What inspired you to start your own businesses?
Roshaneh Zafar: I never thought I’d start my own business at 27, but I met [Grameen founder] Dr. Muhammad Yunus at a conference and he changed my life. He talked about women’s economic empowerment and how a simple loan could change lives. I spent time with him in Bangladesh and he encouraged me to help Pakistani women [with microfinance opportunities]. He said if I fail, I could blame it all on him.
Ambarine Bukharey: I started gemstone exports in 1989 and never thought this would become a serious business. I was the first woman in this line, and I think so far the only one who’s also mining. When I first went out in the markets in Peshawar to buy gemstones, all these men would just stop and stare and laugh at me. They were highly skeptical. But now we’re one big happy family. Now I can sit with five or six Pathans in the middle of the night examining stones. I feel safe now, because they look after you like family.
Sajida Zulfiqar Khan: I started this furniture business after my husband died. People here and abroad have been very responsive to our work.
Nasreen Kasuri: I’m afraid my story is not as glamorous as the rest. I started out in 1975 when my own children were starting school. I looked around for the right nursery school in town, and felt that none of them was suitable for children aged 2 and 3. So I started my own Montessori in Lahore. After that it was just a series of fortunate coincidences.
Zeenat Saeed Ahmed: I was bored with marriage. So I started making little gifts and set up a small boutique store, Sehr. Later, I set up a garment factory and had 600 people working for me at one time. In 1993 I went bankrupt, so I closed down and also got divorced the same year. It wasn’t a happy time. When I ran out of whatever little money I had left, I decided to start Taneez. I started from home, and when we did our first store in 2000 it was an instant success.
Did you face any resistance from your families in striking out on your own?
Khan: A little, but it gets better every day.
Kasuri: I didn’t really face any resistance, not in the beginning. They thought this was just a hobby which would keep me busy and out of mischief.
What do you consider your first achievement in the profession? When did you realize you had made it?
Zafar: It took me 10 months after setting up Kashf to organize women in groups and encourage the concept of women working at home or in the community. There were these five women who were the first risk takers, who took Rs. 4,000 to start their business some 18 years ago. It was just incredible when the first repayment installment came in and then the next; these women had begun to feel confident because they could invest in a business, earn and actually be able to repay their loans.
Bukharey: For me it was being able to break through the culture of the male-dominated mining market and become accepted as an equal.
Khan: My business is pretty simple. Every woman in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa told me this would be a difficult business, dealing with labor and everything. But it has worked and I’m pretty happy about it.
Kasuri: What I started was very small. For the first few years it didn’t make any money, and that didn’t matter. I was doing my own accounts. Every time I was short of money I would put some money in and keep it going. When it did finally make money I was quite excited, except that real accountants told me I hadn’t made any money. They put in the amortization and depreciation and told me I had actually lost money. So it took me some time to figure out that when you think you have made money, you haven’t really.
Ahmed: When I got my first check something like 35 years ago, I was pretty excited.