Dear readers, please find a nice place and get comfortable with yourself because this is not an interview that you want to miss! We are honored to interview social entrepreneur and Founder of Hathay Bunano Samantha Morshed. Samantha has a brilliant story of taking initiative and making ideas happen. She started her first venture at the age of 8-it was making rag dolls! However, her interest in social enterprise started in 2004 with a basic question 'how do you create sustainable employment without micro-finance debt or economic migration for rural women?'. To solve that question Samantha founded Hathay Bunano with a personal initial investment of $500. Now a decade later Hathay Bunano has evolved into a thriving social enterprise, comprising a non-profit organization in Bangladesh and three limited companies in Bangladesh, UK and Malaysia, with employment creation for more than 6000 artisans in more than 60 rural production centers throughout Bangladesh and export of handmade toys around the world.
We spoke to Samantha about her passion, her initiative Hathay Bunano, how Hathay Bunano evolved into a global brand and early days of her entrepreneurial life and about her struggles and experience. This is an incredible story of passion, courage and hard work. We believe Samantha’s wonderful journey, love for making things, passion for helping people, and story of struggles and hard work will encourage you to start your own initiative and make mistakes and enjoy the journey. ~Ruhul & Monir
I have always been passionate about taking uncharted path. I try to do things differently than the way they are being done.
Please briefly tell us about yourself and your passion.
I’m Samantha Morshed. I am married to Golam Morshed, a British Bangladeshi and we have two lovely sons, Zaki and Tawfiq who are 13 and 11 years old. I love knitting and crafts and making anything. I believe that Bangladesh has a huge natural resource in its manpower and that economic development for Bangladesh is just waiting for that resource to be utilized.
Describe your path to becoming an entrepreneur and what you are doing today.
I've always been an entrepreneur! My first ‘business’ started when I was 8 – I made rag dolls and then asked my aunts to sell them where they worked. I still have the first doll I made from the first batch. Academically I studied Physics and then continued studying programming and then Financial Economics while working at the BBC, after which I went to the City and worked at Credit Suisse Financial Products, then Schroders and then Nomura Research Institute – Europe.
We came to Bangladesh in 2004. I wanted to create a business that would be financially sustainable and would be good for its employees and would create opportunity in remote areas. The word ‘social business’ wasn't being used then. It was difficult to make people understand social business as well. I wanted to demonstrate that the traditional donor funded handicraft project could be a viable and profitable business opportunity while bringing much needed work to disadvantaged demographic at the same time. From those concepts Hathay Bunano was born and then the brand Pebble.
I've always been an entrepreneur! My first ‘business’ started when I was 8 – I made rag dolls and then asked my aunts to sell them where they worked. I still have the first doll I made from the first batch.
What was your underlying motivation to become an entrepreneur?
I have always been passionate about taking uncharted path. I try to do things differently than the way they are being done. I think that often we accept the way that something is done because it’s always been done that way – but something inside me always wants to challenge that idea. I just love to challenge conventional way of doing anything and try my own approach. It’s interesting because most of the time I either find a better way or prove that the existing way is in fact the best way.
We have never taken any funding or investment or loans from anywhere. It was a total bootstrapping. We have grown on the basis of re-investing everything that was made.
Briefly tell us about Pebble. How did you get the idea? How did you manage funding and connected all the dots?
Pebble is the brand of Hathay Bunano. Hathay Bunano started in 2004 with private label and the Pebble brand started in 2010. Private label was good for Hathay Bunano but it didn't get the story out to the consumers about the women behind the products. So we launched the brand in order to better tell the story. We were already making toys and I was already designing them so it was a very natural transition to our own brand, Pebble. We have never taken any funding or investment or loans from anywhere. It was a total bootstrapping. We have grown on the basis of re-investing everything that was made. This has made our growth slower than it might otherwise have been but at the same time it has demonstrated that this type of business is possible for anyone and doesn't require huge funding.
What was first one year look like?
The first one year of Hathay Bunano was very hands-on for me. It started teaching 12 women from a slum area in my spare room in Gulshan. After that I started to teach 2 classes in Narshingdi. Three times a week I would travel out to Narsingdi and teach those classes. At the same time I was managing orders and packing boxes and washing products.
As an entrepreneur in the early days you do everything. I think that’s a good thing. Later when you manage all these tasks and other people doing them you know very well how they are all done.
Tell us about few major obstacles you faced at the beginning and the way you outperformed those obstacles.
We faced problems with rental costs in Dhaka, which were very high, and it was difficult to find the right sort of space for our finishing center because we were employing office type people as well as women from the slums in the same space. Combining these two was challenging and something new for everyone. We were evicted out of one space because we employed some disabled ladies in wheelchairs and the owner of the building felt that it would be bad for his reputation to have disabled women in his building and that he wouldn't be able to get a good marriage for his daughters with this situation.
