As we are celebrating International Women's Day 2013, we're honored to celebrate the day with Taslima Miji's interview. Taslima Miji is the founder and CEO of Techmania- a company, based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that provides hardware and hardware related services, i.e. computer, computer assembly, networking and computer related peripheral items and troubleshooting of various items etc.
We have a great deal of respect for Taslima—not only for the work she has done over the years, but for who she is as a human being. It was a true pleasure and inspiration to talk with her about her passion, life, rebellious nature, childhood, her unexpected journey into the world of entrepreneurship, her struggle as a woman and as an entrepreneur, her lessons from her journey and how her career has grown over the years.
One of our favorite lessons of Taslima’s story is her understanding of life and entrepreneurship and reality of our society that does not allow women to move forward and her diligence in pushing her dream and her confidence in herself.
Obstacles will always be there. Society will always stand still on our way to move forward if we don’t break the rules. Risk will always be present and everything will never be perfect, but we have to more forward and embrace our passion.
We hope that Taslima’s story will encourage you to take that leap of faith, however big or small, that you wanted to take always , to try something new and think beyond conventional wisdom and limitation and to push yourself just a little further to start and make it happen.
Q 1: We're excited and grateful for having a chance to interview you. We have been following your work for a long time and it always inspires us. We are really interested to know about yourself and your passion.
I was born and grew up in Chandpur with my other five siblings. We were joint family and the best part of my childhood was the time I spent with my grandmother. Though I’m a forgetful person, I even forget what happened yesterday, but I can still go back to my childhood days. Those days are special and filled with sweet memories. I remember in those days, I was kind of rebellious, extrovert and outgoing type.
When I was in class five we had a headmaster who was a wonderful teacher and honest person. Sir has this system of spending some extra time after school where he taught brilliant and dull students together so that they could do better. And he never charged for it. Actually teaching was his true passion. I was always good in academic performance, so I was in that group. One day sir told us that taking money in exchange of coaching and private teaching is unethical and illegal and no teacher should do that. Although we were too young to understand the ethical ground but he asked us not to attend coaching which other teachers were giving in exchange of money. He said it is unethical to sell education, and they could not do that. If you don’t understand anything in class you must ask your teachers, even should demand extra time after class. But we were taught that if we don’t go to the coaching those teachers would scold us. Realizing that he said, you could complain to school managing committee, but after thinking about our age he said, you are too young to complain and I’d look after it. But we said we could do it and insisted, finally he agreed to let us do the job. And we went to managing committee and complained about the matter. Along with complain we even said that we would call for protest if our demand was not met. The members of managing committee got so fun out of our approach of complaining that they laughed. Unfortunately! I was the leader of this gang of children protesters and to my utter surprise managing committee said that they would solve the problem and instead of scolding me for being so naive at a very young age they encouraged me and also said that I’ll make a very good leader in future. Well, I did not become a leader but this memory still inspires me a lot.
I studied in Chandpur till my SSC and then I came to Dhaka and finished my HSC and then attended Dhaka University.
From childhood I was the most rebellious and outgoing one among my sisters. My elder sister was (and still is) the best girl I have ever seen and also most deprived one! She was a very talented student and good at almost everything. But she had this habit of taking permission from parent for almost everything. I guess she never did anything without the consent of my parents. I was just opposite. I did everything what I wanted to do. So, difference between us was apparent. Just because she was kind of calm and ideal child she missed a lot in life. She was talented and very good and missed a lot in life and I was rebellious and curious and I got a lot in life.
Let me tell you an interesting story about this. Once there was a picnic tour from my sister’s college to Gazipur or Joydebpur, I forgot the location. It was an academic picnic and everything was organized by college and there were teachers to look after students. So, there was nothing to take permission from family. But my sister was a good girl! So, she asked my father and he did not allow. Consequently, my sister missed the chance.
On the other hand, once I had to go to Tripura for an organizational purpose. It was during my university life and I was staying in university Hall. So, I thought if I ask for permission from my family then I would not get the permission to go rather what if I go first and tell them after coming back from there. So, I went and came back and then told my father. He was like “oh! your sister asked me to go to Gazipur and could not go and you went to Tripura and now telling me”.
I think being a bit more curious and rebellious is much better. Moreover, after 18 everybody understands everything and parents also should understand what their children want. Well, there are many constraints in our society, especially for women. But I believe in life you have to be a bit rebellious, extrovert, curious, and a bit daring to live it fullest. There is a saying that good girl goes to heaven and bad girl goes to everywhere.
