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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Bangladeshi Third Spaces

Businesswomen find creative ways to build niche businesses
By Nargis Rahman |
MAY 18, 2021
Bengali Women Empowerment. Artwork by Tanvir Talukder
In 2019 I attended a walking tour that was put together in part by the City of Hamtramck and representatives from the University of Michigan’s Economic Growth Institute. It was my first time attending such a city tour. As someone who grew up in Hamtramck, I was curious to see how people spoke about Hamtramck to outsiders.

Sarah Crane, research project manager at the Economic Growth Institute at the University of Michigan (UM), helped organize the tour with others. UM partnered with the City of Hamtramck and Taubman College’s Michigan Engaging Community program to evaluate ethnic commercial corridors across the U.S., with hopes to invest in Hamtramck’s Banglatown area.

Much of Metro Detroit’s Bangladeshi population spread their roots in the late 90s and early 2000s – setting up Bangladeshi groceries, restaurants and clothing stores which line up Conant Ave., later given the honorary name Bangladesh Ave. in 2008 by the City of Hamtramck. About 26 percent of Hamtramck’s population is Bangladeshi.

The City of Detroit also began injecting significant funds into the Banglatown neighborhood across the border off of Carpenter Street, running perpendicular to Conant St. This year Detroit budgeted $7.2 million to renovate an old private school into an affordable housing complex with 19 units. In 2019, another $16.8 million housing complex with 50 units was approved for construction in Banglatown. Detroit is also improving street structures and parks, with funding from the Strategic Neighborhood Fund.

Crane says the City of Hamtramck received funding from the State Treasury Department to invest in the entrepreneurial scene. UM researchers for this project worked to see what types of entrepreneurial spaces would work in Hamtramck by examining ethnic specific businesses – some of which belonged within Bangladeshi and Yemeni enclaves.

Crane says they looked at the Banglatown area to see what was working.

“We really need to look into Banglatown and see, what are the opportunities here, what would be some next steps.”

The University of Michigan findings were put into a comparative study to show how immigrant communities thrive in enclaves across the nation, such as ethnic commercial corridors which implement the community’s own expertise, and support the community through providing space, funding and resources. Crane says there wasn’t enough information gathered during the short-term study to make a strong recommendation of what the community needs, in absence of being able to speak to community members about the project.

“We didn't have community involvement. Nor were we given time for community involvement, so it was just, I was like, we're not going to say, “Here's how you could do it” because the community first has to define, “Here's what we want to do” so, instead it was the, here's some potential options,” says Crane.

To Crane’s point, there were only a few people on the tour that were not a part of the project. At one point officials stopped in front of a clothing store. They did not have a lot of background information about individual shops, how they differed from each other, and which ones were known for what in the city. For example, some shops were simply introduced as clothing stores, rather than the clothing store known for selling particular garments.

In another instance, one researcher asked me, “So where do the women gather?,” upon which I said that women tend to gather in the privacy of their homes, sipping tea together. What I alluded to was Bangladeshi third spaces, or places women have created behind the scenes to gather and even create businesses.

For my project with SAADA, I focused on these Bangladeshi third spaces formed by Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs who found ways to create business models outside of traditional brick-and-mortars. While women support their families in the business district on Conant Ave., also known as Bangladesh Ave., others created off-grid businesses relying on social media and online shopping. Others created home-based businesses with delivery or pick-up options based in Hamtramck, and across Metro Detroit.

Sisters Humayra Bobby, Jahura Hobby, and Tahura Holly figured out how to tap into these third spaces. I interviewed them as a group with their sister Shakira Khanam, who supports their businesses. Each of them began their businesses from home, later branching out into brick-and-mortars or using a combination of services. Their father Rezaul Karim came to the United States in 1995. He had to start from scratch, go back to school and work at Dunkin’ Donuts before opening his own shop in the early 2000s.
Jahura Hobby opened JHobby Makeup Studio in 2017 in Pleasant Ridge. Today she's one of metro Detroit's Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of Jahura Hobby.
Holly says their dad told them to work for themselves from a young age.

