Tamara Abed on her Vision for Aarong & other BRAC Enterprises

As the Managing Director of BRAC Enterprises, Tamara Hasan Abed heads its 10 social enterprises including Aarong, BRAC Dairy, and BRAC Seed and Agro Enterprise. She was elected the chairperson of the BRAC University Board of Trustees on July 25, 2019. She also currently serves on the boards of IPDC Finance, BRAC EPL Investments, edotco Bangladesh and BRAC Tea Estates. She joined Aarong as the general manager for design and product development in 2002 and has been instrumental in driving the expansion of Aarong to 21 national outlets, launching its multiple sub-brands, and e-commerce platform.
Tamara Abed brings extensive experience in investment banking, entrepreneurship and social enterprises, with a career spanning over two decades. ICE Today caught up with her to know about her visions with Aarong in the wake of a pandemic that has ushered in a major tectonic shift in business and branding around the world.
In the post-pandemic world, what is your vision for Aarong? How do you plan to keep it sustainable?
We are not yet in a post-pandemic world and are yet to see what that will look like. I can tell you how we plan to navigate through the rest of this crisis provided that the situation does not deteriorate further.  We plan to make investments to grow the number of our outlets, our product offerings as well as go to new customers so that we can continue to provide work to our thousands of artisans and small and cottage entrepreneurs. As you will understand, we missed our peak sales periods this year and therefore accumulated a lot of inventories which we would have otherwise sold. This is putting a lot of pressure on our storage capacity, but most importantly, it makes it difficult for us to give fresh orders to our producers.  So in the short term, we are giving discounts at a loss only to reduce this pressure.

But what we are also doing is increasing our retail channels. We have opened an outlet in Jashore recently and are planning to open one in Barishal. We are also relocating our Gulshan and Banani outlets to a bigger space. We will be launching e-commerce deliveries to the US and Canada by the end of this year. Besides, Aarong is starting a new natural skin and hair care brand called Aarong Earth in the next few months.

E-commerce and the use of digital technology have seen a manifold growth and have been fast-tracked due to the pandemic. We are making investments to strengthen our platform to handle bigger volumes as well as enhance the customer experience.

Being the daughter of one of the most influential figures of our country, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, were you ever overwhelmed by the shadow of his larger than life persona?

All though my father became larger than life figure to many, he always remained grounded and focused on his mission to alleviate poverty and empower disadvantaged people.  He had unusual humility and the power to make anyone he was interacting with feel important.  Awards, laurels and fame never fazed him.

From when my brother and I were little, he discussed these thoughts and ideas and his work with us, but also remained very much a father, involved, engaged and interested in his children’s lives.  I never felt the pressure to be like him because I have known most of my life that my father is one of those special people, a rare breed – the kind the world sees only once in a while. The feeling of being in his shadow never arose.

However, the first time I felt overwhelmed by my father’s legacy was after his death.  In the days after his passing, seeing how people reacted and the heartfelt tributes that poured in from all over the world, I had a renewed sense of the depth and scale of the legacy that he was leaving behind. Many, as they offered their condolences to my brother and me, mentioned the expectations that people had from us.

But looking back on my father’s legacy, I feel a strong sense of inspiration and responsibility to carry his mission forward, by focusing on growing the strong organizations that he has left for the next generation of BRAC leaders to lead.

From being honoured by the World Economic Forum as the “Young Global Leader”, representing Bangladesh during the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in
Washington to receiving the Outstanding Women Leadership Award from the World Women Leadership Congress, how do you plan to invoke the leadership spirit further into your employees at Aarong and BRAC enterprises?  

Within BRAC, we have identified that our number one priority for some time has been to create leaders with the kind of values-driven leadership that my father inspired.  We are taking several initiatives for it –  formation of a BRAC Leadership Academy and having various leadership development programmes, creating a coaching culture within the organization, defining clearly our expectations of BRAC leaders and identifying potential leaders who are not only capable but have the right values, to name a few.

Personally, I have much faith in young people and like to give them challenging assignments and learning opportunities where they can grow their abilities and confidence in themselves.  People also need the encouragement to take risks and sometimes fail, without fear of repercussions. People need to have trust in their leadership and need to know that when they make mistakes, as we all do, you will have their back. In a social enterprise, empathy and values are central to what we do, and I try to imbibe that within the organization in our everyday decisions and actions.

While looking after so many diverse projects altogether, how do you ensure that work doesn’t burn you out? 

My most significant relaxation these days is spending time with my four-year-old son. I try to enter his world of pretend play and look at the world through his eyes. The fun and innocence of it take my mind off the many pressures of my work. I enjoy meaningful interactions with friends and family and read when I find the time. And my partner is also one of my closest friends and spending quality time with him when we can also relaxes me.

Having a career spanning over two decades across diverse sectors, what’s next for you?

In the next stage of my career, I would like to focus more deeply on fewer things.  I feel that doing too many things limits one’s ability to realize the full potential of all the initiatives/organizations that one leads. Aarong, which has global growth potential, continues to be my passion and I would also like to focus more on making BRAC University, which I currently chair, a world-class institution which develops future generations of ethical leaders across diverse sectors.

Photographs by Nusaer Nitol