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"Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do it – not even you": Q & A with Maya Founder Ivy Huq Russell

Ivy Huq Russell, a former investment banker, Founded Maya with a vision to empower women by giving them access to information and a shared community. She is also the Managing Director of Maya. As a venture, Maya is very interesting in the sense that it has a very compelling value proposition along with a realistic chance to change the way of life of Bangladeshi women for good. We spoke to Ivy Huq Russell about her initiative Maya, what it takes to become an entrepreneur, the state of women entrepreneurship in Bangladesh, and what it takes to become successful.

Tell us about yourself and your passion in life?

I grew up in beautiful & hilly Chittagong and went to a little school called Little Jewels before I finished my O’ and A’ Level from Scholastica Dhaka. I then went off to study in the UK where I stayed on to work in Finance. I now live in another hilly place, San Francisco.

I would say my purpose in life changed from time to time but my underlying passion has always been helping people in any way possible. Since leaving the world of Finance I really wanted to explore my inner creative side and I embarked on a journey to help women in Bangladesh in a way that hasn’t really ever been tried before.

Tell us more about “Maya.com.bd”, about its past accomplishment and the future plan.

Maya is an initiative dedicated to empowering women through access to information and a shared community. I strongly believe that by educating women, you then educate a family and hope that Maya can contribute to improving society in Bangladesh.

Maya.com.bd started from my passion to help women in Bangladesh to learn & do the things that matter to them. When I was pregnant with my daughter, Ameena, I soon realized the importance of having access to useful and trusted information at hand to learn more about my body and pregnancy. I also discovered how useful it was to be able to learn from other women who were going through similar experiences. As I observed the culture around pregnancy in my country I saw there was a huge need, even in the urban society, for quality information but more importantly, a community where women can share their collective wisdom/wishes/ideas/.

Maya aims to be the dedicated, positive space for women in Bangladesh to freely come and talk about issues and experiences in their lives. Maya is named after my mother who bravely fought breast cancer in 2009.

We launched the site in Beta in September 2011 and so far the response has been very good. Aside from being recognized by various local media, we also came runners-up in the BRAC 40-year innovation competition. Awards such as these are really fantastic, but what’s most rewarding for us is when users come on the website, or on one of our apps, and find Maya to be useful to them. We have got some great feedback from our users and this makes it all worthwhile.

In terms of the future, we plan to roll out Bangla content extensively as well as expand into the new subject matter. We are in the process of developing content related to Health, but also more light-hearted topics like beauty and fitness. Another core aspect of Maya is reaching offline groups. We have already built 2 applications for the Amadeyr Cloud “Digits to All 2” project and we are working on similar partnerships to run workshops and other offline activities.

After you came up with the idea of Maya, how did you get started? Please walk us through what the first few months of your journey were like.

The idea of Maya conceived when I conceived and when I took maternity leave from my job at that point I began to really pursue it.

I drew up a business plan and started talking to people. One thing led to another and I was able to meet with the UK National Health Service (NHS) who have probably the best resource of health-related content in the world. Once I was able to secure a content syndication agreement with them, I knew I had something really meaningful that would go a long way in reaching Maya’s goals. After we had the content – then it was a bigger challenge ‘ what do I do with it? That’s when I partnered with my friend's company in Bangladesh, G&R, to get support from his technical team to start developing the Maya site.

What inspires you to become an Entrepreneur instead of taking any other easy way?

There is always going to be an easy way – But I guess there comes a point in for many people where they choose to take the hard way instead to prove themselves that they can do it, to feel the immense satisfaction that they won't otherwise receive if they worked for others. There is something about being an entrepreneur that gives you the feeling that you too can change things and have an impact. You too can influence people with your idea and leadership. I would say that everything has a time and place - I have definitely benefited from my career in Finance where I learned about discipline among many other things. Gaining exposure from working with a world-class experienced team is something I highly recommend at an early stage and it is what gave me the confidence to pursue my own ambitions.

What were the biggest obstacles you faced in your journey to date? And how did you overcome them?

The biggest obstacle by far in Bangladesh is people saying that “it can’t be done”. Most people will tell you that you cannot do this and you cannot do that but I took comfort in knowing that all the great entrepreneurs of our time, also went through similar pushbacks. Another action I took, and continue to take, is to set myself weekly targets. If I am meeting these targets weekly, then that gives me the confidence that things are going in the right direction.

What would you say are the biggest drivers of your success today?

Success is very subjective. It varies at different stages of my life. Right now: to me, success is when I can convince my daughter to eat her vegetables and fish (and trust me it involves a lot of negotiation, patience, determination!) But personally, I think the biggest driver of success is determination, not letting anyone cloud your intent & judgment……."Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do it – not even you”. It’s a line from one of my favorite movies ‘in pursuit of happiness".

Let’s say if you can start all over again what are the three mistakes you would avoid and what are the three positive things you would do first?

In Hindsight it is a beautiful idea and if that was actually possible - wouldn’t it be nice?

If I could change things - they would be
- spend more time with family: you need them as much as they need you
- devote more time in my youth towards understanding constraints for women in Bangladesh and tried to do something earlier
- create Instagram!

What are the biggest obstacles for young women Entrepreneurs in Bangladesh in your eyes?

In Bangladesh, a full-time housewife works for about 16 hours a day. Someone recently posted on Maya that of all non-market work (e.g. household work) in Bangladesh, women contribute 89% whereas men contribute a meager 11%. Similarly, in a recent interview Sheryl Sandberg (one of my heroes) mentioned that women do 2-3 times more household work than men. So I guess it not just a Bangladesh scenario but a global one.

There needs to change in Bangladesh to give women more opportunities to pursue their ambitions and become financially independent.

On a day-to-day basis biggest obstacle for young Entrepreneurs in Bangladesh is that they are hardly ever given the space to breed their ideas. A new idea from a young person in the US for example would be considered ‘thinking out of the box, creative, original” – but in Bangladesh, this is rarely the case and many great ideas and the enthusiasm of a young talented person is often lost.

Tell something to our “Young Start-up Entrepreneurs” who are just going to start their Initiatives and want to bring them to success.

Like I said before – determination and tenacity are the most important factors. The other ones I would point out are to be confident in your idea but also be prepared to learn from your mistakes and others.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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2 comments on “"Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do it – not even you": Q & A with Maya Founder Ivy Huq Russell”

  1. Excellent interview, Ivy! The Maya applications so generously provided to Amadeyr Cloud are some of the most viewed and appreciated applications/content by our "digits to all" village participants.

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