Face To Face With Rubayat Khan

Face To Face With Rubayat Khan

Rubayat Khan is a Co-founder of mPower Social Enterprises and currently Chief Dreamer and Teambuilder at mDoc LLC [now called Jeeon.com], a venture of the mPower group. A social entrepreneur, tech and data geek, Rubayat [FS 15 under 35 for 2015] has been striving to bridge the gaps in essential services in remote areas of Bangladesh and other countries using mobile tech and data.

He is passionate about building companies with exemplary culture and exceptional values and is a Fellow of the Aspen Institute and the Unreasonable Institute.

As a kid I was really shy and an introvert. It takes me time, still today, to talk to strangers. I used to read a lot of books and was known as a nerd. I always wanted to get back home early from school and start programming. This was my passion back then. I thought I would become a computer engineer in the future and never thought about anything else.

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Ruhul Kader: Briefly tell us about yourself and your passion.

Rubayat Khan: I have been passionate about technology since my childhood. Computer came to our house when I was just five years old. It was a time when computers was not a household device, thanks to my Father’s consulting job, we had one.

This was before graphical user interfaces and you had to write commands in DOS to do anything. I was fascinated by a game called Gorillas. Back then gaming was not as easy as it is today. You could not just click and start them – this game was some uncompiled code in QBasic that you had to run to play.

I enjoyed the game very much but what intrigued me the most was that a few lines of cryptic code could make something so beautiful happen. That’s how I really got interested in how technology works, and started coding at only 8 years of age.

As a kid I was really shy and an introvert. It takes me time, still today, to talk to strangers. I used to read a lot of books and known as a nerd. I always wanted to get back home early from school and start programming. This was my passion back then. I thought I would become a computer engineer in the future and never thought about anything else.

But then during my years in class nine and ten, something changed. I was still doing programming for quite a long time and I was a little bored with programming (partly because I did not have any mentors) and finally gave it up completely.

I studied Science in Ordinary and Advance level. After my A-level, I decided to study Social Science and started to look for social science program that best fits my requirements. Although I was interested in Social Science but I was not sure about which major I wanted to do and changed my major thrice in University. Eventually, I settled for an interdisciplinary major of Demography and Environmental Management in Independent University Bangladesh.

During my undergrad I really came to understand Social Science and became passionate about solving social problems – they were just so much more unpredictable and difficult than programming challenges that always follow a logic!

As part of my studies we had to go to village and stay with rural people for a three week immersive field research program. When doing that I fell in love with Bangladeshi villages and our rural folk. I also felt very strongly this urge to do something to improve the dismal quality of services people have access to, especially in healthcare.

That is how I also found the love for social work that runs in my family (my grandpa was a communist politician and my father has dedicated his life to Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon).

I think I described my journey instead of directly responding to your question but it tells a lot about me and my passion.

To be exact, I’m passionate about technology, serving the society, and solving problems which of course is the source of entrepreneurship. When I come across a problem I feel restless until I get hold on it.

That’s fascinating! Let’s tell us about your journey and how you ended up doing what you do now for passion/work – which seems to curiously merge all of these diverse interests?

Rubayat: So In 2007, when I graduated I was thinking of what could I do that interests me and that helps the society as well. My friends were taking jobs at BAT and big multinational companies but those jobs never interested me. I was not sure what I wanted to do either. Nonetheless, I never wanted to go through the process of applying, getting calls, and sitting for interviews to get a job. Probably, I was a little lazy as well. So I was pretty much doing nothing.

In the meantime I got a call from one of my senior friends, he said BBC is organizing ‘Mayoral Songlap’ in divisional Cities and looking for someone to give a hand and whether I would like to help organize that. I readily said yes because politics always interested me. I thought this sounds interesting. While travelling across the country I would also be able to see local politics closely.

This is back in late 2007. I worked for around one and half month and organized events for BBC. But though I enjoyed the work I realized that I did not fit in an organization like BBC because there was very little scope to put my own opinion and work independently on areas of my passion. That’s when I came to realize that I’m not someone who would be able work in a large bureaucracy.

