Life’s Work: An Interview with Ejaj Ahmad, Founder and President, Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC)

Life’s Work: An Interview with Ejaj Ahmad, Founder and President, Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC)

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Dear readers, you are in for a wonderful time. Please do a favor to yourself and find a quiet place to sit tight for few minutes, grab a cup of coffee or tea or anything you prefer, and get ready to peek into the brilliant mind of Ejaj Ahmad.

Ejaj Ahmad is the Founder and President of Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC). In this interview, he reflects on how his early life experiences and passion for public service and leadership shaped his future, the impetus behind starting BYLC, the current state of BYLC and his future plans for the organization, talks about his management philosophy and how he looks at the idea of leadership and life and how a strong sense of our own mortality can help us to live a meaningful life.

Life is short and ephemeral in nature, as Ejaj contemplates here, “our life is finite,” then he continues as if it occurs to him that “our impact can be infinite” if only we do things that matter and add value to the lives of others. The entire interview is sublime, insightful, and intellectually empowering. We believe Ejaj’s story will elevate you and inspire you to choose life over mere living.

Future Startup

I want to dive in at the beginning of your story. Where did you grow up? Tell us about your journey to becoming who you are today?

Ejaj Ahmad

I was born and raised in Dhaka. My father was a teacher at Dhaka University’s IBA and my mother was a homemaker. I am an only child. We lived in my ancestral home in Shantinagar, where my paternal grandfather had moved from Monohardi, Narshingdi, in the early 1950s.

When I was 15, a student of Maple Leaf International School at that time, I read my first book on leadership. It was Effective Leadership by John Adair, a British management guru. The book got me interested in learning more about the subject.

There were a lot of things that I wanted to be when I was 15. I wanted to be an economist, an entrepreneur, a politician, a management consultant, a diplomat. However, out of all the things that I wanted to be I was most fascinated by leadership. It was something that I wanted to excel at.

Soon after my A Levels in 1999, I enrolled at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland for my undergraduate studies. I studied Economics there but spent more time running campaigns and being involved with student politics.

My singular mission for four years at university was to become the first non-white President of St. Andrews Union. It was a sabbatical position for a year and no other non-white student had held that position before.

In 2003, during my final year at St. Andrews, I launched my presidential campaign. I put together a campaign team with campaign directors, executives, a poet, a historian. We even had a campaign song and website. In the week leading up to the election, I was charging around town, delivering speeches at different departments and halls of residence and persuading students to vote for me. 7 of us were running for the position.

Despite my best efforts, however, I came third in a close-run race. Derek MacLeod, one of my closest friends from the first year, became the President. I was disappointed and heartbroken with the election outcome. And for several months after the election, I thought it was the end of my world. In summer 2003, I gave my final exams and left Scotland without attending my graduation ceremony.

When I look back at the experience now, I feel that losing the election was one of the best things that had happened to me. It taught me two valuable lessons of leadership. The first one was humility and the second one was restraint.

On return to Bangladesh, I started looking for a job. My father encouraged me to join a bank but I accepted an offer from Dr. Atiur Rahman to work with him as a research economist for the grand sum of Taka 10,000 per month. I chose to work with Dr. Atiur Rahman because I felt that he would be the right mentor for me. For the next several months I worked with Dr. Rahman and Mohammad Hossain, a former managing director of Sonali Bank, on a World Bank funded project on banking services for export diversification.

While I was working in Bangladesh, I was still trying to make sense of my election experience in St. Andrews. One day, as I was reflecting on the experience, I asked myself if I had wanted to be the president because I wanted the title, or because I wanted to bring about change in the lives of the students. Is it necessary to hold a formal position to bring about change? Or can people without a title also bring about change? I did not have any clear answer but I had a realization that leadership and position were not the same. This understanding has shaped many of the later events in my life.

At the same time, I was being exposed to the complexities and dynamics of the private and public sectors in Bangladesh. As part of our research, I had the opportunity to interact with practitioners and leaders from the Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Finance, FBCCI, BGMEA, BKMEA, DCCI, and several other exporters associations. These experiences also made me realize that the main bottleneck to Bangladesh’s development is not money, but leadership. I knew then that I wanted to do more work in the field of leadership. But I had more questions than answers. So I decided to apply to graduate school.

I applied to only one school. I was lucky and got accepted to Harvard University, where I studied public policy and leadership for two years.

In summer 2007, after completing the first year of my MPP program at Harvard Kennedy School, I returned to Bangladesh with a two-and-a-half-thousand dollar grant from Harvard. I visited 22 schools in Monohardi and distributed books to secondary school students and spoke to them about their aspirations for the future.

