‘If a man can do something, why can’t a woman?” Hassina Syed says repeatedly during the conversation. The 33-year-old president and CEO of the Syed Group of Companies has shown she can do it, even in Afghanistan, where women face greater discrimination than in most countries.
Few can rival her achievements. In just 10 years, she set up a hotel and restaurant, a travel agency, a bedding shop, an armored car rental agency, and farming and property businesses. Her Kabul-based mini empire employs about 650 people and she is considered one of the most influential businesswomen in her country.
“In Afghanistan, you will now find many women setting up businesses. But I am the only one who runs so many,” says the mother of three daughters.
Syed has experienced both privilege and prejudice. Her father is a former mayor of Parwan, a province to the north of Kabul. But she says she encountered discrimination in Peshawar, the capital of the Northwestern Frontier Province in neighboring Pakistan where her family lived as refugees after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
“There was always a feeling of being unwanted even though there were people who were extremely sympathetic and nice.” However, that experience taught her to cope with adverse situations, she says.
The Syeds returned to Afghanistan in 2001. She had studied medicine in Pakistan but wanted to be an entrepreneur and sought opportunities to start a business.
“My parents wanted me to begin a medical practice but that was never my cup of tea,” she says. “I had made up my mind long ago that come what may, I would start my own business. My parents were unhappy at my ‘stubbornness’, but later gave in.”
However, it was not easy. She needed capital. “I took $500 from my father and with that money, rented a two-story house and started a bed and breakfast, mainly for overseas customers.”
Gandamack Lodge, as it is called, became popular among overseas visitors, especially those from the US and Britain.
“Right from the beginning, my focus was on western customers,” says Syed. “My aim was to make sure they were comfortable. Initially, I’d spend a lot of time talking to the guests, trying to learn what they liked or did not like. That really helped me understand what they wanted.”
She also felt the need to speak fluent English. “So I went to England and spent some time there to brush up my English.”
Communication with customers became easier.
“That really helped because I want my customers to regard me as a friend. If they are happy and become loyal customers, you gain in the longer term.”
By the time Gandamack Lodge was up and running, Syed had opened a restaurant, also targeting western visitors.
One business led to another. With her guests requiring travel arrangements, she saw the potential for a travel agency and Kabul Express began. When Afghanistan’s security suffered and those who could afford them began to use armored vehicles, Syed floated an armored car rental agency. And when opportunities beckoned in Afghanistan and people started moving in, she detected a demand for pure cotton bed linen. Angel Bedding sells cotton bed ware, from sheets to duvets. Most of her workers are women.
“I realized that I must not remain just another business person, happy with only one or two businesses,” she says. So she set up the other companies as well.
She went to the Netherlands to learn about farming so as to help with her food trading company and to the US to be mentored by Lora Villarreal, executive vice-president of the Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services, to learn more about modern management techniques.
“These were educational trips and great learning experiences which sharpened my understanding of what I was doing, or what I should do. Business is an ongoing learning process. You make mistakes but you learn and get wiser,” says Syed.
Now up her sleeve are plans for manufacturing companies and a bank to help women with “big ideas for big business” get easy loans.
In 2008, when President Hamid Karzai toured Europe, China and India, Syed was the only woman in the 40-member trade delegation accompanying him. This year, she traveled to New Delhi to take part in an investment summit on Afghanistan.
From 2009 to 2011, she was a senior advisor to Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Program, a five-year initiative that provides management training to underserved women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets.
The only woman in the 3,000-strong Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Syed headed the Afghan National Women’s Organization (NOW), a non-profit body with over 1,200 members. NOW provides education and training to women, helps with job placements and provides microfinance for widows.
During her travels abroad, Syed says she finds people, especially Westerners, unaware of the opportunities in her country.
“Whenever I tell them that I am a businesswoman in Afghanistan, they say, ‘How can you work in a war zone?’” she told Forbes magazine. “But not the whole of Afghanistan is at war. There are many parts where you can do a lot.”
Syed herself doesn’t have an easy time. She has to pay a price for the fame and fortune.
“If you are rich, especially if you are a successful woman, you are not safe,” she says. “A number of attempts were made on our lives — mine, my husband’s and even my children’s.”
Her eldest daughter is seven years old while the youngest is just seven months old. Their other sibling is six years old.
“We were really scared and decided to move our children to Dubai, where they live under the care of a nanny,” Syed adds. “My husband (who is British) lives in England. It’s extremely painful for me to live away from them. But that’s the sacrifice I have to make if I wish to get on with my job.”
Syed has to use bullet-proof cars, she says. “In fact, there is so much risk that I use different cars on different days. Seldom do I tell people where I am going.”
This situation must change or businesses will never take off, she says. Once people’s sense of security is restored, Afghanistan will become a great place for foreign investors.
“The most potential sector for attracting foreign investment is mining,” she adds. “Copper, lithium and precious stones. Then there is untapped gas and oil. Building railroads to transport goods, products and personnel is key to developing these sectors.”
The Chinese government has built highways in Afghanistan while the China Metallurgical Group is working the Aynak Copper Mine.
When Syed embarked on her business career, it was no bed of roses.
“My parents faced lots of trouble — reproaches from relatives and life threats from goons. They were virtually ostracized for letting me do business independently. I don’t know why this happens to women in this country. I don’t know what is going to happen to my daughters when they grow up and come back.”
Syed says she once told her husband: “I wish we had at least one boy. My husband replied he is more than happy to have three daughters. ‘I am sure all of them will become like you — courageous and successful,’ he said.”
That, she says, is the greatest compliment she has received.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
BIO: HASSINA SYED
President and CEO, The Syed Group of Companies
Present: Board member, Afghan Social Marketing Organization, mentoring and training Afghan entrepreneurs
2009-2011: Goldman Sachs Advisory Board member
2009: Starts the Parwan Experimental Farm, employing over 65 women who grow and sell vegetables to hotels, restaurants and in the market
2008: Invited by President Hamid Karzai to represent Afghan businesswomen in a delegation at the donors’ conference in Paris. Also attends business conferences in China, the Netherlands, France and India
2006: Founds the National Organization of Women
2002: Opens Gandamack Lodge, the first of her many businesses.
2000: Graduates in gynecology from Jinnah Medical College, Pakistan
Had I been a man:
I would have been much more successful in networking in Afghanistan’s male-dominated society.
(Virgin Group Chairman) Richard Branson, whose (space tourism company) Virgin Galactic is fascinating because of his vision of future suborbital and space flights for the average, everyday business person.
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, a beauty product company with over 1,000 retail outlets in over 40 countries. She is an amazing personality.
Before starting a new business deal:
I pray to God, my biggest source of strength.
Everything is possible. So don’t give up.
I talk to my husband on the phone.
Ability to negotiate, persuade and make friends.
Inability to persuade enough people to invest in Afghanistan. I wish I had a magic formula.
Keeping my husband happy.
Born: March 5, 1979