By then I had also grown a discomfort with the approach of NGOs. I worked as a helping hand with my Father in his consulting firm where I had to work with few NGO and donor funded projects. I realized that most NGOs work in a process which is unsustainable and are largely dependent on handouts. At times, they shut down very good projects because of fund, at others they continue running BAD projects for years. I did not like that. Moreover, the structure and process within many NGOs I saw were archaic and inefficient and were in the 19th century in their use of technology. There are few good ones may be but in general I did not like the way NGOs work.

That’s how I decided that despite my passion for social work, I could not do it through the NGO sector. It was also around the same time that I read Muhammad Yunus’s book on Social Business, and that philosophy really attracted me.

When I left BBC, I got a call from New Age, the national english daily. It was right before 2008 election and they were thinking of doing something interesting around the 2008 national election. They called and asked me that, “we are interested in doing something with election and you know technology and all, suggest us what we could do.”

We just got the right to information act back then and it was mandatory for all candidates to provide detail information about them. I proposed that we could build an online interactive map where people can find information about candidates. The map would host all the information. Once someone clicks on an Union, it would show who is the candidate and everything about that candidate. They liked the project very much and asked me to work as a project manager and complete the project.

While working on the project, I realized that Media was also not my place. I would not be able to work at Media for long time because journalism was not something I wanted to do. But I realized that I like technology management very much. Though I was not a coder but I liked to manage a technical project and bring something out of it. I left New Age right after election, early 2009.

After leaving the job I was thinking what I could do. I was very confused because I was aware that almost all of the fields my friends went on working were not for me.

I did not like NGO and corporations. I was not into UN and media either. It was like there was nothing where I could fit myself into. Then I thought I better wait. During that period, IUB was sending me to Netherlands to participate in a model UN conference. It was in March 2009, so I did not take a job before that event. After MUN I decided to travel in Europe. IUB was paying for my travel to MUN, so I thought I could add few bucks from my pocket and travel. So I just did that.

After travelling here and there in Europe, I returned to Dhaka on 13th April. It was on purpose because I did not want to miss POHELA BOISHAK on 14th April. I used to celebrate POHELA BOISHAK at Fine Arts of Dhaka University and it is a ritual for me.

In hindsight, it almost seems too good to be true, like the stars were aligned to make it happen. But I always believed in the power of serendipity, only if you follow your heart and passions, explore opportunities that come your way with an open heart, and never, never compromise.

Surprisingly, on 14th April when I went to Fine Arts I met Mridul bhai there, now my partner. I knew him because we had a common interest in politics and worked together before. Once we met, he said that he came to visit Bangladesh and that he started a company when he was in Harvard called ClickDiagnostics, Inc and now lives in Cairo, Egypt where they are piloting the project. He also said, they were about to go to Khulna the next day to meet a NGO and see if they could implement the project in Bangladesh. I said I would like to go. So I joined him and went to Khulna and during our train journey on that day we talked about ClickDiagnostics and its vision.

When we were talking about the venture I came to realize that I was very interested in the idea and it is something perfectly aligned with my skills and passion. First of all, it was a Social business and can give me an avenue to serve rural people. It was a technology-based idea that suits very well with my experience in technology. And since it was a startup, I could work independently. Finally, it would also give me a way to fix and upgrade the NGO sector with technology, which I really felt strongly about.

So I was pretty interested in the idea and decided to give it a try myself but I did not tell it to Mridul bhai right away. I prepared the presentation for the NGO on our way to Khunla and during the meeting I gave the presentation.

During our way back to Dhaka, I offered Mridul bhai to start ClickDiagnostics in Bangladesh. I said that since they want to start it in Bangladesh and would do so in the future, why not they give me an opportunity to try it out.

Mridul bhai said, “we are interested but we don’t have fund now for working in Bangladesh. We invested all our fund in Egypt.” Then I said I would work for free for six months and if I could make something out of it I would take salary otherwise since I’m planning to go to Graduate School, I would go for higher studies. By that time, I had admission in Harvard. So, he said, “if you could work for free then I don’t have a problem.”

