10 Years of Empowering Business Women in Bangladesh

Selima Ahmad with CIPE Senior Program Officer Marc Shleifer and Regional Director Andrew Wilson.

BWCCI founder Selima Ahmad with CIPE Senior Program Officer Marc Schleifer (left) and Regional Director Andrew Wilson (right).

Selima Ahmad, founder of long-time CIPE partner the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), traveled to Washington DC this week to be honored with the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Award, established by the International Republican Institute’s Women’s Democracy Network. This award honors those who have made contributions to the advancement of women through politics and civil society around the world.

Ahmad and BWCCI certainly fit that bill, having built an organization in less than ten years from two dozen members to more than 3,000, providing training to over 1,500 women entrepreneurs to improve their business skills, and taken numerous women business owners on trade expositions to allow them to establish trade links with potential partners.

Most importantly, BWCCI has kept the focus on policy advocacy to improve the business environment for its members, to allow them to flourish and to move from microenterprises to the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) level. In particular, BWCCI has worked on the issue of access to finance for women-owned business, as well as access to marketplaces around Bangladesh.

With respect to access to finance, Ahmad and BWCCI focused consistently on increasing the number of women borrowers, lowering interest rates charged by banks to women, and getting banks to introduce dedicated products and staff for women borrowers. Most recently, BWCCI secured the commitment of the government to make a special allocation of $12 million for the development of women’s entrepreneurship in the current budget, representing the culmination of a multi-year advocacy effort. And of course, BWCCI has already started to advocate to the government to provide input on just how those funds should best be utilized.

In the process, Ahmad has gone from an individual businesswoman to a key player in the discussion on advancing the interests of women, both in Bangladesh and internationally. She sits on the board of the country’s largest state-owned bank and two other BWCCI board members sit on the boards of other banks in Bangladesh, providing a key source of input on the needs of women in the decision-making processes of these institutions. Through Ahmad’s efforts, the country’s central bank has its first-ever woman Deputy Governor. She is collaborating actively with the UN, the Clinton Global Initiative, and a range of other key international NGOs.

On March 5, as part of her trip to Washington, Ahmad visited the CIPE offices to share with staff another aspect of this story: her successful management of the organization’s rapid growth, and her ability to balance the ready availability of donor funds for a women’s organization in Bangladesh with the need for a chamber of commerce to avoid “mission drift” and keep its focus on its members’ needs. She provided an overview of the launch of BWCCI, and the resistance that she faced in even having the organization registered. She spoke of the challenges she faced after leaving the country’s apex trade body, the Federation of Bangladeshi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, to found BWCCI. Only after overcoming objections, and through Ahmad’s repeated efforts and reliance on the country’s constitutional guarantee to support organizations that support women, was BWCCI finally registered, and in the early days she had to renew that registration annually until a full license was granted.

Ahmad also discussed the emphasis she placed, as the leader of BWCCI, on ensuring good board governance, transparency, ethical conduct and honesty to build the organization’s reputation, win the trust of members and potential members, and be a good steward of donors’ funds and members’ dues. Working with her board, she built that kind of respect and emphasis on good conduct into the staff as well, and as a result, BWCCI has a staff that understands and is committed to the ideals of the organization.

Innovations such as an employer/employee matching pension plan – rare for chambers in developing countries – have helped ensure the loyalty of staff, while training and policy manuals have ensured that best practices are codified and disseminated to BWCCI’s regional branches. Finally, when national law and the BWCCI bylaws require it, Ahmad stepped down from her position as board President, and worked extensively with CIPE to facilitate the transition to the organization’s first new board head, Sangita Ahmed. Ahmad remains in a key role as BWCCI’s lead contact with international organizations and donor groups, while Ahmed as the President focuses on membership development and services. In this way, BWCCI has avoided falling into the trap that faces so many NGOs – “founder syndrome,” where the organization becomes aligned too closely with the personality of its founder and director.

BWCCI has worked with a range of donors, as such funds are widely available in Bangladesh. With over 20 grants and donor projects, BWCCI has built its staff capacity, added office space and equipment, built its reputation as a key local player and gained credibility with government, the media, and the larger business community, and helped ensure its financial sustainability. Yet BWCCI is not actually reliant on donor funds, as Ahmad explained, and is capable of functioning based on member dues and services.

Rare for chambers in South Asia and similar parts of the world, BWCCI has even built up a significant reserve fund. As she noted, early on, even the poorest women members were told that no services would be rendered for free, inculcating in the board, members and staff a sense of the value of the organization. Ahmed launched a dedicated “membership desk” to make sure that someone at BWCCI would always be there to respond to members’ questions and needs, and this has proved crucial in boosting renewal of dues, and the results of the efforts of the staffer for this desk are more than covering her own salary.

Meanwhile, BWCCI and Ahmad have ensured that the donor projects that BWCCI has taken on are still aligned with the needs of members, or expand the understanding among donors of how to benefit women entrepreneurs. Through these programs – in areas diverse as preventing corruption, ensuring women’s health (which is crucial for women to successfully grow their businesses), teaching women entrepreneurs in cyclone-affected areas how to protect their micro-businesses against the effects of climate change, and collaborating with labor groups to talk about protecting the rights of women working in Bangladesh’s garment factories – BWCCI has made sure that donor projects do not divert from the organization’s main focus on members’ needs, but rather enhance this focus. These programs have also allowed the organization to go into new regions, attract new potential members to its activities, and spread the word about the services that women entrepreneurs can obtain if they sign up for membership.

Overall, the lessons learned by BWCCI in its successful growth are crucial ones to be shared with other associations and chambers in developing countries.  Indeed, Ahmed is now working closely with CIPE to build a network of South Asian regional women’s business associations to provide ideas and share experiences with other groups. Under the leadership of Ahmad and her board, and with the efforts of staff and a range of key partners – including CIPE – BWCCI has the leading voice in advancing the interests of women in business, and civic life, in Bangladesh. CIPE congratulates Ahmed on her award from IRI, and looks forward to years of continued collaboration.

Marc Schleifer is Senior Program Officer for South Asia at CIPE.

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