Face To Face With Samira Zuberi Himika

Samira on Entrepreneurship, communication, idea, life, making, struggle and more

Samira Zuberi Himika

Samira Zuberi Himika

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 or get into your blanket (it’s too cold), grab a cup of coffee or tea or anything you prefer and get ready to peek into the mind of Samira Zuberi Himika, architect, founder & Managing Director of ‘team engine’. We can’t think of a much better start for- 2013.

Our conversation covers a lot of issues including passion, starting-up, creativity, working style, innovation, entrepreneurship, excel, whiteboard!, charts, fund raising, campaign- but whatever parts ignite you, we are sure you’ll be inspired and challenged by her thoughtfulness, candor, wit and wisdom. Samira told her story of growing up, how ’team engine’ got its birth, and how she works as an entrepreneur and creative worker. But that’s not all; she also gave her honest opinion about the portrait of an ideal start-up founder—we hope you’ll consider and then pursue something from this interview and will also tell your friends to taste this!

Future StartUp: This is really wonderful to have you. We are really interested to know about yourself and your passion. Please tell us.

Samira Zuberi Himika: From childhood I have been in a family where development of this country is very much encouraged. My father, initially, was one of the first Class officers at Bangladesh Bank (BB) in the year 1976 and was later on deputation looking after Grameen Bank project. And following his passion then he joined with Professor Yunus at Grameen Bank leaving secured job. And you can say, I was born and raised in Grameen Bank family. I think that sets my tune.

I like people centric work. Fortunately, as a musician and cultural worker, I had the privilege to work with the people who are enormously talented, brilliant and extraordinary. As a result, apart from social development and economic development I have grown an interest in creative work. And the blend of these two, creative works that inspire economic development is my passion. I like the work that has a way to communicate with people, has innovation, has some kind of attachment with people or has impact on the lives of people. Basically, innovative works that support people, enable people, and empower people turn me on.

My family originally came from Chokoria, Cox’s Bazar. My father was from Chokoria and my mother from Rangamati. I was born in Chittagong but I started my school in Dhaka. I was not very much attentive in study but surprisingly my results in SSC and HSC were very good. In fact surprising. My parents and teachers were really very happy with my results because they did not expect that. Later on, I attended Dhaka University at Finance Department in the year of 2000. But I did not continue because of many reasons. Say for example, I love communications, media, music,but I was studying finance. As a result, weariness continued to grow. And I thought I chose a wrong subject and you know Finance is a kind of boring. Then I got to know that Independent University Bangladesh (IUB) offers interesting subject, so I shifted to IUB and loved studying communications, anthropology, national culture & heritage as subjects. After finishing my Graduation I joined UNDP. I did masters on Development Studies from IUB as well in 2007 while also working full time at UNDP.

I like the work that has a way to communicate with people, has innovation, has some kind of attachment with people or has impact on the lives of people. Basically, innovative works that support people, enable people, and empower people turns me on.

Q 2: You were in very prestigious organizations and life as a Service Holder and life as an Entrepreneur is completely different. So, what’s the reason, what’s your underlying motivation behind starting-up?

While I started my career as an employee (a long ‘e’ & laugh), I knew that at some point I would not be able to continue under some kinds of set rules and everything. By nature I knew that. I would be willing to go to a very different direction where creative work is bigger than the money and prestige factors. But I did continue five to six years with different development organizations. Later on, when I was the Deputy Head of BBC World Service Trust, Bangladesh, I was looking after media communication, advertisement, and some parts of project development. At that point of my career I realized in Bangladesh I don’t have that much to achieve or deliver as service holder. Moreover, I could have work in London, or other international places/organizations.

Then I thought, what do I want? Do I really want to go away and work? At that point I realized that I don’t want to leave Bangladesh and I want to start my own. Then I decided that the best thing is to start now with whatever I have and with my dreams and with whatever I have learned in a different environment. So, as a test case I did some pilot projects that time to check whether I’m able to do what I want to do or not. And surprisingly those projects worked really well and people appreciated, accepted those works as a very different and brilliant works.

