NEW YORK—Like a lot of new immigrants in the United States, 14-year-old Mehrin Maisha and her family share a one-bedroom apartment. However, it was these tight quarters and a bright dream of becoming a businesswoman that became the inspiration behind a “Shark Tank”-worthy invention.
The problem—that was literally keeping Mehrin up at night—was her family’s work schedule. Mehrin went to school during the day and her brother worked at night. When her brother came home from work, he would turn on the light and wake Mehrin up in the middle of the night. On the other hand, when Mehrin came home from school, she would turn on the light and interrupt her brother’s slumber.
The opportunity to take part in an entrepreneurship program through her high school got Mehrin thinking: “There must be more people who have the same problem as me,” Mehrin told Humanity. What was the solution?
Her invention was a special lamp that would sit in the middle of the room illuminating one side while keeping the other side dark. Her first batch of lamps sold out.
Coming to America
In the age of the start-up company, many young people strive to be the CEO of their own business. For Mehrin, this aspiration meant so much more. The young woman from Bangladesh didn’t see a lot of businesswomen in her home country, and wanted to show the world that she could be one too.
“When I saw my dad he was doing business, so I always had a dream of being a businesswoman. … So when I came to USA I went to middle school, I started from there, so I was studying really hard so I can become a businesswoman,” Mehrin said.
Mehrin arrived in the United States in July 2014. When she didn’t get accepted into the high school she wanted, she feared that she wouldn’t be able to pursue her dream.
However, when she saw that her teacher, Mariana Morales, was teaching business, her hopes were restored.
“I remember she mentioned that she wanted to make a difference because most women in her country are not really involved in business,” Morales explained. “And she was planning to do business in the future, but she didn’t know she was going to start business so early in high school.”
Starting a Business
A friend of Mehrin’s helped her sign up for a program by BUILD, an organization that helps students from under-resourced communities develop entrepreneurial skills. Initially she thought it was just a class, but then she discovered that the four-year program would involve starting her own business and coming up with her own product that she would then sell to consumers.
The first year of the program involved a four-stage competition between 48 teams from seven different schools.
First, Mehrin and her team had to pitch their idea for approval, while competing with the other groups. Her team’s lamp project idea was approved, and she “hired” more people to join her group from the losing teams. The next step was to make a PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate the value of her unique lamp. The presentation was selected as the best, and “investors” gave her $300 to build her product.
Mehrin and her team then had the opportunity to meet the Belarusian-American entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, and present their product idea and receive some valuable feedback.
“It was really cool,” she said. “I asked [Vaynerchuk] some questions about how does it feel to be a CEO and how do you manage with all these people you have.”
His advice was that it’s not how you control your staff, but how you understand them and take on board others’ opinions.
“So I thought, OK, I’m a CEO, I shouldn’t control everything, I should also listen to [my teammates] opinions and work really good with them,” Mehrin said.
After she had built the lamps, the team presented the product to customers at the Sales Bazaar step of the competition, and sold all six lamps for $15 a piece and another two for $20. The fourth and final stage of the project was to give another presentation about the profits they had made and present a business plan.
The biggest obstacle to building her lamp wasn’t one of finances or design—it was communication. In Mehrin’s team, most of her partners spoke Spanish. She speaks Bengali and a good amount of English, but had trouble communicating with her team. However, that didn’t stop this young entrepreneur. She took classes and learned Spanish, and her teammates helped her learn the language as well.
Out of the 48 teams, Mehrin’s team made it to the 13-team semi-final. The entire experience was invaluable for the young CEO.
A Young Entrepreneur
Though they didn’t make it to the final, Mehrin felt she was successful in her endeavor, and she learned a lot about entrepreneurship. More importantly, she learned the importance of teamwork in business, and basked in her teammates’ success and her teachers’ pride.
“I felt really great. Also, when I come to school every day after winning the [stages of the] competitions, everyone is like ‘congratulations.’ I love hearing people telling me ‘oh you did really good.’ Also, my team was really happy. I’m always glad to see that my teachers are happy, my teammates are happy. It makes me feel great,” Mehrin said.
“I was very proud,” Morales said. “They were one of the best teams that we had in the BUILD program.”
Next year, Mehrin will continue with the project. According to her BUILD mentor, she and her team will review and reflect on their experience, and write an executive summary. Then, they will write a revised business plan and work with focus groups to improve their product. Finally, they will pitch their product to a venture capitalist firm to receive up to $400 to expand their business.
Mehrin’s experience has reinforced her desire to be a businesswoman when she grows up. She wants to follow a career in which she feels women are underrepresented in Bangladesh. As a result, she has an ardent desire to help people and show the world that Bangladeshi women can be successful entrepreneurs.
“Everyone is being a doctor, being a teacher. I wanted to do something unique, so I choose to be a businesswoman, so that feels great because that way I can also represent my country when I go off to become a businesswoman, and make it proud.”