Having started my own women’s shoes business in my last year of college, there have been many instances when I was abruptly asked to state a few words of encouragement to aspiring entrepreneurs. Something similar happened a few days back when I was asked to have a phone conversation with a complete stranger, who asked me to share my confined experience of meddling with entrepreneurship. Knowing that the woman was an accomplished entrepreneur herself in a completely different line of business, I wasn’t sure how to respond to this random out-of-context conversation. Was this a test of my competence? Or was this a psychoanalysis of young adults who try to attempt their luck at business and barely manage to survive? After some very awkward sentences from my side she calmed my nerves by finally telling me what this unplanned conversation was going to be about.
She had to talk about ‘issues women face in entrepreneurship’ on the radio, as part of a segment centered around the Pakistani environment, and was wondering if I could share some of my personal experiences with her to help with the discussion. My first reaction to this was a rambling monologue on how I make women shoes, where they come from, the horrid security situation in Karachi, prolonged power outages of Pakistan, and dealing with the workers assembling the shoes. These were some of the issues I faced while trying to get shoes made. Then I hit a pause. I realized that these weren’t issues, these were realities. Realities that probably every person operating in the Pakistani business environment faced. The issue, I realized, was being a woman.
Now before you conclude that I am a staunch feminist with ‘gender equality in totality’ as my motto, hear me out. I hesitated because at that precise moment it struck me that the topic of discussion was ‘issues women face’ rather than ‘issues entrepreneurs face’. And the radio jockey who set the topic was spot on. The issues entrepreneurs face are many, but the issues women entrepreneurs face [in the Pakistani setting], is just one: the fact that Pakistani society does not take women seriously. Of course I have no data to support that assumption, and frankly I haven’t made much effort to find evidence for this claim either, but I do have some experience.
From what I recall, setting up my own business was never the problem, neither was designing shoes, getting them made nor dealing with the manufacturers. Yes, it was a lot of hard work, but a problem? Not really. The most difficult aspect to being a women entrepreneur came much before that. Venturing into a market where shoe materials were found and no woman could be seen for miles around, my partners (also female) and I were initially laughed upon. When we approached some suppliers and asked for quotations they asked us if we were lost and suggested that we should go home. We persisted. After combing through a double digit number of suppliers for quotations and multiple market visits we finally found suppliers who realized that we did indeed mean business. Had we been men, we would have been provided with competitive quotations and all the niceties of a business meeting immediately. The story doesn’t end there.
After the shoes were made and ready for sale, we told quite a few people, friends, family, acquaintances, that the three of us are starting a shoe line and their first reaction was: “Oh, that’s cute! Best of luck.” Cute. Not the word you want to hear when you have a large inventory of shoes stacked in your room and your parents are wondering if they will ever see the seed money again. Not to forget the amount of hours spent in sampling materials, quality checking each shoe individually and running amok in the market trying to find the best bargains for raw materials. No — anything but cute. Had we been guys who started this, the instinctive reaction of many would have been: ‘So hardworking these boys are, they will be big one day’. Yes, hard work does pay off, but hard work doesn’t only pay off for men? A fact our society somehow seems to forget.
The actualities of our environment are already defined for us, which is why women must accept that to most their goals will always be vague dreams. What needs to be done is to turn these goals into concrete realities. Had we gone home that day at the unsolicited advice of random shopkeepers, our goals would have floated into vagueness and our ambitions would have remained ‘cute’. Thus a need for change presents itself. We must remind ourselves that women shouldn’t become a small subset of success, but rather be present in an equal ratio in the limelight. There shouldn’t be a need for discussion on ‘issues women entrepreneurs face’ but rather a panel discussion comprising of an equal number of men and women discussing issues entrepreneurs face on the radio. Although I wish that this could be part of our reality, something however tells me we have a long way to go.