I would particularly mention a project I did for Grameen Phone with a creative group/agency. You now GPHouse, new Headquarter of GP at Basundhara. They have built a gigantic building and what I could convince them was that you should spend some money for not only as the beautification of the building but also a different aesthetics all together which stands out. And in a way that would be counted as a contribution to cultural community, to artists’ community as well. So, we did GPHouse Art Hub, it is the first ever curated art hub for any MNC where works of most of the amazing young artists, photographers to print makers to painters, were showcased. Grameen Phone was kind enough and visionary enough to understand and own the value of the project and they had invested a lot of money in the project. Lots of money in that sense that no other brand has come forward to do such kind of project before. If you go there you will find art collection of many very recognized and contemporary artists along with many up and coming artists which is really a great show. The project took 18 hours of my day for long 9 months!

After that project we, I and my team, were amazed. And my satisfaction with the team was that we could do amazing work that was never done before, that’s different and impactful along side. With the inspiration and encouragement of that success along with some other projects then I started ‘team engine’ along with some of my friends.

Then I decided that the best thing is to start now with whatever I have and with my dreams and with whatever I have learned in a different environment. So, as a test case I did some pilot projects that time to check whether I’m able to do what I want to do or not. And surprisingly those projects worked really well and people appreciated, accepted those works as a very different and brilliant works.

Q 3: Please briefly tell us about ‘team engine’, what’s the main idea?

We say,‘team engine’ is a communication and a campaign hub for social good. It’s not a non-profit firm but the passion, the inner sense and the contribution part is derived from the non-profit world. It means you have to contribute to the society but it does not mean you are less paid or you cannot make profit. I would say team engine is a social enterprise.

In nutshell what we are trying to do is to support the policy makers, Govt., private sectors, and individuals who are working without knowing each other by connecting them and launching good campaign. Information is not enough, we do need influence to make things happen that’s why we value campaign. We also are introducing multiple platforms and activities first of their kinds.

In Bangladesh we have made progress in various sectors but yet communication is the our weakest point. You do wonderful work in your sector, I do in mine, and someone is doing something better in other sector, so we thought if we could connect this all parts it’d be wonderful. You know, whole is greater than part.

In nutshell what we are trying to do is to support the policy makers, Govt., private sectors, and individuals who are working without knowing each other by connecting them and launching good campaign. Information is not enough, we do need influence to make things happen that’s why we value campaign. We also are introducing multiple platforms and activities first of their kinds.

'team engine'-a campaign and communication for social good

‘team engine’-a campaign and communication hub for social good

Q 4: Please tell us every bits and pieces of starting up story of ‘team engine’. How and when did you get started? Where the idea came from? How did you manage initial fund, what were the sources of fund, and anything significant that happened within 1 year of your starting up.

Well, I’m really grateful that we are always full of ideas, not only me but also all of my colleagues are the same, if you ask them for ideas they will put hundreds of ideas instantly. And I do believe there are lots of people out there in this country who have this quality of generating ideas within the blink of eyes. So, what we did at the beginning was that we chalked a long list of ideas of what is possible, should be done in Bangladesh and what we want to do. Hundreds of ideas were there. And then we screened them out based on two qualities: impact and capability to bring money. Then we found that in the first row there were 15 -20 ideas, out of hundreds, which would be wonderful to work with wonderful impact and capable to bring money as well. And we had another list with less monetary possibility but more impact. So, we had these two lists of ideas: A and B. And after much discussion finally we chose two of the A category projects and one B category project. This was to balance inner passion and impact. That’s how we got started in nutshell.

Then if you talk about how did we get skilled people, I have to mention one name SM Shahrear. He has experience of working with SAP, Microsoft, and some other very recognized companies and he has a huge network of talented and skilled young people, sometimes it’s like he knows almost everyone out there. Through his network and mine we were able to collect 20 people for our initial team who were kind enough to sit with us to discuss things in details. That time we were also seeking for some people as founding members who would continue with ‘team engine’ without any expectation, in any case. However, there were no voluntary positions. My theory is, if I’m not going to pay people for their work then how am I going to say that I’m a for profit company.