I studied sociology at the University of Dhaka. But I had a knack for writing in newspapers. It was around 1997 I started writing first and later on I started to contribute to some Bengali newspapers and subsequently ended up working as a regular reporter. Back then it seemed that writing was my passion. Although I was not sure whether writing would be my profession but I was kind of certain that writing and journalism would be my vocation finally. And gradually I started reporting regularly and became a reporter. I worked as a staff correspondent from 2001 to 2007 in a number of print Media. It’s quite a long time. Back then it was my dream that I would be a renowned journalist and writer. And people around me also appreciated and they praised the standard of my writing, insight, and style of investigation. My colleagues always said that I had this capability to write brilliant investigative report.
Journalism was an idealistic job to me. And behind my underlying motivation to choose journalism as a profession was that belief. I thought it was the right thing to do. But at one point of my career as a journalist it happened to me that the standard of ideology was not set then, or it was not even there before, or it was derailed. I did not know whether there was any ideological ground in the field of journalism but in my heart I always considered Journalism as an idealistic and noble profession. But when in a profession like journalism you live a life that have almost everything i.e. you live a snobbish life, you send your kids to costly schools, you often go to clubs, fashion houses, you also manage to give a decent time to your family and your study, then you have to understand that there is something very much wrong-at least in our present context. Well, I don’t want to talk a lot about my previous profession and I’m not a regretful person too. But it’s true that writing was a true passion to me.
Those were awful days for journalism, channel after channel, newspaper after newspaper was closing down. Besides, I was a very young mom that time, the age of my baby was only three months, so it was very difficult for me to collaborate with my co-workers. I was having serious problem with my team. Then I left my newspaper career and worked as a freelance writer for about 8 months and then I joined at a Television, unfortunately, that channel was closed down suddenly and I was kind of unemployed! That's when one of my friends asked me to start a business by giving a very simple idea. It was like that business is a very plain thing to do! That's how my journey to the world of entrepreneurship started.
Entrepreneurship is an act of calculation, it’s a matter of vision, and you have to be very smart- smart in a sense that you have to be cleaver enough to survive. Moreover, you have to be calculative like magpie, and sometimes you have to play some tricks to win the game in a way that people would not understand that you are playing tricks. I have to confess that I had not have these qualities when I started. It’s not that I’ve already acquired them all but I’m trying, as you know I’m from a non-business background, I studied Sociology at University and I practiced journalism as a profession so it was tough for me to learn and apply all those tricks. Well, still I’m trying to make sense of many of these tricks.
Journalism is called one of the most challenging jobs for women, but now I think business is much more difficult for women. I have this habit of giving my 100% to work I do and I think your ideology, how you see things and world around, has a profound impact on what you do. And I don’t believe that there is something called social business or non-profit business, I think business itself is a pro-people activity and it has a lot to do for people.
At the beginning I had this feeling of regret that I came to this entrepreneurship thing by leaving a noble profession but now I don’t feel that way. Rather, I think I’m doing a great job and I’m breaking rules and barriers for women and many young people.
I think being a bit more curious and rebellious is much better. Moreover, after 18 everybody understands everything and parents also should understand what their children want. Well, there are many constraints in our society, especially for women. But I believe in life you have to be a bit rebellious, extrovert, curious, and a bit daring to live it fullest. There is a saying that: good girl goes to heaven and bad girl goes to everywhere.
Q 2: Is there anybody who is/was an entrepreneur in your family?
I don’t know whether entrepreneurship is a matter of heredity but, yes, my father is a quite successful business man. However, my business is no way related to my father’s business.
My family is a business family. My father was a very successful entrepreneur and I always had a dream that I’d ultimately take care of my family business but my father always opposed the idea and told me that it’s not a business for girls. And you know business is always a manly job and especially, in sectors like manufacturing, working is tough for a woman. It’s partly true. It’s partly because most of the sectors is not ready yet for women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. There are few sectors where women are leading but it’ll take time to get hold in other sectors.
I don’t believe the projection that business is a manly job. It is how our society project. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh structure of business is organized around this very projection. But the scenario is changing fast and many women are entering into the world of entrepreneurship. Woman can do business and I’m the proof of that. In Multiplan Center there are 450 shops and I’m the only woman owner.
Q 3: Briefly tell us about your journey to become an entrepreneur.
