Author: Tawhidur Rashid

Was there any defining moment while you grow up when you decided to become an entrepreneur?
When you are born in a family where virtually everyone is a business person, you are well aware of your destiny. The knowledge of the business was embedded in our upbringing; my siblings and I were involved with work back when we were in class six. Our father did not want us to join our company as bosses right after graduation, rather he wanted us to become colleagues of our employees. Experienced executives of respective departments mentored us. Consequently, by the time we graduated, we had been mentored by a General A manager who had been an executive and that augmented our acceptability. Besides, we were allowed to work in sectors which we were interested in. As I had a knack for cars from a very young age, I was given the responsibility to put oil in the car and calculate the mileage when I was in class six. I was also given the responsibility of maintaining the roster of commercial vehicles.
After that, I joined the head office at stationary purchase before moving to raw material procurement. By the time I graduated, I had more than ten years of experience of working in our company, so I never faced any cultural shock. Additionally, throughout my higher studies in abroad, I worked in different organizations as my father had the policy that you must have three years of prior work experience before joining the company. So, instead of wasting time, I earned my stipulated work experience while I was doing my higher studies.
He also wanted us to experience management styles of different cultures and assimilate them into our company. The combination of academic learning and practical experience gives the actions a lot more value.

Do you believe you would have been a different person, had there been no family legacy?
I never thought of it that way; maybe it would have been different; I might not have been blessed with so many opportunities otherwise. I executed the opportunities and scopes I was given to be the man I am today. Everybody has potential, but to turn that into something meaningful, someone has to provide that opportunity, and that’s true for everyone.
You seem to be hugely influenced by your father’s philosophy and vision. Are there any differences between his and your leadership styles?
Every human being has a leadership figure whom he follows throughout his life. From a religious perspective, our Prophet Hazrat Muhammad Sallallahu Alihiwasallam is the greatest leader this world has ever seen. We are following teachings that he left for us 1400 years ago. From a religious and family perspective, I am heavily influenced by my father, and so is the case for the rest of my family members. More than a leader, he has been an incredible family member. The way he nurtured us had immense
implications on our lives. None of us in the family can match his leadership capacity and foresightedness.

Has it ever occurred that he is in a way eclipsing you to bloom?
My father’s management style was very different. The day we stepped in, he left the company. Unless we reached out to him, he never interfered in our work. My father was a self-educated person, the kind of corporate foresightedness and compatibility that he possessed with so limited educational background is almost unimaginable.
He has given us the complete opportunity to execute what we wanted to as long as our Board of Directors were convinced. It is a common practice within the organization that any business proposal must get the consent of the Board of Directors to go ahead with. If unanimously there is a disagreement, that means I have failed to present my case.

How would you define your leadership style?
I prefer to be the person who reaches out, instead of dictating, I prioritize on becoming part of the journey — training them to achieve goals that the company desires from them. Instead of micromanaging, I prefer to establish a set of goals that we want them to achieve. We also expect them to learn about the culture and vision that we ourselves have acquired from our company. Until an employee empathizes with the core values of the organization, genuine respect for the values will not develop. Irrespective of individual performance, everyone needs to grasp the real purpose of this organization. A company cannot sustain solely on financial aspirations. I read somewhere that “Profit is the only logical thing to follow in business”, it is also crucial to understand why we need to make that profit. It enables them to explore more avenues and perform more efficiently. We practice the culture of enabling each other and grow.
Additionally, it’s extremely important for us to create a sense of belonging among the employees, and make sure they treat this entity like their own family. Even when people part ways with Anwar Group, they always feel part of the family. Most importantly, we have a very open culture at our offices; everyone is encouraged to share their ideas. I know about 80% of my employees by their names which is still less than my father as he knew every employee personally.

Can you share with us a challenging moment in your career?
I am actually going through one right now. Our economy is currently going through a lot of transformations; it is a challenge to assimilate to so many changes. I am also finding it difficult to maintain a work-life balance. Consequently, I have been trying to unlearn and relearn; unlearn some obsolete ideas and re-learn what I should have learned in a different way, in terms of execution and management styles.
With time, customer perception and habits have changed and we are trying to understand the transformation and get ahead of the curve.

What do you believe is the catalyst for this change in customer motivation?
If I talk about the jute industry in particular, unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough developments. The biggest reason behind this is the lack of R&D. In terms of policy perspective, we have actually failed to protect this industry. To some extent, we have politicized this sector and as a result, this sector has remained neglected. It is extremely regrettable because this is the only product whose entire process, from raw jute to finished product is generated in Bangladesh. That means we have the opportunity to make a 100% value addition in this sector. Unfortunately, until now, we are stuck in its rudimentary uses in the micro and cottage industry scale.
I have been very excited about “Sonali Bag” and I have personally talked to Dr. Mubarak Ahmad Khan about its commercial availability. As of now, the product is not ready for commercial production but even if he manages to make it available, I am skeptical whether we will be able to utilize the benefits.

How eager do you believe is the government to share the knowledge with the private sector of the breakthroughs made in the jute industry?
Our Prime Minister has already stated informally to share them (the knowledge) with the private sector. But often, that is not possible due to bureaucratic complications. There are also questions about intellectual property rights, which solely belongs to the government. But I believe the inventor should be rewarded through financial benefits from the rights even though he was working under the government when he made the breakthrough. It will encourage more innovations and some of the most innovative countries practice that.
The government could have benefited a lot more by licensing out the rights to use the technology in the private sector. That’s how the most developed countries have gone so far ahead in innovation, they are encouraging it (innovation) by allowing to share the proceeds of the usage rights among stakeholders in the innovation process.
It also encourages the entities in the private sector to invest in innovative programs as the money is going to the different research institutions and universities. Unfortunately, initiatives like these are non-existent in our country.

Where do you believe the reluctance to innovate or share knowledge amongst us stem from?
It stems from a mix of several negative mindsets that exist in our society in general. Ignorance, arrogance, general lack of knowledge on how to capitalize on such things and bureaucratic mindset have deterred us from the path of innovation.

Now coming back to Bangladesh’s economy. What do you believe is the biggest challenge for Bangladesh’s economy right now?
One of our biggest assets that we keep talking about is our demographic dividend. More than 65% of our population is 25 or younger, a significant number of them are already in the workforce. We have to ask ourselves whether we are creating enough high-skilled jobs for them.
We have to prepare our workforce for the fourth industrial revolution and develop the necessary skill set to keep up with the changing world. A few days back, at Hamad International Airport in Qatar, I noticed, most employees were Nepalese. From lounge to security, everywhere you look, there was an overwhelming number of Nepali nationals employed there. It was also very surprising to see so many Nepalese women employed in blue-collar jobs there, whereas, women migrant workers from Bangladesh generally work as a house help. Conversely, the workforce we are producing at the moment will not be interested in low skilled labor such as house help or night guard, therefore, they might find it difficult to land blue-collar jobs in the future if those are already occupied by other nationals. Therefore, managing our greatest asset is our biggest concern.

Do you believe the industry-academia gap is responsible for the lack of skill set development?
Absolutely! Our educational institutions are preparing the youth for the present rather than the future. We are not paying any attention to future needs and that’s true even in the private sector. I cannot find Bangladeshi CTOs (Chief Technology Officer) who can guide me to modernize our office and industry for future compatibility. They are good for the current perspective but do lack the vision for the future.

How can we solve this problem?
Unfortunately, we have to import skilled workforce in our country, who can train and educate our local employees. But if we bring in somebody who will take up his role and not train others, that will be detrimental. Currently, the transfer of knowledge is missing, we are bringing in people but not allowing them to grow into their shoes. Until we do that, bringing people is not going to provide us an advantage.
At Anwar Group, we have a few foreign employees who have contractual obligations to groom a particular number of local managers within a certain period of time. Foreign employees are more driven than the locals because they have certain sets of targets to achieve to earn contract renewal.

How do we change this mindset amongst ourselves of taking things for granted at work?
I believe, it has a lot to do with our own managerial skill-set. Often, we fail to establish accountability in our institutions. We also fail to empathize with the importance of carrying out a task responsibly in our institutions. It is extremely important to make employees feel that they are part of the institution and that’s the responsibility of managers. You must have very good managers because, at the end of the day, everybody has differing potential and capacity; we have to help them to grow to their full potential.

