INTERVIEW DR SHEHLA JAVED AKRAM

A role model for enterprenuership among Pakistani women

KANWAL SALEEM, LAHORE
Aug 13 - 19, 2007

Dr Shehla Akram stands before us today as a proud Muslim woman, a Pakistani businesswoman, chief executive of a flourishing pharmaceutical industry and president-elect of Pakistan's first Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

She personifies the very meaning of the word diversity the mother of four accomplished children, the owner of Lahore's first private hospital, the wife of a distinguished professor of medicine and her latest claim to fame is her position as the leader of a dedicated and committed group of women entrepreneurs.

Born in Jaranwala, a village located near Faisalabad, to a self-made tycoon and a woman far ahead of her time, Dr Shehla's childhood was the perfect setting for the development of a girl who was to transfigure into an epitome of inspiration for all women. The twinkle in her eyes is unmistakable as she almost boastfully states, I owe my business acumen to my father, my sense of judgment to my father-in-law and my confidence to my husband.

Her father's advice often reverberates in her ears when she is sitting at a brilliantly polished oak desk at her office located on 49-Justice Akram Road. She remembers how he would often emphasize the importance of diversifying business interests, understanding the limitations of one's financial resources and working as a team rather than leading from the front.

EDUCATIONAL BACKGROUND: Dr Shehla Akram completed her matriculation from the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore in 1970 and then went on to do her Fsc. from Lahore College in 1972. She did her MBBS from King Edward Medical College in 1979, PLAB from the University of Edinburgh and a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene from the University of London. She also has to her credit, diplomas in Child Health, Quality Management and Human Resource Management and an MBA from Al Mashriq University. Dr Shehla has completed courses in ėThe Development of Validation Protocols, Parenteral Nutrition and Hospital Management from the UK and Malaysia. She has also attended workshops on ėThe Implementation of National Drug Policy of Pakistan,

Management of Diarrhoea in underdeveloped countries and Good Clinical Practices held at the World Health Organization. She has also undergone several research projects on the effects of indigenous dietary oils, diabetes and dietary fibres.

BUSINESS EXPERIENCES: On their return from England, Dr Shehla and her husband started practicing medicine (as a Nutritionist and General Physician) respectively and went on to open one of the premier private hospitals in the country. According to Ms Akram, we made Akram Medical Complex as a challenge for every doctor in Pakistan. At the time of the inauguration of AMC, Dr. Shehla was pregnant with her fourth child and remembers how she was taken to the labor room minutes after the last roof was laid. Akram Medical Complex has been like my fifth child, she said.

It has been as demanding a project as any of my children and requires the same Degree of attention and affection as Ayesha, Ansa, Saad or Anum. AMC was in many ways a pioneer in the field of private health care in Pakistan. This hospital was the first one to introduce CT Scans in private hospitals, renal transplants at a private scale and was also amongst the pioneers of offering multi-faceted, multi-dimensional health care in the private sector. A decade after the establishment of their hospital, the couple went on to launch a pharmaceutical Industry by the name of Don Valley Pharmaceuticals with Dr Shehla Akram as its Chief Executive. Within a few years, Don Valley has created a name for itself as a quality-conscious and economical manufacturing by launching brand leaders such as Clamentin, Lactodil and Ulcocid. Don Valley is also registered in many different countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE and Africa. DV was a dream which is slowly turning into a reality, said Dr. Shehla Akram, walking in the expansive lawns of the new 200 canals-factory being constructed on Ferozepur Road. This plant will be the countries largest manufacturing unit and will be one of the few FDA-approved units in Pakistan.

Dr. Shehla Akram also manages her post as director of Akram Industries and has now launched a real estate company, JS Developers—the company's first project, Vogue Towers, is presently under construction.

OTHER EXPERIENCES: Dr Shehla Akram has repeatedly been invited as a lecturer and guest speaker at renowned colleges and universities in Pakistan and abroad, including Government College, the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Beacon house School System, Kinnaird College and the like. She has represented Pakistan in the United Nations and Harvard University as well.

