Sarah Ahmad Abedin is the kind of person who’s willing to take a risk. When she started BreaktheTide in 2020, the entrepreneur took a calculated business risk to help people in need.
Already, the nonprofit has paid off in remarkable ways, providing financial support to local and global projects empowering women, children and underprivileged communities to obtain education and vocational training.
BreaktheTide’s funded projects — ranging from a local wellness program offered through Columbia Community Care in Columbia, Maryland to publishing Braille books in Bangladesh — aim to renew people, whether that means financially, physically or environmentally.
Born in Bangladesh, Abedin arrived in the U.S. as a foreign student in 1985. She attended Eastern Michigan University — and remembers arriving in December. “I was just 20 years old, and my dad told me to get a pair of gloves,” she said. “I thought: how cold could it be?”
The answer — particularly for someone from Bangladesh — became clear. She had never seen snow in her life before arriving in Michigan that winter.
Abedin had always wanted to work in a nonprofit environment. But that goal would have to wait. She graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a degree in Accounting Information Systems. “Then I got a job at the State of Michigan Office of the Auditor General. I was the first South Asian woman who worked there,” she said. That led her to a successful career in information technology and eventually in cybersecurity — a field she still loves.
Over the years, she donated to many organizations such as Save the Children, Women for Women International, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and many others, but she felt the monetary contributions were more passive. She always wanted to be more actively involved in developmental work. She has always been inspired by the work of numerous humanitarians, some in her immediate family but many whose lifework she admired since her childhood. Her first introduction to the world of women empowerment work was in 1994 when she spent a short time in a village in Norsingdi, Bangladesh, to experience the great works of Grameen Bank, a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, along with its founder, Dr. Mohammad Yunus. The experience had left a lasting impression on her and made her a firm believer that with a little support everyone can realize their own potential.
Then in 2019, she lost two friends to cancer. Abedin quit her job, determined to start something that would help the world in the ways she always wanted to. She founded BreaktheTide in June 2020 — when COVID was raging.
Now, BreaktheTide is thriving, giving funding that maxes out at $2,700 to projects across the world. Most funding is in the $1,000 or $2,000 range.
“People don’t believe we just give them free money by sponsoring special projects,” said Abedin. “For us, transparency and accountability are paramount and all we require in return is updates on how the funds are used in impacting the cause and people.”
Deep ties to Bangladesh
Still deeply tied to the country of her birth, she visits frequently, and remotely manages a school there built by her father 30 years ago. In 2020, BreaktheTide’s first couple of projects were funding the production of a Braille book in Bangladesh for visually impaired children and providing laptop and other technology upgrades to resume and enhance individualized occupational therapies, early educational support, speech and language therapies, and online assessments to kids and young adults with Down Syndrome.
All of BreaktheTide’s directors — close friends of Abedin’s — work for free, which means that more than 99 percent of funds donated go directly to projects. With a growing pool of donors called “Wavemakers,” BreaktheTide’s projects will remain small in a monetary sense — but with a huge and direct impact on communities. “Hopefully someday we can scale it up,” said Abedin.
Meanwhile, she’s learning a lot. “What BreaktheTide actually taught me is, there are other sides to people’s stories,” she said. “It has humbled me a lot.”
As she sees the growing needs around the world, Abedin chooses to respond with hope — and a continued willingness to take a risk in order to see a larger light.
An eight-day mountain trek
Abedin climbed to the base camp of Mount Everest — elevation 17,598 feet — in September 2023, with a guide, She was supposed to be with two other people — both of whom canceled at the last minute. “I’m a slow walker and I didn’t get much chance to train, not as much as I’d have liked,” she said. “From my house to Old Town Ellicott City, it’s eight or nine miles. If I didn’t have time to walk that, I’d park my car and walk the hills.”
Everest changed her. She didn’t tell anyone but her immediate family and a few friends she was going. “My friends said, “Whaaaaaaat?!”
She’s glad she didn’t tell more people. “They would have scared me because I was so unprepared,” she said.
During the experience, Abedin had a chance to think deeply and observe. “What I really appreciated is how people were resolved with nature,” she said. “The benefit of a slow trekker is that I got to see so many little things like wildflowers and birds. Had I rushed through the trail, I would have missed all the hidden treasures.”
She learned her guide had a 10-year-old son, and asked how far his school was from home. “He said, ‘two days,’ meaning two days of walking!”
She asked her guide: “How far is your family?” Five days. Five days of walking.
“Everest fundamentally changed me because I live in an area where we complain about having to sit five minutes in the car!”
Yes, the trek was tiring on some of the days. “I was tired, but the day was so beautiful, and the natural beauty was so serene and majestic that I totally forgot how tired I was,” she reflected. “I enjoyed the stunning sights of sweeping hills, glittering mountains, lofty hills and beautiful valleys.”
As she became resolved with nature, the lyrics of John Lennon’s song Imagine were ringing in her mind: “Above us, only sky.”
Her journey, she said, wasn’t for glory but for the spiritual aspects. “I’m just blessed and grateful,” she said.
She feels the same way about the chance to keep operating BreaktheTide. “I hope we can make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.