One of the concerns we have about unemployment problem is lack of investment and developing new enterprises. Do you believe we have favorable climate for foreign investment?
Absolutely not! Over the five decades since independence, the private sector has been the major driver of our economy. If the private sector is not comfortable with the current environment, how can you expect foreign companies to invest in our country? We have a long way to go in ensuring a standard business environment. Our development will not be sustainable if we fail to improve our business environment at a pace faster than the rate of our development. Our growth rate of 8% did not happen overnight: it is the result of a lot of hard work. We now have the opportunity to grow exponentially if we can remove the barriers to doing business. Bangladesh is far behind in Cost of Doing Business and Ease of Doing Business index. This year we have progressed eight steps on the Ease of Doing Business Index on the other hand Pakistan has improved 28 steps. In the cost of doing business, we are only making our processes more complicated–according to proposed regulations companies will now have to file tax returns of their employees. How can they expect me to file tax returns of 14,000 of my employees? Instead of making things easier, they (bureaucrats) are walking backward.

What is your take on the startup scene of our country? Are we doing enough to develop entrepreneurs?
Alhamdulillah! I believe we have done quite well. The initiatives started from the private sector and now the government is, well, on board. Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) and ICT division have undertaken some commendable programs which were not there when we were coming up as entrepreneurs. At that time, there were very few opportunities to formally fund your business through investors. Over the years’ numerous organizations have invested heavily in developing student entrepreneurs. I am thrilled to see so many initiatory steps are taken to develop them (entrepreneurs). However, we have to simplify the processes of business licensing, registration and taxation to see a robust improvement in the start-up scene.

What is your take on the future of fintech in Bangladesh?
As a company, we are also keeping a close eye on the sector, as we also have a number of financial institutions. I believe, we are a little behind, not only as a company but also as a country. The financial institutions are trying to jump on that bandwagon, there have been discussions on bringing block-chain and also how companies like us can implement them in our operations. However, as I have stated previously, I am yet to find a CTO who can guide me through the implementation process.

How can we reduce overall corruption in our country?
Digitization is definitely the most important tool against corruption. By reducing the number of human interactions. We can ensure there are fewer chances of corruption. More and more bureaucratic complications will end up making the business processes more vulnerable to corruption and eventually to failure. Most importantly, the citizens need to be aware of their rights.

You travel a lot, has that changed you as a business person?
I try to learn from each and every trip that I make, whether its international or within the boundaries of our country. I try to bring something back from every travel.

Can you please share one such learning moment?
It is difficult to point out one particular moment. For example, I just mentioned about something that I witnessed in Doha Airport, I usually share this information with my counterparts who are involved in the sector and ask them about why we (Bangladesh) are missing out on these jobs. From a company perspective, we joined a learning session where they discussed how a CEO can actually become a bottleneck in terms of the company’s growth and what needs to be done to avoid this scenario. After coming back, I implemented that knowledge in our company.

Can you simplify in a few lines about how a CEO becomes a bottleneck in a company?
Everybody has a set of knowledge and a certain bandwidth, if you have a challenge that is bigger than you, to solve that problem, you actually have to move up towards it. Until and unless you have that knowledge, you won’t be able to reach there and solve it, the same thing happens in a company. To resolve the bottleneck, you have to surpass yourself by evolving through learning and adaptation.

Vision Statement

On the 10th anniversary issue of ICE Business Times, Tawhidur Rashid sits in conversation with esteemed editor Matiur Rahman to know more about his career path from a humble beginning to the acme of print media.

Prothom Alo has had a long and steady journey and it can be safely said that it has been successful in reaching an apex, and has also charted new avenues in terms of journalism. What prompted you to embark upon this journey?

Photograph by Eivan Sardar

When I am talking to you, we are preparing to mark 21st anniversary of Prothom Alo on 4 November this year. This has been an amazing journey. I never really thought about success or being successful. There was a constant fear that worked in me. I tirelessly did what I had to do. I had lost 8 kilos from the stress; my blood sugar was high accompanied by other problems, even before publishing the very first issue. The anxiety weighed heavily on me and marred my social encounters and I could not laugh freely at that time. I had no idea about this uncertain journey I was about to embark on. I just knew that I would try. I would give my best to bring out a good newspaper, one that would be unbiased and bear the voice of truth and courage. I never imagined that it would be such a success or people will love it so much and it will create such an noteworthy impact.

I started my professional career in journalism in June of 1970, when I was appointed the Acting Editor and later as the Editor of Weekly Ekota (till mid-1991) – the mouthpiece of Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB). Traveling further back in time, one can see that I was actively involved in the resistance that started on 1 February 1962 in Dhaka University, against Ayub Khan’s military regime. I was involved in almost all activities related to the movement, be it writing or distributing leaflets, having posters printed, or being present at the processions. However, I was always at the last row of the processions. I never partook in slogans or giving speeches on any political stage. I spent over 3 decades in politics without delivering any public speech.

I have always been enthusiastic about sports, ever since I was a school student. I had a keen interest in all aspects of sports and athletics. I used to play cricket myself. My interests and activities were quite varied; I had an interest in sports, cultural activities, as well as politics and I, would also write a little and was also involved in producing publications for seven years and published two special booklets from Sangskrity Sangsad (1968 and 1969) especially the 21st February booklet. Those were signature publications by the then East Pakistan Students Union (EPSU) on the eve of the Language Day. So even before my formal introduction to journalism in 1970, I was already immersed in numerous aspects of it. From 1970 to 1991, I was directly involved in politics. I was a central leader of the then EPSU and later worked for CPB as a central leader for nearly 20 years.

In 1992, I became the Editor of the daily Bhorer Kagoj (February 1992 – August 1998) and on November 4, 1998, the first issue of Prothom Alo was published. As I mentioned, it was enshrouded in uncertainty, I had no idea what would come out of it. I also had no experience of running a daily before Bhorer Kagoj. All I had was the desire to do something good and exemplary.
My short stint at Bhorer Kagoj did not prepare me for the scale of planning, management, editing, doing business as well as learning associated with Prothom Alo. As it is, running a daily as opposed to running a weekly is very different. The magnitude of the operations at Prothom Alo was overwhelming. We printed more than one hundred thousand copies on our very first day. The circulation increased gradually over time. Today, all together in print (6.6 million) and online (1 million), Prothom Alo is read by 7.6 million readers every day. It is a great learning experience.
Amidst all the uncertainty, one thing we had as a beacon: We had to make Prothom Alo the number one newspaper with financial viability. It will not stand the test of time if it was dependent on any single person, organization or political party or on the government. These would not be the right thing to do and it will help us to get acceptance from people. Our founding principle was that Prothom Alo would have to be independent, unbiased and financially viable.

In three and a half years, we reached the break-even, which is possibly a unique case for a newspaper in Bangladesh. After that, we continued our effort to make it self-reliant. However, I must mention the rich history of print media in our country. During the ’50s and ’60s, we had Dainik Ittefaq, Dainik Sangbad, Bangladesh Observer, and later quite a few other respected newspapers in circulation. Our newspapers have played a crucial role in promoting changes in society and the national interest. The inception of Prothom Alo was simply a natural progression in that journey. What we are today is a joining of many streams in time and space.

We were very fortunate to have Media Star Limited as the parent company, headed by a person as remarkable as Mr. Latifur Rahman, our Chairman and Managing Director of Media Star Ltd. They had the vision and courage to grant us full freedom in our journalistic operations and business, which is one of the underlying reasons behind our success.
Prothom Alo has now established itself as an example. It is something that people can refer to now, but when it first started, was there a frame of reference for you? And if you could also elaborate a bit about the freedom given to you by the parent company.

We must not forget that we have had financially successful newspapers in Bangladesh. The Dainik Ittefaq, Dainik Bangla was profitable throughout 1960 to 90s. Bangladesh The observer was the same from 1960 to 80s. Currently, we have a few others which are also self-reliant.

We did not have any specific business model, nor did I have any training in journalism and publication. I had never taken any courses in business studies. The only business exposure I had was at a seminar in 1995, on “How to increase circulation and advertisement revenue for medium and small range newspapers”. That was the only training I had in my bag. Everything else I learned was due to my effort to learn.

For a newspaper to be economically successful, its circulation needs to increase. This, in turn, will bring in advertisement revenue. It cannot only rely on sales revenue since that only amounts to 1/4th of our total expenses. The rest you need to earn from advertisements, which one can get only if that paper is leading in its circulation. That is why we had the target to become the most circulated newspaper from the onset. To be precise, that was our business model.

As for the second part of your question, it is because of the forward-looking vision of the parent company, to grant us a freehand that we were able to work and learn and grow. My understanding of the daily operations began to get clear as I spoke to different stakeholders including advertisers, distributors and sellers and of course readers in general. That knowledge aided in the growth of Prothom Alo.

What would you consider to be the biggest obstacle in your journey and how did you overcome it?