My interactions with the students had a profound impact on me. It made me realize that many of the things that I’ve been blessed with in my life are just my good fortune. It’s not my credit. My life would have been quite different if I was born in a different family. I took a decision that summer that I would return to Harvard for my final year and focus on developing a plan for a youth leadership program in Bangladesh.

In fall 2007, I shared my idea with Professor Ronald Heifetz, one of the world’s foremost authorities in the field of leadership, and he connected me with a few organizations in the U.S. who were working on youth development. Ronald Heifetz, later on, became a teacher and mentor, and eventually an advisor to BYLC. During this time, I also met Shammi Quddus, who was then a second-year undergraduate student at MIT. Shammi and I jointly wrote a proposal for a month-long leadership program in Bangladesh that eventually won the 2008 Davis Peace Prize for USD 10,000 in March 2008.

Shammi and I returned to Bangladesh in June 2008. She came with a return ticket and I came with a one-way ticket. She had one condition for working with me: the pilot program had to be in her hometown Chittagong. So I moved to Chittagong to run the pilot with 30 college students, drawn in equal proportion from English, Bangla, and Arabic medium (Madrassa) backgrounds. After a successful Building Bridges through Leadership Training (BBLT) pilot in Chittagong, Shammi went back to MIT and I returned to Dhaka.

I had no money, no Job, only a few brochures from the pilot and a heart full of hope. I started approaching different people to join BYLC’s board. Many said no, some said yes.

In the meanwhile, I applied for name clearance for BYLC. The official fee at that time was Taka 100 for name clearance and Taka 250 for registration. That’s the total that I paid. I thought that if I wanted to start a leadership center that would educate young people then I must set the right foundation from the beginning. I didn’t have a lawyer or an agent. And I didn’t spend an extra penny although I probably could have hired a lawyer with the money I spent on my numerous rickshaw rides to the RJSC office, which was then in Motijheel.

On January 5, 2009, we got our registration certificate. By February 2009, I was zero. I had run out of whatever little savings that I had. I was working from a small room in my father’s apartment.

When I was even struggling to pay my modest mobile phone bill, I approached one of my closest friends and asked him to donate Taka 100,000 to BYLC. He complied. BYLC restarted.

After a couple of months, we secured another small grant to run our second Building Bridges through Leadership Training program in Dhaka.

I mustered all the courage that I had and requested my father to move the bed from the guest room in our apartment and let me use it as a temporary office. I promised him that I would only use his guest room as my office for six months. I ended up working from that room for the next three years.

I visited 22 schools in Monohardi and distributed books to secondary school students and spoke to them about their aspirations for the future. My interactions with the students had a profound impact on me. It made me realize that many of the things that I’ve been blessed with in my life are just my good fortune. It’s not my credit. My life would have been quite different if I was born in a different family. I took a decision that summer that I would return to Harvard for my final year and focus on developing a plan for a youth leadership program in Bangladesh.

Future Startup

Our life often changes when we come across some sort of a catalyst, it might be a person, a book, or an event. What was the inspiration behind doing what you are doing today?

Ejaj Ahmad

I think the election at St. Andrews was a defining moment for me. It forced me to question my own assumptions about power, change, and position.

I have always been quite reflective in nature. I remember that when I was in grade three I wrote my first poem. It was on death. I don’t have a copy of that poem but I remember my mother being quite upset with me about it.

I have always had a strong sense of my own mortality and that has driven many of the decisions in my life. If my time on this earth is limited, how am I to make sense of this? What’s my purpose and what’s the best use of my time here on this earth?

Reflecting on these questions have helped me give some clarity to what matters most to me in my own life.

I think part of the reason why I started BYLC is because of this awareness that your life is short and it can’t be only about yourself. It has to be something bigger than yourself, something that adds value to the lives of others.

On January 5, 2009, we got our registration certificate. By February 2009, I was zero. I had run out of whatever little savings that I had. I was working from a small room in my father’s apartment.

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Future Startup

Tell us about the challenges you faced in the early days of BYLC?

Ejaj Ahmad

I faced several professional and personal challenges. We did not have a nice office and could not offer competitive salaries so attracting talent was a big challenge.

Convincing donors why they should invest in leadership training when there were more urgent needs was also a challenge. Demonstrating tangible results was difficult as it is hard to quantify and measure the impact of leadership training immediately.

At a personal level, managing family relationships was a challenge. I was 28 with two master’s degrees and didn’t have a steady salary so that was disappointing for my parents.