The idea of entering into the world of business came to me from one of my friends who gave me this idea of starting a business. It was a very simplistic idea of starting a business. I could not find what he thought when he pitched me about the business, it was like this: he said- I know where to source product, how to sell and few other things; so let’s start a business, we will source product from here, then we will put them in our shop and people come and we will sell and get the money. So, this is how I got the first idea of starting a business. I don't know, he thought me very smart and cleaver to understand the rest of the game or that if we could use my talent in the business then we could do a robust business. But, he was wrong and I was not that much cleaver to understand the rest!
However, after much thought we jointly started the business in 2008. When we started I had no investment. The deal was: I would be working partner and my friend would be financing partner. But our partnership business did not last long. We were very close friends but for reasons we did not continue our business together. You know in partnership business- perspective, ideas, goals and values should be alike otherwise you’ll have lots of problem. I believe that business is an act of commitment and when I can meet small commitments then I’ll get the chance to meet bigger deal and commitment. There we few issues between us and we decided to split and work separately.
Our joint shop was in level 9 of Multiplan Center at that time. When our joint business ended level 4 was opening up for shops and businesses. Then one of my friends suggested me to apply for a shop. The process of getting a shop was simple: you need to give a fixed deposit for getting a shop and a choice. Fortunately, I was one of the few early bookers and got a shop in a good location. That's how my own journey started.
At the beginning it was impossibly challenging and tough. I was new and knew nothing. I had to learn everything myself by doing. Things are not easy now, neither that difficulties are fading away but now I know how things work. Among the major challenges, finding clients was the most critical one. Moreover, I was from a non business background and I had no experience of managing business. In addition, I had very limited capital and in Hardware business it’s extremely difficult to have innovative ideas and implement them. In service, and manufacturing industries you get lots of options to innovate and implement new ideas but in Hardware business this opportunity is very slim. The only scope to work is in marketing. Besides, hardware market is a very competitive market and I was new, and even I did not start with a market survey.
Moreover, the glass ceiling issue was (is) always there. People were more curious about my background than me and my business. It was like that I don’t have an identity as a person. They had huge interest in everything I do just because I was a woman. All these things took serious toil on me but I told myself that you have to go through this and you have to be patient and be focused. At times, we need to close our eyes, our ears, and our mouth to make progress in life and in work. I tried to divert my focus from these trifles to my progress.
Business is a very tricky game. I have to deal with tough things like getting deal, connecting with clients and managing funds etc which are extremely difficult. I don’t know whether I should share these things but I think newcomers should know what they are going to face and how they should prepare themselves.
Fund is one of the major problems startup entrepreneurs face often. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh banks don’t welcome new entrepreneurs. Moreover, if you are a woman then things are going to be extra pungent for you. When a woman entrepreneur seeks bank loan, bankers often think that the money is not for the woman herself rather for her father or husband. Well, it happens sometimes, husband takes loan in the name of wife, but there are real entrepreneurs too and they should not be the sufferers of someone else’s sins. It’s responsibility of banks and other financial organizations to identify real entrepreneurs and serve them. It’s never an acceptable behavior to close door on the face because she is a woman. And this is unethical too.
People were more curious about my background than me and my business. It was like I don’t have an identity as a person. They had huge interest in everything I do just because I was a woman. Well, it was not like that all these things never hurt me rather it did. But I told myself that you have to go through this and you have to be patient and be focused. Sometime we need to close our eyes, our ears, and our mouth to make progress in life and work. I tried to divert my focus from these trifles to my progress.
Then comes the challenge of getting contract where corruption slips into the process. In all big purchase there is corruption. And for woman this is a big disadvantage. I have experiences of facing peculiar types of questions just because I’m a woman i.e. you provide technology? Can you provide technical support at 12 am? Can you do that, do this etc? I often reply like this: well, would you please tell me who will do this for you at 12 am?
Beyond this, they, buyers and sellers of big budget, have social mixing after business hours. They sit together and do party, drinks and do many things that are impossible for a woman to do. And I don’t think I could afford this as a woman and as a result I sometimes miss big deals.
Then comes to our business related infrastructures like TAX, VAT, bank loans, LC, interest rate, various types of loan etc. and in case of availing many of these opportunities you have to do the same thing as I said previously. The system is highly corrupted. Say for example, there is a BDT 300 crore fund for women entrepreneurs but Banks, according to authority, seldom find any genuine and eligible woman entrepreneurs to disburse that money. And when I asked them that don’t you think I’m eligible and genuine then what’s the problem to give me the loan and why you give me only BDT 12 lakh instead of a big amount? Well, you would not get an answer.
