Face To Face With M.K. Aaref, CEO, EMK Center For Public Service And The Arts
On startup eco-system, taking Bangladesh out of Dhaka, generation next, and universal commonalities of culture and human endeavors
M.K. Aaref is the CEO of EMK Center for Public Service and the Arts, also known as the EMK Center. Under his leadership, EMK has become the epicenter of the city’s major change initiatives and events. Mr. Aaref is an Architect by profession and training and founder of Aaref& Associates-an Architecture firm that embodies his passion for entrepreneurship. Having the experiences of living in multiple cultures that include the Middle East, England, and the USA, Mr. Aaref understands universal commonalities of culture and human endeavors. He believes the next generation of Bangladesh is in a unique position to make a meaningful difference for the country!
Please tell us about yourself and your passion.
I am currently the director of the EMK Center for Public Service and the Arts. By profession and by training I am an Architect and I also have a Master degree in Business Administration from England- specializing in privatization. I have practiced architecture for over 25 years and for the last 2 years I have been working with the EMK Center.
I have also worked in the United States, Middle East and a few years in England as well.As a result, I had the opportunity to experience cultural diversity, diverse work ethics and work practices in different countries. My journey to entrepreneurship was concurrent with my passion for independent architecture. I practiced architecture for a few years and then I went on to found my own venture, Aaref&Associates. It was a very illuminating experience.
My coming to EMK was a kind of coincidence. I saw the advertisement in the newspaper and I thought I should give it a try. I applied for the job and did the interview and was called within 2 days to join. Then I thought to take a break from my practice and joined here as a director. Now I must say that it was not a bad decision. I am enjoying it immensely and here I am surrounded by multi-talented people with lots of different ideas, immense inspiration, lots of programs, lots of projects and it keeps me going.
I enjoy connecting with people and I get to do it professionally here. At the EMK Center,we encourage people to come up with ideas and to execute their ideas. For example, in the startup scenario we have co-sponsored so far 3-4 events,and also supported a number of startup activities with venue, sponsorship, and through grants.
Even though our initial focus is supposed to be leadership and volunteerism, but we have made a very conscious diversion towards startup. We do realize and acknowledge the fact that in order to encourage people to be an entrepreneur, the best way is to create business scope for them so that they employ other people like themselves. I can’t think of a better way than encouraging our youth to take initiatives.
In Bangladesh, given the fact that we have a huge population and a large number of educated young people, I can’t comprehend why it has not happened yet. I have seen a lot of reports lately where Bangladesh has been positioned as one of the top 10 countries that would be emerging as middle income country. These are the scenarios that would actually drag us towards that goal.
A startup has to have a democratic atmosphere because it does not have any bias towards a certain class of people. Anybody can have access to a computer, the internet, and any kind of ideas; there is a lot of scopes for them to implement their ideas and get their products judged out there. A lack of connectivity is no longer an excuse. I am already seeing a lot of young people very conscious about their career these days. This is what also inspired me to keep on supporting different activities.
At the EMK Center, we try to scout talents who are very passionate about what they do, be it in performance or the visual arts, anyone who needs a platform. We try to find those passionate individuals and give them a platform here at the EMK Center.
Anybody can have access to a computer, the internet, and any kind of ideas; there is a lot of scope for them to implement their ideas and get their products judged out there. A lack of connectivity is no longer an excuse.
Please briefly describe your path to becoming what you are doing today.
My father was a very well-known banker and he was a gold medalist in Kolkata University. As it always happens, my parents too wanted me to follow their footsteps. But my father and I were kind of polar opposites. I was more into painting, reading literature and that kind of thing whereas he was very much into numbers, statistics, GDP growth, macro-micro economics and other topics related to banking and finance. So basically there was a gap between our fascinations and aspirations. But the good thing about him was he never said that you have to be like me. Well, every father has some dream for their child, that’s a different story. Apparently, he let me be myself.
What I wanted to do was to get into Fine Arts. At that time, I am talking about the early 80s, going to Arts School was not considered very noble. The expectation was like you have to become a doctor or engineer. Therefore I chose architecture, more as a compromise, as architecture provided a bit of creativity in an engineering structured curriculum. At the same time, I decided to go abroad and I went to the University of Houston. I graduated in 1989 and then I stayed there for almost five years more. I ended up working for projects with the Housing and Urban Development Department. That gave me a very well-rounded experience.
