Face To Face With Sumbal Momen Of Meenu Apa

Face To Face With Sumbal Momen Of Meenu Apa

Sumbal Momen has been a part of her family’s business since she was 16 years old. Her determination to serve the country’s development led her to bringing out a much aligned and very hushed issue onto the public platform through Meenu Apa, an e-commerce venture she started early this year that supplies sanitary hygiene to urban women. During the day, Sumbal works as Marketing Communications Manager for Pride Group and manages the retail arm of the company. During her free time after work, and even sometimes during work, she handles every corner of her infant business.

She emphasizes on the need for ‘Reverse Brain Drain’, for everyone to come forward and aid in the development of a better Bangladesh. Very recently, I grabbed the opportunity to talk to Sumbal, who walked me through her journey till now, shared her views on social issues and gave important advice for starters.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your passion.

My name is Sumbal Momen. I talk too much and listen too little. My passion has always been to do something for Bangladesh and make an impact in accelerating my country’s progress.

Please walk us through your path to what you are doing today.

I have lived in Bangladesh for most of my life. After my primary and secondary schooling here, I went abroad and majored in Economics from Smith College in Massachusetts and then I came back here in Bangladesh.

I have been groomed for a very long time to become a part of my family’s business and get a strong grip over the apparel manufacturing and textile industry. I did not really have any kind of auxiliary ambition to start something myself. But throughout my life, I’ve had an overwhelming desire to uplift the women of my country, the marginalized half of the population.

I attended a Seven Sister college so it was only natural that I would be talking women’s rights nonstop. The strongest faculty members were female. The administration was largely female. At the dinner table, our conversations were a discussion of free market innovation to eliminate gender issues.

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I don’t consider myself a feminist but a humanist because I believe in equal rights awarded to everybody. There’s as much privilege as being born female as being born male.

One day, while talking to my household help, I realized just how much of a hassle it is for them during their period, something I very shamefully took for granted. You see, the problem ranges from income strata to strata. Women who belong to the upper socio-economic strata, are busy working and raising kids and often don’t get enough time to think of their periods and consequently fail to prepare themselves beforehand. Women who belong to the middle socio-economic strata are either busy at their jobs or would prefer a male member of their family to buy pads for them because they feel very embarrassed to face the man behind the pharmacy counter. And women who belong to the lowest socio-economic strata can’t afford proper sanitary hygiene or are uneducated about their choices and therefore opt for unhygienic alternatives which inevitably get them sick.

I have been groomed for a very long time to become a part of my family’s business and get a strong grip over the apparel manufacturing and textile industry. I did not really have any kind of auxiliary ambition to start something myself. But throughout my life, I’ve had an overwhelming desire to uplift the women of my country, the marginalized half of the population.

What the government and civil society ignore is that menstruation is a major public health issue. Periods can be very debilitating. For example, they are a primary reason for absenteeism in the garments industry. With over 80% of female employment in an industry which is a major GDP contributor, periods are clearly capable of stunting development and economic growth.

I heard about services similar to Meenu Apa in the States, but these websites sold novelty items. Regardless, they gave me an idea for a business model that I strongly believe will be beneficial to the women of my country.

How supportive have your family and friends been in your journey of becoming what you are today?

My first and foremost supporter has been my father. In fact when I first proposed this business plan to him, he immediately jumped on the train, gave me the green signal and agreed to come on board as an investor. When you have a professor of Finance at IBA, and a successful entrepreneur and businessman giving you the ‘thumbs up’, you don’t really have any reason to sit on your behind and not start.

My friends were also my focus group, and their ideas and feedback really helped to shape the website and tone of the customer facing platform. In fact, one of them designed my website.

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Tell us about Meenu Apa.

Meenu Apa has a two-fold proposition. On one end of the spectrum, we serve urban women and help them get their menstrual needs hassle free. On the other end, we aim to use a portion of that revenue, match it with private contributions to provide free sanitary hygiene at government/NGO schools.

How did you manage your initial funding and how did the first few months look like for Meenu Apa?

I required very little capital investment for Meenu Apa which I mostly financed out-of-pocket. The first month was a learning period. I didn’t expect any significant sales as people were just starting to recognize the existence of Meenu Apa.