There isn’t a country in the world where journalism doesn’t face obstacles and our country is no different. I remember Weekly Ekota came to a closure in 1975. It resumed publication again in 1979 but was shut down by the Ershad regime for 2 years from 1986. In 1993, BNP prohibited all government advertisements for Bhorer Kagoj. We took to the streets and held processions and finally, the government lifted the embargo. Prothom Alo faced the same fate in 2000 during the AL government and again in 2002 when the BNP came back to power. Therefore, we have faced many such difficulties over the years. Even now, there are many ongoing cases against me and my colleagues for which we have to make court appearances. We are often intimidated and we have to go on amidst the uncertainty. Sometimes large and multinational organizations are barred from placing their advertisements with us. These are the challenges that I face regularly but we have to take that as part of the job. Despite these challenges we have to continue doing what we set out to do and do it to the best of our abilities.

There were a few other obstacles that were quite fundamental; for example, getting a good journalist or finding business professionals. At the end of the day media in Bangladesh, be it print or television, is not as successful here as it is in India for example. In terms of overcoming it, there was a learning curve. I went and spoke to the journalists, news reporters of our time and readers in general and listened to what they had to say.

Ever since I was a student I was somehow associated with Dainik Sangbad. From 1988 to 1991, I wrote reports and columns regularly for Dainik Sangbad and some other weekly newspapers. In comparison, I had no business experience, which I had to learn myself except for the 2-day seminar I mentioned earlier. After 2010 we participated in quite a few seminars and conferences in India where we garnered knowledge from many renowned journalists and newspaper professionals. From all these and subsequent internal discussions, we penned down the business policies for Prothom Alo. We picked up this simple philosophy that, diversification can help a newspaper to survive with sustainability. The digital platform is one more example of an important source of sustainability. Perhaps digitalization is the way forward. The print media is embracing new challenges and increased online presence might be the solution.

And perhaps we are slightly ahead of some of our colleagues in this respect. Our parent company Media Star Ltd. brings out two more monthly magazines titled Kishor Alo for adolescents and youths and Biggan Chinta for young science enthusiast. Besides, it also publishes Protichinta, a quarterly journal. Another enterprise is Prothoma Publications which has published around 500 titles. We also arrange big events in partnership with like-minded national and multinational organizations. These initiatives have helped us to remain sustainable and relevant to the same.
The prothomalo.com is the most visited Bangla online portal in the world. Besides, we have an English portal en.prothomalo.com for our English readers. We have more than 14 million followers in Facebook, 1.4 million followers on Twitter and 1.3 million subscribers on Youtube and in some other social media. This indicates our strong foothold on the web. We always need to be on the lookout for alternative and innovative avenues and capitalize these web presences.

That is an interesting point you raise. Do you really think that print media is a dying format? And if so, what do you think the future looks like?

I disagree with the term ‘dying’. As I said earlier, the newspaper industry is embracing new challenges. publishers, editors, and journalists from all over the world, including us, are trying to introduce new content to keep it relevant. And to keep people wanting more, we need to improve the standard of the contents – reporting, feature, columns and writing style. We have to keep our readers engaged by keeping us contemporary. Only giving the news to the reader is not enough, we must also provide commentaries and analyses. We are making the maximum effort to ensure the number of readers doesn’t decline. But in reality, print media worldwide is witnessing a descent. We are in a constant war against the odds to keep print media relevant in the changing scenario by remaining self-reliant. Finally, the media will remain relevant because ‘Print is Proof’.

At the same time, a growing digital platform is undeniable and has opened up a world of immense possibilities. In Bangladesh, 65-70% of the news is read through mobile phones as it is the fastest and most preferred medium for people. Therefore, stakeholders in this sector have to keep an eye on the changing landscape. Keeping this in mind, we are emphasizing on digital media. In the end, a permutation of print and digital is the future of the newspaper. There may be concerns about the future of newspapers but there is no doubt about the positive future of journalism. Journalism will remain beyond the medium, be it in print, online or whatever form. That is why we have to invest in journalism.

A new buzz word seems to have been created, which is ‘content’. How would you define content? What are the features of good content?

Currently, every segment of journalism be it news, column, commentary or interview is the content. With the rapid growth in the usage of smartphones, content moves very fast into the hands of the readers. And whether you call it news or content, it is varied and when the media publishes or airs it, it has to be edited properly. So given the variation in the presentation of these shifting content, the journalists of today have to be very skilled and diverse in that ability. The initial news content is prepared for mobile phone users, after that, it is edited for other platforms. Often the feature is turned into a video for the digital platform. A final version of that particular news with more insights is prepared to be published in the newspaper the next day. Therefore, a particular news item has to be prepared for multiple platforms. So, in some ways, a few things have become more difficult and on the other hand, technology has made many things a lot easier.

We are seeing that more and more news organizations are going behind a paywall, how do you, as a journalist and reader view this shift in paradigm?

A simple fact is that one has to pay for content i.e. good content. Honestly, it takes a lot of resources to create something good. At present, most content in Bangladesh is free to read as it is in many other countries.

The book on Shaheed Noor Hossain that Matiur Rahman co-authored with late poet Shamsur Rahman

Most of the news media organizations, the newspapers, in particular, are shifting to the subscription-based model behind a paywall. Though some contents still remain free for a wider or detail access to content, a reader must pay. Prominent global newspapers like the New York Times during its time of financial hardship managed to refinance but initiated paid digital subscription model which is now largely contributing to their income. Washington Post has done the same. Both have made diversification not only in the content but also in the business model and have opened up new business avenues.

News organizations in Bangladesh have to follow the same to survive in the long run. We have to create new contents in audio and video format. The amount of the subscription fees will greatly depend on the cost of creating the content. The e-paper of Prothom Alo used to be free but we have been forced to take it behind the paywall because costs keep rising. We are not earning a lot from it, but the aim is to introduce the idea of paying for content to the readers. We also started selling books through online prothoma.com.

Fake news has become a major issue because of the rapid rise of social media, how can we stop it from spreading like wildfire and causing so much damage?

It is going to be extremely difficult and I am skeptical of being able to eliminate it. Anyone from anywhere in the world can post something on social media without any difficulty. The ability to spread something is within a person’s grasp. Each person is unique and each is free to share his or her opinion, thoughts and photos. So I doubt that we can bring a stop to this. In this backdrop, a lot depends on how we, the journalists, treat a piece of news. We have to diligently and responsibly carry out our duties. I was encouraged by a campaign carried out by Indian newspapers, whereby they wanted to endorse the slogan “Print is Proof”. Although that may be true, we cannot also discount some of the truth that raises its head on social media. It would be wrong to assume that everything on social media is untrue.

At Prothom Alo, we always do ethical journalism; we take every measure not to publish any wrong or misleading news. I believe, if professionals like us stay vigilant about news which is unverified, harmful and damaging, we can reduce the negative impacts of fake news on society and country.

You have met a lot of great individuals throughout your life, please tell us about the one you fondly remember.

Photograph by Ashraful Alam

In the 60s, as I was involved in student politics, cultural activities and cricket, I had the chance to meet many political leaders and intellectuals both at home and abroad. I have written many articles, analyses, commentaries but I was always, and continue to be, partial towards interviewing people. I have had the privilege of interviewing the present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and as well as the former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia. I have been in conversation with the former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh and also Pranab Mukherjee, who was the Foreign Minister at that time. Besides, Indian Prime Minister I K Gujral, Former Chief Minister of West Bengal Jyoti Basu, Nobel Laureate Economist Amartya Sen, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Cricketer Nawab of Pataudi Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi; Actress and Director Nandita Das, Human Rights activist Asma Jahangir, actress Kabori Sarwar, Singer Runa Laila are just a few names I have had the honor of meeting and interviewing.

I have had indeed a good fortune of meeting many renowned people but there is one singular meeting that holds a special place in my heart. Of course, you remember Shaheed Noor Hossain who was shot and killed on November 10, 1987, while protesting against Ershad Regime. He was murdered beside the secretariat. On his chest was written, ‘Shairachar nipat jak (Let autocracy be demolished)’ and on his back were the words, ‘Gonotantra mukti pak (Let democracy be set free)’. On a day in late December, I was on my way from my Bangshal office to Monipuripara (near the parliament house) to visit artist Quamrul Hassan where he used to live. I went there to drop off some books and a gift to him. I took the same auto-rickshaw back home. When we were crossing Hotel Sonargaon intersection, the driver turned to me and asked, “Sir, are you a journalist?” I got surprised and wanted to know how he anticipated about who I was! Upon inquiring, he identified himself as Shaheed Noor Hossain’s father – Mojibur Rahman. It was as if I felt a jolt. Noor Hossain was just killed very recently and everyone knew him and his legacy. This was a great influencing encounter. When he dropped me off at my Larmini Street home, I invited him to my house for some snacks and had a conversation with him. It was the start of a memorable relationship which lasted as long as he lived. We became family friends and regularly visited each other’s places on various social occasions. I still have a close relationship with the family, I try to be there for them in any way I can. This was a meeting that stirred something deep within me. I have written about him. That incidental meeting and the exchange of experiences and emotions taught me a great deal in my life. This meeting has etched its mark on my life. Later Poet Shamsur Rahman and I co-authored one book on his life which includes three poems by the Poet and articles by me.

