A dauntless daughter

Story by Bilal Handoo in June, Srinagar

: Among the six siblings, she was only one who didn’t severe her educational ties until a mounting financial crisis at home forced her to choose business over books. Bilal Handoo details the struggling success of a city girl who plunged into men dominating field and ended up clinching gold

Great sacrifices bring great rewards

At school, she had learnt: Great sacrifices bring great rewards. The lesson taught by her teacher took its time to seep in. But when she sacrificed her doctorate degree (her dream) for supporting her financially-crippled family, the meaning of the lesson became loud and clear. After distancing herself from studies, she plunged into Pashmina making. And eight years after her sacrifice, her rewards are quite visible: her home-grown Pashmina shawls have today became rage in Rome.

Being a daughter of a coppersmith, Shaheena Akhtar, 32, from Nowshera Srinagar had seen the worst patch of life. The only graduate among her six siblings, she had seen how poverty forced her siblings to discontinue their education. To support the family, her brothers had started earning at a young age by weaving shawls on meagre wages. But Shaheena continued her education and completed her graduation in 2004. Once out of college, she wanted to start her own business, as frequent financial blues of her family didn’t encourage her to study further. But she had no idea that her future lies only in handicrafts.

During a training programme on self-employment at Kashmir University in 2006 she was encouraged by her trainer to start a handicrafts unit. Later she availed Rs 1 lakh loan from Jammu and Kashmir Handicrafts Department which helped her to start Shaheen Handicrafts in early 2007. With two workers, she started working on the handloom herself to weave shawls. It was the time when Shaheena was neither having any bank accounts nor any idea of running business.

Being a girl in men dominating field was itself a big challenge. She perceived a change in her relatives’ behaviour towards her. “But I never mind that changed behaviour,” she says. “For me, to support my family was more meaningful and important than anything else.” Defying all prevailing notions, she kept building the base of her business with her dauntless efforts. But while her efforts were piling up, at the same time, her finances weren’t pooling in. And this was slowly brewing a sense of discontentment in her.

10 days made the difference

Financial hiatus ended

But her wait to break the financial hiatus didn’t end till the summer of 2011. One fine day that year she heard about the Sher-i-Kashmir employment welfare scheme for youth (SKEWPY), a self-employment programme launched by the government. She applied, got selected and subsequently received the training. “Those 10 days of training changed my life,” says Shaheena, whose turnover stood at Rs 60 lakh against Rs 8.50 lakh project sanctioned amount within one year.

Empowering women

With the money Shaheena was able to expand her business. She employs about 17 workers and has 11 looms at her unit. Besides she mainly involved women workforce from many parts of the valley making Pashmina and Kanni shawls.

Travel to explore new designs

To promote her business, Shaheena travelled to Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Ludhiana and Amritsar to tap the new markets and new designs. With the result, she has incorporated latest technological innovations and design into her products which has helped her to gain substantial market share. “The products of my unit have managed to create a room in the showrooms of Italy and France,” she claims.

Specific designs

What do they say USP

She believes her “unique” designs on shawls have been the reason of her success in the market. “My customers ask for specific designs,” she says. “And I try my best to incorporate those designs on my shawls.” Her unique touch on shawls has helped her to increase sales. Today her monthly turnover is around Rs 10 lakh and her average profit is close to Rs 70 thousand per month.

Recognition is good but

To felicitate her works, she was given the Exemplary Entrepreneurship Award in Handicrafts sector from chief minister Omar Abdullah in last December. But she doesn’t feel so high about the award and the reward of her works. “Look, every day I keep on learning new aspects of my business,” she says. “I have been a very enthusiastic learner from the very beginning and that has helped me a great deal in my life.”

Thinking monopoly

Now after improving the income graph of her family, she wants to end the monopoly of some businessmen over foreign markets by directly pumping her products there. She has already applied for an export license and is hopeful that she would get it very soon.

Being realistic

Being a dauntless daughter, Shaheena has now become an inspiration for scores of girls in her locality who often visit her for seeking suggestions on their future plans. “I only tell them [girls] that I have started everything from scratch by facing plenty of social constraints,” she says. “By quoting my own struggle I want to make them realistic about life.”