I took loan three times and I never defaulted and never missed my payment deadline. It’s really a mystery that how they give loan and who are those lucky persons who get loan. You know the incidents like Hallmark issue; it is actually a tip of iceberg and there are many more of these kinds of incidents. Basically, the total system is corrupted. And if you want to work here you’ll have to go through these problems. New entrepreneurs seldom understand many of these things, and cannot foresee and that creates problem for them. But it’s in the market that, business is like this.
Once I had this opportunity to meet Samson H. Chowdhury and I asked him about his chemistry behind his success, how he built a giant business from a medical store. His answer was rather self evident: "one should stick with his plan and idea and there is the question of luck with this and you have to work hard."
I also believe that successful people often persistent type, hard working and they sacrifice many happiness of their personal life. You know everything has price.
Q 4: Please tell us about ‘Techmania’.
At Techmania we basically provide hardware and hardware related services, i.e. computer, computer assembly, networking and computer related peripheral items and trouble shooting of various items etc. Besides, we have some other dreams and plans and those are still in dreaming stage.
I started Techmania in June, 2008. It started with taking my shop in Multiplan Center. At the beginning, when I was going to take the shop at Multiplan center, I got into trouble with installment deposit. The amount was around BDT 2 lakh, back then which was really a big amount for me. For many people it’s no big deal but for me it was. To arrange that money I applied for bank loan and asked for an amount of BDT 8 lakh. That time my banking activities was with AB bank and many of AB Bank’s employees were known to me and one of them was Faruk Mainuddin, who is now working at The City Bank Ltd. When I approached for loan Faruk Bhai said that- I know you and I would help you to manage finance but you have to think twice whether you have the courage that you could repay the loan. I replied that I could with all my available confidence! Then he helped me to get the loan.
From my dealing with loan I learned one lesson that an old trade license worth more than a new one. And for me this was a problem. My trade license was a very new, and was almost spotless! And immature business man does not get loan. The fact is that if you have a much used trade license it’ll make you more acceptable to bankers because it tells that you are doing business for a long time.
Beside, ours is trading business. It was hard to prepare myself for it. For me it was more like a journey of self discovery- a journey where you know nothing about places and you need to know everything and also manage to keep moving ahead.
For me it was a whole new world. I had no idea about my clients but I had to prepare myself for almost everything. And all of it was random. I was preparing myself randomly without knowing the tricks and was doing random marketing of my products.
Moreover, there was my gender identity to stand still on my way to hinder my journey time to time. Say for example, when I went for any promotional activities, firstly they tried not to take me seriously, even not to give me an appointment, then when I got a chance to talk they (clients) started taking their own instead of listening to me. Many times I had to listen to my clients first and then I could talk about mine. And even it happened that at first they refused to talk but later they started to talk too much that it difficult for me. And unfortunately all these were new and pathetic experience for me.
While I started, I started with one staff in my team. And later on it starts to grow and now we are seven. The journey was indeed difficult. My background was neither tech nor business. As a result I had to learn both of these slowly. And it was extremely difficult. I learned them through hard work, reading and understanding.
Ours is trading business. So, it’s very difficult to prepare myself and to do the marketing. For me it was more like a journey of self discovery- a journey where you know nothing about places and you need to know everything and also manage to keep moving ahead.
Q 6: Tell us about few problems you faced and the way you outperformed those problems. Have you ever faced any problem because you are a woman and an entrepreneur? And what do you think, how can we make it a little easier for women entrepreneurs?
As I said previously, state mechanism would not welcome you. It is corrupt and it does not accommodate young startups with smile. It does not welcome young people, it does not welcome women. Corruption is all over there.
It made me feel too sad many times that I only face certain problem because of my age, gender and social status. In fact it made me to cry, especially, if it’s for gender issue. But now I think, in some situations you have to adapt and act according to your societal demand. And I’m trying to do so.
The thing I want to tell women entrepreneurs that please lock your ears and close your eyes. You have to be shameless. When a society does not allow a woman to do what she deserves it is shame on that society. Someone has to come forward and break the silence and obstacles and social dogmas, otherwise things will never change. I want some shameless women who will come forward and break the glass ceiling issues. Well, please don’t take me otherwise, when I’m talking about shameless I mean women with courage in a positive way, when I’m talking about breaking rules I’m talking about doing it for social goods, and I am not talking about anything barbaric. I want to tell that, don’t bother about what other people talk about you, people will talk anyway. Women should have the courage to break rules and go ahead.
I have experience of rough conversation with my fellow business men. I have a business card and my phone number is there which is almost public and I have experiences of having some terrible phone harassing as well. It hurts me but I always said myself that- ‘ignore’, and my focus is nothing but to go ahead.
