Face To Face With Naveed Mahbub

Face To Face With Naveed Mahbub

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 mind of Naveed Mahbub.

Naveed Mahbub is a comedian and the founder of Naveed’s Comedy Club (NCC) – Bangladesh’s first standup comedy venue. It’s based in Dhaka. He started his schooling in Karachi, Pakistan, then in Dhaka after Independence, and then in UK. Naveed had an extraordinary childhood. After completing his Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from BUET, he went to the US to do his Masters in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. After graduation, he worked at a company called Takata for 7 years in research and development in automotive safety electronics. Then he worked at Wingcast in the US, Ford motor company, and then at Kyocera Wireless and Qualcomm. After returning to Bangladesh, he became the CEO of Nokia Siemens Network (NSN) Bangladesh and after that the CEO of IBM Bangladesh. However, while maintaining all these corporate jobs, Naveed has been pursuing his passion, comedy, on the side.

Since 2004, Naveed has been into comedy. In 2006, Naveed quit his job at Qualcomm and dived full time into it. His first breakthrough came in 2007 when he became the Best Male Comedian at the 2007 Original Las Vegas Comedy Festival in the US. While he later took up his NSN and IBM jobs, today Naveed is once again a full time comedian and remains as the founder of Naveed’s Comedy Club in Dhaka. Growing up as a person who feared public speaking, a fear second only to death, Naveed now lives for the very rush of being on stage to lighten up people’s minds and hearts in an otherwise stressed out world.

But this is only part of the story. We recently took a chance to sit with Naveed and dive into his journey as a person and comedian to understand his passion, work, motivation, struggle, and more.

Life is short but we seldom realize it. We live as if we will be here forever. But the lucky ones, who make the best out of life, get it early and act upon that realization. We hope Naveed’s story will help you to think and think again, and will push you to choose life over mere living.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your passion.

I am an engineer and I am a standup comedian. Before that I worked as the CEO of IBM and CEO of Nokia Siemens networks (NSN). As an engineer I worked at Ford Motor Company, Takata, Qualcomm, Kyocera Wireless and a startup called Wingcast – all of these in the US.

Naveed Mahbub in Action

Naveed Mahbub in Action

One of my identities is that I am an engineer from BUET, and also did my Masters in Electrical Engineering from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. But the other identity is that I am a standup comedian, and I have been doing comedy since 2004. On one side I am humorous, and on the other side I am a corporate person. But now I also try to blend both – I use humor not just for the sake of entertainment but also to deliver social and motivational messages.

Comedy is my passion. I do it now for a living.

But other than that I love music. I play the piano. I play the tabla. And I like discovering new cultures. So whenever I get a chance, I travel, and travelling doesn’t mean going to great distances, it can also mean going to the old part of Dhaka, which is also a learning experience. I like to read and I am also a very avid tennis player, and I am bicyclist.

I started my kindergarten in Karachi at Jennings Private School. After Independence we escaped from Pakistan. I was at Udayan for classes 1 and 2. Then I was in St. Josephs from grades 3-4 and then after that we went to UK Where my parents went for their higher studies. So we went with them. And I went to this school Caetop in Bangor, North Walesr, for one year. Then I came back, and from classes 6, 7 and 8 I was in St. Joseph High School. End of 8, 9 and 10 I was in Government Laboratory High School. And then I did my SSC exams and I stood 13th in the combined merit list of Dhaka Board.

Then I went to Dhaka College for grades 11 and 12. Then I took my HSC exams and I came 5thin the combined merit list of Dhaka Board. Then I went to BUET and I stood 2nd in the admission test. I got my Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from BUET. Right after graduation, I went to the US to get my Masters in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and then I worked at a company called Takata for 7 years in research and development in automotive safety electronics. I earned 2 US patents while at that job.

Then in 1998, I got married to Zara Mahbub who is the biggest supporter of my work as a comedian. Then I got into a startup company called Wingcast in the US. After that I was at Ford Motor Company, Kyocera Wireless, Qualcomm in the US and NSN and IBM in Bangladesh.

But other than that I love music. I play the piano. I play the tabla. And I like discovering new cultures. So whenever I get a chance, I travel, and travelling doesn’t mean going to great distances, it can also mean going to the old part of Dhaka, which is also a learning experience.

