When Suraiya Zannath enrolled at Chattogram Commerce College, the usual perception was women do not study commerce, and even if they do, they eventually quit.
In fact, the principal too made it clear to her during the admission interview.
When she said she wanted to become a chartered accountant (CA) in future, he asked her to spell "chartered". She made a mistake while spelling it and he ridiculed her, saying, "The spelling says how well you are going to do!"
With time, not only did Suraiya finish the course, she also placed herself on the merit list. "My principal's words really jolted me to excel in my higher studies," she recalls.
After her graduation, even before the results were out, she came to Dhaka and joined a renowned firm. Her khalu (uncle), a partner at the firm, was one of her biggest supporters in her journey to becoming the country's first female CA.
He told her, "Becoming a CA is tough, but I will help you out in every step of the way."
After she qualified for chartered accountancy in 1989, she worked at Brac and Save the Children before joining the World Bank where she has been working for more than 20 years. Currently, she is the lead governance specialist for the South Asia region.
"I would say I achieved three milestones during the time I studied CA; I got married, was blessed with a baby boy, and became the first female CA in Bangladesh," she shares with us.
Suraiya believes it was hard work and sheer determination that led her to becoming a pioneer in the country's finance sector.
In college, her additional subject was statistics and she went on to acing it. "You would be surprised to know that numbers were not my strong suit, I even asked my parents for extra maths tuitions. But I worked really hard and it was numbers that put me on the merit list."
Before Suraiya, there were another two other women who attempted to pass chartered accountancy; one of them could not qualify and the other qualified after Suraiya.
"When I started studying chartered accountancy, I was not aware that I was the only female candidate," she says. "But when I learned that, it also motivated me to work harder."
It was not an ordinary challenge for Suraiya; she was married and had a baby to look after; on some occasions, she thought of quitting. But her husband and her family members guided her with their love and support.
"I told myself, for three and a half years I was not going to keep any friends, for three and a half years I was not going to socialise, and for three and a half years I was going to give it my all," she explains how she went on with her studying.
Suraiya becomes emotional while talking about the time when she learned she was the first female CA in Bangladesh. "The moment I heard was the moment I bowed down to Allah and thanked Him for everything."
Her parents were in London at the time and received the news through telegram.
There was a time when women were not allowed to join chartered accountancy firms. At present, there are about 137 female chartered accountants in the country – a small number compared to their male counterparts (2,100).
So, how has the situation changed for female financial professionals in Bangladesh since Suraiya became a CA?
"Right after me, two more women passed CA but after that there was a big vacuum. This is something I also regularly discuss with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Bangladesh (ICAB) – how we can increase the number of women in finance," she replies.
Suraiya is always campaigning for her cause – how to make sure more women enter the finance world and get the due support to develop their career.
Although we see students pursuing other subjects in finance after completing high school, we do not see many of them doing CA. "What is it about CA that most people tend to misunderstand?" we ask Suraiya.
"There is an irrational fear that CA is a tough subject, but things have changed since our times. The examination methodology, curriculum, tuition patterns etc have changed and made things easier for students," she opines.
However, she feels challenges are still underway for ICAB to attract a sufficient number of good students, both female and male, to study CA. There is a high demand for CAs in the market but not enough supply.
Suraiya Zannath believes in today's world accountants are business managers and decision makers for businesses. "They are not there to simply add up numbers; a good accountant is a strong pillar you can rely on for your business' success," she says.
Years later, when Suraiya met her teacher, the same person who had chided her for making a spelling mistake, he did not remember what he had told her. But he was apologetic when she reminded him, and blessed her with all his good wishes.
"I told him, 'Sir, you may have spoken from your experience but your words made me take up a challenge'," says Suraiya, adding, "Sometimes negative things can be taken in a positive spirit, and that can become a turning point in your life. That is the lesson I have learned."