Two Bangladeshi Entrepreneurs, a Generation Apart

Novelist entrepreneur Tanwi Nandini Islam outside her Bushwick studio, in Brooklyn, on Oct. 21, 2015.

Novelist entrepreneur Tanwi Nandini Islam outside her Bushwick studio, in Brooklyn, on Oct. 21, 2015.

Meadow Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn is lined with workshops on both sides. Colorful, indecipherable graffiti covers the brick walls that connect carpenters to artists. Some of the shop windows are covered with a thick layer of dust. A dozen broken beer bottles are stranded between a window and the bars protecting it.

However, not every workshop is in such dire shape. The windows at 35 Meadow Street shimmer. The building houses artists’ studios, one of which is especially enticing to the nose. Novelist entrepreneur Tanwi Nandini Islam makes scented candles in a 430-square feet studio. Surrounded by tiny, dark-glass bottles containing exotic scents, dried flowers and cinnamon sticks, she liquefied wax that would be poured into dozens of candle jars. The label on one of the jars read: “Burning River Blossoms: On a twilight river, we release offerings of rose, marigold and carnation.”

In the late afternoon on a recent Wednesday, a friend briefly visited Islam’s studio to borrow her electric saw. “It’s slippery,” he said, referring to the wax stains covering the floor. “That’s what happens when you make 7,000 candles,” Islam, wearing bright red lipstick and a large nose piercing, replied.

Her company Hi Wildflower Botanica had just made its largest candle sale, to Urban Outfitters, a speciality retail company. Without yielding to the euphoria of the sale, Islam continued to make her candles meticulously, one after the other.

Tanwi Nandini Islam is a member of a minority group within a minority group, Bangladeshi American female entrepreneurs. Mahbubul Joarder, a professor at the ASA Institute of Business and Computer Technology in Brooklyn, estimates that women constitute only 10 percent of Bangladeshi American entrepreneurs in New York City.

Moreover, Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, an online database provided by the University of Minnesota, estimates the number of self-employed Bangladeshi women in New York State to be 362, compared to 5,147 Bangladeshi men. However, due to the small sample size, the margin of error is considerable.

Such are the odds that Bangladeshi American women like Tanwi Nandini Islam and Nasreen Rahman, the owner of one of the most popular South Asian boutiques in New York City, face. Despite the sharp contrast between their lifestyles, personalities and business approaches, both women have succeeded in setting up their own ventures. Their stories may shed light on the main factors that determine success in a sphere dominated by men.

Islam was born in 1982, in Carbondale, Illinois. Her father, Dr. Ashraf Islam, had left Bangladesh four years earlier to complete his doctoral studies in organic chemistry at Southern Illinois University. The Islam family moved to Texas and then to Alabama, following Dr. Islam to wherever he became a faculty member.

Islam’s thoughts about her Muslim identity changed drastically as she grew up. “I was really afraid of God when I was probably seven years old,” she says. She taught herself how to pray. Islam was begging her parents to let her go to Arabic school, but the family budget could not carry the extra expense, she says.

By the age of 11, her beliefs had evolved so much that she was glad not to have put the family budget under additional pressure. “When I became a teenager, I was aware of my desires and coming into my sexual awakening. Coming into my political consciousness was very much at odds with this idea of a pious, pure woman,” she says. In the following years, as her parents became more pious, Islam distanced herself from religion even further.

The growing rift within the family greatly influenced her career choice. “I was really disrespectful to my family, but I felt disrespected by my family too,” she says, “I was very rebellious and I wanted to harness the rebellion that I saw in young people for art.” Right after she graduated from Vassar College with a degree in women’s studies in 2004, Islam moved to New York City to work as a community organizer. Her first job was at Make the Road New York, a non-profit organization with the mandate of empowering working class communities. The non-profit was based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the same neighborhood her studio is located today.

Nasreen Rahman inside her boutique Pashmina, in Jackson Heights, Queens, on Oct. 20, 2015.

