BRAC, Innovation, Social Change and Life: An Interview With Asif Saleh, Senior Director, BRAC

BRAC, Innovation, Social Change and Life: An Interview With Asif Saleh, Senior Director, BRAC

Ispahani Blender's Choice
Asif Saleh is the Senior Director of Strategy, Communications and Empowerment at BRAC and BRAC International. In this interview, Asif reflects on his early life and journey to becoming who he is today, talks about BRAC and major strategic changes that are happening in the world’s number one NGO, future of BRAC and development work, discusses the theory of change management, idea of smart innovation, and ambition of BRAC Innovation Lab, shares BRAC’s plans for investment, his thought on strategy, social mobility and his concern about declining quality of our education system and risk of potential failure to manage our huge young population and explores why life is a nonlinear journey and the struggles and hardships that we desperately want to avoid are our becoming and why we should actively resist the culture of immediacy that relentlessly promotes the idea of overnight success and our temptation to work for award or money or recognition alone. The interview is sublime, intellectually challenging and eminently empowering in its entirety, a feast for your mind.~Ruhul

Future Startup

Tell us about yourself and your journey to becoming who you are today.

Asif Saleh

I was born right after the liberation war and was raised in Dhaka. My father was taken hostage by the Pakistani Soldiers but he miraculously survived. When he returned, my parents decided to have me as their gratitude to the country! I’m the youngest one in the family of 5 with an elder sister and a brother.

I attended Saint Joseph High School and Dhaka College for my SSC and HSC respectively. When I was 18 I was lucky to have the chance to go to the US for my undergrad studies where I studied computer science.

I wanted to study journalism or economics but when I went to the US my father fell seriously ill and my mother advised me to study a subject with a good job prospect that would help me to find a job right after the graduation. So I ended up choosing computer science. My university days had seen my share of struggle. At one point, I had to juggle three part-time jobs to support me with my expenses.

It was the early days of dot com boom and a good time for computer science graduates. I had a bunch of opportunities right after the graduation in major companies along with one at Goldman Sachs. Although I studied computer science, I always wanted to work with people and solve problems. After much thought, I realized that I would get a better chance of solving practical business problems if I go to Goldman Sachs. So I took the job at Goldman Sachs and moved to New York.

Although I took up a job at Goldman, I never thought that I was gone forever from my homeland and would never return to Bangladesh permanently. I was sure that whatever I was doing, I would eventually return to Bangladesh. I did not have a concrete plan but part of me was looking for ways to connect back with Bangladesh.

In 2001, I got quite involved with Bengali expatriate community. I was involved with Bangladeshi newspapers and was trying to figure out how we could give back to Bangladesh. At that time, this was during the previous Awami League regime, a journalist of Prothom Alo named Tipu Sultan was severely beaten by a local Awami League MP called Joynal Hazari. His hands were crushed and he would become cripple if not treated urgently.

Prothom Alo and the Daily Star launched a joint fundraising campaign to support the journalist. When I came to know about it, I wanted to do something for him. So I created a web page for him with information about him and his work to collect donations from expatriates online.

I reached out to the local fund raisers to know whether they would take the donation from this initiative. They agreed. The experience was unexpected and phenomenal for me. Bangladeshis from all over the world were sending me donations. From a driver who sent me 20 dollars to someone who sent 1000 dollars anonymously — we had donors from all ranges. I was completely surprised by this gesture of humanity and compassion and it proved that saying that ‘if you build it, they will come’. Within a few weeks, we raised almost half of what he needed for the treatment. In three weeks, we sent the money home and he got better and started writing again.

Through the initiative, a whole bunch of expatriates got together. We thought why don’t we keep the platform going because something long term rarely happens. People momentarily come together for a cause and then again go back to old setting. We thought we already have this platform where people came together to help each other, we might take this further. That’s how Drishtipat initiative came into existence. Drishtipat, to some extent, was my first connection to the humanitarian sector.