If I may ask you something a bit more personal now; How do you spend the first thirty minutes of your day? And being such a busy person, how do you manage to complete your daily routine?

Photograph by Suvra Kanti Das

My life revolves around Prothom Alo. I’m with it wherever I am, whether I’m at home or on the move or I’m actually in office or not. Prothom Alo has evolved into a large organization. If you break down the content in terms of different categories, it is a lot of material I have to comb through. Every day we publish 20/24 pages main newspaper along with an 8-16 pages supplement which includes feature articles of different subjects. There are a lot of preparations behind this news and features that require a lot of planning and editing.
You asked about 30 minutes but if I were to just read through morning newspapers while sipping my morning tea, 60 minutes would pass easily. Most of the time, I take some of the writing assignment back home. So, it takes an hour in the morning to prepare for the day and depending on what I have to do throughout the day, the morning also sets the pace for my day. But even though all this, I take the time to read up on some good articles or essays or listen to songs because it is also important to satiate one’s heart and mind.

Do you have any message for journalists and readers?

Being a professional in the newspaper, I pretty much ‘eat, breathe and sleep’ with the news and newspaper. But, as an individual, I have things I like to do outside of this world. Besides reading books and journals, I like listening to songs, watching cinemas and study paintings which inspires me and helps me to keep going. Anyone is, of course, free to choose and accept whichever suits him/her. But I will make a request – amidst all and everything, we should hope and work towards a building better Bangladesh which will become a properly democratic and law-abiding nation. My request to my readers and to my friends would be – this is our country and so we should all do our very best to make this a developed, humane and democratic nation. It’s my sincere request that we give our all for the betterment of the country. We want Bangladesh to progress, not only in cricket but also in other aspects too.

What is the best the advice you ever got?

In every person’s life, the mother plays a crucial and pivotal role. So does the father. But for some reason, thought of our mother springs more readily to mind. There are many things I have learned from her. But if I am to speak of someone whom I hold in high esteem and who have set the frame of reference from a point of view of shaping one’s principles then my idol would be Ranesh Das Gupta, a writer, journalist, and a great intellectual. I learned a lot from him and I think of something about him daily. If I were to pinpoint one lesson from him I always keep with me and follow, is, to be humble, polite and to listen to people. Having said that, I want to go back to the ideology of this great man and say that, to be humble, helpful and polite is ideal.

 

 

Ensuring Trust, Empowering Citizens

You served in the Bangladesh Army for 34 years. You also served as the Director General of National Security Intelligence (NSI), Special Security Force (SSF) and Government Think Tank – Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS). Can you tell us a bit about your leadership style?
When you talk about leadership, it is actually a segmented kind of journey. One joins the military as a very young officer and encounters different leadership roles. As a young officer, one leads squads, platoons or at times, sporting teams into the competition. There one leads by setting examples to the subordinates so that they understand the capacity and the capability of their leader. This helps the subordinates who are trained to obey the lawful command of their leader to face challenges putting their lives on the line. Once the junior leader graduates to the mid-level, he would actually command units comprising 700 to 800 soldiers. At that point in time, one has to have complete knowledge and skills to command a cluster of sub-units. The Commanding Officer has to lead from the front and he is expected to be there with the soldiers in all operations. It takes huge moral strength and physical ability as well as courage to face life and death situations to achieve success. Finally, if found with all-round acumen, one ascends to very senior level in the position of Formation Commander. The Commander directs the forces under his command based on his wisdom which stems from long drawn on and off the field experiences. At that stage, one has to make vital decisions, ensure allocation of appropriate resources and meet the timelines to accomplish a mission. Therefore, at the level of senior command, one has to remain mission-oriented and ensure furthering the strategic objective of the supreme commander. As I look back, I feel that I had styled my leadership approach at different stages aligned with what I have explained in the foregoing.

How has the military background helped at your current undertaking?
Well, if you look at the corporate structure and its practices of the proper standard, you would find that a lot of things are actually done in military model – the decision making, resource allocation and goal determination, such as setting the KPI to be accomplished within stipulated time frame. When a goal is set, there is a team behind to complete it and deliver results just as is done in the military. The only difference you will find between the two cultures is that the military is pretty much autocratic and follow ‘top – down’ chain of command, while in the corporate culture, there is a mix of both centralized and decentralized approach allowing vertical and lateral inputs which are well considered if found valid. However, I am not saying that this is not permissible in the military because, in the decision-making process, there are many ways to provide inputs even by the subordinates and staff. Now, when you are setting up a new organization or a corporate body, there are certain functions and structures that you need to develop. As you progress with your business, you would face challenges and to address those you need to constitute new teams or departments. My experience of serving in very structured kind of setup helped me organizing the bKash compliance team which is vitally important for a financial services providing company. I would say that the experience of heading large establishments in the military complimented my contribution to bKash in a big way.

How much has bKash changed the rural landscape? How has it made banking understandable and accessible to the rural demography?
First of all, when you start a business targeting a particular segment of people, one of the most important things is to understand their need, in other words, their pain points. In Bangladesh, we have a well-flourished readymade garment industry which is labor intensive, by all counts. All the workers employed in this sector come from different parts of the country, who generally leave their families in their village homes. At the end of the month, as the workers receive their salary, they are faced with the challenge of sending money to their families instantly. Likewise, the rickshaw pullers and other low-income groups of people working in cities away from their families face similar challenges. To bail the common people out of their difficulties, bKash came up with a solution that money could be transacted between two bKash accounts in seconds. Obviously, the question arises on the use of digital money, either to convert into cash or make payments. While, making payment by bKash account for goods and services is free; one has to go to the agent point and convert the digital money into cash with system deducted fixed fee. Secondly, mobile banking being a new initiative, we needed to earn the trust of the people. We always bear in mind that we deal with hard earned money of our account holders. Hence, from the very beginning, a robust and secure technology platform was put into operation. The mechanism of flawless transaction under a convenient and affordable arrangement helped people to grow faith in our service. News of this efficient payment system spread through word-of-mouth and the credibility of bKash grew by leaps and bounds. Thirdly, as bKash set up a nationwide agent network bringing the service to the doorsteps of rural population, the uptake of account holders was fast and in great numbers. Finally, all employees of bKash remain committed to keeping the trust of the customers intact through uninterrupted and dedicated service. Efforts have been made to increase the range of services to create various use cases for bKash account holders. Convenience, affordability and reliance have helped maintaining a steady growth of bKash account holders.

Compared to other MFS, bKash is performing very well. What separates bKash from other companies in the industry?
bKash is a subsidiary of BRAC Bank with only one function to do, which is to provide mobile financial services. When the service is part of a bank, they consider it as one of the many banking products. In the case of bKash, MFS receives singular focus. Besides, when one wants to do well, one must have to have the right kind of resources, technology and manpower; most importantly, adequate investment and bKash has all of those ingredients. bKash started its journey with the partnership between BRAC Bank and Money in Motion LLC, a US-based company. A couple of years later IFC of the World Bank Group had invested in the company followed by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation a year later. In 2018, bKash received the largest foreign investment in financial sector from Ant Financial, one of the concerns of Alibaba Group. So, bKash had the right kind of investment, emulated corporate good practices of the very renowned investors and employed best possible candidates suiting to the exact need of human resources of the company. You would be happy to know that bKash does not have a single foreign employee.

A recent newspaper report suggests that due to increased operational cost bKash is losing profits, do you consider this as a challenge?
No, not really. bKash is making a profit for the last few years, but it does not happen at the same scale as there could be additional expenditure incurred due to new investment in a particular year. For example, in 2018, bKash made an investment to increase the range of products and services. bKash commissioned its payment gateway allowing transaction settlement for purchases, utility bills, ridesharing, etc. Greater number of use cases would have more people to rely on our services and consequently increase our users. bKash now provides iBanking in partnership with seven banks. It requires significant investment to facilitate customer convenience. Therefore, in one particular year, when you make a lot of investment, your balance sheet may reflect lower profit or even be negative. bKash is constantly making a lot of investments to enhance and improve services for its customers. Once all the current initiatives are up and running, bKash in all probability would experience upscale revenue stream.

