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Faiza Abbasi Seth
Faiza Seth. Photo by Mark Lascombe-Whyte.

Between Worlds

Faiza Seth '00 Treads the Delicate Line Between Privilege and Poverty

Faiza Abbasi Seth ’00 is late for dinner, but she has a very good excuse.

“I got held up at a meeting in the House of Lords,” she says.

The Weinberg College alumna was speaking with Baroness Shreela Flather, who shares Seth’s passion for helping impoverished children in India. The baroness, Seth explains, wanted to learn more about the curriculum and operations at Soham for Kids, the charitable school Seth founded in India.

“She’s interested in helping women and children,” Seth says. “Those are topics close to her heart.”

The halls of the English Parliament are a long way from Hyderabad, India, where Seth was born, and from Chicago, where she was raised as the oldest child of immigrant parents. But stepping lightly over boundaries—socio-economic as well as geographic—is a skill Seth has mastered.

By day, she’s the successful founder and CEO of the luxury architecture and interior design firm Casa Forma. On nights and weekends, she’s the founder and director of Soham, which provides food, education, and health care for 125 underprivileged and orphaned children in Mallapur, India.

Seth manages to balance these alter egos with something she learned from her parents and Weinberg College professors—the value of hard work.

American Dreamer

“When my dad finished medical school in India, he wanted to be a doctor in the U.S.—the American dream,” Seth shares. “I believe in the American dream; it has contributed so much to my work ethic.”

Her parents exemplified the hard-working mentality that was reinforced at Weinberg College.

“It was a great environment that was both nurturing and challenging,” the economics major recalls. “I learned resilience. That Midwest work ethic is behind everything I have done so far.”

That can-do attitude prompted Seth to challenge herself after graduation as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers in Hong Kong, where she moved with her husband, Pallak Seth ’98, whom she had met at Northwestern. Believing that finance is the backbone of every business, Seth took that experience and applied it to Norwest Industries Ltd, the apparel sourcing and distribution company she and Pallak launched in Hong Kong. The couple then moved the venture to London, and Seth, wanting to expand her knowledge base, earned an MBA from Stanford University in 2006.

When she returned to London after business school, she found the city’s property market booming. Wanting to be a part of that growth, she started Casa Forma in 2007 as a property development firm targeting super-prime areas of London. But the crash of 2008 set the company on a new trajectory.

“I thought instead of putting all our eggs in one basket, we should diversify and not buy so many properties,” she recalls. “We had the team there, so we started offering our interior design and architecture services to other third-party clients in addition to our own property development.”

Today, the luxury interior and architectural design firm has completed more than 60 projects, with 21 ongoing in London, Switzerland, Monaco, Sri Lanka, India, and Hong Kong, and a joint venture with the British Royal Family in Dubai. It is a success that has been hard earned, but a sudden health crisis in 2008 threatened to undo all of Seth’s dreams.

Jewels for Schools

A history of kidney stones led to a kidney infection that landed Seth in the hospital with septicemia and pneumonia in 2008. The health scare could have been fatal, but Seth underwent a slow and painful recovery that left her with a new, appreciative outlook on life.

“Three months in the hospital gives you good time to reflect on what you’re doing,” she says. “I wanted to do something that really helped children. That’s how Soham for Kids started.”

Seth looked to her own start in life for inspiration, locating the school in Mallapur, a small, under-served village near her birthplace of Hyderabad. Beginning with preschool, lower kindergarten and upper kindergarten, the non-denominational charity school will grow along with its students, adding one grade per year until it reaches 12 grades.

“That allows me to grow slowly,” Seth says. “We started in 2010 with 75 kids, and now we have 125 up to second grade.”

Soham seeks to break the cycle of poverty by meeting the children's needs for food, clothing and health care, so that they can focus on obtaining an education that will enable them to support themselves and their families. The school also offers courses in English and sewing to the students’ parents.

“I think Northwestern teaches you the importance of using education to move forward in life,” she says. “It’s the same with Soham for Kids. It’s a way for these children to get the skills they need to provide for themselves.”

It’s a concept Seth believes in so strongly that she sold the wedding jewelry she received from family and friends to raise the initial funding.

“If you want to do something, you have to give something up that you care about—something meaningful,” she says. Selling her jewelry “allowed me to run the school for a year without anyone else’s help or finances. I think you always have to have skin in the game.”

The Best Reward

Seth has visited the homes of all her Soham students, which she notes are closer to mud huts than the lavish homes of her Casa Forma clients. It’s a dichotomy she’s aware of, yet manages to balance with one foot in both worlds.

With plans to expand Casa Forma’s presence in emerging markets and build a for-profit sister school to sustain Soham for Kids, Seth’s hands are full. But it’s nothing a little hard work can’t handle, especially since the payoff is so great.

“Giving back is not really giving back—it’s giving to yourself because it makes you feel so much better to look beyond yourself,” she says. “If I can do a little bit to make a positive impact in the world, then whatever I can do, I’ll try.”

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