That’s how ClickDiagnostics came to exist in Bangladesh. Then long story short, after that we started to work hard and got a project from BRAC in a very short time and after that project ClickDiagnostics start to operate full-fledged in Bangladesh.

I started working later in April 2009, and we got our first project from BRAC in August of the same year. My Harvard admission was due in August but I told them I would come next year instead.

After BRAC we managed to get 2/3 more projects. We were growing fast. By that time we grew to a 10 members team in Dhaka.

Then Mridul bhai started to think whether we should focus in Egypt or focus in Bangladesh. I was working as a Country Director in Bangladesh. Then finally in 2010, Mridul bhai decided to close Africa and Egypt operations for time being and focus more in Bangladesh. He returned to Bangladesh later in 2010 and I decided to finally go for my Harvard Grad school as Mridul bhai joined here in Bangladesh.

That’s how I came to be a part of mPower. In hindsight, it almost seems too good to be true, like the stars were aligned to make it happen. But I always believed in the power of serendipity, only if you follow your heart and passions, explore opportunities that come your way with an open heart, and never, never compromise.

Launchpad 2015: mDoc – Rubayat Khan from Unreasonable Media on Vimeo.

That’s wonderful. Briefly tell us about mPower Social Enterprises Limited.

Rubayat: At the core, we enable development organizations, donors and governments to become more effective and efficient at what they do by using technology.

Although Business sector has gone fast and far ahead when it comes to using technology but in development sector most people are still using primitive technologies. We thought how could we use technology to better do the work the development sector does. This is not about using technology for the sake of using it but it can entirely change the core process of how development works and can increase the impact manifolds.

Say for example, you are a NGO and work with one thousand beneficiaries and you offer all of them the same package of services to improve their condition. But that might not be the ideal way of doing it. Probably, all of these people don’t need the same package. Probably, some of them need more while others less. Maybe one of them, Abdul, has lost his cow and needs it right now, whereas Rahima needs support when income from her crops runs out during dry season. But you can’t do any of this, and are limited to treating everyone equally, because you don’t have enough data in real-time to understand and then make the decision. We help organizations make better decisions in these types of situations.

At mPower, we enable organizations to collect real-time data about beneficiaries so that you can know what your beneficiaries need and how much and when. This lets you to design your program more effectively and efficiently. We work in a consulting model, and help most of the major development organizations in the world including Save The Children, Oxfarm, BRAC, UNICEF, USAID, Grameen, etc. We have completed around 60-70 projects so far and have served over 5 million lives indirectly through these clients.

We first assess the problem and then talk to the NGO or the Government and then try to identify the core bottlenecks. Then we design a technology driven solution that we develop ourselves and then provide assistance to implement it. We provide an end to end service.

We are now around a 90 persons team. Our team has grown fast in the last three years. But we want to do more.
Moreover, we are now incubating new ideas and turning them into new entities, sort of like an Incubator. The ideas for incubation sometimes come from our team or from the success or failure of our consulting projects. When we see an interesting idea which has broader market potential apart from our consulting services, we try to incubate the idea and spin off it into a separate company.

mDocJeeon (www.jeeon.co, previously called mDoc) is one of them which I’m leading now. The idea of Jeeon was there from the early days of ClickDiagnostics. The idea was to provide health services in rural areas in a micro-enterprise model. The idea came from the concept of Grameen Ladies, women who used to buy a mobile phone with micro-credit loan and then sell talk time to people who did not own a phone. We thought, if the model worked for mobile talktime, why can’t we do the same for health? A health entrepreneur could provide/ sell health services in remote areas. We experimented the idea in our different projects. From all those trials we came to realize that this is a very interesting and doable idea.

That’s how we started Jeeon as a separate company in 2013 in order to design a model to deliver sustainable health care services in rural areas without support from government or donors. Now mDoc is a separate company registered in the USA. We also attended an Incubator program in Colorado called Unreasonable Institute. We have started working hard and we raised a seed round from a US investor later last year.

We already have a footprint in northern Bangladesh where people can buy low cost telemedicine services (consultation with a qualified doctor) from their local pharmacy. Much like bKash now but this is for health care where people can get health services and the initiative becomes a sustainable business.