The monthly maximum cash-in limit was slashed to Tk. 100,000 from Tk.150,000 and the maximum monthly limit on cash-out was brought down to Tk. 50,000 from Tk.150,000. How has it impacted the overall volume of MFS transactions?
Actually, this was a regulatory decision. Having considered a few issues, the regulator had decided to limit the volume and frequency of MFS transactions. Obviously, when people enjoy a service with set standards for a period of several years, they get into a regular habit. When the revised limits were imposed, it had an impact on the customer experience as they were accustomed to the previous limits. However, we as a nation are very adaptive to changes and people gradually adjusted to the new transaction limits. For example, instead of having one bKash account for the head of the family, now the other adult members also have a respective bKash account to meet their regular financial activities. Now, we know that over the years, the wage of common workers has increased, our per capita income has gone past the US $ 1900 and considering the average inflation rate over last seven-eight years, the cost of living has gone up. Therefore, taking all of the economic updates into consideration, I believe that soon the transaction limits would be re-evaluated and enhanced by the regulator.

How is bKash taking care of the Cyber Security aspect of mobile banking?
You see while conducting a training session on Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorist Financing for our employees and channel partners, we make one thing very clear that security in all respect must be of the highest standard. We facilitate millions of transactions of our customers per day involving their hard earned money; so we have to be absolutely sure about the security of our technology platform. From my experience of working in two national organizations related to security and intelligence, I would say that security should be of the highest standard, if not foolproof. bKash has a robust cyber security structure. We are currently partnered with Huawei, an internationally reputed company providing state of the art technology solutions to bKash. By the grace of Almighty Allah, we have not faced any incident relating to cyber security till date. bKash has all required international certifications. Besides, we conduct technology audit and have layers of checks and redundancy to ensure security and safety of our systems.

As the number of MFS provider increases by the day, do you believe we have a proper policy set in place to ensure robust growth of the industry?
It has been almost a year now, Bangladesh Bank has circulated ‘Bangladesh MFS Regulations, 2018’ which outline details of ecosystem and functions of mobile banking. Similarly, Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) had also issued ‘Circular 20’, related to ‘Anti Money Laundering and Combatting the Financing of Terrorism (AML&CFT) guidelines for MFS’ in 2017. Both of these regulatory documents provide clear guiding principles for the business operation of all the MFS providers in the market in a compliant manner. Without the strict financial discipline, the entire mobile banking system will crumble. Therefore, financial service provided through digital devices including mobile phones (DFS/MFS) must be licensed and regulated to reduce and eliminate the chances of money laundering and terrorist financing. It is not only a national affair, but we also come under the jurisdiction of international watchdogs like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Bangladesh is a member country of both FATF and Asia Pacific Group (APG). BFIU also is a member of Egmont Group. Hence, we have certain membership obligations to ensure compliant business practices. Or else, there will be breaches and we will be under serious scrutiny and remain accountable for deviating from prescribed guidelines. Therefore, it is very important that all DFS/MFS providers remain compliant and maintain the business discipline to ensure the safety and security of the money of people.

Recently, we are seeing you doing collaborations with other banks. Are there more in the future?
We currently have a partnership with 16 banks for our cash management. Bangladesh Bank approved this arrangement, which has eased the settlement of fund by the agents and the distributors with the nearest available bank branch. Besides, bKash has recently introduced iBanking in partnership with seven banks. We are experiencing good traction which is suggestive of a possible partnership with more banks. In fact, bKash is open to any bank willing to engage in such a partnership.

You have mentioned about a couple of stellar investments that bKash has received over the years, other than the financial part, how has it changed bKash as a corporation?
Firstly, all the investors have their representative on the board of directors of bKash. Every three months, the board holds a meeting to evaluate the immediate past and current performances and sets future strategies. One thing bKash founder and the CEO, Kamal Quadir conveys on behalf of the investors to everyone in the company is – none of the bKash investors are looking for profit immediately. It is obviously very reassuring to know that the investors are emphasizing on the quality of service that bKash provides, making sure of a sustainable positive impact on society. Their primary goal is to achieve financial inclusion and emancipation of the people of the lower segment of the pyramid. Financial services to the unbanked are what they focus in a larger context. Secondly, they come with the best practices of their respective organizations, helping bKash to emulate such architecture and construct its solid organizational structure. All these are indirect input that bKash capitalizes on. But, if we talk about direct assistance, Ant Financial of Alibaba Group being a huge organization with high technological advancement is in a position to support bKash in its adoption of new technology. To have a technologically advanced partner, who is willing to share, the outcome could be very beneficial for the purpose of business growth. Alibaba Group also has an in-depth market experience; they deal with billions of stakeholders. Their insights about their own and international market can be remodeled to suit the need of our market and effectively adapted. Together with the market insights and advanced technology, such partnership is helping bKash to a great extent.

Last question, what is the future of bKash?
bKash would like to become part of the everyday life of the people in Bangladesh. From sunrise to the time people go to sleep, bKash must be able to offer people solutions to all financial dealings without any hassle. At the same time, we would like to ensure a sustainable and favorable impact on society, both for rural and urban Bangladesh.

 

It will take years for the people of Chawkbazar in Old Dhaka to forget the fateful night that an inferno ravaged through the lanes of Churihatta claiming 70 lives. Nine years ago a fire outbreak of a similar magnitude burnt 123 people alive in Nimtoli. Unfortunately, it seems as though the businessmen and residents of that area haven’t learnt a lesson after all. The local businessmen believe the fire started due to a gas cylinder bursting and in their eyes, the task force entitled to remove the chemical warehouses located in the residential buildings of Old Dhaka would not fix the issue. Using this justification, they have prevented the relocation ordered by the government time and again.

The problem of Chawkbazar’s business set-up is not only infrastructural. We also need to put a microscope to the traditions and culture they are holding on to so dearly. Many of these people have inherited this business from their forefathers and do not know properly about the dangers of such flammable products. Which is why, when the experts claimed that the fire incident was fueled by the presence of chemical warehouses, they were in absolute denial. For many of them, chemical sounding substances like nitric and sulphuric acid are indeed chemicals but products needed to make perfumes and shampoo are not. This myth was thoroughly busted when bottles of such products were found in the debris of the fire.

Having said that, playing the blame game will not help anyone but rather put more lives at risk. What we need at this moment is to run a mass awareness program about the dangers of such flammable goods produced and stored in the warehouses situated in various pockets of Old Dhaka. We have to educate those businessmen about the issues of fire safety and provide them with proper training. Urban designers must also weigh in to suggest how to minimize the risks, in case another outbreak takes place. Mass relocation of business will not only hurt their traditional values but will also hamper the entire supply chain which has cemented itself in that area for many decades. Our heart goes out to those who have lost their beloved ones and to those who have lost their business. Nevertheless, if we fail to take actions, make no mistake, we will face more devastating incidents costing more valuable lives.

 

The Woman of the Hour

An interview with the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh

What is your opinion about the business environment and the possibilities of Bangladesh in the future? Will BREXIT affect Bangladesh-UK trade relationship?
We think there’s a huge potential. The business environment in Bangladesh is very exciting, you see economic growth rates of which countries in Europe would look at with great envy. We have many British businesses throughout many sectors of Bangladesh who are experiencing great success and we are encouraging this trend to continue. Of course, there’s more we can do to encourage this growth as British government representatives by working with the leaders of the British businesses who are present in Bangladesh now or maybe reaching out through our Department for International Trade in UK to different companies who have not considered Bangladesh for investment. Our local Department for International Development (DFID) team helps to further the work of the Bangladesh International Investment Development (BIDA) authority and others in the government are also trying to remove barriers to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Thus, even though Bangladesh has a phenomenal Ready Made Garments (RMG) sector, diversification has been slow and FDI can help alter that.

Diversification has been a challenge partly because Bangladesh suffers from an inadequacy of skilled human resource. DFID, along with British Council has designed programs to tackle that. We have some of the most traditional development work which is centred around primary education. We are working with the Ministry of Primary Mass Education to guarantee that all children up to the age of 16 receive formal education.

But the greater task is upscaling the workforce. RMG sector employs 4 million women and has been an amazing engine for growth. But automation in all major industry of the world threatens the livelihood of people across the globe. The challenge exists everywhere including UK where many of the white collar jobs are being replaced with AI. Some of the challenges here in Bangladesh stem from scaling. Bangladesh has a huge youth population and creating enough good quality jobs is a challenge. We have some specific programs with RMG manufacturers to develop the workers’ skills, such as finance and citizenship skills. We also provide training for the trainers in English language as English is the international language for commerce and it opens doors.