Any special memory from your childhood that you still remember and go back to these days.

Many things. One such memory: during the war we escaped from Pakistan and came to Bangladesh. It was a 30 day journey through Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India and then into Bangladesh. That was an experience I remember till today. And also, we got caught and we were put in confinement for 10 days, 10 families with kids in a 3 bedroom bungalow. That was incarceration for 10 days. That was quite an experience for me.

Describe your path to what you are doing today.

In the US, I used to go to comedy clubs. It was my favorite pastime and gradually I became truly passionate about comedy. Once after a show in 2003, I went and spoke with the comedian and expressed my interest to do comedy. He gave me the contact of Sandi Shore, a comedy mentor, and she made me go through a workshop, and helped me to go through my journey as a novice comedian. That is how I started.

I started going to different small venues in California for standup comedy while still working as an engineer at Qualcomm. And then in 2007 I became the Best Male Comedian at the 2007 Las Vegas Comedy Festival.

At one point I realized why not do it in Bangla?

We have had comedy in Bangla for a long time, but thought that standup comedy, which is NOT about telling jokes, might be a good addition to the country’s offerings in humor. When I started doing it in Bangla, it was very well received by the Bangladeshis and Bengali Indians in the US. Then we came back to Dhaka and formed Naveed’s Comedy Club.

How was your experience of transition from the corporate world to the world of art and entrepreneurship?

When I quit my job in 2006 to do comedy full time, my family and I started living off of our savings, which eventually started dwindling. When we came back to Dhaka, I got back into the corporate world. I became the CEO of Nokia Siemens Networks Bangladesh and after that I was the CEO of IBM Bangladesh.

Those were prestigious jobs which also helped me to fund my comedy career. I was working and doing comedy simultaneously. And slowly I was able to develop my brand equity as a comedian and make decent money from it. Then I decided now I can manage to give full time to comedy once again. I chose to quit IBM at that point and haven’t looked back since.

What was the underlying motivation behind choosing an unconventional path while you had better options?

I went for Hajj in 2005, and over there I saw after every prayer there is a janazah for 17, 18 or 20 people. That’s when I realized one day this is my destiny too. So what am I going to do until then? Am I just going to earn a lot of money, do job, and just be a nobody? Or do I leave something good for this planet?

I thought I am doing this comedy but maybe I could do it for something good, maybe I could do it for social change – I could make people laugh and make people feel better, feel healthier, and give them social messages through comedy, and raise awareness on issues, and get people motivated to do something about such issues. And hopefully that would help me to leave something good. That was my motivation.

I went for Hajj in 2005, and over there I saw after every prayer there is a janazah for 17, 18 or 20 people. That’s when I realized one day this is my destiny too. So what am I going to do until then? Am I just going to earn a lot of money, do job, and just be a nobody? Or do I leave something good for this planet?

Tell us about Naveed’s Comedy Club and Standup comedy. How did you get the idea? How did you manage funding and connected all the dots?

Naveed's Comedy Club

Naveed’s Comedy Club

Naveed’s Comedy Club is a comedy venue where one comes to watch standup comedy. Standup comedy is not about telling jokes. Standup comedy is basically taking your adda (hanging out with friends) to the stage. What do we do during an adda with friends? We get together, we talk about something that happened today, but the guy who gets the most laughs is the one who talks about the facts but in a very interesting way, may be with a little bit of exaggeration. That is when people really laugh.

You can state facts plainly, or you can state them in an interesting way. Standup comedy is telling your own story, or telling about your own observations, or talking about your own point of view. So with that intention of establishing this art form, which is very popular in the west, I thought let’s establish Naveed’s Comedy Club in Bangladesh which we did in March 2010. And we are still going on. People come, pay a very nominal fee, sit there and then standup comedians go on stage and perform.

And I am also a standup comedian at this club. On different days different comedians perform.

The idea of standup comedy is very old, but it is new in Bangladesh. We have great comedy and comedians in Bangladesh for a long time doing other types of comedy. One such form is physical comedy where the comedian is making you laugh through his physical actions or activities. And then there is the ‘jokey joke’ comedy, where the comedian tells you joke (“2 men were walking down the street…”). But we didn’t quite have standup comedy, and that was my motivation of establishing NCC, so that people could come along with their family and friends, be entertained and feel good.

