“If you want to break the silence, break all the barriers first”
Born in 1958 in Chittagong in a family of businessmen Monowara Hakim Ali portrayed an innovative successful leader who played a catalytic role in helping change the women around the country. She was the first ever woman elected as the Vice President of FBCCI and held the position of Vice President of SARRC Chamber of Commerce & Industry and Member Executive committee of the confederation of Asia–Pacific Chambers of Commerce & Industry. She was the first woman to be involved in the Hospitality & Tourism industry here when she took charge of Hotel Hawai vis-a-vis Head of Marketing of Intraco Tours & Travels Ltd. Being a marketer of inbound tourism, she has traveled extensively and portrayed positive image of Bangladesh.
Monowara successfully diversified businesses into various sectors like renewable energy, real estate, tourism, medicine, food & beverage and the agro sector. She was the founder of Genetica (BD) which produces organic fertilizers. A true nature lover, she is also the founder of the Butterfly Park, Bangladesh’s first environment friendly park in Chittagong. She received the HSBC – Daily Star Climate Champion Award and the Divisional Environmental Award 2013. Monoawara formed the first trade association for woman entrepreneurship development in Chittagong in 1999. She has been arranging Woman sponsored SME fairs since 2007 and established the Woman Entrepreneur’s Cooperative Society in Chittagong.
She is a graduate from the City College of London and received the prestigious NDC fellowship – Capstone course from National Defense College. Married to S Hakim Ali, the dean of the tourism industry in Bangladesh, Monowara is blessed with two sons and one daughter.
You are considered the trailblazer of women entrepreneurship in Chittagong. How did this begin?
I consider myself blessed to be born in Chittagong, which is the commercial capital of this country. Entrepreneurial spirit is something that runs in my family. Considering these two factors, I believe I was destined to be in the business sector sooner or later.
I find the presence of innovation and the eagerness to do something extraordinary with it among the rural woman more than their urban counterparts. I know many women who started rearing hens, selling eggs and so on in their own backyards. Even in the agro sector, women’s contribution is highly praiseworthy though many of them are devoid of the much needed market access of their homegrown products. As a field worker, I had the chance to interact with womenfolk of our country, which sparked the zeal in me to educate and empower them. Make no mistake, financial freedom does instill a new form of dynamism and confidence among women!
I appreciate the garments entrepreneurs for their mentality and attitude to give women the opportunity which has ushered a paradigm shift in the economic upheaval of Bangladesh which was once dubbed “a basket case”.
I am highly grateful to my father, who was in the hospitality business, for inspiring me to set foot into the area which is known to be “a man’s world”. Following his legacy, I ran Hotel Hawai for ten years. After the birth of my eldest son, I received my degree in the hospitality industry from London. Gradually, I got involved with Intraco Travels and Tours and sojourned my husband for marketing abroad and it was the first inbound tourism company. I was involved with the team lead by Terry Brookman, General Manager of the then Hotel Sonargaon, which first highlighted of tourism in Bangladesh in 1981 in Berlin. I am glad that we have come a long way since then and I would like to render my special thanks to our Prime Minister for declaring 2016 to be the Year of Tourism in Bangladesh.
From hospitality and tourism to organic agro-based products, what inspired you to venture into such different territories?
I started producing organic fertilizers through Genetica Bangladesh. Interestingly, during one of my many flights abroad, I met a foreign consultant who unveiled a rather unseen truth for me. He explained how our fishery industry is destined to be doomed due to the massive use of chemical fertilizers. That seemed like a clarion call for me. I lead me to start a small factory in the go-down of Hotel Agrabad. Since then the journey has indeed been rewarding. Genetica Bangladesh now works as a pathfinder for many other likeminded companies.
Challenges must have been aplenty. Tell us about the barriers women entrepreneurs of our country face on a daily basis.
The mindset of family members, especially in-laws, is an issue dragging women behind in many sectors. The lack of support and double standards of upbringing have caused women to become less confident than their male counterparts. Besides motivation, they lack education and training. Since the women of our country are highly patient and resilient, by dint of compromise and perseverance many of them have excelled in their ventures. Family members too need to be counseled properly to be more supportive.
The Chittagong Woman’s Chamber is the pioneering Woman’s Chamber in Bangladesh. What can you share with us in this regard?
Thinking out of the box helped me in this context. Of course trade and commerce is a male-dominated sector. To bring our female entrepreneurs under the limelight, we had to create a platform where they could raise their voice and claim their share of the business pie. We created this platform keeping in mind that we needed to divert our women’s focuses towards business.
Formally, our trade fair has crossed nine years and informally it has been around for the last fifteen years. It’s a trade fair unlike any other you will see in our country!
Working for the welfare of women has been your favorite quest. What’s new on the plate?
Being associated with eight different Women’s Chambers around the country, and receiving overwhelming responses from all quarters fuels my passion to do more. I am delighted that I have always had other visionary women beside me on this mission. Along with the current President of CWCCI, we are working on this project for the capacity expansion of women entrepreneurs. It will also allow us to share real life lessons for better networking, product development and above all leadership practice. Of course there were obstacles, but I have never let them hinder our progress.
What advice can you provide for the next generation?
The prevailing mindset of the common people about girls and women has to change. Women empowerment has come a long way in this country but a lot more needs to be done. It would be a cliché to quote Napoleon Bonaparte in this regard but we all know what an educated mother means for a family as well as a nation. Increasing the investment in women’s health, education and empowerment, would be my humble advice for everyone.