I want to tell women entrepreneurs that please lock your ears and close your eyes. You have to be shameless. In point of fact, when a society does not allow a woman to do what she deserves its shame of that society. Someone has to come forward and break the silence and obstacles and social dogmas, otherwise these will never change. I want some shameless women who will come forward and break the glass ceiling issues. Well, please don’t take me otherwise, when I’m talking about shameless I’m talking about courage in a positive way, when I’m talking about breaking rules I’m talking about doing it for social goods, and I am not talking about anything barbaric. I want to tell that, don’t bother about what other people talk about you, anyway people will talk. Women should have the courage to break rules and go ahead.
Q 7: What it takes to become a successful woman entrepreneur?
Success is a relative term. For some people success is how much money you have, for others it is entirely different. To me success is not a station rather it is a journey. If you enjoy the journey, if you make progress every day, if you slowly move towards your goal then you are successful. I think we should not make the definition of success conclusive rather enjoy the journey. For me, I have not made tons of money but my journey is still on. I’m moving ahead and making progress every single day, slowly I’m moving ahead towards my goal. And this is how I think about success.
Then success is all about spirit. You have to have the spirit. To be successful you must have clear goal in mind, what do you want to do, and then you have to stick with it till you make it. In business there will be ups and downs, but if you give up in the face of obstacles then you are not going to make it. I think one should study the past success stories of one’s filed and should learn from it.
And another thing is people. One should know how to relate his/her initiative with people. To me people are basically helpful and supportive. Although it’s often said that people are selfish in nature, but I don’t believe it. If one can explore goodness within oneself then it’ll be wonderful.
And above all you have to be extremely hard working and a real fighter. One should be in touch with people who have the connection. Having connections from where you might get some help is important.
To me success is not a station rather it is a journey. If you enjoy the journey, if you make progress every day, if you slowly move towards your goal then you are successful. I think we should not make the definition of success conclusive rather enjoy the journey.
Q 8: You are a maker and entrepreneur. Do you have any special style of working of your own?
I use a primitive age CityCell phone, in this cheap phone I’ve a function called reminder and I use it. I’m a forgetful person and I need to remind myself about things time to time so that I don’t miss a deadline.
I'm an avid user of Google drive. I maintain a file in Google drive. Whenever, I get an idea, no matter wherever it is, I enlist it in my note book and when I get online I update it in my Google Drive file. Every morning I start my day by checking my Google Drive file and work schedule and I also finish the day with it. It helps me to maintain my schedule.
Q 9: How do you feel about starting-up now? If you are given another chance to redo everything from the beginning tell about few things, if any, that you would do differently.
I’m not a regretful person. I do much of thinking before doing anything instead of regretting about it after doing. It is true if I were aware of few things then I could avoid few troubles but that is not important. I think, I did my best based on my energy, and capacity, and I’m happy with that.
Q 10: If a young woman come to you and ask for your advice, what would you tell her?
Be focused. Study market before starting. I started without a market study and I had to pay the price many times. Don’t listen what people say. I would also suggest to start with some working experience in the sector she is going to start. Be realistic. Talk less and work more. Don’t be showy. Don’t be too friendly and be strategic. Moreover, a woman should also remember that society is very much critical about her behavior and this should not be ignored completely.
She should know the obstacles and be ready to face them. If anything wrong happen, one should take help from state mechanism, should knock on all doors without considering lead. Make connection. And be bold.
One thing I want to emphasize specially is that, women are very much aware of their body and often put illogical importance on bodily beauty. I think they should expense less money in cosmetics and beautification and more on development of their soul and brain. Please don’t spend lots in beautification and lipstick. As an entrepreneur one must be conscious about useless cost.
One should separate her working and personal space. Never do the work from your bed room! In fact one can’t. My experience about ‘working from home’ is failure. One should rise early, If not that early then at least at a reasonable time. Don’t stay around your bed. It makes people lethargic. Be always fit in health and cloth. Dress smartly-it sets our psychological tune for work.
Be choosy in case of using social networking sites and virtual life. Make schedule of your leisure time, sleeping time, and hangout time. Sleep late/work late at night and wake up early. Most importantly, work hard and make it happen.
To be successful you must have a clear goal in mind, what do you want to do, and then you have to stick with it till you make it. In business, there will be ups and downs, but if you give up in the face of obstacles then you are not going to make it. I think one should study the past success stories of one’s field and should learn from them.