But we had limitations and what we said was like this: let’s start if I take 10 taka you will also take 10 taka. So, we had the democracy! You know there were many many months we, directors, did not take single penny, thank God for that we could do it, but we always tried to pay our members and that’s one way how we minimized our operational costs at the beginning.

During that time my main role was to raise money which means to get investors. The initial seed fund came from the directors, and we were kind of certain that for initial one year we’d not able to get money from anybody. I invested whatever I earned before and same goes for our other three directors. But we knew that after a year things must be different. Other people should invest after knowing the potentiality and profitability of team engine and thank God, we also got some other investors in second year. However,I have to admit that convincing people to invest on your idea is a very draining job. Besides, we never went to bank. Because, you know the interest rates is just beyond reach and that’s really not favorable for start-ups.

So, what we did at the beginning was that we chalked a long list of ideas of what is possible, should be done in Bangladesh and what we want to do. Hundreds of ideas were there. And then we screened them out based on two qualities: impact and capability to bring money. Then we found that in the first row there were 15 -20 ideas, out of hundreds, which would be wonderful to work with wonderful impact and capable to bring money as well. And we had another list with less monetary possibility but more impact. So, we had these two lists of ideas: A and B. And after much discussion finally we chose two of the A category projects and one B category project. This was to balance inner passion and impact. That’s how we got started in nutshell.

Honestly, at team engine we suffered a lot. But we don’t want to let this continue. We are now trying to do something with this ‘Bank loan thing’ from team engine. We want to help entrepreneurs with guidance and network and six months from now I hope we can come up with some sort of financial support for entrepreneurs if it’s even in a small scale. It may be a venture capital type something or any other format but the main thing is that, it’ll reduce interest rate at a margin. And will be cost effective. If we don’t sacrifice now the number of entrepreneurs will be very small.

The journey was never smooth as usual; it always involves high risk and challenge. From last year we are working on projects in ‘partnership model’ as well. It means, the initiative is shared. Say for example, a govt. organization or a company shares a similar interest and passion for same thing we are passionate about and if we think that they would not kill the project then we tend to share partnership with them. Through the way they own the project along with us. And in exchange they sponsor or support the project any way. Still now we have not gone through raising development fund. We have not gone to bank. It’s all about individual who are interested in our work and who have faith on us and on our work.

The last thing is: if the project is innovative enough, feasible enough and the project provide the right return, I think there are people who are ready to support entrepreneurs.

Q 5: What’s the business model of ‘team engine’? Would you please tell us something about profit, break-even and money making?

Well, our initial one year was like break-even. That time we did many projects for other companies as service provider.But for last one year we are only implementing our own projects, and people could join us as partner, as supporter or sponsor. We are also introducing products to mass people.

The business model is a lot like this: one is subscription model- individual or entrepreneurs can get service with a minimum subscription fee but they have to remember Team Engine within their network. And the another model is sponsorship-it means we also take sponsorship for projects from interested companies or organizations. And there is partnership model too about which I talked earlier, so these three are the basic.

Q 6: How many people work here at ‘team engine’ now? And how do they work?

We have now 56 team members. We don’t say employee here, we all are team members. 35 of them are full timers and rest work as part timers. Part time people have their own allocated time frame and they work accordingly. Most of the part-timers are students and they come here after class and work till 8 pm or so and most of them have their own assigned works. They have their coordinators who manage and coordinate with them. And we don’t encourage volunteerism and we don’t have volunteers.

We don’t encourage working from home. We really want to work on some crazy ideas in working style like Google free time experiment, but Bangladesh is not ready for that kind of experience or environment yet. We have plan to work on some crazy ideas because I do believe that innovation is impossible in a rigid format/system.