Eventually after moving and having the same situation with the new landlord we reluctantly had to move the disabled ladies out to our own property in Sonargaon so they could work there.
The stigma associated with the poor and the disabled in Bangladesh is huge, unnecessary and wrong.
Market access is a major challenge for startups all the time. Briefly tell how startups can tackle this problem from your experience with Pebble.
Hathay Bunano grew with private label and this enabled us to establish a reputation for high and consistent quality handmade products over volume. We were then able to take this reputation with us when we started Pebble. This helped us a lot with market access. Generally if you are selling a good quality, well designed product at the right price then you can access global markets. You just need to be honest with yourself about your product. If your product isn't selling then ask yourself why and make changes.
When we look back it is easy to say – we should have done something else – but at the time it was the right decision because we made it with the right motivation and based on all the information we had available at the time.
If you are given with a chance to redo everything from the beginning, tell about few things, if any, that you would do differently.
I’m not in the habit of having regrets. Life is a journey and we learn from experiences and apply that learning to the next challenging situation. Every decision we make, we make at a certain time and for reasons and considering all the factors involved then. When we look back it is easy to say – we should have done something else – but at the time it was the right decision because we made it with the right motivation and based on all the information we had available at the time. The journey is important.
What are the major challenges for a startup social enterprise at the beginning?
The same as for any new startup! There are so many things you don’t know, you have to find out, you have to juggle money, you have to find the right people, you have to create a team that will become harmonious and work together to solve problems, you have to explain your vision in a way people understand, you have to believe in yourself when others doubt you.
There are so many things you don’t know, you have to find out. You have to believe in yourself when others doubt you.
Was helping people and creativity a part of your childhood?
I always made things and enjoyed making things. Still I do. Not just handmade. I love the process of making anything. I like to visit garments factories and see cotton being processed. I like to see heavy engineering and bridges being built. I like the process of making.
Have you had any mentor along the way? Do you think everyone should have a mentor?
I have had a number of mentors and I’ve had many very talented people help me along the way. I have always been very thankful to Paul Bennett of IDEO for his support and advice on many occasions. Additionally Jonathan Lewis, founder of the Opportunity Collaboration and Alan Bernstein, an entrepreneur and angel investor from the US supported me. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to build a group of people who support the concept of Pebble and Hathay Bunano and have been generous in the time they have given to me.
I’m not so interested in legacy. I’m much more interested in what is happening now.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? What do you think about failure?
I’m not so interested in legacy. I’m much more interested in what is happening now. When I started HBPS it was to changing lives for good, today not to plan how we might change then in months or years from now. I live very much in the present.
Have you ever failed throughout your path?
Every entrepreneur fails through their path! We all fail periodically but for me it’s not about failing but about building on all experiences and using that experience to make things better going forward. It’s a cliché but life is a journey and every step is an integral part. If things go wrong I wouldn't necessarily call them failures but rather see them as a step to getting things right in the future. It’s not black and white, right and wrong, fail and win – it’s a journey.
Is it important to you to be part of an entrepreneurial community of people?
I think the new community of entrepreneurs in Bangladesh now is fabulous and will bring great strength to the community members. I've said many times that when we started HBPS it was a lonely journey. We were doing something very different, both in terms of starting a social business from scratch in Bangladesh as well as trying to demonstrate different ways that the development community might start to look at problems and possible solutions.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I start the day at about 6.30 am organizing breakfast for my children and getting them on the school bus, and then I practice yoga. Then my day is very variable. I try to organize meetings and visits in the mornings when the traffic is not so bad and then work from either my head office in Badda or my office at home in the afternoon. I never really stop working but I’m in control of my own time so it doesn't feel like working all the time.
Since I’m selling products all over the world there is always one country that is open and so my days tend to be long and I’m online all the time. My favorite times of the year are the months leading up to our new catalogs coming out in January and June every year when I’m designing and producing new samples. Pebble is toy and baby Products Company and without great toys we won’t sell products and without sales we cannot bring any benefit to the rural poor in Bangladesh. The products are at the forefront of my mind and planning the whole time.
If a young person comes to you and ask for advice on starting what would you tell him?
Be prepared for lots of hard work and embrace it.
What book are you reading now? Tell us few names of your favorite books.
I’m currently reading the Jewel in the Crown (The Raj Quartet) by Paul Scott. I recently read A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois and The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng and enjoyed them both very much. On the non fiction side I read Brand Breakout: How Emerging Market Brands will go Global by Kumar, Nirmalya, Steerkamp, Jan-Benedict, a couple of months ago and felt that there was a lot of companies in Bangladesh could learn from this.
Every entrepreneur fails through their path! We all fail periodically but for me it’s not about failing but about building on all experiences and using that experience to make things better going forward.