Secret Superwomen

Behind many of Britain's millionaire Asian businessmen, there are equally dynamic women. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown reports
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THINK New Britain, youthful ambition, bathfuls of money and success and one name that comes to mind is Shami Ahmed, who at 16 left school to launch a thousand and more jeans and his own label, Joe Bloggs. Now, at 35, Ahmed's brand turns over pounds 40m a year, he is internationally famous and a man with immense clout. For a while he had something of a cult following when he presented Dosh, the Channel 4 series on how to get rich while you are still young.

But as Ahmed would be the first to admit, Joe Bloggs was not just his creation. There is a heroine too - his sister Bushra. She is practically unknown, but her input into the business has been crucial.

And Bushra is not unique. The success stories of millionaire Asian businessmen have become an urban legend. They even merit their own league table, to be announced this week at a glitzy dinner in London attended by Tony Blair. But behind many of them are women like Bushra, without whom it could not have been done.

Bushra, upbeat, loud, self assured, Muslim, unmarried, ambitions as big as her Harley Davidson, is the PR and marketing manager of Joe Bloggs and has, she says, other "big plans" to get into the pop music industry. Bushra started learning the trade during infancy. This, and the way she injected energy and ideas into the business, is fairly typical, according to a research report published this month by the Roehampton Institute. It reveals for the first time the role of Asian women in business, both as silent partners in the background and super-businesswomen in their own right.

Ask Bushra Ahmed if she resents the fact that her brother has attracted all the attention and she doesn't even understand the question. She says that this was a family decision, and partly justified anyway because Shami is prepared to work every hour of every day, while the women have other needs.

The census figures show that among working women, Indian and Pakistani women are twice as likely as white women to be self-employed, and that at present there are more than 7,000 Indian women who run businesses with employees. Many now have lifestyles which Hello! would salivate over. They include Perween Warsi MBE, winner of 17 business awards, who heads S & A Foods, a chilled and frozen food empire, with annual sales of pounds 20m, which she started in her own kitchen only 10 years ago.

Also, the glamorous Meena Pathak, head of product development at the hugely successful Indian spice and sauces firm, Patak's. Meena was a Coca- Cola model in India when she agreed to an arranged marriage in Britain and joined an already flourishing family business. Then, success depended on the wide distribution of tried and tested recipes. Meena has injected evolution and change so that every year 24 new products are introduced and others retired.

As a director of Noon Products, the Southall based firm which makes 22 million packets of chilled and frozen Indian meals a year, Zeenat Harnal has been a similar asset to the company. She was brought back from India where she was living after her marriage by her father Gulam Noon, who felt the business needed her.

Such women would say that business is in their blood. Many learnt their entrepreneurial skills working in shops with their parents, all the hours they weren't at school. Bushra ws a toddler when her parents came from Karachi and settled in Burnley, Lancashire. Her father was a retailer and at six she was already helping him pack boxes.

"I was crap at school," she says, "and I was dying to work in the business." By 15 she was the main buyer and had to persuade sexist men to deal with her instead of her father. "I so admired my father. But also my mother, Saeeda, who is also very astute and is the wind beneath all our wings. Of course it was tough because we all had to chip in. But look where I am today."

Dr Spinder Dhaliwal, author of the Roehampton report, understands this all too well. Now a senior lecturer in business at the Institute, she too came here as a child from India and moved to Dunstable with her parents and three sisters, where a small grocery shop was duly set up. They lived upstairs and the parents worked night and day. There was no playtime, no teenage madness, not much going out.

And as in so many Asian families, higher education was also non-negotiable: "My dad insisted on us going to university. But I was still expected to go and help the buisness during my holidays and sometimes at weekends.

"We hear a lot about how badly treated women are in our communities, and some are, but there is also such a valuable bond between us. But that bond is breaking up and I feel the loss will be greater than the gain." This is mostly undisputed by the women I talked to, but there is a price to pay, says Zeenat Harnal. Married with a young daughter, she says that those around her are very supportive but adds: "Men cannot understand the choices women are forced to make and in the end society and the family will treat you differently because you are a woman."

She has drawn strong boundaries around her own ambitions to avoid, you suspect, upsetting the balance and losing the support of those she loves. Her child is cared for by her mother, and when she is in India, by her mother-in-law. They love their role and reciprocal respect oils the wheels. Unlike many other women high-fliers, successful Asian women go in for a lot of conspicuous complimenting of their families as if to protect themselves against accusations of selfishness or (God forbid) feminism.

Dhaliwal feels, however, that while duty to family not something to be dismissed lightly, what is wholly unacceptable is the contributions made by Asian women have been rendered invisible by the community and the wider society: "Asian women have worked twice as hard as the men in the family businesses. Because we are conditioned to think it is wrong for a woman or girl to show off, to describe their achievements, to want personal success. And men and their families simply expect female contributions, like it is their right."

For every Parween or Bushra who make it, thosusands more will be exploited by their own families. Many of the women in her report were petrified of talking to Dhaliwal. These were the "hidden" women who do mundane, grinding work and have no control over the finances or anything else. And many now suffer from terrible guilt that they have not looked after their children as well as they might have.

Typical is Surinder, now 46, who was forced to leave school at 14 to marry. What followed were hellishly hard years when money was short and she had to chop meat and do the dirty work in her husband's food shop while bringing up two small children and running a home upstairs. Now they have a clothes business which is doing well, but for Surinder the relief is limited: "I have made a lot of sacrifices. My husband normally goes out without me. He goes on holidays, plays sports, does what he wants. I worry and feel guilty if I am ever away. I have missed out on life. I can't go to weddings, functions and holidays. I don't want my daughters to go through what I did. But the family has security which I never had."

Others even in this "invisible" group seem to have found a way of finding more personal fulfilment. Davinder grew up in India, in a highly educated family and has an MA in political science. Imagine how she fitted into Southall, a working-class area, where her less-educated husband had a shop: "I just kept on crying. But you have to face life and make the most of it. A women has great strength and you must do it for the family and for a good foundation."

She lives with her husband and his brother's family. The two women divide up the shop work and child care. Impossible though this is for western feminists to imagine, many very bright Asian women have calculated that loss of personal freedom and recognition is a price worth paying in order not to emasculate men and to maintain the whole - the family. Davinder supported her husband to get his MBA: "I take full credit for his education. I was the driving force." But he has ultimate control.

The next generation, says Davinder anxiously, are used to more western values of individual gratification. This might mean the collapse of the very ethos which has enabled this Asian business success to unfold in the first place. But for now, not only are many Asian women proving themselves in business, they might be indicating that the secret lies not in having it all, but being clever enough not to want it all.

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