Five Leading Women Entrepreneurs in South Asia

south-asia-women

This post is Part 2 in a series. Read Part 1 here.

In the emerging democracies of South Asia, the majority of women are blocked from full economic and civil participation by a range of both formal and informal obstacles, including laws and regulations, and cultural and societal norms. While there is no shortage of aid programs for women in the region, CIPE recognized that limited attention was being paid to reforming the broader economic and political institutions that are skewed against women – by improving the business environment so that women-owned businesses can thrive.

Last week, CIPE launched a blog series exploring the connection between women’s economic empowerment and democracy in South Asia. The series, inspired by CIPE’s panel at a March 2015 conference in Delhi, tells the stories of five key members of CIPE’s network of South Asian women’s chambers and associations, and explores the crucial role that women’s empowerment plays in strengthening democracy and furthering economic growth.

Women face great difficulties in obtaining finance; their right to own property (and as such, its use as collateral) is often restricted; and at times their very access to marketplaces is constrained. CIPE launched a program to address these issues by strengthening women’s chambers of commerce and business associations, building a network of such organizations from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Over the last two years, CIPE has brought the network together several times to exchange information and best practices, and to establish links between weaker and stronger organizations. CIPE provided training on governance, financial and staff management, communications, and membership development. CIPE has lately begun to fund small advocacy programs carried out by these organizations. Across the board, their successes have been awe-inspiring.

Key members of each organization were invited to speak about their lives and their organizations at the Delhi conference. Read more about each of these five remarkable women below.

Rifa Musthapha

rifa-mustaphaRifa Musthapha wears many hats. She is an attorney at law and an entrepreneur in Sri Lanka. She is executive director of Fairway Aviation Academy and F-Air; she also sits on the board of directors of Fairway Holdings and Fairway City Hotels. She currently serves as the President of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Sri Lanka (WCIC).

Musthapha is a leader in a country whose economy is powered by women. As Mustapha noted, women contribute up 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange revenue, given that they dominate the farming and apparel sectors. Musthapha noted that Sri Lanka produced the world’s first woman prime minister and the first woman president in Asia. Still, women’s standing in society and their political representation is not equal to that of men. In the corporate sector, of 26 listed companies, only six have women as directors.

Personally, in her career as a lawyer, Musthapha faced myriad challenges within a male-dominated profession, with her promotion from junior counsel to senior counsel delayed for over a decade. Over those ten years, she was able to gain enough experience to start her own consultancy. Now through WCIC, she can work with other women to overcome the social, economic, and legal impediments that hold them back.

Under her leadership, WCIC has thrived, making the transition from an organization that largely carried out charity projects and put on galas to a policy advocacy organization. The chamber has pushed for the passage of a gender-sensitive policy on small and medium-sized enterprises, and the country’s new government has not only welcomed WCIC’s recommendation, but has given the organization a seat at the table with the Ministry of Industry to help shape SME policy.

Shamama Arbab

shamama-arbabShamama Arbaba is the director of Euro Industries, a food processing business in Peshawar, Pakistan. She works in a city where it is difficult for women just to step out of the house alone, let alone to launch and grow a business. After achieving business success, Arbab played a pivotal role in setting up the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (WCCI) in Peshawar and is currently the organization’s vice president. Only a few short years ago, women in Pakistan didn’t have the right to create their own chambers of commerce or business associations at all.

“The largest untapped reservoir of capability and talent is women,” she said at the Delhi conference. In her vision, women’s empowerment goes hand in hand with economic growth for all. She believes that women’s success is everyone’s success, and that countries around the world benefit from having a business climate that is conducive to tapping into those reservoirs of talent. She seeks to link women’s empowerment, and the promotion of trade and industry for all of Pakistan.

Arbab sees connections between the struggles of women in Pakistan, across South Asia, and globally. She believes that women must be included in the economic and political mainstream. Her efforts have made her a leader to watch.

Rita Bhandary

rita-bhandaryRita Bhandary is the president of the Federation of Women’s Entrepreneurs Associations of Nepal (FWEAN) and a successful entrepreneur herself. Bhandary runs both a handmade paper company and a marketing cooperative, and has held numerous posts with the government of Nepal on entrepreneurship promotion issues. Rising to this level of success wasn’t easy for Bhandary. She emphasizes risk-taking, and confidence in seizing the moment.

