A Conversation With Sajid Islam, Founder & CEO, Shetu

Sajid Islam

Sajid Islam is the founder and CEO of Shetu. He has been a leading thinker in the realm of business and IT for over 15 years, having been a principal player in the design, implementation, and maintenance of core, mission-critical, business systems for a diverse body of enterprises, to include: PG&E, USPS, Nikon, CVS, Boston Market, Royal Carribean, Lenovo, Novell, Waste Management, American Airlines, AllState, Bank of America and others.

Originally from Bangladesh, Sajid received his formal education in the United States, earning both his BS and MS in Computer Science from American University. Prior to starting Shetu, Mr. Islam was at Hewlett-Packard (HP) where he was responsible for field readiness, Customer adoption, success and experience for a group of products that generated $1.2B+ in annual revenue. Sajid lives near Washington, D.C with his wife and daughter and is a Graduate of the Founder Institute (an early stage startup accelerator).

Two years ago, Sajid Islam began laying the framework for a tech start-up initiative that would put Bangladesh on the map. It wasn’t until early 2013, however, that Islam decided the time was right to unveil his idea to the world. Aptly named Shetu—which means “bridge” in Bengali—Islam has launched an initiative that will bridge the gap between talent and its prospective scope. In a recent conversation, over Email, Islam shares his vision for Shetu and talks about its debut business competition, Pitch2Win, taking place Saturday, May 18, 2013, at the EMK Center in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Future StartUp: What is Shetu, and what was your underlying motivation behind it?

Sajid Islam: Shetu is an exciting, one-of-a-kind initiative. It’s a 16+-week boot camp for tech entrepreneurs where they will refine their ideas, learn about marketing and finance, and develop critical enterprise skills before launching their businesses, thereby increasing the probability of long-term success. I came up with the idea for Shetu back in late 2011; however, due to family obligations, I had to work on the idea in stealth mode. [In March 2013], I was talking to my friend, U.S. Ambassador to Estonia Jeffrey Levine, and he encouraged me to launch. At that moment, I decided to open the flood gates. We’re starting with a Pitch2Win contest.

Q: Who are the key players in the initiative?

I am primarily doing this on my own. I came up with the idea, and asked my close friends, Tareq Mahmud (Founder of forwara.com) and Adnan Imam (Managing Director of awr.com.bd) if they would be my advisors. I’m also being advised by Heba Saleh, the CEO of eatluv.com.

Q: What are your short-term goals for the initiative?

As the initiative grows and builds momentum, I want it to encourage entrepreneurship, identify talent, and help entrepreneurs perfect their pitches and business plans.

Q: What are your long-term goals for the initiative?

I am working hard to make Shetu the first and best tech accelerator in Bangladesh. We already are the first, now we’ll work towards graduating great companies worthy of drawing national and international investment. We want to be the TechStars/Y Combinator of Bangladesh. Shetu graduates will set the bar and lead the way.

Q: How has your professional background prepared you for this leadership role?

For starters, I have worked in IT for more than 17 years. Currently I am employed at HP Software where I am responsible for Go To market strategy and field readiness for a product line that generates $1.1 billion annually in revenue. Beyond that, I am a graduate of The Founders Institute, which is an early stage tech start-up accelerator based in California. So I’ve “walked the walk,” so to speak. I also owned and operated an IT consulting firm based out of Washington, DC, but I exited the business because I wanted to focus on Bangladesh.

Q: Tell me about the people who should be working with Shetu.

Shetu wants honest, hard-working, go-getters. Unfortunately, Bangladesh is full of red tape and bureaucracy, but a smart individual knows how to navigate around these obstacles. I do not need people who will give me 100 reasons why something won’t succeed; I want to work with people who can give me one reason why things will work. I want people who will take charge when they see something is broken.

Q: How are Shetu applicants screened?

We screen applicants based on their academic background, the idea they’re proposing, and their ability to adapt. Sometimes a team dynamic is better because you have a stronger chance of success.

Q: What happens once they are accepted?

