On Having A Clear Vision And Going Back To Root: Interview with M Abdus Salam of Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK)
M Abdus Salam is the Founder and ED of Gana Unnayan Kendra (GUK). To improve the socio-economic condition of poorer northern part of Bangladesh he Founded GUK in 1985. After completing his education till graduation in Gaibandha district of Bangladesh, Mr. Salam has earned his post graduation degree from Bradford University, UK. Since 1985, starting from Gaibandha, GUK’s work and services has been spreading throughout Kurigram, Rangpur and Nilfamari Districts of northern Bangladesh with an aim to promote social harmony through development and equal participation of all gender streams.
In a recent interview at GUK head office Mr. M Abdus Salam spoke about his journey to become a social entrepreneur and to bring GUK at this stage.
Please briefly tell us about yourself and your passion.
I was born in Gaibandha district in 1960 and spent my childhood there. I have earned my education till graduation also there in Gaibandha and from Gaibandha Govt. College. In 1993 I got a scholarship to study at Bradford University, UK for post graduation. I was not from a solvent family and I saw my parents fighting with poverty to support my siblings and themselves. My mother really fought hard to feed us and to teach us. My passion for pro-poor work is rooted back there.. Driven by that passion I founded GUK in 1985.
Describe your path to becoming an entrepreneur and what you are doing today.
I used to be involved with different organizations working for children from different schools to nurture cultural values and arrange different kinds of sport events. That involvement had some impact on developing my skills as an organizer. As I have told that my mother was a person of great motivation for me. Her unparallel care for family members and neighbors had touched me a lot.
A lucky chance of having a trip to china to participate in a youth conference for around one month in 1985 was an impetus to my passion to becoming an entrepreneur. I deeply observed the way Chinese organizations are following to improve their socio-economic condition. During that trip I have been thinking about doing something worthy for the people around me. Several issues came to my mind including the resource support for utilization of potentials and self-worth among individuals and involvement of women in the development process. You can see reflection of this thought in GUK logo which I designed in my head during that trip.
GUK has been working to fill these gaps and has achieved a big success in this regard. Though, we have lots of things to do ahead of us.
I was not from a solvent family and I saw my parents fighting with poverty to support my siblings and themselves. My mother really fought hard to feed us and to teach us. My passion for pro-poor work is rooted back there.. Driven by that passion I founded GUK in 1985.
What was your underlying motivation to become an entrepreneur?
As I told, of course it came from my personal experience with life during my childhood and early adulthood. I saw struggles and hardships. My mother’s life style was a great source of motivation for me. I wanted to contribute to the solution to poverty so that many people should not go through the struggles we went through in my early life.
Briefly tell us about GUK. How did you get the idea? How did you manage funding and connected all the dots?
Specifically the idea of founding GUK, as I have told earlier, incubated during the China trip. Thankfully, I have got a group of people from my family and friends who supported my cause.
And about funding issues, it was really hard to continue working on my dream because of financial constraints. I got married when I was 21 and support from my wife was a matter of great deal for me. My wife had a job in govt. office then and I had been spending major portion of her earning in financing GUK activities while I was spending all my time in pursuing my dream doing and nothing for a living.
What was fist few years look like?
For the first few years we had worked on advocacy program like adult literacy and awareness building among women by forming groups in different villages. For the first few years, as I told, funding our activities was a big challenge. For the first two years I got support from my wife and then I went to Dhaka for a job in 1987. One of my acquaintances helped me to get a job at training section. I used to come back in Gaibandha in weekend days to work for GUK activities. I also appointed two persons at 300 taka salary to work for GUK. Thus was spending my salary from the job for paying two employees and transportation between Dhaka to Gaibandha.
In late 1987 I got a small fund from ADAB to work on education related work. While working in Dhaka I maintained a close contact with different donor organizations to get funds for GUK. Finally, one day I had been called for a meeting with Oxfam but, unfortunately, at the same day I received the news of my father’s departure. I came back to home and I was too disheartened to work on.
Later I got a telegraph from Oxfam requesting to meet them in Bogra. In 1987 there was a devastating flood in this region and GUK had been assigned to emergency relief distribution program at district level. We worked very hard with passion and performed well. It was a major milestone for GUK.
Tell us about few major obstacles you faced at the beginning of GUK and the way you outperformed those obstacles.
Misperception about NGOs among religious leaders and common people was the major problems I faced during the beginning of the founding years of GUK. Moreover, activities of some fraudulent organizations created trust problem among people.
If you are given with a chance to redo everything of GUK from the beginning, tell about few things, if any, that you would do differently.
Usually I used to ponder over issues before working on something. So, there is nothing I exactly want to redo. But, I personally believe that working on utilizing potentials of people is far more better than giving some aid, though, aid has its own implication from a different angle. Now-a-days most of NGO works become inclined to logistics related support programs. However, different training and capacity building programs can have long term impact on utilizing potentials.
I got married when I was 21 and support from my wife was a matter of great deal for me. My wife had a job in govt. office then and I had been spending major portion of her earning in financing GUK activities while I was spending all my time in pursuing my dream doing and nothing for a living.
What do you think about failure?
Failure can be a great source of learning for entrepreneurs if we take time to dig deep to know the cause of failure. In case of leading a successful social enterprise you have to build a strong network. A good relationship and consultation with public officials and related people in making decisions can be a way to avoid failure.
What are the major challenges for a startup social enterprise at the beginning?
In recent days political issues become a major challenge for startup social enterprise. Your political identity might become a hindrance or opportunity in this regard. But, I don’t think this should be the case. Anyone who wants to do something for people should be given the opportunity irrespective of his/her political view.
Was helping people and creativity a part of your childhood?
I was involved, as I told, with different organizations working with kids during my school days where we used to participate in cultural and sporting activities and several awareness related rallies and etc.
Have you had any mentor along the way? Do you think everyone should have a mentor?
Well, I cannot mention a single person as my mentor and I don’t think everyone needs a mentor to succeed. Your intelligence and conscience is your mentor. Of course, you have to have an open mind to accept and evaluate advice and suggestion from different corners.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
I want to be remembered among people as a person who was available in need, who worked for women’s right in this region.
Is it important to you to be part of an entrepreneurial community of people?
Absolutely, yes. A community of same mined people will not only support your cause but also help you in refining your ideas and making your vision clearer.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Working at office, spending some time with family and reading lots of books.
What book are you reading now? Tell us few names of your favorite books.
Currently I am reading three books. I usually take more than one books and spend time reading each one of them randomly. In my table, you see, this one is written by M. G. Moinul Hossain Chy titled “Ek General er nirob Shakko ”.
Among my favourite books are “Maa” and “Khudha o Valobashar golpo” both by Anisul Haque, and the “God of Small Things” by Arunduthi Roy.
If a young person comes to you and ask for advice on starting what would you tell him?
Have a Clear Vision. This is the only advice I got. If you exactly know where you are going, nothing can distract you.