Shammi left BYLC after the pilot project but we were thinking of getting married. In 2011, I met her parents to talk about marriage. Her father, mother, and uncle were there and we were having a conversation about life and future plans. When Shammi’s father asked me where our office was, I had to tell him that I was working from home and didn’t draw a remuneration, but hoped to do so in the future. Hearing my response he looked depressed and looking at his sadness made me feel disappointed as well.

I decided after that meeting that I had to get out of my home office before getting married. In September 2011, we moved into our training facility and office in Baridihara J block. On December 30, 2011, Shammi and I got married.

I think part of the reason why I started BYLC is because of this awareness that your life is short and it can’t be only about yourself. It has to be something bigger than yourself, something that adds value to the lives of others.

Ejaj Ahmad | Image by BYLC

Ejaj Ahmad | Image by BYLC

Future Startup

Give us an overview of BYLC now.

Ejaj Ahmad

I think the purpose of an organization is to solve problems. BYLC was founded with the vision of creating a just, inclusive, and prosperous society. We wanted to achieve this by addressing three core challenges facing young people.

The first challenge is the divided education system in our country, namely English medium, Bangla medium, and Arabic medium (Madrassa). This segregated education system is creating a divided young generation, with students from one background rarely interacting with students from another background.

The second problem is the lack of critical thinking and problem-solving abilities in our young generation. The root cause of this is a culture of rote learning in our schools, colleges, and universities. And the third challenge is the over dependence on authority figures to solve our problems. Instead of taking ownership of our problems, we wait for authority (who we commonly call leader) to provide solutions.

Our response to these three challenges was the Building Bridges through Leadership Training (BBLT) program. It’s a 10-week course, where 17 to 22 years old students from the three divergent education systems spend the first six weeks in the classroom learning about leadership, problem-solving, and communication. During the following four weeks, students get an opportunity to translate their learning into action by designing and implementing service projects in a local community.

Through this rigorous training for three hours a day for 10 weeks, students develop courage, compassion, and competence—three core capabilities that we believe are central to the practice of effective leadership.

After running BBLT for two years, we launched the BBLT Junior program for students aged between 13 and 16. The course duration is six weeks and it provides an opportunity for BBLT graduates to come back and teach leadership to a younger audience. We wanted to serve to purposes with the BBLT Junior program. The first was to sensitize children on the values of leadership and active citizenship. And the second was the keep our alumni engaged and catalyze change in the community by bringing them back as facilitators and instructors for a younger group.

In addition to these two signature courses, over the years, we’ve also developed several other programs. The Art and Practice of leadership (APL), modeled after an executive course taught at Harvard, is designed for third and fourth-year university students as well as master’s students. It’s an intensive three-day experiential program that builds self-awareness among students and challenges them to reflect on their deeply held assumptions about leadership and authority. At the end of the course, students are better prepared to diagnose problems, speak powerfully, and mobilize others for action.

The Youth Leadership Bootcamp is our residential program which includes industry visits to introduce students to the realities of the workplace.

The Youth Leadership Summit brings together a constellation of high-profile speakers and students from Bangladesh and around the world for three days of inter-generational dialogue, networking, and knowledge sharing.

Unlike traditional academic institutions, our work doesn’t end at the graduation ceremony. We recognize that to achieve the impact that we want to see in society, it is imperative that we continue engagement with our alumni even after their graduate from BYLC.

We have two initiatives aimed at alumni engagement. The first is the BYLC Graduate Network (BGN), which is governed by an elected board BYLC graduates. They are responsible for keeping alumni engaged to BYLC’s mission through public service, networking, sports, and cultural events.

The second initiative is the Office of Professional Development (OPD), which exists to prepare our alumni to excel in the workplace. The OPD hosts resume clinics, mock interviews, and professional development workshops to help our graduates find employment. For those graduates who are passionate about entrepreneurship, we connect them with incubators.

To encourage entrepreneurial mindset among our graduates, we launched the Youth Leadership Prize in 2016, whereby we gave out 10 prizes of Taka 750,000 each to 10 groups with innovative ideas for creating social change. Out of these 10 winners, two of the groups will have the opportunity to receive another additional Taka 1,500,000 each to scale up their work.

In 2016, as part of Ashoka Globalizer, we worked with a team of McKinsey consultants to develop a scaling strategy for BYLC. Parallel to ongoing physical programs at our center, we are now scaling our impact through two other channels—partnerships and online. We are working with BRAC to roll out a national youth development program. As leadership education partner, we are contributing to building the leadership capacity of youth through workshops and events organized by different universities and organizations such as Bangladesh Brand Forum and Jaago Foundation.

