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‘WE WANT TO TRANSFORM PERSONA INTO AN INTERNATIONAL PLATFORM’

kaniz Almas Khan is one of the most well known women entrepreneurs of Bangladesh. Often in the media for her expertise as a beautician, her other identity as one of the most, if not the most, successful beauty service provider perhaps gets much less attention than it should.

We caught up with Kaniz Almas to talk about her iconic company Persona, how she started it, how technology is integrated with the services and other related topics.

FINTECH: Tell us about your background a little bit. Did you think about becoming an entrepreneur when you were a student?

KA Khan: I did my undergraduate in Sociology from Eden College. Even though I didn’t exactly plan to be an entrepreneur, I did have a vision that I will do something on my own. I think anyone who ends up starting their own venture always have some kind of plan at the back of their mind, even if they don’t exactly know what it is. I had something like that I suppose.

So, I did a course on beautification after the intermediate exam. Zarin Asgar was my course moderator. Before that I picked up things whenever I visited beauty parlours with my elder sisters. At that time there were two very well-known parlours – ‘May Fare’ and ‘Hong Kong’. Both were run by Chinese owners. I used to watch how they work and enjoyed it.

I saw Zarin apa setting up her parlour beautifully. She had just come back then after taking training from Pakistan. Training on beautification wasn’t available then in the country. So, I saw Zarin apa working with the Chinese and training them. I became interested. The Chinese didn’t speak much English and didn’t really have training programs that they participated in. So, I got a chance to train with her. But didn’t think at that point that I might take this up as my profession. I just really enjoyed learning the skills.

I didn’t do anything immediately afterward with my training. I got married after my masters degree and I told my husband about my interest in this line of work. Everyone at my in-laws were very supportive about this. That was indeed a big help to move towards this direction. They encouraged me and that was a big inspiration. But initially I started out with a boutique. After a while when the parlour started attracting increasingly more customers I phased out the boutique and concentrated on the beauty parlour. Before I started my parlour I took a training in Kolkata.

I always believed that knowing the craft alone isn’t enough, I have to learn management. I used to think a lot about how to run a section, where to start, how to manage the members and things like that. Initially, the place wasn’t big, the business was small as well. So, the management wasn’t a big issue. But I still focused on organising everything gradually. We rented a flat in Dhanmondi 27 and started operation from there. At that time flat owners weren’t very confident about renting out to women. They feared about getting rent timely and so on. But we were able to run everything smoothly and continue to do so. That’s basically how I got started in this business.

FINTECH: Aside from being a successful entrepreneur, you are involved in social work. You worked with acid victims in 2005. Tell us about your social work and why is that important to you.

KA Khan: Yes, I started doing that with Prothom Alo. At that time acid violence was very prevalent and there were a lot of victims. Prothom Alo started a movement against it and I was a member in the trust. They carried out a lot of seminar in different places and learned about the victims.

A part of that was to try to understand what the victims think about getting into a professional life. And from that trainings were arranged for them. The program also helped entrepreneurs to start out business with small capital. When I worked in that program I saw that these victims were very reserved, at least at first. It was as if they did something wrong. A lot of them were blamed by their own families. Society wasn’t kind to them. They wanted to get away from that and felt really belittled and worthless. That’s why the initiative by Prothom Alo helped them so much. Many of them lost their physical beauty.

So, it seemed work in beautification can be a very useful outlet for them. They were very passionate about it, which touched me. They were robbed of their beauty, but now they want to make other people beautiful. I, however, decided to not recruit those who suffered particularly damaging injury to the face, because after all, they will have to work in front of a mirror all day long. That might have a bad psychological effect on them. My plan was to engage them in other official work. We took over 25 of those victims and started training them. In addition to that we used to teach them fitness exercise. Many of them are still working, some even started their own parlours.

FINTECH: Tell us about Persona Health.

KA Khan: Persona Health is our gymnesium. We maintain international standards there. We maintain cleaning and hygiene very strictly. We have Yoga, aerobics and a lot of other types of training. Beauty is not just in your face, it’s also about your health and fitness. That was the vision and purpose behind starting this gym.