I had to rely a lot on my supporting networks to provide positive word of mouth and free marketing. Which was super beneficial, because the first day that I announced it on Facebook, the social network kind of imploded. People were very positive and very curious about the service. Sales started picking up very rapidly from there onwards.

I started with service only to the Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara area due to its proximity to my house, where I work from. The next month, due to high demand and very good reception, I expanded all over Dhaka city. Now I’m looking to expand to other major districts because several people have emailed me asking for it.

I required very little capital investment for Meenu Apa which I mostly financed out-of-pocket. The first month was a learning period. I didn’t expect any significant sales as people were just starting to recognize the existence of Meenu Apa.

Where do you see yourself and Meenu Apa 5 years from now?

5 years from now, I want Meenu Apa to successfully drive it’s mission and be the face of women empowerment and body rights. I’ve set very distinct goals for Meenu Apa, which I plan to achieve step-by-step. I want Meenu Apa to make the menstrual dialogue a natural and national conversation, so that one day girls can say to their guy friends, ‘Dost, I can’t go have coffee today. I’m on my period.’

My own personal goal is not only to contribute to women empowerment, but also to promote the ‘Made In Bangladesh’ tag as a brand. I want our domestic apparel industry to compete on a global scale, as retailers, just as competitively as manufacturers.

Has there been a point when you took a big risk for moving forward?

Sadly, no. I think the problem with my generation is that we live very cushioned lives, and don’t face any of the hurdles that our previous generation had to face to get their projects and businesses going. Nothing is a risk because we’re safe in the assumption that our parents will take care of any mess we fall into. We’re also lucky because now we have so many facilities available to us that give us the luxury of taking educated risks.

We learn from the experiences our fathers have had, but are disadvantaged from their protection because we haven’t made mistakes of our own to learn from. Right now, I’m trying to fully equip myself for any risk, any obstacle to overcome.

My own personal goal is not only to contribute to women empowerment, but also to promote the ‘Made In Bangladesh’ tag as a brand. I want our domestic apparel industry to compete on a global scale, as retailers, just as competitively as manufacturers.

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Have you had any mentor along the way?

My mentor for my whole life has been my father. There’s a lot to learn from him, and he still has a lot left to teach me.

How does a regular day of you look like?

I’m not a very disciplined routine keeper. Wake up, gym if I feel it, go to work, get through the grind, come home, work on Meenu Apa and relax. There’s a pattern, but has its disruptions now and then.

Nothing is a risk because we’re safe in the assumption that our parents will take care of any mess we fall into. We’re also lucky because now we have so many facilities available to us that give us the luxury of taking educated risks. We learn from the experiences our fathers have had, but are disadvantaged from their protection because we haven’t made mistakes of our own to learn from. Right now, I’m trying to fully equip myself for any risk, any obstacle to overcome.

Is there any moment that changed your life forever?

No. I have a long way to go and a lot more to learn and do. I can probably answer this question in another 5-10 years.Or maybe 30, who knows.

What piece of advice do you give yourself every day?

If you’re going to own the future, believe in yourself.

If you were given a time machine to go back to the time when you just started, what would you do differently?

Sleep less, do more.

Do you have any favorite book? Which book are you reading now?

Hands down, my favorite book/life coach is ‘Girl Boss’ by Sophia Amoruso. I prefer to get advice from people who are real, with realistic experiences. Not flashy advice telling you to ‘lean in’.

I don’t really get a chance to read books anymore. You’ll probably find me curating articles from HBR, entrepreneur.com, or buzzfeed when I’m in a DIY mood.

If you’re going to own the future, believe in yourself.

Name few things/traits an entrepreneur should have to achieve success.

Courage and passion are cliché but important. Attention to detail is critical. I personally respond to and respect people who are down to earth and accessible and try to be that way myself. Know your limitations and shortcomings, and work hard every day to improve on them.

Also: Be patient, Be clever, Be original, Be nice.

What would be your advice to people who are just starting out?

I can understand that ‘starting up’ is very glamorous right now. We’re all looking to be the next Silicon Valley. Branding this country positively is very important, but just as necessary is solving a real problem, so keep your priorities in check. This is not a competition of who has the ‘best startup’.

We’re all here to work for Bangladesh. This country needs its bright young minds to mold and shape its future. We are the future of this country.

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