Acceptance rate in each of our programs is between 10 and 20 percent. A large number of students who apply to our programs, therefore, do not get access to our curriculum.

To be more inclusive and to make leadership learning widely available to youth, we have launched the beta version of www.bylcx.bylc.org. Currently, through Free Basics of Facebook, our online leadership module in Bangla can be accessed for free by Robi and GP users.

Moving forward, BYLCX will be our channel of democratizing leadership education in Bangladesh. Through a partnership with a2i, we are also developing leadership courses which will be offered through muktopaath.gov.bd.

I think the purpose of an organization is to solve problems. BYLC was founded with the vision of creating a just, inclusive, and prosperous society. We wanted to achieve this by addressing three core challenges facing young people.

Future Startup

What challenges do you anticipate in the future?

Ejaj Ahmad

The strategies that worked for you in the past may be the reason for your failure in the future. I think our biggest challenge will be to foresee the future and adapt quickly to market demands.

Staying relevant in the 21st century and meeting the needs of the customer, which in our case is students, is our primary challenge.

We are competing for attention from young people with so many organizations. How we manage to draw the attention of young people and add value to their lives will determine the level of success we can achieve in the future.

Another challenge for us is financial sustainability. Our goal from day 1 has been to be the gold standard in the field of leadership education. To ensure the highest standards, we have to attract top talent. And I think our biggest strength right now is our team.

We have a great team and each of our colleagues has exceptional achievements. It also means that we have a high cost per student for each our programs. Because we have a social mission and our primary purpose is to make world-class learning available to youth at affordable costs, we offer our courses at a subsidized cost. How we manage to keep on generating revenues from other sources will also be a critical success factor for us.

Future Startup

What are the plans for the future?

Ejaj Ahmad

We have a 50-year plan for BYLC and I have been running it for just 8 years. In the next 42 years, we want to ensure that a large number of the top CEOs, academicians, doctors, engineers, and government officials are BYLC graduates.

We want to transform Bangladesh by improving the quality of leadership in public, private, and civil sectors. And if all of these leaders can exercise courage, compassion, and competence then we can make a meaningful contribution to Bangladesh’s development.

The other goal that we have is that every single young person in Bangladesh will develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills through our digital channels. We want to touch lives of millions of youth.

We have a 50-year plan for BYLC and I have been running it for just 8 years. In the next 42 years, we want to ensure that a large number of the top CEOs, academicians, doctors, engineers, and government officials are BYLC graduates. We want to transform Bangladesh by improving the quality of leadership in public, private, and civil sectors.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Ejaj Ahmad

My management philosophy has evolved over the years. I believe in collaborative leadership and try to avoid excessive use of authority.

I read a book a year and a half ago which had a profound impact on the way I look at management. It’s called The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor.

The book taught me that you can be nice and polite and still get things done. I think sometimes we have a misconception that a strict and ruthless management style is needed to achieve efficiency. On the contrary, I believe that empowering people and letting them run with projects and ideas and take full ownership is a better way of getting things done. More often than not, I have seen people rise to the occasion when I have trusted them to deliver on something.

I used to work seven days a week, 18 hours a day for the first three years of BYLC. Then for the next few years, I worked six days a week for 14-15 hours a day. Now all of us at BYLC enjoy a two-day weekend although I sometimes have to go to office on Saturdays. I work lesser hours, around 9 hours, these days but I think I get lot more done.

I have also become more disciplined in the last couple of years and that has affected my management style.

I think a manager needs to focus on two capacities to perform well under pressure. The first is keeping the soul nourished and the second is to keep the body nourished.

To keep my body nourished, I try to run at least 20 kilometers per week, about 80-100 kilometers a month. Rain or shine, I run at least five days a week.

To keep my soul nourished, I try to read two books a month. My plan was to read four books a month but I have been failing at that, so now I’m trying to at least finish two books cover to cover every month.

Reading and running are somewhat constants in my life. I do them first. If I can accomplish them, I focus on other things.

At BYLC, I tell my colleagues that we are in the business of building an enduring institution. We are running a marathon, not a sprint. And we have to save ourselves from burning out. I try to promote a disciplined approach to work. I encourage people to be physically active and to read as much as they can. Reading is a part of our culture at BYLC.

I think sometimes we have a misconception that a strict and ruthless management style is needed to achieve efficiency. On the contrary, I believe that empowering people and letting them run with projects and ideas and take full ownership is a better way of getting things done. More often than not, I have seen people rise to the occasion when I have trusted them to deliver on something.