In the early stages of her business, she saw an advertisement for a training program to be provided to craftsmen. But the program required three years of prior experience. Bhandary, like many others trying to start a business, needed the training program right away, but only had one month of experience.

During the application process, the donors checked – she had no equipment and just two employees in an empty room. But she told them she needed the help now, and if she didn’t get it, she might not need it later. In the end, she was selected and provided with the training she needed to get her business off the ground. At the conference she spoke about the need for women to seize opportunities as they arise, and to take advantage of programs that support entrepreneurs. Often women in Nepal start with very little, and may lack access to land or finance, so they must depend on their abilities, confidence, and creativity.

Under her leadership, FWEAN has held annual national consultative workshops to identify issues related to woman’s economic empowerment, resulting in the government’s establishment of a Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Fund, which guarantees women entrepreneurs loans at low interest rates. In addition, because women in Nepal find it difficult to market their goods, FWEAN also advocated for the establishment of marketplaces where women can come together to showcase their products. FWEAN is growing as an advocate for women entrepreneurs, better positioned to engage in public-private dialogue, and better able support its members, including by bringing women from the informal sector into the formal sector.

Dr. Manju Kalra Prakash

manju-prakashDr. Manju Kalra Prakash is an assistant secretary general at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and serves as executive director of the FICCI Ladies’ Organization (FLO). Prakash was invited by the European Union for its European Union Visitors Program, and was awarded the prestigious Bharat Nirman Award in the area of women’s empowerment. She approaches women’s empowerment strategically: she looks at what her members require, determines what it takes to scale their businesses up, and designs programs individually depending on the needs of the members.

At the conference, she reminded the audience that women make up less than 10 percent of the world’s leaders. However, she said, in certain sectors, particularly in India, women are doing well. For example, in the country’s financial sector, 11 banking institutions are led by women. To address some of the challenges facing women in business in India, Prakash noted, FLO emphasizes educational and vocational training programs for women, talks, seminars, panel discussions and workshops on enhancing business skills, and increasing awareness of evolving trends in women’s participation in the economic, political and social realm, both nationally and internationally. These training programs are organized all over India, serving FLO’s 4,000 members in 16 chapters.

Selima Ahmad

selima-ahmadSelima Ahmad is the vice chair of the Nitol Niloy Trading Group, and the founder of the Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI). The Nitol Niloy Group now has more than 5,000 employees, but started with just $500. She established BWCCI in 2001 to encourage women’s participation in the private sector, and to promote a business environment more conducive to women entrepreneurs.

BWCCI is Bangladesh’s first chamber working exclusively on women’s issues, and it was not easy to register the organization. Under her leadership, BWCCI emerged as a strong advocate for women entrepreneurs. The organization’s membership has grown rapidly, and provides services and training to members across the country, as well as supporting networks that enable women to succeed in small businesses in a variety of sectors – from handicrafts, beauty, and food to IT and public relations. Her organization has had a range of key policy advocacy successes, helping to increase women’s access to finance through commercial bank loans.

Further, Ahmad, along with a number of other BWCCI board members, sit on the boards of directors of major banks in Bangladesh, strengthening women’s representation in the financial sector. Her work through BWCCI on behalf of women in her country, and worldwide, has earned her a range of honors, including the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Award from the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the prestigious Oslo Business for Peace Award.

Ahmad stresses the importance of women entrepreneurs’ access to finance to allow them to take risks and benefit from opportunities. As she noted at the conference, when a woman creates wealth in her family, she can earn the respect of her family and society at large. This in turn allows her to take a bigger role in the social and political dialogue. She also emphasized the need for education to unlock women’s economic empowerment and participation.

The hard work and the successes of this network, and these women in particular, highlights how CIPE’s partners are effecting change, influencing the policy debate, inspiring others, and not letting the challenges of doing business in South Asia stop them. These women have come together to improve the lives of women, grow the role of women in business, and expand their countries’ economies. Rifa, Shamama, Rita, Manju, and Selima are powerful leaders whose stories of success remind us that women’s empowerment is happening around the world.

Rachel Grossman is an Assistant Program Officer for Eurasia and South Asia at CIPE.

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