Selima Ahmad is president and founder of the Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), which represents the interests and supports the initiatives of women entrepreneurs. As a successful businesswomen herself with long-standing experience in the private sector, she took the initiative to form a chamber of commerce devoted exclusively to facilitating the advancement of women entrepreneurs. As a recognition of her work she has won prestigious Islamic Development Bank (IDB) prize 2012 for best women entrepreneurs along with number of other recognition.
Recently we talked to her at BWCCI office to share her experience and ideas on entrepreneurship, women entrepreneurship in Bangladesh, success and many other issues. Main points of the interview are presented below:
You are the founder and President of Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), how did you come up with the idea of BWCCI and get started?
Well, working for business community is not a new experience for me; I have been doing this for a long time. Apart from involvement with trade bodies what I have never done before is- anything which specially focuses on women entrepreneurs until I started BWCCI. All of my involvement was with mainstream business community, like, being board director at FBCCI and also in some other associations.
The idea of doing something especially for women and women entrepreneurs came into my mind when I resigned from FBCCI. Then I realized that I need to do something for women.
Later on, we had a meeting with south Asian women entrepreneurs organized by a UN body. Along with me numbers of Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs were there. At the meeting we talked with each other and also discussed about the issue of women entrepreneurship in south Asian countries. After that meeting we thought, we all should go back to our country and form a platform for women entrepreneurs of Bangladesh. Later story is simple; we came back and started working.
When did you start BWCCI?
It was the year of 2000 when I first thought about BWCCI and in 2001 it started its journey.
Tell us about some of BWCCI’s past accomplishments.
From its inception BWCCI has been working for the betterment of women entrepreneurs of Bangladesh and also to develop more women entrepreneurs to accelerate the engine of our economic development. To serve the purpose we have launched several projects along with our local and global partners. Among our partners, we’ve worked with Canadian CIDA on capacity building of women entrepreneurs.
We did a project with Nederland on building capacity of women entrepreneurs by giving them training on various issues.
We also did a project with USAID where we trained women entrepreneurs on anticorruption issues, so that, they could fight against corruption and get their job done without paying bribe.
We have worked with IDRF in the Sidor affected area where we turned 350 rural women into entrepreneurs.
BWCCI is now very successful, and we know that, to come to today’s stage you had to face lots of obstacles. Please tell us what were the biggest obstacles you faced in your journey to date? And how did you overcome them?
One of the obstacles was getting license for BWCCI. At the beginning we had permission by the gazette notification by the government of Bangladesh for the formation of Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry but problem began to come when the main stream business community opposed the idea of formation of a Women Chamber of Commerce. Many of existing business communities, trade bodies and many of chambers of commerce all over Bangladesh opposed the formation of the chamber.
These oppositions became more intricate when cases were filed against the formation of Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry. However, we outperformed all those impediments and these did not stop us from doing the right thing and ultimately we succeeded.
I think if you are honest, if you are committed and if you like to do something for your community, besides obstacles you will get support too. And good fights always get best support.
In your eyes, what are the biggest challenges for Women Entrepreneurs in Bangladesh? And what can be done to develop more women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh?
The number of woman entrepreneurs, we have, I should not say that is less or low in number. Yes, there are opportunities and scopes to increase the number of entrepreneurs, especially for women. But you know, quality is pretty much important than quantity. That’s what one of the biggest challenges for Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs: to become a real entrepreneur that is a business woman. And it is very difficult indeed.
Running a business is easier said than done. A woman, who is running an enterprise, needs to know how to set price of her products/services, she needs to know how to do accounting, she needs to know the level of market competitiveness, to know who are competitors, to know about the market intelligence, product quality, and design development.
Top of that, there are certain entrepreneurial skills that are imperative for an entrepreneur to become successful. Mingling these two things together, knowing all sorts of required stuffs and getting required skills with given disadvantages, is the biggest challenge for women entrepreneurs. It is not because that, women entrepreneurs are less intelligent to run an enterprise rather they are very intelligent, but problem lies in elsewhere, we don’t have enough platforms, facilitation programs and societal support for women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh.
To make things easier for them, we need to build their capacity, to give them training, and to provide counseling. When you can ensure these things then you can see different result. Because when they get right facilitation they become capable of handling challenges and chances of failure become to shrink. Then an enterprise become easy to run by a woman, because by this time they know how to run a business, what skills are important, how to do the marketing, how to participate in the trade fair and they learn who are their competitors and their product should be developed in respect of design, quality, and they know how to win in the race of globalization and finally how to become successful.
Another challenge is the limitation of sectors to explore. Women entrepreneurs are mostly confined in some limited sectors like; handicrafts, boutiques or beauty parlor. To expand the scope for women entrepreneurs, diversification of scope of their businesses is one of the most critical issues. Government and other concerned and responsible stakeholders like us should come forward and play a very vital role by building capacity of women entrepreneurs, by engaging them in multiple sectors, and by opening up more opportunities for women.
Government should identify certain sectors which especially compatible for women entrepreneurs and should build their capacity on those areas.
Top of that, market access, access to credit, and marketing opportunities are becoming more or less town and urban centric, thus initiative also should be taken to spread it all over the country.
What are the main drivers behind your success?
Commitment! I am a very committed person, transparent and honest. I founded this women chamber of commerce for the sake of development of women entrepreneurs of Bangladesh. That was my commitment and I am very honest to do that. Along with that, I think working hard has no alternative. There are days when I work 12-15 hours a day and go to bed at 3.00 am in morning.
Please give some advice to our “Young Startup Entrepreneurs” who are just going to start their Initiatives and want to bring them to success.
I know in many young entrepreneurs, may be because of culture or family grooming or both, the seed of commitment is very much missing. Say for example, when they come for a training; someday they come late, someday they miss training, and in a three days training they miss one day and attend late in two other days.
Often I found that, the level of commitment and hard work among entrepreneurs that is required to be given to make an initiative successful are hugely absent. Women entrepreneurs of Bangladesh should be more serious, and should run their business more efficiently. They should be very committed, hard working and honest. To me rule is very simple; work hard, stay committed and be honest and these are three things that actually make all the differences.