In a conversation with Profit, Dr Shela Javed Akram, President Central and North Punjab Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Vice President Federal Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said, “Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry is not a right wrangling organisation. We are not fighting to snatch our share from the male stardom ruling the business industry. We are here to find ways to work through the professional challenges specific to women. When I was member of the executive committee of Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, I often found myself helpless amidst men.
My education, experience, family background and determination had no value when it would come to talk about a business initiative. My decisions were ridiculed or at best left to an infinite gestation period. It was then that I decided to give myself and to the other women a respite from this gnawing situation. Though this chamber came into being amid bad experiences, it has many positive omens to walk into the future with. I personally believe that we have to make people sitting on the helm of affairs realise their policy flaws regarding women affairs.”
Businesswoman: a non-existent term
While discussing the existing projects being carried out with respect to women, she highlighted that whatever work is being done at the government level under the banner of women development is all about poverty alleviation and encircles around providing minimum economic support to manage the routine financial crunch. She further added that neither the Ministry of Commerce and Industry nor the Ministry of Women talks about “Business Women Development.” “Even Trade Development Authority of Pakistan, the governing body of WCCI has no such term as “Businesswomen”, thus we fail to find any specific funds and no budget is allocated for businesswomen. Trade policy of Pakistan does not speak of businesswomen.
All funds allocated for women development are either spent on poverty alleviation programmes, as collateral to banks against micro financing or on Benazir Income Support Programme. And in case TDAP receives any funds for women, it squanders it on events such as exhibitions. Unless this mind set is changed and women are acknowledged as capable of contributing to the economy of a country, nothing substantial could be expected in this regard. I am strenuously working towards this end and my main mission is to get “Business Women Development” Clause included in the Trade Policy of Pakistan so that trade policy framework reflects our concerns as well.
At present women are not allowed to import and a breakthrough in this regard is also part of my mission. WCCIs are not given authority to issue letters of origin which are essential documents used in export. I will urge the TDAP, Commerce Ministry or any authorising body to get this right.”
The birth of WCCI
Talking about how WCCI came into being, she observed that it was not an easy game to make it a reality. “After five struggling years, (2003-2008) we managed to get a license from the government to operate officially. Presently there are eight women chambers of commerce and industries working in Pakistan.
There are two in Sindh, two in Punjab and one each in Islamabad, Peshawar and Mardan. I want all these chambers to work in collaboration. That is the key to our success. Unless our women chambers are fully acknowledged and get their rightful place in the policy framework of the government, we cannot afford to work in isolation.”
Facilitating women doing business
“Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry has eased many hitch ups a woman would face in the regular CCI; the biggest obstacle being the general attitude of men towards women. Major barriers to women entering business are men. Men generally lack confidence in women. I would see women coming to LCCI only to find them rejected and snubbed. Even today, when we have our own pedestal to stand on, we are not taken seriously. Our ideas are flouted. Our initiatives are ridiculed. Our desires are shunned. But we are resolved to make a mark,” she emphasised while figuring out the difficulties women face in doing business in Pakistan.
However, she has a positive outlook for the future as she says that her only advice to women is to play a participatory role in society. “We need to get away from the habit of seeking support from government, because they are not going to help us at all. We need to work within our support system, and should approach government through our own network. That is the only way to succeed,” she claimed. In her opinion, all eight WCCI need to work in alliance and should take on board other chambers of Pakistan as well on important issues. It hardly matters at this state as to who gets which slot or what position is conferred on whom. What matters in the long run is how far women chambers become successful in developing women as business persons.
“Our victory in the future depends a great deal on how we manage to create opportunities and translate those into actions. Officially speaking, we have innumerable achievements pegged on us just three years down the road,” she said mentioning what the future had in hold for them.
She went on to discuss how women could be encouraged to make a mark in the society and follow their vision. “I strongly believe that women need orientation, guidance and developmental training in doing business. I have been convincing Trade Development Authority of Pakistan over the years to send women entrepreneurs to different conferences and training programmes for skill enhancement, but to no avail. Their ball game is all about giving stalls to women at international exhibitions and sending delegations for business exploration.
Though TDAP does receive funds for research and development, it is all together another story that they are not spent on it. My agenda for WCCI is not only about assisting women to progress as businesswomen but to help them in becoming strong, powerful and confident. For these, they need to unlock themselves and start considering themselves a part of the system.”
If a woman is a thorough professional and has control over her finances, then confidence, power and strength do not remain distant qualities. Professionalism is important. Many women who come to WCCI lack skills. They do not know rules of the business. In order to survive in our society, which is highly male-chauvinistic in nature, women have to work meticulously. Otherwise, they cannot make their mark. It is not just money that makes a difference, though that is important, knowledge of the rules of the game is more important.
With regards to funding and financing she said, “CNPWCCI has one principle; we do not borrow from the government. We generate our own funds through exhibitions, expos, Eid Melas, social programmes and mega events.” She also pointed out that philanthropists, donors and her own social networks have been instrumental in helping WCCI work whole heartedly towards its agenda. Her agenda is to reach out to women entrepreneurs at the regional level.
The chamber has 1070 members spread across North and Central Punjab. This chamber is not just an intermediary between businesswomen and the government; it is an institution which spans the continuum of idea generation and setting up of a business.
“We need to understand some vital realities and should disembark from the emotional rollercoaster when dealing with women. Women form 53 per cent of the entire population of Pakistan of which 22 per cent are part of the total workforce out of which 16 per cent are doing their own businesses. The way in which the government is managing affairs of this country, I can say with certainty that finding a job would become an immensely difficult task in the future.
This entails that more women would seek to initiate small businesses This chamber, opened exclusively for women, is all set to help womenfolk enter this new arena as responsibly as her male counterpart would do in future,” she said while focussing on the ground realities of the country’s labour force and how in the future women could play a practical role in business.
Giving examples, she noted, “We need to come out of micro financing schemes to support women entrepreneurs. Look at Nigeria or even India. Nigeria gives a ten per cent tax rebate on duty if we do business with a woman-based Nigerian company. In India, women are provided land with the condition that if she builds a factory on it within eight months, the government of India will give her five hundred thousand rupees for the raw material. Such well-thought incentives bring change and are called a real shot to development.”
Talking about her future plans with regards to the chamber, she said that they are looking forward to have their own building for CNPWCCI along with the development of a Women Industrial Zone. Thirdly, she is putting in efforts to get the mark up rate, for businesswomen, lowered.