Fatima THE entrepreneur 


By Ruba Nackeeran

Raised in a home and culture steeped in tradition, Fatima, a 32-year-old refugee from Somalia, was accustomed to only wearing abayas and found it difficult to adapt to wearing tightly fitted clothing as is the norm in mixed gender gyms in Malaysia. She struggled to come across any affordable women’s only gym in her neighbourhood and had given up on being able to work out and keep fit. She soon realised similar sentiments were shared by many other women in her community.

When Fatima was selected to join the 6-month Micro-Enterprise Development (MED) program to start a small business, she was determined to start a business which solved problems specific to women in her community. After toying between opening a fitness centre or selling custom made lingerie, she settled on opening a women’s only fitness centre from a room in the Somali Community Centre in Gombak. She validated her business idea by speaking to many potential customers and those conversations reaffirmed her belief that there was a demand for a women’s only fitness centre and that her business would solve a real problem among Somali women living in Gombak.


Fatima initially hired a Zumba instructor but eventually she was forced to step outside her comfort zone and become a self-taught instructor in an attempt to keep her business overheads low. She learnt all the latest Zumba steps by watching YouTube videos online and then replicated those steps during her classes. As an extremely shy person, this was a huge step forward and it took some amount of coaxing for her to believe in own abilities.

Fatima wanted to create a space which allowed women to let their hair down, wear what they wanted, work-out in their comfort zone and be able to discuss anything without feeling judged. As such, the first hour is spent working out while the second hour is spent discussing life issues.

Although the response was positive during her first 2 months of being operational, many customers wanted to see more fitness equipment.  Combining the grant money from UNHCR and her business revenue from membership fees, she increased the gym equipment from having just dumbbells to leg weights, stationary bikes and a treadmill.

In December 2018, Fatima graduated from the program and her business was recognised as the Most Innovative Business Idea for the 2018 cohort in Klang Valley.

However, a month after graduating, Fatima found it was not easy running a business as she only had five regular paying customers.

 “My challenge is people are lazy and they want a complete gym with mirrors and a lot of equipment, but they don’t want to pay for it. They want everything for free.”

She soon realised her business was not profitable and decided to close it down. However, being a true entrepreneur at heart, she sold all her fitness equipment and used the proceeds to purchase a sewing machine to start a new business making custom-made lingerie for Somali women. Like many other women in her community, Fatima feels too embarrassed to buy lingerie from shopping malls.

She invested her personal savings to attend sewing classes to pick up the skills needed to become a lingerie seamstress and within two months, she started taking orders from customers. To ensure profitability, she diversified her business to include custom-made abayas and other types of clothing.

“I have learnt how to start a business so now I am confident I can start new things in the future.”

Fatima now sews lingerie and abayas for women in her community and finds this business a lot more profitable.