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Anjali Sarker: Girls Have to ‘Break the Barriers in Ourselves’

From cultural curse to social entrepreneur, Bangladeshi innovator Anjali Sarker is determined to cut through caste and gender to allow people at “the bottom of the pyramid” to rise to their potential.

Written by Hannah McNeish Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Anjali with kid in uganda
Anjali Sarker, left, is using the skills she learned as she fought prejudices against women in business to help other young entrepreneurs launch their ideas. Courtesy of Anjali Sarker

Anjali Sarker remembers her seventh birthday well, because it was the day her parents brought home the best present possible – a baby sister who she decided was “a little angel.” But Sarker’s delight soon turned to distress when she overheard an uncle giving his condolences to her father about the birth of this “curse” – another girl instead of a treasured boy.

As she got older, Sarker used her uncle’s comment to drive her determination to enter the male-dominated world of business. She lobbied her parents to let her attend Bangladesh’s top business school, despite their pleas for her to follow the path most parents wanted for their girls, becoming a nurse or primary-school teacher.

But Sarker persisted and by the age of 20, she had been featured in Forbes magazine for one of her innovations: Toilet+, a startup that installs eco toilets in the homes of the rural poor and pays people for the solid waste they collect. In a country where many children die of diarrheal diseases, Sarker knew that encouraging more hygienic toilet habits could save lives.

Since then, she’s been collecting accolades and awards for her work with social businesses and she’s currently a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum. She has channeled her dislike of hierarchies into a youth news network, Campus2Career, aimed at students who struggle to find business news and career advice beyond the civil service. And for her day job, she is team leader at BRAC, managing other young innovators.

Women & Girls Hub caught up with Sarker in Nairobi, where she was speaking as an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, to ask her about breaking down prejudices and breaking up all-male panels at conferences.

Women & Girls Hub: What were some of the challenges you faced getting to where you are today?

Anjali Sarker: When I was working in my enterprise, I had to tell my parents, “I’m not working on anything, it’s just my university assignments,” when in reality I had to go to places.

When I was meeting the investors, they asked me the same questions, in a very derogatory manner. They were like, “You are 20 and you are asking for money – do you even have a bank account?” If you want to discriminate [against] a woman, you can find a hundred reasons to stop her from doing what she’s doing.

Women & Girls Hub: How did you overcome the prejudices you mentioned in Bangladeshi society, such as people judging you by your age, gender and social status?

Sarker: You need to have a strategy. From a very young age, my father taught me how to play chase and even though I’m a grown-up and I don’t play chase anymore, I really cherish the idea that it’s a game. If somehow plan A fails, you have plan B and you execute that. That’s how I save myself from frustrations.

Women & Girls Hub: Do you get a lot of emails or calls from girls wanting to know how you cracked the business world?

Sarker: It’s a super-funny question because I get more messages from men, who say, “I‘m very inspired and you’re so articulate. How can I be like you?” And I say: I wish more girls said this!

When you speak at conferences, you see only 20 percent of the audience are girls and the rest are men. No wonder I’m getting more messages from the men. The girls are still inside their houses. So it’s the boys who do the projects, who go outside, who take part in different things.

It’s not in our blood that we have to stay inside the house, but it’s the culture. It’s very linear: You be a good girl. You get married. You have a family. Those are the success metrics for women. I haven’t seen anyone telling a girl child, “You have to earn money, you have to be independent.” Rather, the mother tells the girl, “Buy this dress, make sure your makeup is perfect.” No one is telling that to a boy, so a boy is thinking of how to progress in his career.

Women & Girls Hub: How do you see things changing for the younger generation?

Sarker: If I think about my mother, she never traveled abroad. She just stayed in the same job. I will not do that. It’s changing gradually. Now girls and women have a lot more options. They’re doing more. They’re coming out of their houses. Progress is slow but it’s happening.

Women & Girls Hub: And you’re breaking up “manels”?

Sarker: Yes, I hate those! I organize a conference on innovation every year, and this is my biggest pain and my biggest pleasure – that I ensure there will be no panel without a woman. I try to ensure that it’s 50/50, if not 60/40, but at least one woman.

Women & Girls Hub: What is the idea behind Campus2Career?

Sarker: It’s a new portal for the youth across the country, but it’s not for the elite universities. It talks about a lot of different youth news issues and helps young people make the smooth transition from student life to career opportunities. We are trying to promote non-traditional professions to them, telling them they don’t have to only run after government jobs. They can do entrepreneurship; they can be a sportsperson if they want to. They don’t have to study economics or business or the most sought-after subjects, but they can study literature and be a journalist.

These people feel they don’t have options, because no one has ever told them they do. People who are studying in top universities; they know how to find information from Harvard Business Review. A person hundreds of miles from the capital doesn’t know enough English to use Google and find that. So we are really making things simple for them, in our native Bangla – we don’t use English. We are really focusing on the bottom of the pyramid and seeing how we can give them the most useful information possible.

Women & Girls Hub: What do you say to other girls who want to get into business and are being told they can’t?

Sarker: Don’t be afraid. Once we get the courage to do it, we can do it all. My organs have nothing to do with business, so whatever a man can do, I can do that, too. But all the difference is in our mindset: that I think a man will do better than me, so I stand back. I think before breaking the other barriers, the institutional ones, and talking to other people, we have to break the barriers in ourselves.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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