An Empress of Empowerment

Juneyna Kabir meets Sangita Ahmed, a media personality, social entrepreneur and a leading example of women’s empowerment who shares various stories from her diverse and fulfilling life journey.

You have been working in the media for a long time, how has the industry evolved to accommodate more women in the workplace?
I decided I was going to work in the media when I was 11 years old. I was a very shy child but after my English teacher asked me to read out loud in class once, he encouraged me to become a news presenter as he was impressed with my reading. In 1996, I applied for the post of newscaster at BTV, back when it was the only news channel. I was called back for an audition after two years. Since 1998 till date, I have been reading the news in English there. Besides news, I started doing narrations for documentaries and writing scripts which slowly paved the way for a career in the media.

Later, my husband and I formed a company which produced documentaries, educational videos, and talk shows. By that time, I was fully involved in the media. We were working full-time for ETV and making shows for them. After the channel closed down, our business faced a setback. That’s how Time Out came into existence. Around this time, I joined The Women’s Chamber of Commerce & Industry, as a general member. I learned a lot about the ups and downs of business from the counseling sessions. For example, finding a way around obstacles and the importance of diversification.

We frequently visited the Bihari Camp in Mirpur for kababs. That was the only place where kababs of a certain kind could be found. We decided to bring that taste to Gulshan within an appropriate environment. That’s how we started Time Out in November 2000.

I noticed none of the restaurants in Gulshan were priced for budget customers, unlike in cities like Kolkata and Bangkok where an overwhelming number of restaurants are affordable. I wanted the restaurant to be affordable so that the patrons do not have to worry too much about the price. Therefore, we kept our profit margin to a minimum to keep the prices low. Even though our profit margin was small, our sales were very high. That’s how we started and it’s still the philosophy by which we operate. Now, I am more inclined towards the food business than the media. I also mentor young women entrepreneurs through The Women’s Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Time Out was created as a social enterprise to employ the youth and provide them with skills and professional experience. Can you tell me a bit more about the thought behind that?
This enterprise was started by two women, me and my sister, with our husbands as support. In 2005, one of my friends (her name is also Sangeeta) also wanted to start a business so we decided to take her as a partner. Actually, my sister and I are the sole owners of the business, but we take in working partners who invest and take away their share of the profit. Our employees are computer trained; we also provide assistance to operate their bank account. Their salaries are paid through a bank account only.

Entrepreneurs who run food businesses are usually either attached to the food aspect or the business one. Do you have a preference?
Even though I love cooking, I believe being good at something doesn’t guarantee successful entrepreneurship. The business has more to do with marketing. With proper management skills, one can employ the right people who are good at production. So, you don’t have to be a good cook to be successful in your food business, just having a basic idea is good enough. I love cooking and entrepreneurship. I am an independent person. I end up working even 20 hours a day but I enjoy it because this is my own enterprise.

You have been running a business for a long time, being a woman have you ever faced any discriminatory behavior from the various stakeholders you interact with on a daily basis?
In the 90s when I was working in the media, women were expected to work in front of the camera rather than directing things from behind. So, a lot of people on the set used to address me as “bhabi” rather than my name or “apa”, which was very annoying. Once you establish yourself, men will start respecting you. Eventually, with hard work and dedication, you will able to clear any misconceptions they have about you. Some discriminatory behavior still exists in many public spaces but as the level of education in the country goes up, it will be less and less problematic in the future. Women are multitasking in a way that was unimaginable in the past. They are working, studying and running their own businesses simultaneously. I think in 20 years’ time men will be sitting at home.

I believe there is a lot of unfair pressure on men from society. They are always expected to shoulder the entire responsibility of the family and they cannot quit their job as randomly as a woman can. I don’t believe in feminism; I believe in humanism. I believe Almighty Allah has blessed women with motherhood, I believe in fulfilling that duty rather than forwarding it to someone else.

What are your secrets behind a successful business?
There are a couple of them. First of all, you have to have a passion for it. You cannot just blindly follow anyone who is making money. A financial plan is also necessary, together with a sales projection for the next five months. A lot of young entrepreneurs make this mistake of not planning properly and often end up failing.

If I have to make a list, first of all, you have to have passion. Second, you must have a business plan. The third step is capacity building (market study, accounting). After going through these steps, you go for production. After starting a business, you have to continuously look for improvement and innovation. That will pave way for new markets.
After you have this structure in place, you may need to look for a bank loan. There is a process to get a bank loan. First, you have to open an account one year prior. Then you have to make enough transactions in that account otherwise the bank will not be interested in giving you the money.

We have been advocating to allow women to take loans without collateral with a small interest rate because women do not inherit properties from their parents like their male counterparts. Women’s chamber has been very vocal about the high-interest rates in microfinance, which was originally 17% but now has been brought down to 9%. We are also advocating for reduced tax rates and tax holidays for women.

I am the director of Agrani Bank and Women’s Chamber has signed an MOU with Agrani Bank. Government banks are available everywhere in the country and we want to use this availability for the betterment of rural women. We have given them a list of women entrepreneurs with good prospects and eligible for loans. Agarni Bank will contact them and ask if they are interested in taking this loan. Otherwise, the traditional process of getting investment is very exhausting and demoralizing. This is what we do. Our population is huge, if everyone does their part, we will change this country very quickly.

If you had one message for the young people of this country, what would it be?
Have a dream and follow it. There is nothing you can’t achieve.