Employment & Entrepreneurship

Times are changing: women entrepreneurs challenge social norms in Bangladesh

Akhti Akhter Milli YBI

Akhti Akher Milli, a fashion and beauty entrepreneur from Dhaka in Bangladesh, has some important advice for young women growing up in her country. She says: “Don’t stay at home, go do what you want and learn from others!”

Akhti knows what she’s talking about. Aged 29, she is a successful businesswoman who makes her own decisions and is a role model for other young women.

According to a 2016 study by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, there are almost 8 million businesses in Bangladesh, 99.9% of which are cottage or micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). However, just 7.2% of these businesses are owned by women. 

Women face many obstacles when it comes to starting and growing a business. They often lack the skills and confidence to take the step, while social norms make it difficult for them to access the right networks and business events. That’s why it is so important for women to receive training in skills such as business and financial planning, along with support and mentoring to help them overcome the obstacles that lie in their way.

Support for ambitious young women

Youth Business International (YBI), with its network of local organisations, is playing a vital role in enabling young entrepreneurs in India and Bangladesh to create thriving businesses that boost their economies and create jobs in their local markets. For young women with the ambition to have their own business, this can make all the difference.

Akhti Akher Milli, a fashion and beauty entrepreneur from Dhaka in Bangladesh. Photo credits: YBI

Akhti grew up in a subdistrict of Dhaka, the oldest of five children in a lower middle-class family. Her family expected her to become a housewife and a mother, not an earner. But Akhti had other plans. She was determined to become independent and earn her own money.

At the age of 16, Akhti left school to work at a local company so she could support her family. She worked there for three years and, at the same time, started taking courses in tailoring and fashion design. She discovered that this was her true passion and wanted to turn it into a business. But due to her limited education and lack of financial support she didn’t have the confidence.

This changed after she enrolled in a support programme offered by B’YEAH a YBI network member. She received training in business plan development, she was given a mentor and got financial support to start her business.

Akhti first started her business from home, selling women’s clothing and beautiful, decorative items from papier mache all handmade by her. She also offered beauty treatments and products and made home visits to customers. As she started to build her customer base, her business became successful enough for her to open a shop outside of her home. In 2012, Akhti opened Nokshi Beauty Parlour, Fashion House and Tanning Centre, a one-stop shop for beauty treatments, such as manicures, women’s fashion and decorative items made from paper mound.

Inspiring other young people

Being an entrepreneur has transformed Akhti’s life and her role within her family. As the second biggest earner, after her father, she now makes decisions for her family. Her business is doing so well that she has six full-time employees, all of them female.

To other young women who are dreaming of being entrepreneurs, Akhti says: “Times are changing for women. We now have more opportunities than ever.”

It isn’t just Akhti and the women she employs who benefit from her success. Akhti also gives back to young people in Bangladesh. She works with a government youth development programme to provide tailoring training in schools. To date, she has trained 1,000 young people. Every one of those young people has seen the power of a female entrepreneur for themselves.

Success in a male dominated industry

Kaniz Fatema (28) is another young businesswoman who is succeeding against the odds in the male dominated leather industry in Bangladesh—all while being a single mother.

Kaniz Fatema. Photo credits: YBI

After finishing high school, Kaniz moved to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to pursue a degree in engineering. Soon after her move, she got married and had a daughter. In 2016, after finishing her degree, Kaniz divorced her husband and started looking for a way to earn money to support herself and her daughter. Kaniz knew that there was a high demand for leather products but she was intimidated by the leather industry as it is a very male dominated sector in Bangladesh. She knew that she would be working primarily with male business partners and recalls many of them telling her that this industry was not for her because she was a woman.

A B’YEAH entrepreneur support programme gave Kaniz the confidence boost she needed. In June 2019, she started her leather shoe brand Top Leather. Now, Kaniz not only supports herself through her business and but also has 11 full-time employees. She has a factory, a showroom and an online shop and has become a well-known figure in the world of young entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. Her brand’s popularity is growing and she will soon move to a bigger production site to be able to meet the high demand for her shoes.

Kaniz receives ongoing business counselling from B’YEAH and has ambitious goals for the next three years. She wants to make Top Leather a household name for leather shoes in Bangladesh and employ 100 people. She has one piece of advice to offer other aspiring young women entrepreneurs “Everyone can be an entrepreneur! Take initiative and you will be successful.” The IKEA Foundation is partnering with YBI to enable young entrepreneurs in India and Bangladesh to create thriving businesses that boost their economies and create jobs in their local markets.