Nasreen Rahman inside her boutique Pashmina, in Jackson Heights, Queens, on Oct. 20, 2015.

Ten miles to the north of Islam’s studio, another Bangladeshi businesswoman, Nasreen Rahman, became an entrepreneur too, but unlike Islam, she did so almost by accident. She has been performing the same daily ritual for the past decade in her shop Pashmina, a boutique in Jackson Heights full of colorful and glittering clothes collected from different corners of the world. In the back, Rahman sat drinking tea with milk but no sugar. She wore a light pink sari, a white headscarf that covered most but not all of her grey hair and a golden bangle around each wrist, which she has been wearing ever since her wedding. Even as she nibbled her biscuits that usually accompany her tea, her eyes were fixated on her customers and when a a long-time customer walked in, she greeted her with a sincere smile.

In 1995, Rahman had not idea she’d end up owning her own boutique in New York. Then, she worked as an urban planner in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. A year later, Rahman and her husband, who was an architect working for the Bangladeshi government, came to the United States to visit family members that had immigrated to the United States. During their visit, Rahman’s husband became ill. He needed to have five operations to have a tumor removed, his wife says. Although Rahman was already homesick for Bangladesh, they had to stay in New York City for her husband’s treatment.

The treatment was costly. Rahman had two children, but she had to financially support her family. Even though she held a master’s degree, finding an urban planning position in the city was difficult, she says. She had to be certified by an American university. “I was busy with my husband and my kids so I couldn’t afford the education,” Rahman says. “All of a sudden, I started this business; I had to do something.”

In 1998, Rahman began to look for a small store to rent. She walked into a shop called Sahiba Boutique on 72 Broadway in Jackson Heights – where her boutique is located today. Rahman asked the Pakistani owner how much her rent was. Instead of giving Rahman a number, Sahiba, made her a partnership offer, Rahman says. A few months later, she sold her share to Rahman and left.

The rookie entrepreneur of the time was up for a challenge. She decided to revamp the entire store. Rahman had the interior renovated and changed the products on display. She travelled to India to handpick the best saris, dresses and bridal gowns she could find.

The candle maker’s path also took her to India, a country where she got inspired to start writing. In 2006, Islam was there with the William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service to India. While there, she decided to travel to Kashmir, India’s northernmost state where Muslims constitute the majority. It was the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. After sunset, Kashmiris went to their homes to break the fast. The streets were quiet and there was nothing for Islam to do, she says. Stuck inside her hotel room, she drew inspiration form the ornate woodwork that covered the ceiling. “I was like all cozy and I wanted to write this book,” she says. And that’s what she did, producing the first draft of “Bright Lines,” a novel about a Bangladeshi immigrant family living in Brooklyn.

Five years on, she found a literary agent. It took another two years to get the book sold to Penguin, one of the most respected publishing houses in the world. The book’s success in part has to do with the author’s audacity in portraying a Muslim woman character in a way different than what most readers were used to. “I wanted to do something that navigates pain with pleasure, failure with some sort of beauty in life,” she says.

The book includes quite a few sex scenes. Although Islam emphasizes that the book is not autobiographical, it could still have been difficult for a pious Muslim woman – like her mother Habiba Islam – to read. However, this was not the case. Islam’s mother loved the book and encouraged her daughter to continue writing, Islam says. “Father is reading it now. It is taking him a long time,” the author adds. “He is on chapter three.”

After the book was finished, Islam said she was both excited and depressed. She did not know what to do next. Anwar, one of her main characters, came to her mind. “Anwar is an apothecary; he is always mixing things. I have always been fascinated by botanical materials and chemistry,” she says. So Islam began to make perfumes with a few thousand dollars she borrowed from her mother. She was surprised when she made $500 dollars with the first batch she sold at a crafts fair in Williamsburg. “People were really into it and I was like, ‘I printed this shit on a cheap sticker site,’” she says referring to her perfume labels.

Tanwi Nandini Islam, a perfume and candle maker, mixing a new scent, in her Bushwick studio, in Queens, on Oct. 21, 2015.