I wanted to study journalism or economics but when I went to the US my father fell seriously ill and my mother advised me to study a subject with a good job prospect that would help me to find a job right after the graduation. So I ended up choosing computer science. My university days had seen my share of struggle. At one point, I had to juggle three part-time jobs to support me with my expenses.

At Goldman Sachs, I initially joined as a programmer and largely worked on the technology side. In 2000, I did my MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business in Management and Marketing. After that, I changed my track and worked on the business side for a while.

I was doing Drishtipat voluntarily on the side. I had a challenging job working at the investment bank. Usually, I would come home at night and have dinner and then would resume my work on Drishtipat on the internet till late into the night.

There was a lot of work to be done. We had an active website that demanded extra work. We had a blog called unheard voices. We had Drishtipat Creative that used art and culture for development and Drishtipat writers collective which got a group of writers to work together. We had nine chapters in nine cities and we were growing rapidly. All of the work were done by the volunteers. Volunteers do, however, need the push and it was a full-time job itself.

I was doing all these work and enjoying it very much. At one point, it became so all-consuming that I realized between my day job and my voluntary work I have to choose what I would do with the rest of my life.

I considered my options and thought about whether I should continue doing what I was doing or should I do something to push myself out of my comfort zone. Moreover, the constant urge of coming back to Bangladesh and working here was always there. I was not sure at that time whether anybody would recruit me with my skill set to work in the development sector but I was passionate about the work and making an impact.

After much thought, I managed to muster enough courage and made the decision to return to Bangladesh. Now that I look back, it was an extremely risky as well as an amateur decision. I returned without finding a job and decided to start a company.

I had this database of 500 small initiatives collected from an earlier research. I had convinced two of my Drishtipat friends to move back with me and try this wild idea in 2009. Three of us started an initiative called Driven. The idea was to find small initiatives from all across the country and help them to grow- a kind of incubation service for rural entrepreneurs who needed consulting help to grow their business. Our model was not dependent on any grant or donation. We were investing from our own pocket and developed a profit sharing model where we would get a small share of profit to sustain ourselves if these businesses succeed. So we had our skin in the game.

After months of toil, we finally decided to get involved with three projects that we thought had great potentials, all being very difficult businesses. We had a Kombol (quilt) manufacturer from Dinajpur making really great Kombol (quilt), a homemade artisan products manufacturer from Chittagong hill tracts and a woman from Jinay Daha who used to produce tea from Tulsi leaf- tulsi tea.

It was intense work. We were traveling and meeting these people all the time. Out of all three projects, tulsi tea project did well, quilt project was break-even, and artisan products project shuttered the door. This was the result after one year and all the work. Moreover, they were not quite sold on the profit sharing idea.

After much hustle, I realized that this model is not scalable. So after a year, we shut down the project.

Then I started to look for other opportunities. Around that time I came across an opportunity from UNDP to work as a consultant in the A2i project at the Prime Minister’s office. A2i project was at a very early stage. The new government just came to power but it was sort of the groundwork for the digital Bangladesh project.

The advantage of working with the government is that you get to see how a country works at the policy level and you get an understanding of the system. You also get the opportunity to know a lot of people inside and outside the government. It was a great experience for me.

After working at the A2i project for two years, I received a call from our Chairperson at BRAC. He asked me whether I would be interested in joining BRAC. In the Government, I was working on the policy side but I always wanted to work in execution and with solutions but that was not possible in the government. I thought that I would get those opportunities and more at BRAC. That was the motivation to join BRAC.

My journey at BRAC started in the middle of 2011 as a Director of Communications. After joining, I started the BRAC Innovation Lab. Now I’m a Senior Director and I look after the Strategy, Communications and Empowerment cluster and I am also on the board of BRAC.net, BITS and BRAC Bank

Life is a nonlinear journey. The thing is that you take some calculated risks, you make some mistakes and then you get something right. At times, we become too self-conscious and assume that everyone has figured it out except me which is far from the truth. The small things and failures that we despise often. The struggles and hardships that we desperately want to avoid are our becoming.