In case of full timers, we do regular office. We don’t encourage working from home. We really want to work on some crazy ideas in working style like Google free time experiment, but Bangladesh is not ready for that kind of experience or environment yet. We have specific time frame, when people have to be in work. But we also try to be flexible in case of timing. We have plan to work on some crazy ideas because I do believe that innovation is impossible in a rigid format/system.

Q 7: Would you please tell us few of the problems you have faced to date and the way you out performed them?

I was & I’m always well networked because I had the privilege to work in some international platforms. If you don’t have enough good network and you start something, it means you are going to suffer a lot at the beginning. So, as a start-up, to me, you should have good network, you should know where to go, and where to talk. You should know where to pitch your products and where to go to get information. As I said, I’m always well networked as a result I did not face that kind of problem. But I know people who faces this sort of problem.

Second thing is about motivation. It’s extremely challenging to stay motivated and to motivate team members. Meaning: it might happen, well, it happened to me, I could not pay people for three months for different reasons. And those three months were really hard. However, I took that three months as a challenge and used as an experiment to see who stays and who actually goes away or leave ‘team engine’. And it was a wonderful experience in a sense that it helped me to see things differently.

It rewinds many of my expectations with people. At that time many people I thought would never leave ‘team engine’ left and many people I never imagined would stay with me stayed. So, I think this challenge helped me and ‘team engine’ to find right people. But for many people/start-ups this kind of incident can hamper their progress greatly. But our system or management system was like that we could stand it.

The third thing is of course finance and it’s still a major crisis for us as well. Because making people to believe in things that never happened before is very hard. However, Alhamdulillah, things are now quite well, and I think next 6 months will be a good time for us. Right now, we are in second phase and we’ll be in growth stage very soon which will require to inject lots of money.

Second thing is about motivation. It’s extremely challenging to stay motivated and to motivate team members. Meaning: it might happen, well, it happened to me, I could not pay people for three months for different reasons. And those three months were really hard. However, I took that three months as a challenge and used as an experiment to see who stays and who actually goes away or leave ‘team engine’. And it was a wonderful experience in a sense that it helped me to see things differently.

And then there is the problem with the culture and society and system. Well, although I personally did not encounter this problem but many of my colleagues and friends faced it. Culturally we like people to work with a big brand. Parents don’t want their kids to spoil their life by starting up something but have a secure life with some multinational jobs. They don’t believe that anybody can start a business and make it happen. And this is a great challenge for start-ups in Bangladesh. It’s very difficult to make your people believe that entrepreneurship is not only cool, it is possible. I think I’m lucky in that sense that I did not face this problem!

Q 8: Have you ever faced any problem because you are a woman and an entrepreneur? And what do you think how can we get rid of those problems?

I have to give you a comparison, when I was working in other organizations nobody asked me that why I was there. I was there with my own capacity and quality. But right now when I’m an entrepreneur and there are people, a lot, who salute me for leaving that career and for starting up. But there are also people who think that I am doing well because I am a woman and I am privileged!

There are people who think that women are incapable of leading and managing work as entrepreneur but I did and I think I am quite good at it. Moreover, I’ve seen lot more women doing this same thing with no less efficiency and smartness than men.

As a service holder my responsibility and as an entrepreneur my responsibility vary greatly. When I’m a job holder my responsibility is only for me but as an entrepreneur I have to take responsibility of another 55 people who are giving up their everything for me. And I’m capable of taking responsibility of them and they are my family.

There are people who think that women are incapable of leading and managing work as entrepreneur but I did and I think I am quite good at it. Moreover, I’ve seen lot more women doing this same thing with no less efficiency and smartness than men.

Q 9: What it takes to make a campaign happen?

Well, from my experience at ‘team engine’ and my earlier jobs I can say few things about campaign and about making a campaign happen. First thing is: when I say campaign that means it is continuing process of establish good things, important matters and crucial information. It is like you are in a mission. It does not mean only advertisement campaign, it not only increases sales or it’s not only to aware people, but it intends to have impact in the mind of target audience that’ll lead to relevant action. Whatever we do we have a general expectation. And in doing anything there is a process. So,in making a campaign happen there can be many models of course. At ‘team engine’ our approach is inclusive. At a time our campaigns are social, development and promotional campaigns. It’s blend of three things. So, logically to blend these three things together you have to have experience of these three things as well, otherwise you would not be able to strategies a campaign. So, having experience is critical.