If there is an effect of BREXIT, our effort would be to make the relationship between the two countries, even stronger. My government has been taking the legislation through parliament that will ensure that Bangladesh still has the duty/quota free access to everything (other than arms deal) when UK leaves the EU. When we are no longer a member of EU, we are free to explore what happens next. My offer to everyone I see is to ask what ‘better’ looks like and what more can we do to achieve it. We are committed to strengthening relationships with countries where we have deep historic ties and trade and investment is a big part of that. So while the future is bright, getting to that point will take time and experience.

In the first 6 months (July to December) of the FY 2017-18, Bangladesh’s export to the UK increased around 19 percent to US$1981.66 million from US$1665.81 million in the period of FY 2016-17. What were the contributing factors? Other than, RMG, what other products from Bangladesh can gain a better foothold in the UK market?
Both governments, when we launched our new strategic dialogue, committed to increasing trade into each others country. We set quite a challenging target of increasing trade to $3billion between us and we have met those targets. I think this success can be attributed to the genuine commitment by both the parties involved to increase trade.

A lot of the time I have to remind people that I am the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh and my interest is to increase British exports which is centred around services and consultancy and the UK is the 3rd biggest market for Bangladeshi export of RMG. So this contributes to the picture where both countries and companies can see the bigger picture and work towards the set goals. We have done things in the UK as well. We have raised UK export finance from $150 million to $650 million. This also shows our confidence in the Bangladeshi market. UK published an industrial strategy only last year and it is quite new for us. We want now to focus on improving the transport sector and integration of complex project.

I have already talked about the trade barriers which can be a hindrance to trade, which are not necessarily tariffs. But there are serious concerns also around investor confidence, the repatriation of profits, differential rates of taxation and lastly the business models. As per the Bangladeshi laws, foreign firms must have a joint venture with local firm where there ownership is capped at 49% and for some of our firms that simply does not work. We have communicated all this with the Bangladeshi government. The UK also works through the EU Bangladesh business climate dialogue where we have been discussing VAT; more specifically a more transparent way of applying VAT and collecting it. So while all of our companies are flourishing these are some of the issues that get in the way.

In a recent high-level event co-hosted by UK and France, the co-chairs made urgent calls to the international community to take actions for the Rohingya exodus. What kind of cooperation can Bangladesh expect from the UK when it comes to sending back the refugees?
The British and Bangladeshi governments have been extremely clear that the true home of the Rohingya people is Myanmar. And thus they should be allowed to go back home voluntarily, safely and with dignity. We work with international organizations such as UNHCR and also across the border in Northern Rakhine state where we are actively working with the Myanmar government to create genuine conditions for the return of the Rohingya people. As you well know, this Rohingya issue has been ongoing for decades where the people have been continuously subjected to humiliation and forced out of their homes.

A big focus of the discussion in New York was to find a way for those in Myanmar who are responsible for this atrocious crimes to be held accountable. We were in the forefront with the EU to impose sanctions against the military leaders of Myanmar. EU did this before many other and we have a strategy to support progressive elements where we want genuine democracy taking root in Myanmar. We have spent a £129 million in our bilateral effort in Bangladesh in the past year, as a show of support for Bangladeshis and the Rohingya populations. The money has been put to use for the humanitarian efforts to provide safe spaces for the million refugees in Cox’s Bazar, the most crowded refugee camp on earth and the strains on host population.

I have been going to Cox’s Bazar for nearly 3 years and the impact it has had on the hosts, the environment and livelihoods is heart wrenching. So while the hosts have been generous we need to recognize the strain on them too.

Many students from Bangladesh are interested in pursuing their higher education in the UK. How are the two countries cooperating to further the needs of the education sector?
We want a deeper relationship with Bangladesh focused around higher education, tech and knowledge economy. I have had discussions with foreign ministry where we want to raise the skill set of the population through higher education and training. There are lots of higher education institutions in the United Kingdom who want greater access to the Bangladeshi further education sector. We truly feel that with continued partnership in the educational field we thicken the ties as well as raise the skill set of the Bangladeshi youth.

There is an engaging diaspora of the Bangladeshi community in the UK. Have you thought about engaging them with the local development projects?
The Bangladeshi-British diaspora is incredibly well connected and extremely active. And almost all of these businessmen are involved in some form of CSR by engaging in some form of commerce or charity both in the UK and Bangladesh. Some of these British individuals of Bangladeshi heritage have built schools or conserved cultural heritage sites in Bangladesh. Whenever I am back in the UK I try and meet the people to get a better idea of their current need. Our PM’s trade envoy is Rushnara Ali, MP. She is not only one of three Bangladeshi British MP’s but also the Constituent MP for a very large and vibrant Bangladeshi community in London. She’s a fantastic role model and a signal of the contribution of Bangladeshi people to British life and the British-Bangladeshi diaspora. So, I suppose this is a long and winding way of saying, yes! Yes, the British-Bangladeshi are in all parts of our lives in Britain having a huge impact despite being a relatively small number of half-million.

There’s a vibrant start-up culture in Bangladesh. Pathao and Shohoz, for instance, have attracted large investments from abroad. Does UK businesses have any interest in investing in the start-ups of Bangladesh?
We are delighted with the start-up culture although we haven’t followed it systematically. In order to pique investors’ interest we want to work with the Bangladeshi High Commission in London because these investments are good for both Britain and Bangladesh. We have, thus far, focused on the traditional sectors like consultancy, infrastructure and energy simply because we are already present there.

I have a fantastic Department of International Trade team here who work very closely with British Business Group. One of their roles is to have their eyes and ears open for sector with great potentials and report that back to our colleagues in London who then disseminate it. But my personal opinion of innovation and business is, that if an opportunity exists it will be identified. I have never heard of Pathao, even a year back and now you cannot step out without spotting a Pathao helmet. This gives me hope that there will surely be further investment in the start-ups of Bangladesh.

Many notable figures have talked about Bangladesh’s needs to rev up its game when it comes to economic diplomacy. How can we start improving in this area?
Economic diplomacy is quite a new idea for many of us. There are some countries who are very skilled at it. I believe that in order to attain economic diplomacy you need traditional diplomats and diplomats who have come from a slightly different background as this will help better integrate your idea with the business leaders of a country. The old fashioned diplomacy of having a face-to-face chat has changed with the changing times.

Social media has a huge role in this by helping information (both correct and fake) spread. When you ask a British person to picture Nepal, they will most likely picture The Everest; for India it might be Taj Mahal. But for Bangladesh, it might be Brick Lane in London or cyclones as that’s all they have heard or read about in social media or news. And when I show them the photos of the development of the RMG factories, beaches or traditional dance videos, they are quite amazed.

This need to change the narrative about the country in people’s minds about Bangladesh, is imperative. There’s a need to tell Bangladesh’s story in a more positive and modern way and then sell that story in the best way possible, because I truly believe that Bangladesh has a great story to tell.

 

Maliha M Quadir
Founder & CEO
Shohoz

Creating Ride Solutions Through Tech
It was a wonderful Saturday morning and the commute to Shohoz’s Gulshan office from Bashundhara was easy; there was almost no traffic. I was going to meet Maliha M Quadir, the founder and CEO of Shohoz, a web-portal that started its journey four years ago with digital ticketing services for interdistrict travel by bus in Bangladesh. The country that has always made the headlines for road traffic accidents and the sorry state of the public transport system is now being recognized for a tech-based company that aims to solve these problems. The start-up was able to execute the mammoth task of getting a bus and launch companies to affiliate with their ticket services; proving that innovation thrives when there is a necessity.

Last week Shohoz unveiled details of the $15 million in funding they received for Shohozrides, the ride-sharing wing of the company. This service aims at making life easier for commuters in a city where everyone grapples with an insurmountable traffic gridlock every day.

An Out and Out Tech Company
As I entered the office, a big table tennis board welcomed me. On the ride hand side, was a room painted with white and orange stripes, reminding me of their old logos. “Think Digital” is written in the emboldened font on the backdrop of a meeting table. Upon entrance, you realize that tech is the life-blood of this company. They recently launched a new logo, from which one can easily consider Shohoz to be an aficionado of everything young and digital. They opted for a primary color, green, associated with the youth and chose a minimalist font, matching with the slogan beneath – “jibontake shohoz korun” – calling out to people with a promise to make their lives easier.

