steer the conversation towards her family life. Now a mother of three, Sophia spent 21 years of her life in Karachi, a city quite different from Lahore. Reminders of the Karachiite within reveal themselves involuntarily – like hiccups.
“I’m still adjusting to Lahore. I feel like a misfit. People I once knew in Karachi and met regularly, I now see once or twice a year. I feel like I am somewhere in between. I used to travel back and forth a lot initially, but with my kids at school, it’s hard to just pick up your bags and leave.”
She loosens up as she goes on to talk about her home, fashion, children, and favorite vacation spots. Sophia spent the summer vacationing in London with her in-laws, and then visiting her sister in California. “When I travel with just my husband, we like to go to new destinations. However, when we’re travelling with our children, we don’t want to experiment so it’s easier to go to predictable places.”
As a family, whether abroad or in Pakistan, the Kasuris love swimming, binge eating (ice cream and Italian food). Sophia has some elaborate interests too. “I’m a very girly girl. I like clothes, I like jewelry, I like shoes â€¦ I love shoes. Everything, actually â€¦ it’s a bit of a problem!”
Sophia’s inviting personality makes it is easy to forget that she comes from one of the most prominent families of the country. I am taken by surprise when the seemingly guarded entrepreneur opens up about her work life balance and says, “I feel like a mess (funny of her to say because her neat office, organized schedule and manicured nails give me the opposite impression) I am constantly confused. When I’m at home with my kids, I keep thinking of whether I have forgotten something about work. When I’m at work, I keep thinking of my kids. I kind of feel like I am all over the place. It’s easier to get myself together when the children are at school. I organize myself during that time.”
Sophia’s life gets hectic, managing her children with her busy work schedule isn’t an easy job. But it’s one that she does with finesse. She confesses, “I don’t know how people maintain a work life balance. I’m still figuring it out. I’m still struggling.”
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