It’s not making me rich, but if it is doing well and can help me sustain financially, that means I’m perhaps doing an okay job at comedy.

What is the future plan?

The future plan is to have more comedians perform at the club so that more and more shows can take place. Now we are doing it once in a week. But ideally we would like to have it 5 days a week.

To encourage, discover and nurture more and more comedians, NCC holds a weekly ‘open mic’ for an hour before the regular weekly shows during which time anybody can go up on stage and try performing standup comedy in front of a real audience. It is free, and this is how ALL comedians around the world have started their careers in comedy and have grown.

We have 15-16 comedians right now who perform on a regular basis at NCC, but we wish to have much more than that. NCC’s regular weekly shows take place at Level 4, RM Center, Gulshan every Thursday while there are monthly shows in Uttar and Dhanmondi also. We also want to do shows outside of Dhaka – Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet, Chittagong, etc.

What was it like when you started back in 2010?

When we started it was very popular, we could not accommodate people. But that was a small space, we could accommodate at best 60 people. It was also something brand new, and it was also free. Then there was this dip once we started to charge people and took a bigger venue.

And slowly it wasn’t as full, we didn’t have as many comedians, but then some new comedians came, and it started picking up. Then we thought to make a fee of 100 taka, and now its 300 taka.

Tell us about few major obstacles you faced at the beginning and the way you out performed those obstacles.

Finance has been a challenge since the start. I spent a lot of money to build the comedy club. I was never looking to make money, but at least to recover the costs. That was one challenge.

Second one is: shortage of comedians because standup comedy is something where you don’t want to hear the same joke twice. And now we have a demand, but we have a limited supply.

Thirdly, due to the shortage of finances, we have not been able to market our shows well, and people still don’t know about the comedy club and standup comedy.

As I said earlier, we are actively working to increase the number of comedians by bringing in new faces and encouraging people of all ages to take on the stage. This will hopefully pay off in coming days.

On the other hand, people now invite us to events, and corporate gathering and training programs to do standup comedy. This is becoming a significant source for revenue for us. Over time, we want to build on these options and see how things go.

Naveed Mahbub

Naveed Mahbub in action!

Was creativity part of your childhood? Were your friends and family supportive of what you are doing today?

I grew up in a family that has always been very encouraging in pursuing extra-curricular activities and in pursuing things where the interest lies. My family has been very supportive in 3 things: one is, be creative, do what you like to do, and studying and academia is not everything.

When I decided to leave my prestigious IBM job, it was not a small decision and I don’t know how many wives would allow their husbands to do such a thing. But Zara nevertheless did support wholeheartedly and I’m really thankful to The Almighty to have such support.

Nevertheless, society also constrains you. But when I lived in America, the good thing about that country is that it really encourages you to think outside the box, and that gave me the courage to do something out of the ordinary.

My family is important and continues to give me the environment I need to flourish in this art form. My wife, children, parents, siblings and in laws are all very supportive of my choice of career. They feel proud of me. When people ask my daughter what her father does, she says, “My father is a comedian.” My wife Zara Mahbub, who is a banker herself, has been very supportive of my work. When I decided to leave my prestigious IBM job, it was not a small decision and I don’t know how many wives would allow their husbands to do such a thing. But Zara nevertheless did support wholeheartedly and I’m really thankful to The Almighty to have such support.

I have to say I’m very lucky to have people around me to support my work, otherwise it would have been very difficult.

Nevertheless, society also constrains you. But when I lived in America, the good thing about that country is that it really encourages you to think outside the box, and that gave me the courage to do something out of the ordinary.

Have you had a mentor along the way? Do you think everyone should have a mentor?

I try to have many mentors, and I look at them as my board of directors, and each mentor is an expert in one area. So, if I need guidance in an area, I will pick up the phone and give a call. This is important because once you have advice and wisdom of a person who has walked the path before, it really adds value.

I mentioned about my mentor in standup comedy, Sandi Shore. She guided me to find a space in the world of comedy. Other than that, I look up to all the great comedians – past and present, many of whom are no more in this world.