The Big Leap
Our dialogue began with how she approached Golden Gate. Maliha politely corrected me, “It was not the only firm that has stakes in this huge investment. Of the $15 million raised during the pre-series B investment, Singapore’s Golden Gate Ventures is the lead investor. Other investors participating in this round include Linear VC, 500 Startups and Singaporean angel investor Koh Boon Hwee. This was our fourth round of fundraising.” Maliha, who has always taken a great interest in economics, is grateful to the network she harnessed ever since her Harvard days. Before starting Shohoz, this corporate-turned-technopreneur had a remarkable stint at Morgan Stanley in New York, Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore, Vistaprint, and Nokia. The exposure has certainly helped Maliha identify her holy grail – do something tech-related that can solve a problem in her country and create revenue at the same time.

Building & Branding a Digital Bangladesh
Shohoz paved its own way in a new market and plays a crucial role in developing Digital Bangladesh. So it comes as a no-brainer that angel investors from Europe and the US had no qualms backing the company. However, she feels that the demand for a local angel network is immense. “It takes a long time to reach the profitability of a tech company. Furthermore, local investors should have a thorough understanding of that fact that procuring funding is difficult.” Maliha is a tale of success in a space that was not expected and she wants this story to show Bangladesh in a positive light. “The country has been maintaining a steady 6%+ GDP for decades and that’s a feat that would be highly commendable in foreign investment circles, but not many of them know about it.”

Maliha believes that collaboration and partnerships are a necessity in order to grow. It is this dynamic that has put Shohozrides on the road to success. “It is high time we collaborate with global expertise and brand our country with proper storytelling. The digital advancements that we have made here in Bangladesh are phenomenal. In many cases, we are way ahead of our neighboring countries. But have we represented those facts properly?” She particularly praises the recent decisions made by the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) to attract more foreign direct investment. Like all her contemporaries, she praises the private-sector led growth. Nevertheless, Maliha admits that bureaucratic tangles and delays in implementation of projects exist, but she thinks these issues are not only endemic to our country. In this connection, she mentions the annual report that charts down the Ease of Doing Business in countries. “I think we should get in touch with the authority behind these kinds of publications and support them with more facts and figures. This will put Bangladesh on a higher ranking.”

The “Mobile-first” Strategy
As our discussion took a more focused turn, I inquired about the inception of Shohozrides. “The idea of launching the ride-sharing app came to me in early 2016; but at that time, it was illegal in our country, which is why we didn’t pursue that goal. We launched Shohozrides on the same day the government approved ride-sharing, which proves the idea was already in the works.” She differentiates between Shohoz’s maiden portfolio and now, saying it stands apart for a number of reasons: “The bus ticket booking service is doing well. We have come a long way in the last five years. However, this is not a frequently used product, whereas the ride-sharing service is. The former is web-centric, while the latter is mobile-based. This is also in line with our “mobile-first” strategy. We are happy that as of April 2018’s data, Shohozrides have offered around 1 million rides.”

The company is now eyeing other popular app-based delivery services, i.e. food delivery. “We are executing on a grander “super-app” strategy. To help Shohoz finance this growth, Shohoz has brought onboard a great lineup of experienced international and regional investors that bring tremendous consumer technology experience, strategic foresight on technology trends in the region, and deep networks which will help us expedite the evolution of our Shohoz super app,” she elaborates. Maliha has some ideas to share when it comes to the progress of the booming tech business: “The bandwidth cost is very high here. This has to come down, which will eventually encourage more people to use the internet. At the same time, payment gateway and credit card fees are something that needs to go down too.” She affirms that a digital nation is not possible without a meticulous plan. ”If we really want to build a Digital Bangladesh, we have to come up with a vision and execution plan that ensures inclusivity and mass awareness about the products that we have to offer.”

No More Business as usual
Maliha does not believe in charity. “When you empower people with the necessary tools, they have the license to build their own future.” This is why she thinks every business should consider itself from the point of view of a social business, creating values, while generating revenues and giving back to society. And with tech businesses, this is possible even more because it can bring a huge pool of consumers under one umbrella with the help of a digital platform. Speaking of outsourcing business, which a big number of youths in our country are looking forward to, Maliha thinks it’s important to have a holistic idea and knowledge of developing a product. “Many freelancers are happy getting small works from multiple employers that earn them good money. However, in the long run, it doesn’t empower them with the skill of developing their own products.” She points out that product development is a precursor to putting anything into the market. “Learning product development is so damn important. I think this has to be mandatory for everyone to do one-year of hands-on training in coding and programming willing to build their career in tech. Without the right technical skill set, we cannot dream bigger, let alone execution.”

Going with the flow
Maliha takes notes from her past as she speeds into the future. She received her best advice as she emerged into her vocational life at Morgan Stanley. “My mentors emphasized the importance of flexibility. Of course, we all have that five-year plan at the beginning of our career,” but that should not be set in stone according to her. ” As we grow, we must know how to adapt to the changing scenario. You never know where life will take you.”

As I was winding up the interview, another slogan on the wall of her room caught my eye. “We can and we will.” I asked one last question, “Will you try your luck in businesses other than tech?” She looks at me with a winning smile and quips, “Tech is my area; tech is my business and tech is changing the world, period.”

 

Sheikh Galib Rahman
Director of Software Engineering
Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

Sheikh Galib Rahman is a man of two fortes. He juggles people and tasks with the utmost ease. Engaging in conversation with peers and like-minded people, one could never tell that his vacation home would include attending multiple networking events. One day he is delivering a keynote before hundreds of youth dreaming to make money with outsourcing business; the next day, he is meeting the who’s who of the ICT sector of Bangladesh. Names like Mostofa Jabbar (the Minister of ICT), Sonia Bashir Kabir (the country director of Microsoft Bangladesh), and Shamim Ahsan (Former BASIS President), are his immediate orbit. Nevertheless, his solar system, bigger mentors, wellwishers and former recruiters from IBM, JP Morgan Chase, Cap Gemini, and Disneyland.

Galib spins memories into allegory with the same ease as everything else he does, making his rags to riches story just as opulent as the man behind it. Galib was only 17 when his life would take a most unexpected turn; a diversity visa to the US offered him not only newer opportunities and a novel way of life. His parents wanted him to become a lawyer but upon entering the US, like many other Bangladeshis, he had to join a $9/hour job at the Dunkin Donuts where the owner highly demotivated him to pursue his parents’ dream. Galib instantly knew he had to leave the place as soon as possible. After working there for six months, Galib finally found a new opportunity. This time he would be a waiter at Trump Tower; the job opened a new network for him. He was accepted LaGuardia Community College under the City University of New York. His stint at the college was a mixed bag: both fun and challenging at the same time. “There were even nights when I slept in the car or at the subway. But I was happy in a way that I knew one day I will have a better condition than this. It took me three years to complete my two years of college,” he looks nostalgic as we carry on with the interview.

By then, Galib had a different bend of mind and wanted to study something, which at that time, was even impossible to dream about: he chose computer science as a subject of his further studies. “I had nothing against becoming a lawyer but computer science compelled me more. Luckily, with the connections, I had been harnessing for the last two years, I landed a job in a high-end bar. I was earning $700-800 as tips per night.” He wanted to purchase a Lexus IS-250 with the money he had saved. “I was criticized for my purchase because people believed that I did not earn the stature for the car.”

It was 2008 when Galib graduated and was looking for a decent job that would enrich his resume with expertise in the field of his incumbent studies. He applied for a job at FINRA-Financial Industry Regulatory Authority in their Document Management System. The first round of interview went so well that he was right away. Though he was successfully finished the next couple of rounds. Unfortunately, he fell severely ill and ultimately, couldn’t prove his mettle to obtain the job which has an offer of $110,000. Galib never lost hope; he kept trying and finally managed to get the job of an Analyst at IBM, at a lower remuneration, $80,000 a year. He had to shift to Ohio. “Life was different there. The posh and pomp lifestyle that one can enjoy at the Big Apple was not readily palpable at the Buckeye State,” he reminisced. Besides the job, Galib put his people-person skill to test and eventually managed to gather 20 Bangladeshi students whom all were living together.

During this time, Galib decided to hone his skills further. In two years of time, he finished six courses which helped him get an offer from Capital One Bank, Virginia, as Software Specialist. “My life changed while working there, as I met Rama Krishnan, a great mentor who taught me many lessons about personal and professional life. I also met Pradip, who was my recruiter; we eventually became friends and started a new company called Transfotech. Like many startups in NYC, it was started in a garage. Paradip and I used to create free tutorials for those willing to build careers in computer science.” It was 2011 and their courses became popular among the non-resident Bangladeshi students who needed training in soft skill development, career management, and specialized training in the field of software development, software quality insurance et al.

Eventually, they started making full stack courses and became the support system for every Ghalib who has faced negativity and demotivation that had met them in their new found home. Transfotech, which started in 2011, now has become a very popular website and garners 20,000 hits per day worldwide. Many programmers who took up classes at Transfotech are now successfully employed in companies like Google, Homeland Security, etc.

