Born in Dhaka, raised in Queens, Sufia Hossain studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She then worked in the fashion industry for eight years but left the glamour world in 2019 to open her farm-to-bottle sauce company Silly Chilly Hot Sauce. Her company produces habanero, Serano and gluten-free hot sauces. Other than being an entrepreneur, she likes painting, travelling and helping the needy. A young entrepreneur, Sufia Hossain moved to Dhaka in her quest to build a bridge between Bangladesh and the global market. She talked to Prothom Alo about her entrepreneurial journey, explorations and future plans.
You are from a long line of philanthropists, studied fashion design in the US, and then left fashion to become a farm-to-bottle hot sauce creator? How would you define yourself, as an entrepreneur, an artist or anything else?
Yes, I do come from a family of philanthropists. My late grandparents, parents, brother, uncles, aunts, cousins - all are very involved with building and lifting up their own communities and surroundings. I would say 80-85 per cent of their earnings go to charity, mostly in Bangladesh. My father gave away most of his wealth before his death and did not leave anything for my mom. My mom does not wear expensive clothing rather she would buy things for her sisters, relatives, neighbours or others in need. My family also has a charity foundation that has built schools, hospitals, has been providing scholarships for the underprivileged students, funding free cataract eye surgeries in rural areas of Bangladesh and many other charity projects for the last 40 years.
I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, which was very accidentally. In the New York Bangla community, you have got to be either a doctor, engineer or something promising like that. It was mentally hard. When I was in university, I worked three jobs to put myself through school. I had internships since I was 17. I always had that drive to work. And by age 20, I landed a job with a $5 billion company Liz Claiborne. But I shifted, I found what I wanted to do.
I am an entrepreneur right now. I am an artist too. I started painting actually after my father passed away. I did not get to grieve right after. All of a sudden, it was a lot of responsibility and I was not good at expressing myself at that time. So, I started painting, playing with colours and it is still on. I am also somewhat a philanthropist, but not as like my family. My life goal is after 10 or 15 years, I will be distributing 40 per cent of my wealth so people can benefit from in areas like climate change and sanitisation, especially in Bangladesh.
You opened a sauce business in a male-dominated industry in New York. Tell us what inspired you to start your venture.
I was doing pretty well in fashion but I wasn't very happy. I felt unfulfilled. When I started Silly Chilly Hot Sauce, actually I was making the sauce as a Christmas gift. I started visiting farmer's markets, collected stuff and brought this home, listening to stories and struggles along the way. It felt happy. I had a job that I quit to focus on the business. I did not have any background in food so it was scary but there is no Plan B. That means I must make it happen. I did not fail.
What hurdles did you face in your business?
I faced hurdles at the start. There were my expenses and then the business expenses. Since I quit my job, I struggled financially for the next two years. But I always maintained business ethics, paying my supplier first, paying my vendors first. I made sure my employees were paid, the warehouse, the truck, the inventory, all of those things. Besides, it was a male-dominated industry. Men underestimate women. Once a manufacturing firm did not comply with our terms. It was so stressful because we were working from scratch. Maybe they thought I would not fight back. Then, I moved my production.
The pandemic has changed the economic scenario around the world. How has your company coped?
Thankfully, my business grew about 300 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic. I worked a lot on distribution and use a lot of third-party companies to make or ship my products. We were having a lot of supply chain, manufacturing issues. The last year has been as if the entire world was going through a supply chain crunch. The demand was there, but I did not have enough products to sell. On a personal note, it was intense. Covid-19 saved me because I was forced to give a pause and focus on myself.
You have moved to Bangladesh for some time. What is the best experience you have here?
Yes, I moved to Dhaka to explore business opportunities. I will be going back and forth and spending 80 per cent of my time here. I found out all the stuff that everyone told me about Bangladesh is the opposite and that has been the best experience for me. Everyone talks about all the negative things. When I thought about doing something in Bangladesh, it felt right. Everyone was against it, except a couple of people that I got introduced to later on. But I am meeting all these fabulous people here and even the expats. One of them is Rahat Ahmed. He also moved here from New York. He is an inspiration for sure. He has been very supportive and connected me with others. People are doing innovative stuff. So many start-ups, they're so amazing. They make life easier. The groceries get delivered within three hours. So much exciting things are happening now.
As an entrepreneur, are you planning to start anything new here?
I plan to move my production here. I am doing research on it but not ready to share it at this time. I would go global as I have access to the global market. However, I will be combining all sides of this project, like the creative side, the manufacturing, even the philanthropic side. Because people think businesses are evil or something. That is not if we can do business for our community. I do have other projects though. The thing about entrepreneurship is it is glamorous from the outside. Inside, it is so different. Entrepreneurs have to take mental pressure as well as physical pressure like moving around, meeting buyers and going to trade shows, it's everything.
You said you do have other projects. What are these projects?
I am working on a travel V-blogging channel. I am building a team. I will be exploring all over Bangladesh and will feature nature, stories of people and places, agriculture, innovation, food, culinary, spices and everything that is going on. I am going to present it to the world and showcase it. As for my team, I found a few talents. I am currently looking for a person who would travel around, collect recipes, and do background research for my V-blog. We would need some time to do the quality assurance things. Then we would go with our team and then the blog would feature that entire area. There is a separate project, a cookbook. It started while I am here. I am exploring and learning. It would be so much fun to share that.
You are hiring a team. As an employer, what was your experience?
Job seekers lack soft skills. Sometimes I get people's resumes and if they are interested and they write back, they just make it in one sentence and that is so unprofessional. There are not many internship experiences. Even if someone does a sales job, cashier job, any kind of job, they gain skills. When you do a job even if it is picking up a phone or talking to professionals, you learn something. I look for experiences, do not quite care about degrees. Professionalism like showing up on time or asking questions is another thing. Communication is a huge issue too. If someone says, let us meet. Fix a time. Make a plan first. Send a calendar or an email invitation. Everyone uses a smartphone now. Do not just turn up.
Tell us how have you planned to explore the potentials in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh is a gold mine by the way. This is only a 50-year-old country, an emerging market with a 165 million-plus population. It is so beautiful. This is a land of opportunities, so much innovative things to do, even simple things, so much to explore. When things are not completely built or right, our duty is to make it right or make an impact. That is the force or motivation. I know it needs a lot of work but the thing is I can also be a part of the building. People like us, who have experiences of working with different companies and different people from various countries, can do a lot here with their experiences, resources, and, build the bridge to connect the people with a similar background. If we can benefit from each other, then why not?