First Published: May 9, 2022
Head of Country
Marks & Spencer
In the realm of leadership, responsibility reigns supreme. Administrative roles thrust individuals into the spotlight, demanding sound decisions and unwavering integrity. While some possess an innate ability to lead, true leadership demands constant nurturing. Regrettably, Bangladesh’s RMG industry overlooks a potent resource – female leaders. Embracing optimism reveals the need for women at the helm, fostering diversity and unlocking the industry’s full potential, especially considering its 55 percent female workforce. Meet Shwapna Bhowmick, the transformative force as Country Head of Marks & Spencer. Her journey reshapes norms, focusing on women’s empowerment in leadership, amplifying a global narrative for her nation. Discover her path in an exclusive interview, a testament to leadership’s profound impact.
The InCAP: Ms. Shwapna Bhowmick, in an event, you have said that meaningful change has been your only goal since childhood, and that’s what you want to focus on. What’s your vision for it?
Shwapna Bhowmick: When we were young kids, little did we know what we would do in life or from where we should start. Growing up in a residential colony, as my father was a government service holder, there was a community where everybody was aware of their neighbors. Being a kid, we were no exception.
Let your imagination flow with the scenario where, as a young girl, we used to teach kids in the colony apart from playing. It didn’t happen by chance; instead, locality’s needs drove us. Unlike other kids, I was curious about the other side of the colony wall, where it was inhabited by underprivileged people and the locality was poor. Since my father knew me very well, he asked my mother to stop me from going beyond the wall. So, being a naive kid and with a curious mind, I sneaked over to the other side of the wall. The sad condition of the people there shocked me. So much so that it , led me to steal two of my mother’s sarees and give them to a woman living there.
As I was concerned about the outcome, an idea came into my mind that if she made a blanket out of that sarees with the names of my siblings on it, I would be able to sell it to my mother through emotional appeal. I managed to sell it to my mother and gave the proceeds of, as far as I recall, 200 Tk. to that lady. From this incident, many from the colony were eager to get blankets and clothes made by those underprivileged people, especially the women, which created an opportunity for them to earn a living for their families. Gradually, it became a practice and created a tailoring group. I would refer to this as one of the incidents that defined my motivation for bringing change for the better and being self-reliant. I have failed numerous times before bagging achievements in my life.
I am always searching to do things differently, following my instinct honed with years of varied experience. For example, I was not convinced that we would source just the core products for M&S; instead, I opted for high-value-added products to break out of the norm. We have been told many times that this or that product would not be viable in the market. However, we eventually developed those products and are producing them in the country. Of many, this chain of action depicts my will towards doing something different and bringing changes. To define my track career, I would say that I was a salesgirl who could sell products genuinely. Furthermore, I would say that I can build and sell with confidence stemming from the core of my belief.
Back in 2002, when I first entered the factory and saw no women at the executive level, it made me determined that I wanted to see myself in an executive-level position. After completing my graduation from the University of Dhaka, I joined the BUFT course. As a prerequisite for completing the course, I had to submit a report based on my visit to the garment factory. I went to Araf garment’s factory visit, and there was no female supervisor there, which triggered me immediately to be in that position as I was always hungry to bring change.
We heard that you, with only five people, were responsible for working for the M&S at the beginning. What are the challenges that you faced, and how did you overcome those at that time?
Of course, it was difficult for us since we had limited resources intending to establish this brand in the country. However, our devotion drove us this far. For instance, we used to collect samples from Bongobazar and recreate those in British size to present to our buyers. At that time, our individual workload was equivalent to three to four persons’. Although we were a team of five to six people, the bonding and rhythm were unbreakable. In addition, our penchant for establishing true partnerships also helped us to a great extent. We used to work with those suppliers who shared the same values, principles, and devotion like us because this is where we came to a common ground. Having the right partners with us helped us to grow this far.
While everyone is always interested and sees success, all the sacrifices, efforts, and hard work is overlooked.
You represent the British Retail Industry in Bangladesh. How do you see the competition in the market?
No doubt that global competition is always there. We are navigating through the post-pandemic world, we have no cotton production, and China-America political relationship has a significant impact on the business. In the global competition where Vietnam, Cambodia, and India, to some extent, are there, I am negotiating as a global negotiator to bring business to Bangladesh. Meanwhile, we need to keep the quality intact, offer competitive pricing, and offer perfect design. While this global competition has challenges, it also provides several advantages. For instance, M&S operates the highest number of green factoring globally compared to the other countries.
As many of our investors are investing in green finance and green production, we can now showcase our products without damaging the environment. In addition, our country’s labor force is very resilient, which helped us grow the business significantly. Besides, the accidental incidents are one of the reasons why many didn’t want to invest in us, as those incidents created a negative impression of our RMG industry globally. Describing my strategy to get out of such a finger-pointing situation, I used to highlight our strengths and kept pushing to promote the RMG industry in Bangladesh.
What’s your turning point concerning your career?
Although I am not sure which action I should refer to as a turning point, leaving a set job for a new one that needed to be established can be considered as the turning point. Being a risk-taker and fond of never settling, I would say that joining M&S can be viewed as the turning point. If I didn’t take that risk, I would never be a CO now.
