She left her studies to start a pashmina shawl manufacturing unit. Two years later her products adored display windows in Paris and Rome. Shaheena Akhtar talks to Faisal Shabir Bhat about her journey and challenges
In 2011, Shaheena Akhtar, 31, who compromised her dream of pursuing a PhD in order to support her family financially, started making pashmina shawls at her residence in Nowshera, Srinagar. Two years later, her products are displayed at windows in Rome, Italy.
Shaheena, whose father owns a shop in Nowshera, a copper smith by profession could not provide enough for his family. Poverty forced her brothers to discontinue their education and they started earning at a young age by weaving shawls on meager wages. She was the only one in the family to get a formal education. Shaheena completed her bachelor in arts from government women’s college Srinagar in 2004. She wanted to pursue higher studies but her family’s poor financial condition made her think on different lines.
‘’After completing my graduation I never thought of doing a job whether government or private. I always wanted to start a business of my own. I was very confident and enthusiastic from the very beginning that I could manage a business,’’ Shaheena remarks.
It was a training programme on self-employment, which she attended at Kashmir University in 2006, changed her life forever and made her think on different lines. ‘’One of the trainers there, on seeing my enthusiasm and confidence, encouraged me to start my own handicraft business. It was a good advice as my brothers were already associated with the sector. And I had a little knowhow myself,” says Shaheena.
It was her trainer who took her to Jammu and Kashmir handicrafts department and got a loan of one lakh rupees sanctioned in her favor through which she started her business unit Shaheen Handicrafts in early 2007. At first she started with two workers at her unit and would also work on the handloom herself and weave shawls. The initial phase in her business was very difficult for Shaheena. “I did not even own a bank account then and had no idea of how a business runs,’’ she remembers.
Her relatives and friends were surprised at her decision who believed that she cannot do well in a male dominated business arena. However, she was supported by her family especially, her father who encouraged her to carry on. Shaheena kept working hard learning the dynamics of business each day and increasing her customer base. The turning point in Shaheena’s business came in 2011 when she came to know about the Sher-i-Kashmir employment welfare scheme for youth (SKEWPY), a self-employment programme launched by the government. Shaheena registered herself for the scheme and completed the training at the Jammu & Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI). After completing her training she received a decent amount of 8.5 lakh rupees under seed capital fund scheme. With that money Shaheena was able to expand her business.
“The money I received from EDI proved very beneficial for me. I was able to expand my business and today I employ about 17 workers and have 11 looms at my unit manufacturing a wide range of products,” says a visibly proud Shaheena.
Her unit mostly is associated with pashmina shawls and its embroidery. Pashmina is a type of fine Kashmiri wool which comes from pashmina goat, a special breed of goat found in the high altitudes of the mountainous Ladakh region. On specific customer demands her unit also manufactures the special Kani shawls. These shawls are woven with special woolen needles called Kanils in Kashmiri. The shawls are made by special weaving techniques and it takes at least a year or two depending on the design of the shawls. These shawls owing to their extraordinary finesse, beauty, design and the labor required are quite expensive.
Shaheena has travelled to various places in India like Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Ludhiana and Amritsar to know more about the handicraft business and look for new markets and design her products according to market demand.
She has incorporated latest technological innovations and design into her products which has helped her to gain substantial market share.
The products manufactured at her unit have been showcased at various exhibitions. “The products of my business unit have reached showrooms in Italy and France. Some of the Kani shawls manufactured at my unit have found a space on the shelves of showrooms in Paris and Rome,’’ Shaheena says.
She believes that the uniqueness of design on her shawls has been the reason of her success in the market. “My customers ask for specific designs and I try my best to incorporate those designs on my shawls. Customer satisfaction is of utmost importance to me,” she adds.
Today Shaheena is a proud owner of a budding business unit with a monthly turnover of ten lakh rupees and an average profit of seventy thousand rupees. “This year I have managed to do very good business and my turnover is also very good as compared to previous years,” Shaheena says.
She recently received the Exemplary Entrepreneurship Award in Handicrafts sector from chief minister Omar Abdullah. The award was given to ten outstanding entrepreneurs in the state in varied sectors. Shaheena was the lone girl from the group of ten people.
‘’Every day is a new learning experience for me regarding my business. I have been a very enthusiastic learner from the very beginning and that has helped me a great deal in my life,” says Shaheena.
She remembers the days when she would get frustrated by the comments of her relatives and neighbors who believed that she could not do not well in her life.
“I had to face many social constraints. At times I would be really frustrated by the comments of my relatives and neighbors. But the time changed and same people seek my guidance from me,” she says.
After she proved her critics wrong, Shaheena became a source of inspiration for many girls in her locality. Many of them visit her and ask her suggestions about starting and running a successful business. She recently helped her cousin in starting a boutique at Buchpora. “It is really a paradox that my relatives and friends who used to taunt me and believed that I could not do well in life now come to me to get counseled for running a successful business.”
My uncle’s daughter who is pursuing her PhD recently came to me and sought my advice regarding her future,” Shaheena remarks.
The businesswoman believes that there is still a long way to go for her. She believes that every day is a new experience for her to learn. She wants her products to reach markets worldwide. “I want to export my products directly to foreign markets. I have already applied for an `export license and I am hopeful that I would get it very soon,” she says.