In the satirical novel Don Quixote, the chivalrous hero wanders the country charging in vain at windmills with his spear. Friends of Nigar Kocharli - who started out 15 years ago with $600 and now runs 20 Ali and Nino bookstores across Baku - ask her "why she insists on fighting her own windmills, not just by running her own business in Baku, but running it cleanly and honestly."
The daughter of a geophysicist and an engineer, Nigar was brought up to become a scientist. Many Azerbaijani families still believe the traditional saying that ‘“however, much a woman earns, her husband's bread is sweeter for her”. But Nigar was lucky to be born into a family that didn’t adhere to the mantra of “get married, find a good husband, and then we’ll talk about work”, she told me. She was told she must earn her own money.
However the first time I heard Nigar speak in public, she told the audience that her career presents three problems.
Firstly, she is running a business in Azerbaijan. Secondly, she is a woman running a business in Azerbaijan. And thirdly, her business involves selling books, in a country where few read them.
Entrepreneurship in Baku. And how to sleep well at night.
Perhaps surprisingly, Nigar describes herself as risk-averse. She says she “still doesn’t feel safe here”, that the government is not on her side. Indeed, reports highlight that minimal protection against risk - including weak bankruptcy laws - are one of the biggest obstacles to starting up a business in Azerbaijan. But it is the informal obstacles that make life really difficult.
Several years ago Nigar took the decision to not pay any bribes. Many advise her to simply “pay the bribes and sleep well at night” but she responds that that is the last thing that would help her sleep at night. There is little sign of the reforms announced last year to end corruption and trickle down to small business owners. The pressure on Nigar has certainly not let up.
When a safe was stolen from her office last year, the police were so reluctant to take on the case that she was forced to make a complaint to the president’s office - when she was called in by the police to discuss the case, she was treated so aggressively that she was forced to run away.
A man’s world. The 3%
TheWorld Bank estimates that only 3% of business founders in Azerbaijan are female (compared to 18% in neighbouring Georgia), a figure Nigar suspects may be over-stated.
Answers to a 2012 survey might partly explain why.77% of Azerbaijanis agree that men make better business executives than women do. Indeed many of the qualities that are cited as typical of entrepreneurs (assertiveness, self-belief, rule-breaking and self-promotion) clash heavily with those traditionally expected of Azerbaijani women - modesty, loyalty and submissiveness.
Although when Nigar looks around her, she sees no shortage of leadership qualities in women. She grew up around women who were talented and, more importantly, were “fighters”.
But it is no secret running a business, as a woman in Azerbaijan can be a daily battle to be taken seriously. She has been asked by television hosts to sing a song on air, and the questions she is asked during TV appearances have become so superficial that her father started turning off the TV and leaving the house whenever his daughter appears. Nigar’s response - as long as she takes herself seriously, why should it bother her?
The reaction of men to her proactive public role is often to make sarcastic remarks, rather than outright aggression. But If they are not laughing at her, many presume that Nigar has an “uncle” or a “protector” behind her, a common euphemism for a lover funding her business.
The book-seller of Baku
The third problem Nigar faces is how to make profit in what some describe as a dying market.
It is estimated that52% of Azerbaijanis read a book in the last 6 months, most of them aged under 35. However despite the Soviet literacy drive, Nigar laments that there is little culture of buying books, which many Azerbaijanis expect to be given away for free. When Ali and Nino ran a book fair in Ganja, the second largest city, it was hard work explaining the concept to local people.
Mind the gap
Currently in Azerbaijan, at least as many girls attend university as boys - a legacy of the Soviet drive for universal education. What frustrates Nigar and many like her are the stubborn values in society that are stopping young girls bridge the gap between education and playing an active role in the workplace.
But encouraging more women to set up businesses, and to help support a post-oil economy, will take more changes than those in attitudes toward women. Nigar says she is often called ‘crazy’, and a little craziness is an important ingredient for entrepreneurship everywhere, but still too few men or women have the nerve to take on the windmills in Azerbaijan.