FINTECH: Ratio of women across all job sectors are relatively lower, even though they are half of the population. What you think are the reasons for this?

KA Khan: There are some societal obstacles, obviously. But women tend to think about doing something while they are studying. Women are taking more initiatives than before. That is a positive development.

As for the job sector, I think a lot of the times an equally qualified man tends to get preference over his female counterpart. Women tend to have some prefered sectors like banking, teaching NGO work, etc. Overall, I think the participation of women in the job sector is not small. But the ratio compared to men is small, it is true.

One of the reasons is that I think women don’t feel safe or comfortable working in certain areas. In addition to that, families don’t approve working in certain areas as well. Some get married early. A lot of factors are there. For some it’s really hard to work after getting married. Sometimes you see women getting support from their own family, but the in-laws aren’t supportive.

FINTECH: Tell us about your operation. In terms of human resources and logistics, what is the size of the company right now?

KA Khan: We currently have three thousand people working here. We have a pretty big management team as well. We had a consultant when we set up the management. He told us to divide our team according to different sections. We wanted to place everything under one system to make the administration as easy as possible. So, we have section for skin, section for makeup, health, etc. They work independently of each other. This allows us to do better overall management and monitoring becomes very systematic.

FINTECH: Businesses are very much dependant on technological infrastructure. How important is technology in your business?

KA Khan: That is true. We can’t think about working without technology. We had software system from the very beginning. Our services and all forms of data entry have been integrated with software systems. Recently we have changed our older software and brought in a new one. Everything from our HR, accounts, inventory to customer membership cards are maintained digitally through software. We have customized these software to best cater to our needs.

Other than that, a lot of our work is online based. We have an online appointment system. We have a total of 11 branches. And we have online service for each of them. We use a data storage and management software. We input all our data, like appointment time etc, into that software database. So, to answer your question, I don’t think we could run our operation without the use of technology.

FINTECH: Digital marketing is slowly replacing conventional marketing. Do you think it’s important to do digital marketing? What is your approach?

KA Khan: Of course it is important. Digital marketing allows reaching the consumers very quickly. The conventional newspaper ads take time, and then you have to worry about the reach and impact. And it costs a lot too. But with digital marketing you are marketing, you are branding and you are reaching people. If you can create an interesting content it has the potential of going viral. Also, with digital marketing you don’t have to limit your business within the national borders only. You can reach an international audience.

FINTECH: You run a publication called ‘Canvas’. Tell us about that.

KA Khan: Canvas is currently in its thirteenth year. It’s a monthly beauty, lifestyle and fashion magazine. We had magazines before, of course. But there wasn’t any magazine on fashion and beauty. We publish on the first of every month. We also publish on special occasion, outside of the the 12 monthly issues. At least seven or eight special issues each year. We try to update our readers on what’s coming next in beauty and fashion and so on.

FINTECH: You talked about having the support of your family. At the time you were getting into business, people used to be not so open about having women coming into these fields. Could you perhaps elaborate on the situation a little further, as to what was it like?

KA Khan: I feel grateful to God that my family was very modern and relaxed about this. Neither of my parents confined me within any kind of conservatism. Never forced me to do anything either. In other words, I had the freedom to choose for myself.

But yes, compared to now the society was more conservative then. Even women took formal education, they often were bound by strict conditions from the family. The same kind of strictness was there about marriage. And women adapted to these conditioning and they would accept them at one point as part of life. At the end of the day, women want to see their husband, children and family happy. So, naturally women can’t achieve as much as they would have with the support from family. I’m really lucky that i never had to go through any of those obstacles.

FINTECH: What is your future plan for Persona?

KA Khan: We want to do better. We want to take beauty services and the beautification industry forward and take it to the international level. Even within the country, there is still much room for growing. Many people still come from out of Dhaka. We want to provide them a closer outlet. And ultimately, we want to transform Persona into an international platform.

FINTECH: Many thanks for speaking to us.

KA Khan: Thank you too. ■

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