During the pandemic, I used to come to the office every day except for the time when a lockdown was imposed throughout the nation. At that time, I looked for a suitable set of products that could keep the cash flow running so that I could offer salaries to the workers. For instance, I found that most people wear T-shirts and Joggers during the pandemic as everyone is working from home. So we boosted our production by almost 20% compared to the pre-pandemic production quantity. Hence, it is evident that you have to take the risk with a proper strategy to grow your business.
Another example of taking risks is we took all the workers from the Formal clothing production side and reskilled them with Gown production and made Gowns through them. Rather than hiding, we turned each challenge into an opportunity to grow.
M&S is always looking for ways to contribute to the communities. How are they doing it?
Along with the vision to produce more value-added products and develop more skilled resources, M&S has also been working to bring impact to the community. Since our business kicked off, we started working on ensuring a cent percent digital payment system for our workers. Also, we wanted to introduce a system where female workers can get to keep their share even if their husbands or father tries to take their salaries from them. To date, we have ensured a 90% digital payment system in the company.
As per the data of 2007, 10% of the total population are disabled we wanted to work with them. Therefore, M&S incepted a program named “Marks & Star” to employ the physically challenged employees in companies by providing them with proper training and knowledge. Presently, around 4000 physically challenged people are working in our factories. In addition, we have worked on the workers’ safety and wellbeing of the female employees from the beginning. In our factory, we promote equality and women empowerment from where women can escalate and hold the leadership position in the company. Currently, around 200 women leaders are working in our factories; we are always working towards empowering them.
You have become the VP of FICCI. You are the first executive body leader from the garment industry. Please tell us the journey behind it?
The Foreign Investors’ Chamber of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) is one of the oldest chambers in the country, and they are responsible for helping to formulate many policies to facilitate the country’s economy. The primary reason for becoming the VP of this body is to learn, grow and leverage the network; this body is undoubtedly the knowledge tank with a tremendous capacity to contribute to the country’s development.
Why doesn’t Bangladesh see females at the upper executive level in Bangladesh? What do you think of the reasons?
I agree with you. There is hardly a female at the managerial level in the garment industry. I believe some predominant factors obstruct females from successfully flourishing. Those factors can be a mindset, condescending environment, and many others. But also the most important factor is whether a female employee is ready or not to take on such responsibilities as they have so many strings attached from parents to husband to children to various other social expectations. Hence, female employees get stuck in middle management before getting such a position. In addition, I believe that there should be flexibility for the female employees in the workplace as they have to wear many hats simultaneously. Therefore, companies see the output rather than the hours she had been sitting on the chair. If this practice is followed, I believe that female leadership will grow.
I strongly support the notion that female should sit in the driving seat because she is the driver of her life and career. So, don’t let others make your decision on behalf of you.
Bangladesh has eventually turned into the largest suits sourcing destination for M&S as the local suppliers have diversified the garment products and started making high-end items. What’s your comment on it?
Over the years, we have seen a lot of effort and investment coming in from our forward-thinking entrepreneurs to upskill our huge labor force, invest in state-of-the-art machineries, green factories, and develop technical know-how. This has greatly contributed to allowing us to move up the value chain to be a formidable producer of high-value products. However, we need to concentrate on digitization to move to the next frontier. There will be a digital transformation, and if we cannot cope with it now and if the girls don’t contribute, we will fall behind. Preparing the female workers with technical knowledge would be the best bet for us to make this industry future-proof. Bringing ease of doing business through port facilitation is another factor that would create more diversification in the industry and enhance the quality of our products.
You are engaged in one of the most renowned brands across the globe. Of late, we published our latest issue covering the most phenomenal matter- Job Satisfaction. That said, we would like to hear how much you and the people around you enjoy their job?
Truly job satisfaction matters! I nurture a very cozy and fun culture that welcomes an intern, management trainees, to the upper executives of the organization with equal enthusiasm. In our organization, every individual is given an equal opportunity, voice, and an open space to grow compared to the other garment industry organizations. Employee-friendly office culture can motivate employees to strive to deliver the best regardless of the situation. The ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag on each product makes us proud, and it indeed comes with many responsibilities.
Becoming the biggest sourcing country for M&S globally from zero didn’t just come from pushes; instead, it is the outcome of the constant hard work and a great work culture where employees love to work. The fact that around 4000 disabled workers and female leaders are working in the M&S sourcing factories is another example of our inclusiveness.
You are one of the most inspiring women in Bangladesh. Thousands of hearts follow you. What advice would you give to the women who are facing obstacles and biases to enter into the career?
It is your life, nobody else’s. You have the right to choose what you want to do in life. Although we were habituated to getting negative feedback from our parents, this practice among the parents should be discouraged in the family. I would suggest that parents should encourage their daughters alongside their sons. Parents usually want their children to become established and stay by their side. While you are thinking of keeping your son by their parent’s side, the same should apply to their daughters.
And to all the girls, I would say that change is inevitable, but it won’t happen overnight. Hence, it won’t do any good if you think you will come out of the confined environment once the situation changes. You are the change! I wanted to see the changes in the industry; hence, I became the change-maker in the industry. So if you are going through a break from work, you should also plan on going back.
From my point of view, I always push my limits to maximize my potential, and I assume that I am my own competitor who is always looking for ways to achieve excellence. So my advice is to prepare yourself, be a learner, and always strive for excellence every day.
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