April , 2009


Outstanding Woman in Business of the Year
Dreams reflected in her glass

Sayeda Akter

Outstanding Woman in Business
CEO of Reflections

Sitting at her Gulshan showroom of Reflections that was literally crammed with decorative glasses, kitchen cabinets, bathroom panels and ceilings to amaze the visitors instantly, Sabrina says: “Unavailability of decorative art glasses in the local market prompted me to get involved in such a business.”

“I hit upon the idea of working with decorative art glasses when we were preparing to build our house in Gulshan in 1997. We planned the house do-ups with etched and stained glasses that were not available in the local market then,” said Sabrina Islam, who emerged as the Outstanding Woman in Business for 2008 as part of the Bangladesh Business Awards 2008 jointly given away by The Daily Star and DHL Express.

Deeply devoted and loyal to art and creativity, Sabrina launched Reflections as a small enterprise in 1998 with two workers in a small 400 square feet studio at Eskaton, Sabrina tells the story how Reflections began to make its way.

“Initially I started producing etched glasses and sandblasted glasses. Luckily I got an order for doing interior decoration of a house in Gulshan and they liked it very much,” says Sabrina, the company's chief executive officer.

“Within a short time I started getting orders from individuals, restaurants and corporate houses,” she says.

“In 2000 we shifted to a 2,200-sft studio at the current Gulshan address to widen our production ranges from sandblasted, engraved and coloured glasses to stained glasses.”

In 2002 Reflections signed an agreement with Stained Glass Overlay (SGO) in a bid to expand further into a full service studio specialising a wide array of designer glass products, Sabrina continues.

SGO is an international franchise company based in California and one of the world's biggest players in the customised decorative and architectural art glass sector.

Sabrina opened Reflection's second showroom in Chittagong in 2005.

“This was an important landmark in the company's evolution, and a significant milestone in the development of the decorative glass sector of the country,” she says.

“2008 was another important year for the company, as we launched our interior designing section and also started franchising decorative products of wood-iron composite and durable life-film products in the same year,” she adds.

Recently she set up a bigger plant in Mirpur, which is likely to be the main factory of the company.

Now Reflections produces seven types of glasses -- stained glass overlay, traditional stained glass, sandblasted glass, engraved glass, coloured glass, etched glass and beveled glass.

The company is undoubtedly the country's leading crafted art glass producer, designer and supplier as it holds nearly 40 percent of the total market share. The company has 24 employees with an annual turnover of over Tk 50 lakh.

Sabrina's journey as a workingwoman started 24 years ago. She signed up as a voluntary worker at Karika, the oldest handicraft organisation in the country, in 1975 when she was a student of LLB at Dhaka University.

“Joining Karika was the stepping stone of my career. After being a regularised staff in 1976, I started to manage the company's marketing, sales and inventory, altogether,” she says.

“That time I got intensively involved with handicrafts and the designers of the country. Since then the desire to explore the crafts and designs started growing in me.”

In 1977 she was awarded a one-year scholarship for a diploma programme on small business management from Ford Foundation at Washington DC. The scholarship was given under the programme of the foundation's Decade of Women that aimed to empower women.

“During the scholarship programme, I found business more interesting compared to practising law. So after returning from the US, I decided to start my own venture,” says Sabrina. “Then I did my MBA from the Institute of Business Administration at Dhaka University.”

She worked at Karika until 1980, the year she got married and decided to join her husband's venture. Her husband was setting up a garment factory, Concord, in 1981.

She joined Concord to oversee the company's sales and marketing activities and soon it started exporting garment items to the US and Europe.

“Over the years, as our company grew as one of the top shirt manufacturers in the country and employed a good number of fresh business graduates, I found some free time in my hectic daily life," she says.

In 1985, she launched Rainbow Children's Boutique to sell children's garments, school uniforms, including shirts, sweaters and ties, and other personal care products. Those were a hit among the urban workingwomen and famous kindergartens in Dhaka.

In 1998, Sabrina floated Reflections with an initial investment of Tk 2.5 lakh.

She took part in some training programmes on sandblasting and traditional stained glass making in the US, Thailand and India.

She also often sends her staff abroad, mainly to India and Thailand, to help them gain expertise and strengthen knowledge in glass art.

Now she plans to expand the reach of Reflections and start exporting of her designer glasses initially to the neighbouring countries.

However her efforts were not left unnoticed. She received the FBCCI Standard Chartered Bank Outstanding Woman of the Year award in 2006. She also clinched the Most Outstanding Business Woman Award in 2008 in Doha from the 3rd Business Forum of the Islamic Countries.

Sabrina has also been at the helm of the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Bangladesh since 2007.

However her business often faces setback on power shortage and unavailability of raw materials in the local market that affect the production badly.

“Outage is the main problem that holds back the local industries' faster growth. I can't afford a big generator to overcome the losses I incurred due to electricity shortage,” she says.

She suggests the government develop local expertise for producing raw materials like different colours and bonding materials for decorative art glass that will make the industry more cost-effective.

She also calls upon the government to ensure a better law and order situation in the country to attract more women to entrepreneurship.

“If you have strong determination and positive supports from your family, nothing can stop you,” says an upbeat Sabrina.