Gradually we started introducing handcrafted local products to our foreign guests, which was something new at the time.
Nasreen Fatema Awal is one of the founding Directors and key personalities of the Multimode Group in Bangladesh. She has been associated with the establishment and gradual progress of Multimode Group and its activities since the early eighties, overseeing its growth into becoming one of the leading Business house in Bangladesh. Nasreen was the Founder President of the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Bangladesh (WEAB), a Former Director of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce & Industry, Vice Chairperson of the SAARC Chamber Women Entrepreneurs Council and President for the Dhaka American Women’s Club. Through her businesses she has opened numerous schools such as the Dagonbhuiyan Girls High School, Shahjahan Bhuiyan Memorial School and Khashia Punji School at Moulavibazar. Amongst the numerous awards and accolades Nasreen has received over the course of her career, a few include the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award in 2008, the Begum Rokeya Shikha Award in 2008 and Best Personality for Women Entrepreneurship Development Award from the SAARC Women Entrepreneurs Council. She has also been honored as the first woman in Bangladesh to achieve the CIP (Commercially Important Person) award four times respectively in 2008, 2012, 2013, and 2014.
You were with Dhaka American Women’s Club. What can you tell us about that experience?
I left for the USA in 1973 and came back in 1984 after which I had decided that we needed an American forum for women here in Bangladesh. We started on a very limited scale, showcasing local products to foreigners. We did this through a fair we organized called the Christmas Bazar in 1985 during which many expats bought these products as Christmas gifts. Gradually we started introducing handcrafted local products to our foreign guests, which was something new at the time. Later on, we slowly moved towards food products and recipes. We had observed that foreigners showed a keen interest in Bangladeshi food items so we started translating Bengali recipes into English for them. We also translated foreign recipes to Bangla for local cooks. The funds we raised from our sales proceeds were then used to start a school.
Overall, I’d say the American Club has made an impact in changing the outlook of people from abroad regarding the women here. There are definitely some cultural lags but the interactions which have taken place there, over the years, has helped raise our value and instill a greater level of confidence in our women.
You were the Founder-President of the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Bangladesh (WEAB) and are also associated with the SARRC Women’s Chambers. What are your thoughts on this?
During the beginning of the new millennium no one was thinking about a women’s entrepreneur association. There were many barriers which needed to be hurdled. People didn’t have the right mindset back then so they tried to dissuade from getting involved in such an endeavor. Some women at the time thought it might be a bad idea. However, they didn’t understand the long-run implication or outcome of having such an association. Now we have a number of other Chambers and Federations looking after the empowerment and progression of women in our country.
What would you propose so that women have greater decision making power in businesses in our country?
The scenario is changing slowly. In 2005 we approached the Bangladesh Bank to form a Bank specifically created to cater to the needs of women. We proposed a SME Mahila Bank where all the directors would be women. We see other specialized banks like the Ansar VDP Bank and the NRB Banks so we proposed a bank which would cater to our needs while strictly following Bangladesh Bank guidelines. Such a bank which would be run by women for the women would go a long way in empowering women in our country.
What are your thoughts regarding the state of people’s mindsets regarding women in our country?
A change is required and it needs to come into our society with some help from the government. Women mostly have to work at home but slowly they have to become the ice breakers in their families. It is important that working women receive the right kind of encouragement from the people at home as well as the society they are in.
It does not matter where a woman works. Their outlook and interactions are what matters. Their focus must be on how they are learning new things such as a new sense of responsibility from working in businesses. Slowly, the backwards mindset will be eradicated.
What about the state of the education system our children are being put through?
Our education system is changing but it needs to be updated at a faster rate to be on par with the global scenario. We run schools in villages where we try to inspire the children by persuading them to think out of the box. We have debates and dramas to encourage children to engage themselves in informal methods of thinking. These things cannot be taught through text books.