We have another project called Traumalink which is a collaboration between few Harvard Medical School students and mPower. In Bangladesh we don’t have any 911 number where you can call for emergency help in highway accidents; as a result many people die not because of their injury but because they don’t get timely medical treatment and often get mishandled.

In Bangladesh road accident is the second biggest cause of death. This is where Traumalink comes in. To fix this problem we have designed a product where people can report an accident by calling to or sending an SMS to a short code. We have also trained people we call community volunteers who are well-trained in first-aid and primary treatment.

We train these people on basic trauma management so that they can come forward and help during a moment of need.

When an accident occurs in a certain locality the system sends automatic SMS to the volunteers of that locality and they go to the spot with their kids and get into work of rescuing and helping injured people. This is completely voluntary. Revenues come from corporate ads and sales of special packages to corporate.

One of our vision is that we want to change how development sector works at its core. The way development sector operates is wasteful and unsustainable and we aim to bring changes to this process.

The other part is to build more scalable and sustainable solutions. We plan to incubate more ideas and develop a process around the idea of incubating and also supporting entrepreneurs and startups who have ideas but could not go to market due to lack of resources.

We plan to help these entrepreneurs launch their services. We have already started the process. Our name also suggests that we are not a single social enterprise but a group of social enterprises. We continuously want to contribute to problem solving and don’t want to stick to just a consulting model.

At the core, we enable development organizations, donors and governments to become more effective and efficient at what they do by using technology. Although, Business sector has gone fast and far ahead when it comes to using technology but in development sector most people are still using primitive technologies. We thought how could we use technology to better do the work the development sector does. This is not about using technology for the sake of using it but it can entirely change the core process of how development works and can increase the impact manifolds.

mPower's Mridul Chowdhury receiving mBillionth Award_

mPower’s Mridul Chowdhury receiving mBillionth Award

mPower Social has been a very innovative company from the start. You have built services that are powerful and sustainable. You have outgrown many development organizations within a very short period of time. What is the secret behind this growth and innovation? What other organizations, especially social enterprises, can learn from your experience.

Rubayat: One thing probably is that we are flexible in a sense that we never take a product centric approach. Instead we identify a problem, work hard to understand it, and then try to design solution to solve it.

We spend a lot of time in understanding a problem and designing a solution. We follow the human centred approach to problem solving. We also put huge importance on listening to the users.

I always try to preach this with any entrepreneur I meet – if you don’t understand your customer very deeply, it is impossible to build a successful business.

Secondly, we work on the ground. Many development organizations tend to be removed from the context of the problem they are trying to solve. For example, there are organizations trying to solve a problem in Africa sitting in Washington DC. I think that approach doesn’t work. You might become very good at tech doing that but you would not be able to solve the problem effectively.

Instead, we work closely with the problem we are working on. For example, we have an office in Kishoreganj for Jeeon, which is just 1 hour away from the villages where we work. Even the Dhaka office was too far in our opinion for rapid learning and experimentation.

The organizational structure is also very fluid and transparent. We promote innovation within the organization. Whoever innovates and performs better rises to the top very fast – we have heads of departments who are only 3 years out of university! I believe very few other organizations in Bangladesh take meritocracy to that level. True to our name, we empower people who are capable and I think that’s the secret if there is any.

That makes sense. What about difficulties of early days? Tell us about the few problems and challenges of your early days.

Rubayat: Well, problems actually don’t maintain a chronology. We had problems when we started and we have problems now as well. May be things were different and more unpredictable during those early days, not necessarily more difficult.

We never took external investment. We were once approached by a multinational pharmaceutical company. They proposed to invest around USD $5mm for 30% equity in the company but we did not take that money because we thought that it would dilute our mission. Since then we funded ourselves from our revenues.

Not raising investment was a consequential decision. We had to go through different stages of fund crisis over the time. Even there have been times when we could not pay salary to our people for several months!

Moreover, our financial management was always quite weak because me and my co-founder were not business people. We understood development well but had to learn how to run a business. As a result, we did not put a proper system in place and had to suffer for that. Now we are serious about financial management. We took lessons from that.

