For Sabrina Islam, an entrepreneurial journey began when she started volunteering with Karika ( a body of artisan cooperatives, set up in 1975 to revive the dying arts and crafts of Bangladesh) while getting her LLB degree from Dhaka University in 1975. Through her experience working with Karika, she discovered the lack of availability of decorative glass in the market.
In 1998 she started her company, Reflections, with just two workers. In the beginning, Sabrina only produced sandblasted and etched glasses. After getting a request for doing interior decoration in a house in Gulshan, (an affluent neighborhood in Dhaka) requests started coming in from restaurants and corporate houses as well, which allowed her to widen her repertoire of products to stained glass products.
Today, Reflections has 24 representatives, and is the leading producer of Decorative and Architectural Art Glass in Bangladesh.
When she first started going about setting up her own company, Sabrina had to deal with the problems of finding a skilled and trained workforce, having to finally train her labour herself. She also had trouble finding a space for her company as the prices in Dhaka “were the same as in New York or Mumbai” she says. Luckily, she had a strong support system in her family and this support gave her the confidence to believe in herself.
The struggles that she faces now are different. “Once you are successful, I think the main struggle any entrepreneur faces, man or woman is really to remain competitive, innovative and on top of the situation as far as product design and diversification is concerned. I have had workers take training from me and then steal my designs and set up their own companies. But once you build up a brand image, these become minor issues. If one is able to remain creative, competitive and provide top class service, then her satisfied clientele will stay with her.”
Her personal entrepreneurial journey has cultivated an interest in women’s entrepreneurship, sustainable economic growth for women and poverty eradication.
Sabrina believes that for more women to inculcate their entrepreneurial spirit there needs to be a much bigger focus on educating them: “Nurture her and care for her because this is how she will learn to care for society and learn to give back. A confident woman will not be scared to dream, to reach for the stars.” She also says that the main problem faced by women is that of the law and order situation. “For women, safety and security is foremost. Women have to travel distances to get to their businesses, procurement sources and markets. They have to travel after dark and most times on their own. There have been too many incidences of violence against women both in Bangladesh and in India and we need to provide protection to our women.
These will have to start from home where the parents will have to teach their sons to respect women. Advocacy programs with initiative from the communities can make an important impact here.”
Finally, when we asked her what her message would be to women who might be too scared to dream, she had this to say:
My advice/message to a woman is she must first of all believe in herself. She must never stop dreaming. As women entrepreneurs, we must always look for windows of opportunities. And as soon as she sees one she must seize it. I just published my first coffee table book, “Bucket List; The Kerala Journal”. It’s a travel journal with poetry and photographs by me. I did this at the age of 60 (almost). I started to do professional photography only 6 years ago and I never dreamed I would be a published author. But as I said, I never stop dreaming. This is what I wrote in the background note in my book:
“I am a woman: a confident, self-reliant and modern Bangladeshi woman, a woman who feels that there should be no bar to the development of her inner self, except for the bar that she puts on herself. And I am not young. My sixtieth birthday is just next year. There are many things I can share with today’s women, either my age or younger, but the one thing that I would like to tell my peers and the next generation of women is that we must all follow our dreams, while there’s still time. There are many who are shocked and surprised at how I can dare to do some of the things I have been doing, and then there are others who celebrate my travels. I want my book to be an inspiration for the women who are waiting, who haven’t yet been able to take that leap of faith and dreaming.
Many years ago, my beloved father told me, “Hitch your wagon to a star”. This is my mantra, and the message I want to share.”
Sabrina has been honoured as the Outstanding Woman in Business for 2008 by the Bangladesh Business Awards given by The Daily Star and DHL Express, Most Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur in Asia at the Businesswomen’s Forum in Islamic Countries (2008) and FBCCI_SME Award for Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur (2006)
Her current body of work includes being a member of the Board of Governors for Underprivileged Children’s Educational Programs (UCEP), Chairperson of SAARC Business Association of Home Based Worker-Sabah Bangladesh, Managing Director of Lily Apparels Ltd. and CEO of Reflections.
Written bySeher Gopal
Seher is a student in Ramjas College, Delhi University, pursuing English (Honours). In her spare time, she loves to read and have constructive arguments with people who do not share her political and cultural opinions.