Muslim women, others get tips to scale up business at Kolkata event

Story by  Rita Farhat Mukand | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 24-06-2024
Ms Arijita in black, Arshia Ahmed in a naqab, and Sharmistha Banerjee in a blue saree.
Ms Arijita in black, Arshia Ahmed in a naqab, and Sharmistha Banerjee in a blue saree.


Rita Farhat Mukand/Kolkata

Entrepreneurial business ladies were all set for a major revamp with an event hosted by the American Consulate in collaboration with the University of Calcutta in Kolkata.   Professor Shabina Nishat Omar, a good friend of Dr. Sharmistha Banerjee introduced some of the ladies of Taajira, a women enterpreners' community, to Dr. Banerjee so that they too could participate in the grand event. Banerjee with Anuj Sharma and Prof. Arijita Dutta runs the celebrated Caterfly, an organization to empower entrepreneurs.

This was all women focused GLIIF, a unique initiative led by University of Calcutta, supported by US department of state and knowledge partner Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollings College at US consulate Kolkata. 

With innovative spirits surging, the two organizations worked alongside each other, uplifting one another during a recent event. Awaz-the-Voice asked Dr. Sharmistha Banerjee how in particular Muslim women involved in entrepreneurship headed by the University of Calcutta with Alsisar Impact benefited. 

She said, “My family members such as aunts and cousins married in the 60s and 70s and we saw many interfaith marriages in our family.  We never felt our cousins were different from us, and always felt we were all the same, thus inclusivity runs in our family.  In the context of having Muslim women in the program, my first interaction in the community for entrepreneurship was through a friend of mine, Professor Shabina Nishat Omar, working with the Department of Higher Education in the Government of West Bengal, and is a Professor of English Literature at Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose College affiliated with the University of Calcutta in Kolkata who introduced me to Taajira.”

She said, “Taajira brought in a large number of working women, many from very conventional Muslim families who are as open-minded as anyone else. Some of them overcoming stigmas are all entrepreneurs trying to do something for themselves. We do have some Muslim entrepreneurs such as Sana Khan who makes amazing jute craftwork, Alifia Rahman, who also was with Taajira and started her scrumptious cloud kitchen at that time, and Arshia Ahmed with her delicious chocolates who has been working closely with us, and we are especially trying to develop their businesses into expansive levels.  In a spirit of inclusivity, we have Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and other entrepreneurs networking together and we all celebrate our business groups together.”

Sana Khan, (in grey abaya) one of the ladies that the program is helping with other woman

Dr. Sharmistha Banerjee, who has been teaching for more than 30 years says that over the years she noticed the proportion of female students in the business management class had started increasing. “I feel that girls are more empathetic towards social causes and concerned about the environment. This was a simple observation.  When I started reading up, I saw the world over with evidence and statistics revealing that where there were a higher number of women on company boards, these companies are more environmentally and socially responsible. 

"Also, in the marginalized rural sections, it was the women who played a primary role in ensuring that the environment was also protected widest over the world.  The rationale that I found on reading this literature was that the women absorbed this strategy due to their instincts for the long-term protection of the future of their children, so they protected forests, ponds, or rivers from degenerating so that their children would be in the safer hands of nature.”

She explained, “With this information, I started searching for avenues to try to work on it and I got this opportunity In 2015 during a program in the USA where I learned about social empowerment, and I realized that is not being practiced in India.  While in India, the roots of Indian business and the Indian economy have been very socially and environmentally responsible, somewhere we left behind some of our indigenous ways of taking care of the environment.”

US Consul General Kolkata with Alifia Rahman

“At the same time, my training and professional education required me to bring about corporate stakeholders.  Social entrepreneurship opened my eyes to profit-making alongside being socially and environmentally responsible, so I look at business opportunities that are impactful in terms of society, environment, solving social problems, yet gaining profit, so it was a deviation of my prior understanding of the non-profit sector, which was not into making profit which was grant dependent. 

"This grant-dependence model is not something that can be sustained for very long; therefore, I embrace the social entrepreneurship model and want my students to actively hands-on participate in this.  We tried to collaborate with women entrepreneurs so that the students would grow developing their businesses in a meaningful way.”

With the collaboration of the American Consulate twice a year, at the end of the year, the students are given a funding opportunity to go for training in the USA, and the entrepreneurs are given part funding where 30 to 40% is paid by the entrepreneurs and the entire expense is covered by the program where they go for a training program to the USA. Students. So far students have gone seven times and entrepreneurs just once, the immersion program in collaboration with Bradford University, Illinois, with a lot of support from the American Consulate, so we have these programs twice a year.”

It may be stated that Alifia Rahman who started her exotic cloud kitchen with her unique Darjeeling Momos with the tagline, “Where Taste Meets the Myth” now supplies her healthy momos, salads, and chocolates not only to schools but is also immensely popular with the American Consulate.

Dr. Mary Conway Professor at Bradley University with  Alifia Rahman

When Awaz-the-Voice mentioned that with movements streamed by Taajira and Empowering Women Globally, the women in Bengal must be flourishing economically, Dr. Sharmistha Banerjee replied, “Unfortunately, the entrepreneurial mindset of Bengal is very low, so that is what we are trying to push, trying to build the ecosystem so that women who want to go on to business such as young girls get support from the business stakeholders.  We try to bring all the stakeholders on a common platform on Caterfly to give the ecosystem a boost where one place offers funds, the other license, so try to put them all together.”

While Rukhshi Kadiri Elias founder of Taajira-The Businesswoman jokes “Empower the men to empower the economically empowered women,” Dr. Sharmistha Banerjee highlights, “Empowering Women Globally is a program that is operated by Caterfly to bring about an ecosystem in which women may find a one-stop business solution and a safe place for sisterhood.  Besides teaching business over the last 30-plus years, this is my way of giving back to society what I preach can be practiced.”

”And these groups work together to complement and uplift each other’s work and as Professor Prof Shabina Nishat Omar says, “I believe we all should rise by lifting others.”

Rita Farhat Mukand is an independent writer.