The other thing is: we could not scale at the level we wanted to. I think we could have grown more if we were a little more methodical and process oriented. For example, goal setting, strategic planning, measurement – we did not do much of these things. Me and my co-founder reflect a lot about these issues. I think it hampered our progress in many ways.

These problems were more prevalent during our early days, but some of it remains now as well.

However, one continuous challenge till these days has been finding the right talent. When we consciously decided to move our headquarter from USA to Bangladesh, finding talents became a huge problem. Moreover, since we are not that well known in the Bangladesh market we suffered a lot attracting good people.

Now the problem is more of growth pain. We are going through a transition from a startup to a mature company. Since we did not streamline most of our processes including finance and HR, we have been facing lots of challenges. Some of the organic startup culture we practiced have remained with us to these days, which are perhaps not effective in a mid-sized company.

The organizational structure is also very fluid and transparent. We promote innovation within the organization. Whoever innovates and performs better rises to the top very fast – we have heads of departments who are only 3 years out of university! I believe very few other organizations in Bangladesh take meritocracy to that level.

screencapture-www-mpower-social-com-1455375911704

screencapture-www-mpower-social-com-1455375911704

For startups building a team is hard. Often you either don’t get good people, or when you get some you could not retain or motivate them and so on. That’s a huge problem to tackle and without a good team building a good company is very difficult.

Rubayat: Our founding team was very strong. We started with people from MIT and Harvard along with me and Mridul Bhai. Our early few hires were hand picked people from our personal network. They were very capable people. As a result we did not face that much challenge with team.

Moreover, since we were very passionate about the work we were doing, it caught up with everyone in the team very quickly. My first hire, a classmate from my university, worked really hard. He was extremely dedicated and made up for his lack of experience with his hard work.

Later on when we started to grow big, what happened was that we could not maintain communication with many people we hired. It affected our culture badly. I took lessons from that mistake later though.

During our early days, we did not have our vision and mission and values written in place. Consequently, when we hired new people they came in into the team and contributed their own values and diluted the culture. We still have this problem at mPower. Our core values and culture codes are not clearly defined and much of it has grown organically.

Now when I’m working on Jeeon, I spend lots of time thinking about values and culture. You can say I learned from our mistake.

Market access is a huge challenge for many startups. It is hard to get deals when you are a small company. More often than not, people tend to ignore the existence of your company. How did you overcome this challenges?

Rubayat: We did not face much problem with market access probably because we had the connections of Harvard and MIT. People recognize MIT and Harvard very well, so when we had something to say people usually took us seriously from the very early days.

Second thing was, we never asked for money at the beginning. It was a strategy we took that we ask for an opportunity to work with them, find their problem and talk to their management. Then we worked hard to understand their problem and pain points and designed something fully customized for them.

At the beginning we never ask for consulting fee or anything but once we presented them our ideas and they saw that we understood their problems very well, they invariably agreed to work with us. For first two years in Bangladesh, our sales record was hundred percent. We used to get all the work we tried for.

I think that was a very strong strategy and something that can be replicated by others with a similar business model.

You had probably the connections and a better strategy in place to get early market access but many startups struggle. Any advice for those who are just starting out.

Rubayat: I think, for B2B, having a good portfolio is critical. For that if you need to work for free or at low pay, doing it is a good strategy. Say for example, if your target market is the pharmaceutical industry then having Square’s logo in your Portfolio would make other people interested in you.

Understanding the mindset of your client and putting client’s interest at the top is very important. Many time when we go for selling something we remain busy with our product and the sale and seldom pay attention to the need of clients. I think that’s detrimental. I learned a lot from my partner Mridul bhai on this.

This carries forward to the B2C services as well. You should get to understand the problem of your client and talk from his/her perspective. Instead of coming up with a product first and trying to fit your services/products into the problem of your clients, you should try it the other way around. Even if it needs months to understand the problem deeply, it’s worth doing because once you have put in those miles, selling it becomes much easier.

