Many years ago, Sharada Rijal was asked whether she could perform better today if she was a “man”. She said ‘No’. She recalls how a group of media people had asked that question. She believes that gender doesn’t matter; what matters is the quality of the work.
Rijal, who has over three decades of experience as a business owner and entrepreneur, is the proprietor of Milan Nepal and United Nepal Felt Industries Pvt. Ltd. Instead of being recognised as someone’s wife, or sister or daughter, Rijal chose to create her own self-identity. She has worked to achieve this dream of hers. Nevertheless, her journey was not easy.
Born and brought up in the heart of Kathmandu, Teku, Rijal grew up in a joint family. Belonging to a middle-class family, she was fortunate enough to be able to get a good education; however, she was not allowed to get into business. When she told her father about her wish to start her own venture, he rejected her idea. Instead, he offered her a job at a reputed school, Siddhartha Banasthali. Her father told her that she could start a business after marriage. Her yearning to do something on her own and create her identity met a devastating end at that moment. Disappointed and helpless, Rijal started her career in teaching. “I will not blame him for that. It was a time when it was unusual for a woman to run a business,” she says. Instead, she wants to give him credit over the fact that he never compromised on her studies, even when her friends’ fathers decided to stop their daughters’ education.
After eight long years of teaching, Rijal decided to start her venture. “I won’t say that I did not enjoy working as a teacher, but I did not have that inner satisfaction,” she expresses. Meanwhile, she was married and had kids. Even after so much time, her desire to create her own identity had not faded away. So she told her husband who was positive about it. Excited and vigorous, she started her own business in 1989 with Rs 10,000 from her provident fund. With three sewing machines, she started her venture from a single rented room.
The political instability post-1990 movement affected the industries and markets in the country, and Rijal’s business as well. “We had just started, but due to the conflict our business was affected,” she adds. Despite this, she did not stop. Some of her near ones encouraged her to add some more infrastructure and work. She then added 10 more sewing machines and started working. In the meantime, she faced a financial crisis and she so asked her husband for help. Although she worked with dedication, the market was again affected by the Gulf War and this time she had to shut down.
As the business was not running well, there were some arguments between Rijal and her husband. Despite the minor altercation between them, she did not stop her work. With her friend’s husband and another partner, she reopened the business with a total of 105 sewing machines. Till then she was still working at the school. She now feels that having her foot in two boats was a mistake. She says that a person should be focused on one thing at a time. Rijal also believes that market study, knowledge and training in the related field are equally important.
Rijal managed her finances with the help of her mother, brother and friend. Her brother also helped her find customers from Switzerland. She was then exporting her products to international markets. She had exported ‘crazy hats’ to the FIFA World Cup in France in 1998. Her dedication towards her work resulted in her winning the Best Women Entrepreneur Award in 2003. After 2003, she started working in the felt industry. She says that the work that she had started from the dining table of her kitchen has today made her recognised around the world. “Word of mouth and recommendation were means of promotion at that time. There was no internet and means of marketing and means of communication were also limited”, she recalls.
Today, Rijal has clients in countries like Switzerland, Israel, England, Germany, Australia, Austria, USA, Japan and Korea.
Rijal takes her mother and grandmother as her source of inspiration. They have taught her to work hard, and utilise time properly.
Strong and hardworking, she has been working for women empowerment for many years now. Today she directly employs 20 women and more than 50 men and women indirectly. However, she feels that while employing only women, there is a limitation in production, due to their household works and other responsibilities. “This also raises the question on why to employ as well as promote women in our company,” she says. Regarding this, she says that women themselves should be vigilant and seek out what they want.
Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (WEAN) approached her in 1992. 17 years ago, they established FWEAN to bring together women across the country in entrepreneurship and empower them financially. Involved in the organisation since its inception, she is the past president of FWEAN. “The problems are shared between women entrepreneurs and we can also gain encouragement from each other’s stories. It also helps in marketing,” she says.
She believes that support from family members helps a woman to grow better. Apart from that, a person has to balance personal and professional lives.
Along with this, she feels that women must be able to put forward their words in the right place at the right time. She says that today government policies support women entrepreneurs, however, they lack implementation. She also feels strongly about the fact that women still do not have rights when it comes to parental property. She also points out that though collateral free loans are there for women entrepreneurs, the system it is still not applied practically, due to various reasons, she says.
Today, there is a greater opportunity for entrepreneurs. Rijal says that means there is increased competition as well. The unavailability of training institutes was a challenge for her. She learned how to sew clothes from her mother. “Today there are many training institutes. Everybody has access to marketing at their fingertips. Families have become more understanding and supportive,” she says.
Positivity and dedication are Rijal’s greatest strengths. She believes that a person should not put problems and challenges first. “Every task would seem impossible if negative aspects are put prior to the positive ones,” she says. She believes that being positive is a mantra to success.
She is also engaged in the South Asian Women Development Forum (SAWDF) and is a founder president of the Felt Industries Association of Nepal.
Rijal now plans to dedicate more time to her business. She says that she will not stop her voluntary work, though. She wants to do group business now because as women entrepreneurs are few in number, people do not easily trust them. Moreover, as a group, they can grow financially and work together to formulate interesting and exciting ideas, she says.