Having mentors and sharing someone else’s wisdom is an opportunity and everyone should take advantage of it. At the end of the day, we are all humans. We need all kinds of support. And once someone who we respect and try to emulate guides us, it makes all the more sense and gives us the strength to walk and sometime even to walk faster.

What legacy do you want to leave behind?

I want to bring an everlasting positive change in the lives of people. I want them to remember me and say this happened because of Naveed. When I’m gone, I want people to still watch my videos, shows and listen to my audios and find a little peace and happiness in their mundane worlds.

I have done a lot of social comedy on social issues like, smoking, drugs, harassment, corruption, child labor, weather, climate change, etc. I want to use humor for social change. I hope people will remember me and say through humor Naveed raised awareness about these issues and helped us to change things for the better. That is the legacy I want to leave behind.

I want to bring an everlasting positive change in the lives of people. I want them to remember me and say this happened because of Naveed.

What do you think about Failure?

how-to-never-give-up

how to never give up | Click on the image for more

Failures will come, and it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. It will make one feel bad but it is an opportunity to learn as well. Look back and learn from your mistakes, so the chances of future failures are reduced.

But I firmly believe a chance is always there the next time. And that it is never too late. In Bangladesh there is an eternal emphasis on age, but to me, one is never too old to do anything nor is it too late to do it.

If you are given with a chance to redo everything from the beginning tell about few things, if any, that you would do differently.

All the chances and opportunities that I missed, I would take those and make good use of those. I would try to be a bit bolder from an earlier age. Thirdly, I would not waste as much time as I have done in my younger days. As far as doing things differently, I think I would have done it the same way but I would do them in a bit smarter way and much sooner in life.

I would not waste as much time as I have done in my younger days. As far as doing things differently, I think I would have done it the same way but I would do them in a bit smarter way and much sooner in life.

What does a typical day look like for you?

A typical day of mine is very atypical. I get up in the morning and say my prayers. I then get some work done: do research and write comedy material. I try to write every day, to keep up the creativity ‘workout’. Since I’m doing home office, I wake up a little early and get a few things done. And then I eat my breakfast with my daughter and see her off for school. Then my wife and younger daughter wake up and my wife leaves for her job. Then sometimes I drop my younger daughter to her school.

One thing I try to do on a regular basis is writing. I write almost every day, no matter what. In the evening, I try to spend time with my family – hang out with them or go to a restaurant to eat. And then Zara and I try to do some socializing with friends.

If a young person comes to you and ask for advice on starting what would you tell him.

I would advice like an investor does – do you have a good business model, and is it financially sustainable. If it is dependent on charity or continuous bootstrapping, then I don’t think it’s a sustainable plan. Sustainable not only in a financial way but also in a conceptual sense – will the market remain intact. If the market remains then it helps the plan to be sustainable.

One other thing I add is: sometimes people say there are competitors, it means there is already a market, but that also eliminates the risk a lot. And sometimes people say there is no market, there is no competition, and if you are the only one in the market, you can create the market, and if you are the first mover you get the advantages of a first mover. Stay ahead of the competition always when competitors come in.

The value of time is very important. It is never too late. Nothing is impossible, if you have the right intention and the right goals to reach, then it is definitely doable. One needs to have a solid sustainable plan to execute what you want to do.

And lastly we should not think we are inferior, or let others make us feel so. But that also does not mean that one has to be arrogant.

What do you think about Bangladesh and the young generation of this country?

The future of this country is bright, the future of anyone is bright, and it all depends on how one manages the present. If you really allow things to progress at their own pace despite all struggles and hurdles, you will be moving forward. It all depends on how we act and react.

We have a huge young population and it makes sense that they are going to make a huge difference in a lot of ways. The young generation is young-minded, progressive, open to changes, bold, and flexible. It depends on one’s experience and putting one’s potential into action. Age is not a concern. Although I think anyone can be considered young because being young is a matter of mindset and the heart but this demography (of a large young population) is an advantage for this nation.

The future of this country is bright, the future of anyone is bright, and it all depends on how one manages the present. If you really allow things to progress at their own pace despite all struggles and hurdles, you will be moving forward. It all depends on how we act and react.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rounak Ahmad, Images by NCC

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