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

Rubayat: I think the first and foremost important thing is to build the culture and values from the ground up.
I would build the culture from the day one instead of leaving it to the chances. That’s one of my biggest regrets as well that I did not try harder from day one. Luckily I’m getting a second chance with Jeeon, so I pray that I am able to get it right this time.

Other than that, we did fairly well and I don’t have any regrets.

Understanding the mindset of your client and putting client’s interest at the top is very important. Many time when we go for selling something we remain busy with our product and the sale and seldom pay attention to the need of clients. I think that’s detrimental. I learned a lot from my partner Mridul bhai on this.

When you decided to become an entrepreneur were your friends and family supportive of your decision? Our society usually don’t appreciate the idea of doing something risky, especially when it comes to starting something of your own.

Rubayat: I was lucky in that. My father, as an activist, has been in the risky business for his entire career and he has also his share of failure in business! So, there was no stigma around the idea of entrepreneurship in my family. The credit goes to my father, he always told me that, ‘no matter what follow your heart’. That’s the most important call.

My wife has also been very instrumental in my career. We had to go through financial hardships numerous times and my wife never complained and has been very supportive of my work. So, I’m extremely grateful to her for her sacrifices.

Was there a point in your life when you decided to take a risk to move forward?

Rubayat: Smiling 🙂 More times than I can remember.

Rubayat QuoteAny particular instance that stands out.

Rubayat: One thing probably deferring Harvard admission for twice in a row. I tried for a third time as well but they said that they would not be able to keep my admission this time! Previous year, they warned me of cancelling my scholarship.

The other one was getting married at the age of 24. I just finished my undergrad and started mPower. I got married during that time. It was tough decision but everything turned out well at the end. I now have two beautiful kids who always make me want to leave the world a better place than I inherited it.

Not taking a job and waiting for something to come up before starting mPower was a risk. But it was tolerable for me because I did not have to support my family and my family was supportive of my decision. But I never thought that all of my friends are taking jobs, so I have to as well. I waited for more than six months, even though I was bored out of my wits. I just hate to compromise. 🙂

I think two things are important when you are taking a risk. One is being okay with failure and another is being adaptive. One should be flexible.

I think the first and foremost important thing is to build the culture and values from the ground up.
I would build the culture from the day one instead of leaving it to the chances. That’s one of my biggest regrets as well that I did not try harder from day one.

Have you had any mentor along the way.

Rubayat: Different people at different times. During my university, my academic adviser Omar Rahman, now Vice-Chancellor of IUB, helped me a lot, and he has supported and inspired me throughout my undergrads.

Mridul bhai, who is my partner at mPower, has been a mentor to me for a long time.

Nowadays, as I am building Jeeon, I am really benefiting from mentorship from quite a few people, including Kamal Quadir, founder of bKash, who has generously offered time whenever I have asked for it.

Do you think everyone should have a mentor?

Rubayat: Absolutely. I did not do it intentionally for a long time but I think it should start from university. One should think who can support me in reaching my goals and who can challenge me in my thinking and should get in touch with those people.

One advice I try to give people is get at least one mentor who has at least 20 years worth of work ahead of you in your field. They can really make you feel uncomfortable, but that’s what you want for growth – a controlled disequilibrium.

What do you think about failure?

Rubayat: In my life failure has taught me a lot, much much more than my successes. Failure teaches us the lessons that we otherwise would not learn. Success only reinforces those we already know. I think we should have at least that openness.

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

Rubayat: Pick something that your are passionate about. Entrepreneurship is not about money or power or ego, at the end of the day it is about solving a problem. Unless you are passionate about that particular problem, it is unlikely that you will be able to hold on throughout the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

You have to be dead set on your mission – and not compromise in any way in achieving that. Above all, follow your heart and cherish the journey more than the destination.

One advice I try to give people is get at least one mentor who has at least 20 years worth of work ahead of you in your field. They can really make you feel uncomfortable, but that’s what you want for growth – a controlled disequilibrium.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Omar Faruk, Images by mPower Social.

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About the sponsor: This long form interview is made possible in part by our friends at BetterStories Limited, an ideas agency based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, whose generosity enables us to publish premium stories online at no cost to our readers. Thank you, BetterStories, for teaming up with us in 2016.

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