Future Startup

How do you think about leadership?

Ejaj Ahmad

I think leadership is a lifelong learning process. It is useful to perceive leadership as an activity or an experiment. Viewing leadership this way gives us the permission to try new things and be open to failure. If we want to be successful 100 percent of the time, exercising leadership would be extremely difficult for us.

There are two capabilities that are central to the practice of leadership. The first is self-awareness—an understanding of who we are, our values and purpose. And the second is contextual awareness—an understanding of the environment we are in and how it is influencing us, how to interact with people around us, and how to mobilize them.

Future Startup

Have you had a mentor along the way?

Ejaj Ahmad

I have been fortunate to have several mentors at different stages of my life. And all of them have played an instrumental role in shaping my outlook on career and life.

During my first job after university, Dr. Atiur Rahman was a great mentor. While I was at Harvard, I was privileged to have Dr. Gowher Rizvi as a mentor and he has been guiding me since BYLC’s inception. When I was just starting BYLC he gave me one of the best advice which I’ve kept close to my heart since then. He said, “Building an institution takes time and patience. You must be prepared to sit on the same chair for 35 years if you want to build an institution.”

Life is too short to make all the mistakes yourself. Therefore, you need to learn from the mistakes of others. Mentors are important because they have walked the path before us and they can tell us where we can get derailed.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Ejaj Ahmad

I think life is a gift and our responsibility is to make sure that we treasure it, value it, and try to make it a gift to the world. That is my philosophy.

Living in the moment and trying to add value to the lives of others and making a contribution. And I think that is the ultimate purpose of life because if the only goal of life is to survive then I would fail in that test. So would you and everyone else. Some die at 30, some at 50, and some at 80. But we all will die.

We are here for a limited period of time. Our life is finite. But our impact can infinite. It can be infinite if we contribute to the growth and development of others. And this sense of adding value to the lives of others is what gives meaning to my life.

I also believe that life only happens once, so it is important to enjoy life. Therefore, besides working, I take a moment to appreciate the gift of life by going for a run, reading, spending time with my wife and daughter and hanging out with friends.

I don’t allow others to define success in life for me because that’s a dangerous thing. If I am caught in other people’s definition, then I will be constantly seeking their approval and my purpose will become fulfilling their expectations. Instead, I define success in my life in my own terms and I strive to achieve the goals that I have set for myself.

Future Startup

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?

Ejaj Ahmad

When I will be dead, I will be dead and I don’t think I will be looking down to see what other people are saying about me. It doesn’t really matter if people remember me or not.

If I can know at the time of my death that BYLC is going to continue even beyond me and make a difference in the lives of others, I would feel satisfied. As long as people are benefitting from the ideas that we teach at BYLC and as long as BYLC endures, I will be happy.

The show must go on. It is not about me. It is about the show. It is about the organization and the work. As long as the work continues, I will die knowing that I have served my purpose.

My goal is to leave a solid foundation for the next president. I don’t know when the next president will take over, it can be a year, ten years, or more, but I want to be prepared. I want to procure a piece of land this year and start planning for our own campus. In addition to running operations and scaling, the long-term planning and infrastructure development is my top priority now.

The show must go on. It is not about me. It is about the show. It is about the organization and the work. As long as the work continues, I will die knowing that I have served my purpose.

Future Startup

What books have you been reading lately?

Ejaj Ahmad

I’m currently reading The Seventh Sense by Joshua Cooper Ramo. It’s about how societies and businesses need to adapt to stay relevant in today’s hyper-networked world. I recently finished reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. It’s a great memoir by the creator of Nike and I would strongly recommend it for any entrepreneur. I also read the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab. It’s an interesting reading for anyone excited about technology and automation.

My first book of 2017 was Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. It’s a moving and humbling account of a promising neurosurgeon’s battle with lung cancer and how he came to terms with his own mortality.

There are two capabilities that are central to the practice of leadership. The first is self-awareness—an understanding of who we are, our values and purpose. And the second is contextual awareness—an understanding of the environment we are in and how it is influencing us, how to interact with people around us, and how to mobilize them.

Future Startup

What books would you recommend for anyone who wants to further develop their leadership skills?

Ejaj Ahmad

I think a practical, easy-to-read book with lots of great advice would be Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. For more serious readers, I would recommend Leadership Without Easy Answers by Ronald Heifetz, On Leadership by John Gardner and On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis.

For anyone who is trying to grow their business, be it from USD 0.5 million to USD 10 million or from USD 100 million to USD 1 billion, I would recommend Scaling up Excellence by Robert Sutton.

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