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Bangladesh's Dhaka club

DHAKA, April 22, 2004 - When successful entrepreneur Geeteara Saffiya Choudhury was elected the first woman president of Bangladesh's elite male dominated Dhaka club there was apprehension among the members.

"After I won, there was surprise and reservation. Some members wondered since I am a woman, if I might cut down the opening hours of the bar or even shut it down completely," she said.

In fact, Choudhury left the bar well alone, quickly winning over her doubters with the same skill and charm that has helped her become one of the Muslim-majority country's top woman entrepreneurs.

The 56-year-old, who so hates to waste time that she plans her outfits complete with matching accessories a week in advance, was an unlikely choice as president of the exclusive club.

Established by the British in 1911, the club, with its smoky, wood-panelled dining room and bar full of pukka gents sipping whisky and soda appears to have changed little in the intervening 93 years.

Set over two hectares (five acres) in the heart of the Bangladeshi capital, the club, built in the style of a colonial bungalow, is one of only a handful of buildings in Dhaka surviving from the Raj era.

The club's carefully preserved old world atmosphere makes it easy to forget the crowds just outside its gates.

Although Dhaka has mushroomed from a city of one million at independence from Pakistan in 1971 to over 12 million today, the club remains a bastion of tradition with only 50 women members out of a total membership of 1,500.

Choudhury first became president of the club in 2003 in a resounding election victory, polling 150 more votes than her nearest rival. She was re-elected this year.

A well-known name in the Bangladeshi business community, thanks to her thriving advertising firm Adcomm, she attributes her success to encouragement of her family who allowed her the same opportunities as men.

Adcomm, set up in 1974, now has an annual turnover of some 450 million Taka (776 million dollars) with leading multinationals such as Unilever among its clients.

In 2000 she was named among the world's leading women entrepreneurs by Fortune magazine while two years ago a leading Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star, named her businesswoman of the year.

"I am very fortunate as my parents not only loved and encouraged me to go forward, but they never differentiated between me and my brother," she said.

"Many women do not get this support in our society and thus they cannot bloom."

After getting married, Choudhury found herself with equally supportive in-laws, a situation she describes as "rare" in Bangladesh. Her husband Nazim Kamran Choudhury made his own fortune with businesses including a restaurant and a furniture and interior design company, while their son and daughter now work for Adcomm.

Today, despite her success, she remains as ambitious as ever. "I'm not a complacent person so even now I can't really say that I am 100 percent satisfied with what I have achieved," she said. "I like to think that not even the sky is the limit. I think you have to constantly reach out to achieve greater things and push ahead. I feel alive with ideas and I still want to do more."

* * * * *

Published on 4/22/04

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