BBC Janala is one of the best things I was involved with in my career so far. You know, in our country around 9 crore people are using mobile phone, that means 60% of total population is using mobile phone. Besides its communicative utility, this device has a huge potential to be used as an educational tool. But when we were working on BBC Janala project many people said it was cliche and asked why people would spend BDT 1 per minute to learn English. And why people would believe you that mobile phone could be a good educational solution in case of learning English! But when we launched it two hundred thousand people subscribed within first 6 months and were using the service and after few more months it was a million. So, it was huge, and interestingly it was the introduction stage, and we were surprised.

So, second thing is that you have to make sure that you are offering a good service within a affordable cost, and you’ve to make your service available and obviously your communication must be good enough to earn a place in the mind of your target people. Because we only receive something, or buy something when we understand that it will improve my life. It’ll improve something that I could not do.

So, second thing is that you have to make sure that you are offering a good service within a affordable cost, and you’ve to make your service available and obviously your communication must be good enough to earn a place in the mind of your target people. Because we only receive something, or buy something when we understand that it will improve my life. It’ll improve something that I could not do. Now BBC Janala is hugely successful and it’s replicated in many other countries including few countries in Africa.

In January we are going to launch a healthy living campaign with a vision to empower people to live a healthy life, and to communicate very basic issues of health and well-being. This campaign will deal with what to eat, how to exercise, and many other basic health related issues. We’ll also be providing information and motivationin a way that’ll be fun and will inspire them to act.Let’s see what happen.

Q 10: You are a maker, & creative worker, do you have any special style of working of your own?

Well, I can’t work without flow chart. I need white board with a marker while communicating with others other wise it becomes very difficult to infuse into other people. Flowchart and white board help me a lot to strategies, to deliver things to other people, and to inspire people with innovative ways.

Samira Zuberi Himika & part of her white board

Samira Zuberi Himika & part of her white board

Samira uses charts to organize and strategies things

Samira uses charts to organize and strategies things

I really love excel, it helps me to arrange works accordingly, it’s a wonderful tool not only for calculation but also for project management, and for designing strategy. For project management excel is excellent.

I love and listen music when I’m in deep work. And I’m in very much ingrained with technology, I can’t think a day without email and Google.And even when I’m at home I’m always connected with my people.

Q 11: How do you feel about starting-up now? Do you think you made some mistakes that you would avoid if you get a second chance?

Well, if it’s wishful then I would have rather started with a lot of money. Although it seems impossible before starting a company but now I think it’s possible. There are many people who have lots of money, and who want to invest their money too. But you must have great ideas, plan and you have to reach to them with your total plan. I believe, it’s possible to start with a good amount of money if you have a good project.

Yes, there were mistakes and you know, everybody makes mistakes, but it’s not what’s important, above all I have learned a lot and you can’t avoid mistakes in life and in work.

The second thing is, I would have started years back. I mean I wish if I could start earlier. As earlier as possible. Because I’m now around 30, If I were in my 20’s then I would have been more energetic. Otherwise everything is wonderful. Yes, there were mistakes and you know, everybody makes mistakes, but it’s not what’s important, above all I have learned a lot and you can’t avoid mistakes in life and in work.

Q 12: Do you have a view of ideal start-up founder?

Number one: they have to be extremely passionate and at any circumstance, they should not lose their sanity. Sanity is the main thing. Because, so many unexpected challenges arise every day, every month. So, patience is the virtue.

Then comes the proper planning and operation according to plan. It means you should have a good scheduler in back of your mind-it will help you with your daily and weekly targets and promises to meet. And then comes the Commitment. Without it moving ahead will be impossible. And finally, a never give up mindset that ‘I’ll stick to it until I get there’.

 So many unexpected challenges arise every day, every month. So, patience is the virtue.

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