For Rizwana Shahid, starting a business to support her family was the only choice after her husband had a heart attack in 1998.
The owner of Sha Sha Beauty Collection, a Karachi-based garment and silver jewellery company, Shahid calls herself an “accidental entrepreneur with a middle-class background.”
With literally no money in hand, and little access to capital, Shahid says she relied 100% on what she calls the most demonised mode of payment among our salaried class — credit card.
“The youngest of my four sons was just six-month old when my husband’s health deteriorated. Although everyone loves to talk negatively about the credit card, it played a key role in kick-starting my business,” Shahid said.
For months, she would book exhibition halls in Marriott and Pearl Continental in Karachi through her credit card, invite manufacturers of artificial jewellery and handicrafts to reserve stalls by putting classified advertisements in newspapers, and charge a minimal profit as the event organiser/facilitator.
Shahid says most of her clients were from middle-class neighbourhoods of Karachi and had no outlets of their own. “That restricted their business growth. I helped them get wider exposure, and today many of them are exporting their merchandise.”
She says flexibility is the key to entrepreneurship. She would not charge those stallholders who did not get orders at the exhibition. “Other exhibition organisers would harass these hapless, budding businessmen and – women for payment. I wouldn’t. That built my credibility in the market.”
While Shahid managed her cash flows by making intelligent use of her credit card, Sidrah Nadeem, owner of All Tied Up, a company that sells hand-woven, silk fabric and hand-stitched ties, had to resort to bootstrapping to set up her business after she graduated in 2007.
“I held three successful exhibitions, built a strong case and then made a formal presentation. But those bankers didn’t take me seriously. They refused to lend me any money,” Nadeem said.
Not only bankers, she adds, but also some of her professors with whom she had discussed her business plan simply laughed it off.
“They thought that one, I was a girl with little business experience, and two, I was thinking about selling a niche-market product. Banks are highly cautious when it comes to financing niche-market products.”
The fact that many female entrepreneurs are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts reflects the misogynist attitude prevailing in society.
“The biggest challenges are perhaps the dearth of opportunities for establishing your professional credibility in a sceptical, male-dominated society and the inability to enter certain sectors, which are perceived to be within an exclusive male domain,” said Sadia Khan, a graduate of Cambridge and Yale universities, who was part of the core management team at the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) responsible for transforming it from a government department to an autonomous regulatory agency in the early 2000s.
“If gender differences influence professional relationships, they’re more a reflection of individual insecurities and predetermined mindsets.”
Khan says corporate work routines are designed by men to cater to their perceived role in society, not the more complex role allocated to women with respect to family obligations.
It is precisely to overpower professional insecurities and predetermined mindsets that Shahid thinks women should work for themselves instead of getting employed. She rejects the general impression that doing business is particularly difficult for women in Pakistan
“Self-employment empowers women like nothing else. A businesswoman is always more independent, and less vulnerable, than a female employee.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2011.