She is on the Academic Council at the Women College University Lahore and at the Pakistan School of Fashion Designing. She is also the director of a health related NGO called HEAL (Health Environment Action for Life). This NGO has been instrumental in raising awareness about hospital waste management and to date its achievements have been conducting waste management courses at Mayo Hospital, Lahore, the provision of materials required for proper disposal of hospital wastes and the initiation of plans for indigenously designing and manufacturing incinerators at affordable rates. Dr Shehla was the Director of a co-project with Alif Laila School systems aimed at proper, free of cost tutoring of girls from underprivileged families, enabling them to sit for the Matric certification offered by Punjab University.

Her first experience in politics came during the Lahore Chamber's Executive Committee elections in 2002 whereby she won by a majority of votes and hence became the first woman aboard the Executive Committee at LCCI. Thereafter, she has twice been nominated the Chairperson of the women entrepreneur committee at the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Ms. Akram's greatest achievement is probably the establishment of the countries first Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry, PWCCI. The need for the Punjab-Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry was first voiced by the women of the Punjab under the leadership of Ms. Akram. Committed and dedicated women entrepreneurs in Punjab were feeling handicapped by the lack of facilities and support available to them from the existing chambers of commerce and industry. Since the current chambers were only geared toward serving the majority sector, heavily dominated by male-led businesses.

P-WCCI came into the picture to support women entrepreneurship and to provide facilities and provisions for women-led businesses. Market surveys and myriad researches showed that women entrepreneurs required constant hand-holding which the existing chambers of commerce and industry rarely had the time or inclination to do so.

Dr Shehla along with a group of committed women entrepreneurs hence came together and laid the foundations for the Punjab Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2002. The concept was simple - to provide a forum solely dedicated to advocating the cause of women entrepreneurship. The concept of a separate chamber of commerce and industry for women entrepreneurs is not new: in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka etc women chambers of commerce and industry have been functioning for years. The Punjab ń Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been modeled on the existing chambers working in various parts of South-east Asia.

At the launch of P-WCCI when Dr. Shehla Akram was addressing a huge gathering of media personalities and journalists, she gave a riveting speech geared at the need for such a body in Pakistan. The voice for a separate chamber of commerce and industry dedicated to women entrepreneurs was raised by businesswomen of Pakistan, she said. Women are now deciding not to settle for second-place which is why they are asking for forums such as P-WCCI to assist them in the process of becoming competitive.

P-WCCI aims toward expanding the share of women-led businesses by instilling the importance of women entrepreneurship as a means of economic empowerment. For potential women entrepreneurs, the chamber provides a one-window operation where they can receive all required professional assistance under one roof. For established women entrepreneurs the chamber provides a forum for debate and discussion, the opportunity to interact with their local and international counterparts as well as facilities for research and development.

Dr. Shehla Akram's main emphasis nowadays is on having a voice in re-shaping the commerce policy of Pakistan. Though the government is apparently supporting women entrepreneurship at all levels, Dr. Shehla Akram says that the policies are not well thought out or clearly stated. When ever we go to ask for support for women entrepreneurship, we realize that no funds are available because the money was directed toward poverty alleviation or into initiatives that were not popular with women entrepreneurs.

Criticism is evident in Dr. Shehla Akram's voice as she talks about how despite the hype; the government isn't actually doing much to support women entrepreneurship. Though the government's slogan is promotion of women entrepreneurs, they tend to clump together a number of sectors under the heading of women entrepreneurs. For example: the government often mixes up SMEs and women taking micro-credit loans from banks into the category of women entrepreneurs, she said.

She went on to explain that the problem of clumping everyone into one category was that every time women entrepreneurs from the chamber requested the government for funding, they met with numerous hurdles. When we request the government for support for micro-entrepreneurs, we are told that the funds have been demarcated for poverty alleviation and when we request for funding for SMEs, half the funds go to male entrepreneurs since SMEs include both men and women, she said.

Dr. Shehla also said the government is not sensitive to the demands voiced by women entrepreneurs themselves. Most women are more interested in export-based businesses which they can run from home and which allow them to manage family and work easily. But the government doesn't greatly support export-based businesses by women, Dr Shehla told PAGE.