Shazia Khan: An entrepreneur trying to mentor Muslim women find their feet

By Amit Kumar, TwoCircles.net

For Shazia Khan, the path to success has never been a straight one: as a Muslim girl growing up in Bihar, she had her work cut out since the time she joined primary school in Dumka (now in Jharkhand), staying at her grandparents’ house. She then moved back to Bhagalpur, her birthplace, where she finished her higher secondary school. Looking back, she believes that the single biggest reason for her success was her father’s single-minded devotion to one cause: Come what may, his daughter would not stop her studies. And thanks to that resolve, today, Khan is a successful entrepreneur in Patna, running the city’s first shoe laundry clinic. But even this was not a straight route; she reached here after years of determination and patience.

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In 2000, 17-year-old Khan enrolled into a four-year physiotherapy graduation course in Patna. After her first year, she got married, but even that never stopped her education. “My dad’s promise to me, and my in-laws, that he would not pay a single penny as dowry, but instead spend the money on my education. Even though I got married, I continued my course and my father paid all the expenses. Without his support, I doubt I could stand here, and talk to you about my project,” she says.

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It was not until 2007 that Khan received her degree, after she had completed her studies and finished the mandatory internship programmes. Immediately after she finished her degree, she joined World Health Organisation as part of their polio outreach programme in Bhagalpur, and worked for them for six months. She then also worked as a Monitor for Polio Project with UNICEF. However, since she now had a child, she decided to focus on that, and to ensure that she doesn’t stop learning, she also enrolled into a distance-learning course in Hospital administration. The decision to join this course for Khan was partially influenced by the fact that her husband also worked as a Hospital Manager in Begusarai. However, as she said, her destiny lied somewhere else.

“I remember reading an article in 2006 in Outlook magazine about Sandeep Ghajakas, a Mumbai resident who had started India’s first shoe laundry store. Since then, I knew I wanted to do something like this: no one, at least in Bihar, had started a shop for cleaning shoes. While we spent so much on clothes, we cared little for our footwear and this was an opportunity I wanted to utilise,” says Khan, now a mother of two.

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However, starting a venture is easier said than done: for the next six years, she worked on the idea in her spare time. Since she had no business training or experience, she tread slowly in unchartered waters. “Whenever I would meet people, I would often casually ask them if they would ever take their shoes to a dedicated shop for repairs and cleaning. Most of the response I got was positive,” she says. But even then, she knew she had to understand as much as possible about shoes before she took the big step.

Between 2010 and 2012, Khan attended various programmes for training in this field: she went to a shoe-making institute in Chennai for a few months to train, and then to Bhutan to work in a shoe laundry clinic. In December, with an investment of about Rs 5 lakh, she set up Revival Shoe Laundry in Alpna locality of Patna.

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“I thought that starting the business was tough. My father, who had always supported me, was initially unsure about this as it was completely unrelated to my training as a physiotherapist. However, I had faith, and had the first-mover advantage of bringing a unique concept to the city,” she says. Soon, customers started coming in, but most people initially confused the shop as a shoe-selling store. “It took us a few months to explain people what we did here. So, then they would bring their dirtiest, almost dead shoes to see what we could do with them,” Khan says, smiling.

Over the next three years, Khan immersed herself completely in the venture, ensuring that she hit break even and started earning a profit in her venture. She now employs two women and three men in her shop. However, her meeting with Savita Ali, who has been working with Dalit and Muslim women, added a new goal in her life: she realised that just because she had been successful did not mean that things had improved for Muslim women in general. “In our Muslim society, even the most rudimentary things are considered as achievements. So, if a girl completes graduation, it is considered as a big achievement. I want our community to now move beyond these ideas, and encourage Muslim and Dalit women to work, and become self-sustainable,” she says.

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As part of this initiative, Ali and Khan have set up the Dalit Muslim Mahila Manch. The organisation will address the issues and problems that the women in these two communities face. While Ali handles the legal issues that affect women, Khan is working hard to become a mentor for women who wish to set up their own ventures, self help groups or acquire new skills. “I have a successful business Inshallah now, and hope that I can help the organisation through funding and guidance. Muslim women have potential, but we need to not only create awareness but also encourage them to take up issues. And fight their evils. There are a number of government initiatives that are there to aid women, and we want to ensure that these initiatives reach the women,” Khan adds.

Between her family, her entrepreneurial venture and her social work, Khan barely finds any time for other activities. “To be honest, I like being busy. I am happy that I have so much on my plate; I would not want it any other way,” she says. Khan hopes to open more stores in Patna, and wants to expand her business to the North East also, but says that she is no hurry. “I will take it slow…I cannot forget that I have other responsibilities also,” she says.

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