When M Noorul Quader - a pioneer in setting up the first fully export-oriented Ready-Made Garments (RMG) industry in the country - passed away in 1998, his daughter Vidiya Amrit Khan was only 18-years-old. She was a week into her A-levels' education at Roedean School, an all girls boarding school in Brighton, UK.
After her father's demise, many people told her to return to Dhaka. But her mother and only brother thought otherwise, and encouraged her to fulfil her father's wishes and complete her A Levels from the UK.
She then went on to get a Bachelor of Laws from King's College London, and the Bar Vocational Course from Inns of Court School of Law, before returning to the country.
After returning to Bangladesh, she worked briefly as a lawyer under the Late Barrister Rafiq-ul Huq, and then decided to join the non-garment side of the family business. She began her tutelage from the director of operations of their company who had decades of experience working with her father.
Three years after coming back to Dhaka, she moved to Chattogram to learn the garment business. She appointed a German consultant to help her with the business. For the next five years, she allowed herself to learn and relearn the garment business.
"I was 28 when I first went to the factory. A young woman who could not speak Bangla very well, let alone curse! Every day felt like a test, I had to be very patient. Perhaps the employees thought that I was not going to stay here for long, but they were surprised to see me sticking around for such a long time," she said.
Within just a few months, she had learnt volumes about the garment business and soon, the employees warmed up to her.
Fast forward more than a decade, she is currently the deputy managing director of Desh Garments Limited. In the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) biennial elections for 2021-23 held in April, Vidiya Amrit Khan was among the pool of second generation young entrepreneurs who were elected to be a part of the board of directors. She has previously served on the board as an elected director from 2013 to 2015.
Today, Vidiya has established herself as one of the leading names in the country's RMG industry.
Speaking to The Business Standard recently, she shared her journey into the world of RMG, and the role of the BGMEA and its new leaders in sustaining the country's largest export earning industry.
Vidiya feels that a trade body association like the BGMEA now needs to be far better prepared than ever before, as we are going to be faced with various new challenges and dynamic shifts within the industry.
"As soon as the pandemic will come under control, buyers will come storming. We have to be prepared for that and learn as much as we can about handling the situation, keeping in mind Bangladesh's graduation from the LDC status and the incorporation of automation through industry 4.0. Hence, each director should play a pivotal role towards the growth and sustainability of Bangladesh's largest export earning industry."
With Bangladesh's graduation from the LDC status and rapid automation in factories, experts believe the RMG industry might face rising unemployment.
According to Vidiya, proper and continuous training is one of the primary solutions. "You will see that in many factories worldwide, there are heavily funded R&D departments, and that is often the very reason why companies in a mature industry continue to grow and excel in various management and product development areas. We as Bangalis are extremely resilient and open to learning new things; we just have to bring the right person to the right place. We have to train our employees, there are no alternatives."
She believes there is no scope to be reluctant when it comes to dealing with buyers, especially now when factories are operating at great risk due to the pandemic.
"Buyers have endless demands, but we have to abide by them. And everything is so restricted due to the pandemic; it makes things tougher for us. If we send a request for an extension, buyers might end up looking for some added advantage for themselves."
The WFH situation, in her opinion, is something all of us are still adjusting to. "The pandemic situation has opened up so many new challenging situations for us, and when we are working from home, we often have to further play multiple roles of a wife, a daughter, a mother, and so much more. Time also has become of essence. More often than not, we are working beyond the hours we previously were. How does one really adapt? It is very difficult to determine."
At one point in our conversation, she reminisced about her father, who in post-war Bangladesh, dreamt of doing something that no one ever thought of.
After the joint venture agreement with Daewoo in 1978, which established the country's first 100% export-oriented RMG factory in Kalurghat, Chattogram, Noorul Quader Khan sent 130 Desh employees to South Korea for industrial training.
Among them, 18 were women,and that really was the first time that women were sent abroad on any such training programme. She said, their parents made him sign bonds before letting them go.
"Having fought in the war, my father saw women being abused up close. In a newly liberated country, he always tried to find work for women, who played such a big role within the society. He always perceived women as strong human beings," Vidiya said.
Vidiya has also served as an advisor on the board of advisors of the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety from 2015 till 2019. From 2019, she is also serving on the executive board of the Bangladesh Employers Federation.
The RMG industry in the country, in her opinion, is one of the few places where wage discrimination is not an issue. "There will always be a few rotten apples everywhere who taint the industry's reputation. But if we talk about equal pay, we should look at the RMG sector. An A grade operator or a B grade operator, regardless of their gender, get the same pay."
Vidiya Amrit Khan thinks she is caught between generations. "If my father was a first-generation, and he started the industry, then those who learned from him, they cannot really be called the first-generation; in which case, I now feel, the new, dynamic young directors of the BGMEA, actually belong to a generation after my own."
She however is in awe and full of praises at the ideas and enthusiasm that they bring to the table.
We asked her, having been in the industry for so long, what advice she would give to both seniors and new leaders.Her suggestion for the seniors is to live by example, embrace technology, and accept the young generation's ideas. They must guide the younger ones well and educate them.
She concluded, "The new generation of RMG factory owners' children, they must be humble and they must be open to learning something every day. There is no scope to get overly excited and there is so much to learn. The industry is moving so fast, we do not know what is going to happen. At the end of the day, it is our responsibility to not take anything for granted, and rather, fix things. They need to ask themselves, do I have what it takes to run this industry?"