Once you are accepted into the program, classes begin. The fall semester will start around August 10, depending on when Eid-ul-Fitr is celebrated. Classes will be delivered through a combination of Web, webinar, face-to-face, and Skype—all of which are tools that today’s tech entrepreneur must leverage and be comfortable using. We purposely chose this format over exclusively face-to-face sessions because we want our students to be comfortable with any and all mediums. Therefore, students must have access to high-speed internet.

Q: What kinds of connections can you help entrepreneurs make, both nationally and globally?

We can make introductions to investors (private and institutional) and mentors in Bangladesh and around the world. Globally, we can also help them get into co-working space, identify markets to penetrate, and take them to fairs and competitions so that they can get the exposure they need—as well as opportunities to win money, which is crucial for their survival. Every year I travel so many different tech start-up events and meet so many movers and shakers with whom I build relationships. Our students will be able to tap into Shetu’s networks and build their own networks as well.

Q: Once they finish the 16+-week boot camp, what’s next for Shetu’s students?

Most entrepreneurs will continue to build or work on their businesses. If we identify a good business that needs to be part of an international accelerator or co-working space, we will help them get into that. If, at the end of the session, we find a business has made substantial progress and the entrepreneur is ready to move on, we will promote them at tech start-up events so that they get the exposure they need. If they need an introduction to the U.S. market, we will help them with that as well.

Really, the possibilities are endless.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of Pitch2Win? Why did you choose this type of competition?

Pitching your business idea is nothing new. In fact, it is commonly done everywhere there is a start-up ecosystem—except Bangladesh. So we are introducing this concept to Bangladesh. The point of these types of competitions is to attract serious entrepreneurs whose passion for their ideas is infectious, because if you can’t get a stranger excited about your business idea under two minutes, then you really do not have a business.

Q: How are the judges selected for Pitch2Win? How many will there be?

There will be five judges who have been selected based on their understanding of tech start-up culture and their own recent involvement with entrepreneurship.

Q: Who is eligible to enter the competition?

We welcome both male and female individual competitors and teams of up to four. Anything more than that and it is just too crowded.

Q: Will Shetu host more competitions like this in the future?

Definitely. We plan to do a competition once a year—possibly twice a year if there is a demand for it and enough talent.

Q: What if someone steals an idea after hearing it at Pitch2Win?

Let’s face it: Ideas are a dime a dozen—it’s the execution that makes the difference. When Facebook started out, MySpace was the leader. Who is leading the race today? Similarly, when Google got started, Yahoo ! was king of the search engines. Today Google dominates the search industry. Sometimes there are advantages to being the first to market, and other times it’s actually better to be the second or third. You get to learn from other’s mistakes and fill in the gaps the first guy left behind. The fact is, there is no such thing as a super secret business idea; if you can think of it, chances are someone else has or will, too. If you execute your idea, sooner or later people will learn about it when you bring your product and services to market. You shouldn’t be worried about ideas being stolen. Actually, getting some constructive criticism may help you see things that you might have overlooked.

Let me put it another way: If I tell you that I plan to open a Chinese restaurant that will serve to middle income families in a $6-billion restaurant business, and I plan to operate at a 40-percent margin and expect to make $400,000 a year in profit, I’m telling you nothing about my business. The success of my business actually depends on the tasty recipes I use to prepare my food—which I have not shared.

So you see, at an idea contest, you share the idea. Yes, it has to be well researched, but you are not obligated to share your secret formula. There are thousands of pizza restaurants out there, yet Pizza Hut is still hugely successful. That’s because they’ve got a secret recipe no one else has.

Q: Is Pitch2Win just a business competition?

Pitch2Win is so much more than just a business competition. It’s a networking opportunity and a place to learn from others and meet experts. People will come to Pitch2Win to share ideas and meet potential co-founders. Let’s face it: In business it’s all about who you know, and you can get to know a lot of people at Pitch2Win. And whether you plan to attend as a competitor or just to network, we ask that everyone register. That can be done online at shetu.org/pitch2win.

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