Galib’s next big break came when he joined JP Morgan Chase in the position of a Manager for Management of Software Development. He was at the help of six different teams stationed in six different states in the USA. ” The job required a lot of traveling and for the first time, I got on-the-job ‘training’ on how to run a global team. Before starting that job, we worked for Microsoft and NetJet on various software projects.” While juggling all of this, Galib strongly felt the need to hone his skill as a manager. “The importance of skills in managing a team. It is when one is responsible for big projects worth millions of dollars. The specialization in the tech area alone wouldn’t enable me to excel as a manager.” In 2015, Galib got his next big break and this time in Homeland Security in the Software division for the $75 million projects of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration management. Galib boasted about his stay at the project which also recruited more than 30 Bangladeshi engineers. His team won several accolades and awards from the government for being the most professional and timely delivery of work. Galib also worked for Central Medical and Medicaid services, a federal agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, until he joined his current position at the Federal Reserve Bank two months ago in the Software Quality assurance department.

While doing all things data, Galib never forgot his country and its rich heritage. The data geek is also a foodie and set up his own restaurant called Mirch, at New York, his second home. Simultaneously, he wanted to promote more Bangladeshis to the policy-making position; Galib recently worked at the IT advisor of Mizan Chowdhury, the first Bangladeshi who was a 2018 Democratic candidate seeking election to the U.S. House to represent the 5th Congressional District of New York. “I wanted the Bangladeshi youth to be empowered and politically active; I want them to have a life which is full of dreams, purpose and success stories.”

Galib has been closely monitoring the development of the IT and ITes scenario in Bangladesh. Terming the growth “phenomenal”, he said that, “while working for USCIS, I have got to gather experience about immigration and I can disseminate that information, which will be helpful to anyone willing to try for US Immigrant Visa.” With so many different experiences in data and software management, it is easy to assume that Galib would be an expert in cybersecurity issues. He helped the government of Bangladesh while putting together the Cyber Security Act. “This will raise many eyebrows but is a fact that 78% of women of 18-30 years are victims of cyber crimes, and 69% of them never get to tell anyone about that violence. This is why we need to be careful about this issue.” Nevertheless, he is highly optimistic that the youth of Bangladesh has finally set their eyes on the global outsourcing market in a serious way. “The entire market is worth $600 billion, of which 62% comes from the US and 20% from the UK. Of this huge pie, Bangladesh earns only something around $700 million. So the scope is huge. But our youth badly needs to brush up their soft skills and more technical knowledge to go up the value chain and do bigger projects. In addition, corporate training is a cry of the moment as outsourcing companies need people who are good at handling international clients.” During this vacation, he attended a seminar at the DC office of Comilla, where hundreds of youth who look forward to breaking a leg in outsourcing came to hear from him. He was all praise about the initiative taken by Badal Fazal Mir. honorable commissioner of the district. “This kind of initiatives will empower the grassroots people to dream higher and with their participation, the desired IT revolution in Bangladesh can truly happen.”

When asked where he sees himself in ten years, Galib looked relaxed. “One of the best advice I ever received was from a primary school teacher in Barisal, who said, ‘Sometimes the situation will demand to go one step backward in order to go one step forward into the future. Never hesitate to make that move backward.’ I am a person who always likes to go with the flow. Maybe I will join politics or set up a bigger business. I don’t know yet,” he answers with his signature-charming smile. With so many gems on his crown already, there is no doubt that whatever he becomes; he would put the welfare of the people first and eventually develop a tech empire that will empower the millions of youth tomorrow.

The government of Bangladesh recognized the transgender community as “Third Gender” in 2014. It is 2018, and the official documentation and implication of the declaration are still pending. Socially speaking, the third gender community is still fighting the age-old stigma that permeates the culture. It is due to the stigma that most of them are still bound to earn their livelihoods by collecting tolls from shops and offering often forced blessings to newborn babies. Living the inhuman lives in slums outside Dhaka is the reality for most of these people.

The transgender community in Bangladesh faces many difficulties at every step of their lives; one of the biggest among those is the lack of healthcare facilities. While the transgender community in Bangladesh has about half a million members, there’s only a couple of organizations who provide sexual health-related information and treatment facilities. This inadequate arrangement propagates dire conditions for the community when it comes to availing the basic healthcare facilities. Thanks to the socially constructed stigma that they cannot go to private or public doctors like regular citizens which force them to go to quacks risking their lives.

Being a medical student and working in a few health-screening programs aimed at the marginalized community, my association with the transgender community has enabled me to know their day to day suffering while at the same time inspired me to look for opportunities to make a difference. The huge community that is the victim of the health service of inequality in Bangladesh deserves better; they deserve the access to basic health care which is a constitutional right for any Bangladeshi citizen.

The dearth of correct information about health screening is alarming across people from all social classes. The fear of being ridiculed by the society restricts even the affluent upper middle class and upper-class people of sexual diversity to seek information and ask for help. Many a time, programs designed for regular citizens do not suffice to provide the relevant information or ensure secrecy of that community members. In addition, almost no literature about health and treatment facility seeking behavior of the transgender population is available for distribution.

There are several communities based non-government organizations working to establish the rights of the transgender people. Bandhu Social Welfare is one of those. In its two-decade-long journey since 1996, the organization has grown from strength to strength. The organization was responsible for the inclusion of MSM in the first ever-Strategic Plan of the National AIDS/STD Programme, Bangladesh in 1997. Since then, it has played a pivotal role in enhancing the sensitivity of the government, different ministries, and national institutions like the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NHRC included sexual minorities as a group needing attention in its 2nd Strategic Plan (2016-20). Over the time, it has expanded its work in 50% of the 64 districts of the country reaching out to more than 20,000 MSM and Hijras who have accessed SRHR services and received more than 5 million condoms and lubricants through
Bandhu outreach work and through the drop-in-centers, as per the claim of the organization’s special publication. More than 7600 episodes of STIs have been diagnosed and treated at the drop in centers directly managed by Bandhu. More than 7000 sexual minorities have received
HIV testing and counseling services. Bandhu has trained more than 15,000 service providers to reach and provided services to the hijra and MSM population, the publication “A Tale of Two Decade” postulates. However, the demand of providing general and surgical healthcare is so vast that now the time has come to think of bigger settlements to bring the transgender community under the healthcare umbrella.

Against this background, it’s a matter of cry to take up research initiatives that identify the health and treatment seeking behavior of the transgender community Bangladesh. Usually more concentrated in the slums, these people live inhuman lives. If a study can identify the health and treatment seeking behavior comprising of information about the dietary habits, sexual health, general health problems faced by the population, healthcare services sought for, direct and indirect expenditure due to illness of any kind in last 3 to 6 months and methods of payment of for treatment–then it can measure the extent of required health services for the transgender community and how the existing system can help create solutions to meet the requirements. The study can also work as a tool to provide information in creating awareness of basic health and healthcare rights among the transgender people. This kind of research initiatives can also open windows of possibilities to measure the feasibility of opening special clinics in public/or private hospitals that can render regular outpatient services for them. One example of this kind of outpatient service clinic is the headache clinic that deals with patients with neurological complaints. Conducting such special clinics will measure the burden of that particular health problem and at the same time can provide specialized treatments in a faster way.

The research initiative will be stepping stones to create a plethora of changes to be ushered in the realm of health-based rights for transgender community people. NGOs which are already working with the community can start advocating the public policymakers to make provisions for “Trans Clinic” in public hospitals where the transgender population can receive treatments on a weekly basis and get all sorts of healthcare related information like regular citizens. The “Trans Clinic” can also train up transgender men and women on basic health care issues that are important to them and thus can create employment opportunities for them. Last but not least, the clinic will be first of its kind platform to give the community a positive exposure in the society. In the long run, this kind of initiative can work as a medium to develop sensitization about the people of sexual minority groups, which is very much needed in this society where tolerance and love for them is a scarcity. At the same time, this kind of research can also provide understanding about the willingness to attain micro health insurance the marginalized community people might be interested in avail, which will provide ensure their well being during the old age when many of them become disable to do their usual chores.

The transgender community, if empowered with rights and opportunities can achieve feats just like other citizens of the country. There are examples of the transgender member of the parliament in India. Pakistan too recently passed a landmark law that outlaws the discrimination by private employers and business owners towards the transgender community. Bangladesh should not be left behind in its journey to open up and embrace the transgender community with more rights and respect.

The writer is the Managing Editor of ICE Business Times & ICE Today and health and human rights enthusiast.