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‘For the women, by the women’

By: Aroosa Shaukat

LAHORE: “We need more women to come forward and take charge of the hospitality sector in our country,” says Sonia Bokhari, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who won in the hospitality category of the Business Plan Competition Khadija, held by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Bokhari hails from Karachi, and aims to put her hospitality skills to use in a restaurant she plans to open in the shopping centres of Lahore, where food will be served for and by women only.

Bokhari completed her intermediate studies from Karachi and later moved to Lahore after her marriage. Bokhari says she has always had a strong inclination towards working in the food and services sector. She has previously worked at a McDonalds franchise in Karachi. The experience led her to undertake a ‘front office course’ in hospitality from the College of Tourism and Hotel Management (COTHM) last year in Lahore.

Earlier in November, Bokhari was encouraged by the COTHM management to participate in the business plan competition being held by the ILO. A six-day training exercise was to take place early in November. “I was more interested in the training offered by them rather than the competition,” she confides.

But the name of the competition – Khadija, after the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s first wife – inspired her. “It got me thinking: if women in business were a possibility thousands of years ago, why not today?” she says.

“I had an idea of what business I’d like to run – but I needed a strategy to go about it,” she explained. From understanding market analysis, to ways in which business ideas can be practically implemented, Bokhari said the week-long activities helped her formulate a cogent business strategy.

Estimating a start-up cost of Rs175,000, Bokhari presented a business plan for a small restaurant, to be located in the heart of shopping centres, which she describes as “something along the lines of a local dhabaa.” “At this restaurant, both customers and service providers are going to be women,” she declared.

Explaining the concept, she said the aim was to facilitate women who want to catch a bite during shopping, while providing them a secure, comfortable environment. “Women feel more at ease while in the presence of other women, especially in public areas,” she explains. With public and shopping areas often lacking separate areas for women to rest and eat, there was a dire need to provide women that haven, Bokhari adds.

Bokhari, who won Rs100,000 in prize money for her idea, now hopes to open up a restaurant in Anarkali or Ichhra – both popular shopping and commercial centres in Lahore.

“I think women are far more competent than men in the hospitality sector,” says Bokhari. She thinks there is a greater need for women to step in the sector.

But Bokhari is of the view that women hesitate because of a lack of support from home. “Women’s reluctance has got to do more with how the world outside is portrayed to them… as if it’s a jungle out there,” she says.

She advises women to be ‘self-made’. “Do it on your own; and that too without the help of your male family members. Rest assured they are going to be proud of you.”

The Express Tribune