LeadingWoman: Geeteara Safiya Choudhury – leading the charge for female entrepreneurs

Speaking to some of the 149 women at the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network, here in a stately part of the enormous city of Delhi, there is a common theme.

Women across the world – and there are 11 countries represented here, including Brazil, Japan, Germany, France, and India – report that they are still hold back in various ways from reaching their economic potential.

With one exception (so far).

Geeteara Safiya Choudhury, who is from Dhaka in Bangladesh, portrays a different image of a country that I tend to still associate primarily with famine. Choudhury points out that there are several women who are ministers in the government, including the Prime Minister.

“We have had a female Prime Minister for 15 years,” Choudhury reminds me.

Sheikh Hasina, who became Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 2008 after the country had two years of administration, entered Parliament in 1986, and became the leader of the opposition, and became Prime Minister in 1996. (Bangladesh has a caretaker administration at the moment.)

Whether Choudhury’s assessment of the status of women in her country is objectively correct, she herself is a woman of remarkable achievement. She owns two companies – an advertising agency and a graphic design company (Dell is one of her clients) – employing hundreds of people and providing services to the world.

She started her business in 1974, at a time when, in Australia, women still had to resign from the public service when they got married, or near enough to that time.

Choudhury’s father, she tells me, refused to let her learn to cook, fearing that she would become tied to the kitchen, and was almost more demanding that his daughters realise their potential than he was with his sons, she says.

Over dinner on our first night, where we were all anointed with red dye between our eyes in an Indian custom to protect us from harm, Choudhury told us how she broke down the gender barriers at a gentlemen’s club, first insisting on membership in her own right (rather than as a guest of her husband), then standing for election to the club’s committee, and finally standing for president of the club.

The men bewailed her ambition: “We have a female Prime Minister who annoys us,” they complained to her. “We go home to wives who annoy us. And now, at our club where we come to get away and relax, we will find a woman who annoys us, who will close the bar at 10.30pm instead of 12, who will not be able to handle the drunks.”

Choudhury assured them that, since the bar made the most money for the club, she would not be closing it early. And, since it was a gentleman’s club, they should not be getting drunk! However, she could surely handle them if she did.

Like many successful businesspeople around the world, including our own, Choudhury comes from a relatively privileged background. But she has done a lot to ensure that her good fortune has contributed to the economic prosperity of others, generating jobs and opportunity.

She is one of many remarkable women gathered in Dehli for a few days this week, many of whom are managing substantial companies in a wide variety of sectors, who have not succumbed to critics, who have found support to overcome economic and social barriers and are creating jobs, wealth and a global network of support for other women willing to have a go.

Kath Walters has travelled to DWEN as a guest of Dell.

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