Tanwi Nandini Islam, a perfume and candle maker, mixing a new scent, in her Bushwick studio, in Queens, on Oct. 21, 2015.

Soon she realized that scented candles sold better than perfumes. Even though perfumes remained at the heart of the company, Islam shifted the focus of production to candles. She called the company Hi Wildflower Botanica. Mary Hall, a veteran of the local retail industry, joined her. “I’m just her bitch,” says Hall. “It is small enough now that Tanwi is in control of everything and I am just here to help get organized and stay organized.”

Islam employs her perfume making skills to create unique candle scents. She also writes a poem for each candle to make sure that they have a story. “These are all real things I have experienced that I want to translate into a candle. So, it’s not just a Yankee Candle,” she says.

She pitched her candles to a local Urban Outfitters store, a speciality retail company a few months ago, when she believed that she had perfected her art. The manager connected her to the company’s headquarters and invited her to open a pop-up candle stand inside the store. After a successful sale, she received her company’s biggest order of 7,000 candles. Islam and Hall could not have made hundreds of candles on their own. With the help of four candle makers and five packers, they sent out the Urban Outfitters order on time. Once she receives the check in November, Islam says she will pay off the debt she owes to her mother.

Surrounded by empty candle jars, Tanwi Nandini Islam liquefies wax, on Oct. 21, 2015, in Brooklyn.

Surrounded by empty candle jars, Tanwi Nandini Islam liquefies wax, on Oct. 21, 2015, in Brooklyn.

Hi Wildflower Botanica became a success in a matter of months. It did not take Pashmina, Nasreen Rahman’s venture, that long to become popular, or at least that is how she tells the story. “It was a hundred percent success on the first day,” Rahman says with glittering eyes. She believes that there are two reasons behind her success. “One is I have to keep good things for people; two, they [customers] should be 100 percent happy,” she says.

Rahman’s business has been doing well for nearly two decades. However, this has not blinded her—and she knows her success may not be as easy going forward. “It is not the same as it was 10 years ago. Now, it is very competitive,” she says. Her archrival is the Internet. She complains that some special products that only she would bring to Jackson Heights are now readily available online. Despite the threat the Internet poses for her business, she refuses to launch a website. “Who will do that? I need an additional person to do that,” she says.

On the contrary, Tanwi Nandini Islam receives most of her candle and perfume orders through her company’s website. The difference in the two entrepreneur’s attitudes towards the Internet is not surprising as Islam is only a few years older than Rahman’s daughter. This generational gap, among other factors, has brought about additional differences. Rahman is married with children, while Islam is strictly opposed to marriage. Rahman became an entrepreneur to support her family, while Islam’s motivation was more self-driven. Rahman embedded her business in the center of the Bangladeshi community in New York City, when Islam made a conscious decision to keep her distance from the community.

In her boutique in Jackson Heights, Queens, Nasreen Rahman poses next to some of the dresses she is most proud of, on Oct. 21, 2015.

In her boutique in Jackson Heights, Queens, Nasreen Rahman poses next to some of the dresses she is most proud of, on Oct. 21, 2015.

The novelist entrepreneur distinctly remembers the day she decided to live away from Bangladeshi enclaves like Jackson Heights in Queens. “I was walking with a man I was dating,” Islam says, “Someone saw me from a glass building on 73rd and called my aunt who called my mom.”

The Bangladeshi community in New York confines women and does not encourage them to step out into the business world, Islam says. “One: no one believes you can do it. Two: that’s not what you are supposed to do,” she says.

That’s not the case for everybody. Rahman represents an older generation, for example, but she stresses that she has never felt the societal pressure described by Islam. “I am very lucky,” she says. “My parents, my relatives, my in-laws are all on my side.”

However, Rahman admits that many Bangladeshi women have not been so fortunate. But, she believes that it’s getting better for younger Bangladeshi women, like Islam.

“These days,” Rahman says, “I think those pressures are less than before.”

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