Then I came back to Bangladesh. Right after my return, I got a job in Kuwait and I took that opportunity and went on to work there. There I had a different experience. In Kuwait, I got to work on a number of very large projects that as a young architect I thought I would never be exposed to otherwise. It was a very good experience in terms of doing big projects and project management. Then I went to England for doing my Masters in Business Administration and after having completed my the program, I came back to Bangladesh in early 2000, Bangladesh was just taking off at that time and a lot of people with similar backgrounds as mine were coming back. Those who stayed back have done very well; not only in garments sector but also in real estate, software firms, light manufacturing and others.
Dhaka became a big city no doubt but it’s also extracting all the creativity from the rest of the Bangladesh. Dhaka and outside of Dhaka, it’s almost like two different countries and that does not bode well for the development of the whole country. That is one thing I am very passionate about that there are lots of other viable cities in Bangladesh for doing businesses. People should go and explore those cities.
Coming back to my early life, whatever money I earned in Kuwait I invested it for having my Masters. Then I came back in 1999. After returning from England I worked 9 months for a company and then I decided to go on my own. Then I started my own firm Aaref&Associates. I did a few projects but I lost interest in business due to the massive malpractices that I encountered. What is happening now is when you become commercial, you start replicating the same design and I think I was getting towards that where the creativity no longer exists. The quicker you finish one project, the quicker you will get more projects. I did not want to become like a cookie cutter.
I was born in Chittagong. Before 1971 Chittagong was actually the economic hub of the East Pakistan. Most of the banks and insurance companies were based in Chittagong. Chittagong in those days had a very cosmopolitan setting.
After 1971, Dhaka became a big city no doubt but it’s also extracting all the creativity from the rest of the Bangladesh. Dhaka and outside of Dhaka, it’s almost like two different countries and that does not bode well for the development of the whole country. That is one thing I am very passionate about that there are lots of other viable cities in Bangladesh for doing businesses. People should go and explore those cities.
You lived in the USA, in the Kuwait and then in the United Kingdom—these are huge experiences. What have you learned from those cultures?
The United States for example, even though I was a foreign student and later worked for a local firm, I realized early on that the whole country is based on the immigration experience. Nobody would point at you as a foreigner because when you show up in an office it’s almost likely that every other person you meet would have an origin from another country. That is what I really loved about America. I lived there for 10 years and in terms of food, there was food from all over the world. It also exposed me to a lot of norms and American cultures as well.
USA: In terms of work practices, it is a country that values time a lot. Everything is based on performance; not who you are and what degrees you have. In general, if you are good at what you do there is no bar for you to go ahead.
Kuwait: They had a very peculiar priority for their own nationals.
British: British society is driven by tradition. They have extreme sense of tradition and history.
But the Kuwait was a different experience. They had a very peculiar priority for their own nationals. For example, you are an architect there and one of your colleagues is a Kuwaiti, by default his salary would be a lot more than yours even though you are doing the same thing. The whole system was set up in a way that would make you feel less than them in terms of housing, facilities or pay scale. They have set up a hierarchy that puts them on the top and everybody else below them. Coming from America-where you can have anything if you have the capacity- to a system like Kuwait was very demoralizing for me.
On a tangential note, British society is driven by tradition. They have an extreme sense of tradition and history. Everything is preserved because of that and people actually look up to it. They have preserved their history from the beginning in a way that there is no way of making any change in the history, unlike Bangladesh. Their sense of tradition and history is the emblem of the pride one can have for being part of a nation.
Every culture, every language, every country has its own pride and I think the more we accept that the bigger we will become.
Aaref&Associates, please tell a bit more about it.
Aaref&Associates still exists but as I said earlier I am not taking projects right now. I shall probably go back to Aaref&Associates after a short while. When I will know that I have done my job and I have to move on, I will go back there. In papers, it exists but it doesn’t have any office anymore. It’s still my first passion and I do miss certain aspects of creativity and I will go back to that.
Would you share few of your learning and experience that associates with starting your own company?
