Metro Detroit’s Bangladeshi women create community minded businesses in the age of social media
By Nargis Rahman |
JANUARY 27, 2021
Fast forward to 2020: Many Bangladeshi women have found ways to take ownership and become more prominent in the business landscape. Many are thriving on social media like Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat, while others cater to their clients by providing services like professional bridal henna and makeup through their websites or via WhatsApp messaging.
As a freelance journalist in Metro Detroit, I noticed that Bangladeshi women are often left out of the narrative when it comes to the limited positive coverage of the greater Detroit area. This is in part due to some family structures in which men are empowered to speak on behalf of their families, men are the primary or “public” owners of restaurants and businesses, and women sometimes don’t want to be in the limelight (on occasion, their daughters give interviews). In many, if not all, cases, men are the ones who show up in public, make public decisions, and speak on behalf of the community. This is evident in association meetings, information sessions with public elected officials, and meetings about the Census or elections, in which few if any women are present. Such meetings are held in an “invite only” fashion, at the mosque on the men’s side, or at restaurants. Few women have access to these spaces.
For my SAADA project, I am gathering stories of women who are finding ways to go around the traditional brick-and-mortar business design to find success in a new, social-media enhanced entrepreneurial landscape. These women have created adaptable business models to work around their family structures and to redefine entrepreneurship. I have looked for Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs across ages, religions, and sectors. While some are selling products like jewelry, home baked sweets, cakes and foods, others are providing services like henna art, professional makeup, catering, and home healthcare services. My aim is to find people who have been working in their respective businesses for at least a few years, many of whom are young entrepreneurs. I am also attempting to find women who are running their own businesses in nontraditional ways.
In seeking interview subjects, I created a committee of Bangladeshi advisors (a community activist, a publisher of a local Bangla newspaper, a local Detroit reporter, and a community organizer) to help me make a list of potential people to interview. I sought out people who I had recently interviewed in other mediums and checked in to see how their businesses have changed and grown.
I hosted a Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs’ roundtable to invite women to share their stories with me and other community members and entrepreneurs in the Greater Detroit area. Some women said they weren’t taken seriously for being women, while others said being young impacted the way they were treated. Yet others spoke about the potential that the community has to nurture creative business ventures. All said they were proud to provide services in and to the community.
While many women were willing to share their stories, others were hesitant to speak in a public platform. Others no longer worked in their respective sector and therefore did not want to talk about it. In some cases, they did not think of themselves as “entrepreneurs,” but were eager to uplift the community through their skills or services.
The women I interviewed spoke to growing up in spaces where women weren’t always welcome. They talked about lacking the business skills which they ultimately needed to support and grow their venture. They were interested in developing their skills through more traditional resources and in learning business plans and business management, but they didn’t necessarily know how or when to do this. My project committee advisors and I noticed that there is room to provide these resources back to the women who have done the hard work of researching and setting up their niche businesses.
Metro Detroit’s Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs have a collaborative spirit, creating expos and giveaways to help promote each other’s business. Now, during the pandemic, they are looking for creative ways to come together, whether virtually, by doing more giveaways, or in simply waiting out the pandemic together before resuming their work. Some work solo but hire from the community to expand the collective skillset. Some have branched out to other BIPOC communities to make a larger splash.
In my next round of interviews, I hope to focus more on the mothers, aunts, and grandmothers in the community. I am also looking for women from various faith backgrounds who can speak to different cultural norms. I am continuing to discover incredible individuals who have been working for Bangladeshis and other communities, while holding onto their Bangladeshi and South Asian roots.
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.