“Never make it so you have to work on someone else's terms. Do your own thing,” he would tell them.

Hobby was the first to open her own business, JHobby Makeup Studio, followed by Holly, who opened Festive Essentials to sell quality jewelry from India, where she lives, in Hamtramck and across the nation. Bobby created the vegan skincare line Boubi´ Skin after dealing with her own skincare issues. The sisters expressed wanting to open businesses that served products or services they needed and could not easily access – professional makeup services, jewelry for special occasions, affordable skincare options.

Hobby started freelancing as a makeup artist and then eventually moved into a studio in Pleasant Ridge. She also visits brides at their homes before special occasions. Holly handpicks jewelry from India and sells them online, and has a shared space within her dad’s store Everyday Super Discount in Hamtramck. Bobby, the newest business owner, sells products online, shares space at her dad’s store for products, and features her products in Downtown Detroit shops.

“There is not a single waking moment that we are not thinking about either our clients or customers, how we can improve the business, how we can make it more efficient for our clients,” says Bobby.

Mafruza Begum pictured with her father in 1996.
Photo courtesy of of Mafruza Begum.
Many of these Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs sought to meet a need in the community— outside the restaurant, grocery and clothing store staples.

For example in 2014 Mafruza Begum opened Mersiha Homecare Services after not finding adequate home healthcare services for her father who suffered from the aftereffects of a stroke. She wanted to help others in need who would benefit from Bangla-language services. Her business is located on Conant St.

Others like Shamsun Nehar, work from their own spaces and deliver their products or have pick-up options available. The cake artist has now served over 500 cakes for special occasions since 2014.

These Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs are part of a growing niche population in Metro Detroit.

Little did I know that just a year later, this statement would ring even more true during the pandemic where women were virtually connecting more than ever, privately, and leaning on these behind-the-scenes ways to connect with other women for business.

Many of these women moved beyond the supporter roles in family businesses. They are creating or expanding virtually to provide services or products, using social media as a tool for business, rather than having to open or close down physical businesses.

This newer trend of Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs began showing up about a decade or so ago, as women found creative ways to live in the public world, privately, mobilizing grassroots efforts to thrive, communicate and simultaneously fulfill other roles they played in their lives.

Many of these women had to figure out how to do their business on their own. They lacked local mentors and oftentimes went through trial and error to see what worked and what didn’t. Some do not have formal business entities in which they can take out loans or receive funding. During the pandemic, many businesses were on a standstill or closed altogether.

Hobby says, “[It was] just kind of figuring it out on your own very slowly, so I think that my process was a lot longer because of all those little things.”

Nehar also shared this sentiment. She relied mostly on following social media accounts from bakers in the United Kingdom who were already catering to South Asian clients and using relevant themes for cake decorating. She says Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs are filling in a void in the community.
Shamsun Nehar began the business Cakes by Lucky in 2014. Pictured is her first wedding cake in 2014 compared to one she made in 2019. Photo courtesy of Shamsun Nehar.
“When you come from a specific community, you start a business, people hear that you are doing something that can benefit them or might be you know, in their interest, they really come together and support you,” Nehar says.

This year I documented businesses in my Saa Nasta Newsletter about Bangladeshi entrepreneurs who created businesses in third spaces, through social media, to cater to the growing number of people shopping from the comfort of their homes.

Many of these women told me they either never expected to open a business or finally had the opportunity to do so in a nontraditional way without the pressures of keeping up with a physical location. At the same time, many missed out on the opportunities to receive funding for pandemic relief loans due to not having registered businesses.

While the UM comparative study found four strategies that worked well in various ethnic communities for business development: “grassroots organizations, cross-cutting funding, planning & investment, and anchor attractions & marketing,” many of these findings did not account how small businesses entrepreneurs who are off-grid may be impacted.

I hope my project will showcase that these businesses are out there, thriving and in need of similar resources to help them grow and give back to the communities that they are a part of.
Nargis Hakim Rahman is a Bangladeshi American Muslim writer. She is passionate about community journalism in the greater Detroit area. She hopes to give American Muslims and minorities a voice in the press. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.