Meteoric rise of Asian businesswomenBy Paul Robins
May 19, 2009
Glass ceilings are not known for shattering quietly, but for one group of women climbing the career ladder in Reading the breakthrough has come with barely a sound.
With little fanfare, Asian women professionals are rising to new heights in business and making an increasingly important contribution to the town’s economy.
There are now approximately 700 Asian firms in Reading – contributing a healthy 12 per cent of its GDP – and more and more have a woman at the helm.
And this trend is set to continue, according to Tony Sarin, chief executive of the Asian Business Association.
“The role of Asian women in the labour market is increasing all the time,” he said.
“Just look across the professions – the lawyers, the accountants – if we took Asian women out of these jobs, a lot of the services would simply fall apart.”
His claims are backed up by a new study by the NGO Centre for Social Markets, which predicts that by 2020, 15 per cent of businesses in the area will be run by Asian women.
So what is key to this dramatic rise? This month Business Post has been speaking to some of Reading’s top female Asian professionals to find out.
The answer, according to Diksha Chakravarti, head of Reading-based RSI treatment company FixMe, is all down to awareness.
“Asian women have always been in business, but they have often been in the shadows,” she said. “They have seen their white counterparts start out on their own and do well, and they are encouraged by it.
“It makes them aware that they can go into business and make a success of it. The opportunities are out there and things are beginning to change.
“There are a lot of Asian women in Reading running franchises and software businesses.
“They have been able to break through the glass ceiling, so the awareness of the opportunities out there is far greater. And they are making the most of it.”
Chakravarti said expectations have also changed – as the next generation of young Asian women are no longer happy to settle for the family roles of their predecessors.
“Past generations of Asian women didn’t think about going for the top jobs,” she explained. “Many had arrived in the UK and their focus was on establishing themselves and their families here.
“They didn’t have the inspiration or the need to forge a career in business. But this has changed. When I look at my daughter, I can see her aspirations are much higher. She wants to reach the top.”
Her thoughts echo those of Kamel Hothi, Asian markets director for the Lloyds TSB group, who founded the bank’s first Asian strategy to improve relations with minority ethnic communities.
“Asian women are allowing their daughters to go away to university now,” she says, “and they are coming back with more fire in their bellies than their fathers or brothers.
“They are beginning to make their mark, and companies are starting to realise that if you employ women it will help the culture.”
Steve Rankin, regional director of the Confederation of British Industry for the Thames Valley, agreed: “The Asian community has been making a valuable contribution to the economy for some time, but I think to some extent it has been hiding its light.
“That’s all changing now. When you look at the entrepreneurial community, Asian businesswomen are a huge part of this.
“They are rising to new heights – and beating a path for a generation of ambitious young entrepreneurs behind them. I think we will see them continue to flourish, with the number of start-ups rising and rising.”
This new generation of high flyers includes many of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, and they are shining in all sectors.
Indeed, medics, chefs, and female-run children’s homes were among those shortlisted in the recent Southern Jewel Awards, launched five years ago to celebrate the achievement of Asians in the public and private sector.
Another of those leading the pack is Anjali Mittal, director of Mantra Infotech Limited in Lower Earley.
“I have noticed a lot more Asian women coming along to networking events to find out about starting their own businesses,” she told Business Post.
“With the change in the economic climate, they have become more honest about what they want and how to go about achieving their goals.
“It raises their confidence level. They want to do things for themselves. I would love to see more Asian women in senior positions, but it depends on what sort of help is available.
“Support of the family is crucial too. It certainly is in my case. I know that my husband will look after the kids if I have to work late in the office.”
But it’s even simpler than that, according to Pooja Sharma, director of software company W3Quest InfoTech Ltd.
She moved to the UK from Mumbai in 2004 and has seen turnover double at her Bath Road firm over the past five years.
Sharma puts her success down to a strong “culture of enterprise”.
“The rise we are seeing could simply be a case of natural progression, but I think it’s down to more than that,” she said.
“When you are outside your home community, as Asian women are when they come to the UK, subconsciously you are a little more cautious about the way you behave. You want to do well.
“So when you go into the business world, you maybe try that little bit harder to please people.”
But these successes are only part of the picture – research published by the Department for Work and Pensions revealed that 80 per cent of Bangladeshi and 70 per cent of Pakistani women of working age are not in full-time education or work, compared with 25 per cent of all other ethnic groups.
Asian women still face barriers, warns Zohra Moosa, senior policy officer for race and gender at the Fawcett Society.
“There are still stereotypes based probably on the first generation of immigrants that are holding them back,” she said. “There are still ideas that women will just be around for a little bit, and then they will get married and be off.”
And while Asian firms grow maybe three times faster than mainstream businesses in Reading – according to Government figures – the climb up the employment ladder is still far from easy.
In fact there is not one Asian woman on the boards of the FTSE top 100 companies, despite the growing pool of Asian professionals.
But Hothi believes great career opportunities await the younger, third generation of Asian girls in Reading, as long as they maintain that hunger.
“There are more options now, but it’s important not to hand them everything on a plate,” she said. “They have to feel they need to work.”