Aaref&Associates had its ups and downs. As I said I don’t want to pay commissions for projects so that I can make tons of money, I won’t do that. I don’t want to make contacts with people who are into that kind of thing because I don’t feel comfortable with that kind of social hangouts that are based solely on business networks. So I am a bit of introvert and I am happy with it.
Aaref&Associates, I don’t see becoming a huge, you know, 100 people firm because I don’t want to. I want it to be a friendly place where everybody knows everybody’s name, we hang out together, and we design together—that’s how Aaref&Associates is, and hopefully, that ambiance can be maintained in the future.
Let’s come back to the EMK Center. Please tell us a bit about EMK Center; what are you doing here and what you want to do in the future.
EMK Center, right now there are 4 things we work on: education, arts, entrepreneurship development and public service.EMK used to work in the area of leadership and volunteerism but we have incorporated startups recently because as we realized that doing so makes sense.
One thing about our culture in Bangladesh is: people copy everybody else. If it’s a good model everybody starts getting it and you know what? I am fine with it. The more people replicate at least from every copied startup thing, there will be 3/4 successful projects coming out that will be established businesses and that all we are looking for. We don’t want the ownership that we started this and we have the control of it.
We don’t have any plan to hold onto some kind of copyrights or programs that will always remain with EMK Center. Right now we are working on startups, maybe in the future, some other topic will come up and we’ll get into it. When we started working with the youth and all these ideas started to come, we identified startup as one of the things that is empowering youth.
What is your perception about the Bangladeshi youth and what is your expectation from this generation of young people with whom you are working closely?
I would say because of the internet they are exposed to a lot more now. The internet is not just a source of entertainment. It’s more than that. It’s a whole new world. I would say youth are better informed now than any time before and have more opportunity to do well than any time before. I hope our next generation will take that opportunity.
I encourage young people to think beyond the books and to be active. Nobody is going to give you a job just because you have good grades. You have to have the ability to lead, to execute.
What is your management philosophy?
I try not to micro-manage unless I have to! I have a very passionate and dedicated team. And when people bring in certain activities and projects, we collaborate with them and execute the projects together. That’s how we work. It’s my philosophy as long as I am here.
You are closely involved with startup eco-system of Bangladesh. What do you think about the startup eco-system that we have right now?
The eco-system that we have needs to expand and be more democratic and results oriented. Startup is still kind of elite in its way. It seems like only people who have computers and speak English are considered eligible for startups but we need to get out of this situation. It should be open for anybody with a good idea regardless of their class and location. I am sure we will get there soon. Right now it’s not there yet.
I think it’s still confined within a common circle of people who are doing a very good job. But it needs to be robust in Dhaka and also should get outside of Dhaka. Only then it will be an unstoppable force.
What kind of personal legacy do you have?
I don’t want to leave a legacy so that people will remember my name in that particular project but I want to leave a legacy of a particular movement that has done well. Legacy is something which is not concrete in my opinion. It doesn’t have to be a monument. Legacy can be other people’s lives.
I would say that I am a good architect, I am a good people connector and I am happy with it.
What have you learned from your failures?
You have to be very obstinate. You have to keep going because eventually, you will find something you enjoy. So it may not happen in the first or second try but keep going. Lots of startups fail. It’s a good thing that you fail otherwise you would become very adamant and arrogant. I think a bit of humility comes with failure and also it gives a bit of reality check. It always teaches you something you need to learn.
What books have you been reading lately?
Right now I am reading a book by Susan Cain titled ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’. I have been told that it was written for people like me! I am one of those people who like to be in the background, I don’t enjoy being in the limelight. I can make things happen from behind the curtain than being in the front.
You have to be very obstinate. You have to keep going because eventually you will find something you enjoy. So it may not happen in the first or second try but keep going.
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?
I would ask a bunch of questions at first, like- have you identified your target market? Have you identified your business process? Have you worked on your business model etc? These questions will help you to check their understanding and if they don’t feel ready they can go back and finish their homework first.
A lot of good ideas fail because of the facileness of founders. Ideas are prevalent and a very small part of a business, what matters most is how you implement an idea. If you look around you will find lots of useless products have received a huge market response because they have marketed it right. It’s how you establish the business; it’s not only about the product itself.
A lot of good ideas fail because of the facileness of founders. Ideas are prevalent and a very small part of a business, what matters most is how you implement an idea.