Future Startup

I was reading your interview with Shabana Azmi on human rights and activism from 2011 before coming here, an interesting read. I think you are someone who is deeply interested in activism and social change. After all these years, how do you think about activism and the state of activism in Bangladesh?

Asif Saleh

My thinking has evolved over the last few years. When I was abroad I used to think in a particular way but now that I get to see and experience problems and solutions first hand I look at them differently. I used to think that activism is the best way to solve a problem when I was living abroad but I don’t think so anymore.

I think activism is an important element but only one of the many elements in the process of solving a problem. In that Shabana Azmi interview, she said something along the line that in order to a change to happen you need everything. You need activism, field work, communication and someone working in solving the real problem.

I now see myself more as a system thinker who is looking at the system and trying to make some long-term changes whether it is in education, health, skill development or through any other social innovation.

We live in a resource-constrained country. We often wait for the government to come forward and solve problems which can’t happen all the time. We all need to think ourselves as problem solvers.

Activism is important. It plays an important role in speaking truth to the power. But activism alone is insufficient for solving a problem. You need to work in the field and come up with solutions. I’m more interested in the latter now.

Future Startup

You have several decades of experience working in technology, business, strategy, and social innovation in companies like Goldman Sachs, Glaxo Wellcome, Nortel, IBM and now BRAC. What are the biggest lessons from all those years?

Asif Saleh

Life is a nonlinear journey. I did not plan for any of these to happen. The thing is that you take some calculated risks, you make some mistakes and then you get something right. At times, we become too self-conscious and assume that everyone has figured it out except me which is far from the truth.

Life is all about figuring it out. The small things and failures that we despise often. The struggles and hardships that we desperately want to avoid are our becoming.

It is important that you find your passion and pursue it. You can either go ahead with your passion regardless of the risk and push yourself out of your comfort zone or you can take a more deliberate approach. One must strive for growth in life to make it fulfilling and rich but you should also let things go. For instance, it did not work out for many of my friends who moved back with me. They eventually had to go back. For me, it worked out partly because I never thought about trade-offs I was making or regretted over the life that I left behind.

I have been very happy that I made the decision to return and work in Bangladesh at a time when Bangladesh is going through unprecedented change. I feel lucky that I have got a chance to take part in this process. I always look for opportunities to contribute and make a difference.

A Message From Blender’s Choice Green Tea

Blender's Choice MessageWhy is Blender’s Choice Green Tea so special?
Only tea leaves of the finest and high elevation tea gardens of China are used in this blend. The subtle fragrances and flavors of this super tea combine health giving properties with an impeccable taste. The Ispahani Blender’s Choice brings you the exquisite taste of green tea, pure, exclusive and premium class. Know more here.

The most significant one is that we are changing our whole financial strategy and the way we finance our programs. It used to be just donor funding in the past but now we are doing cost recovery, making investments, running social enterprises in order to ensure different streams of financing to run our programs. We are trying different models. We have not scaled any of these models yet but that’s where we are going. We are 70% self-funded right now, by 2020, our plan is to be 90% self-sustainable.

Future Startup

You joined BRAC in 2011. How much has BRAC evolved over the past few years?

Asif Saleh

As an organization, we are going through a massive shift. Technology adoption has been a major priority over the past few years.

From a programmatic perspective, BRAC has largely been an implementation-centric organization. We were more like doing it ourselves type in the past but now we are becoming increasingly open to partnership and collaboration. For our new solutions like Urban Innovation Challenge or Innovation Fund for mobile money, we are partnering with other organizations.

We are asking the world to help us to find solutions for problems we are facing today. We are opening up the BRAC to the world. We are sharing our insight and lessons with the world as well as adopting and learning from others.

We are now a bit more communication savvy which was not the case in the past. We used to be a low-profile organization in the past but now we are trying to communicate our work.

However, the most significant one is that we are changing our financial strategy- the way we finance our programs.

The world is going through a massive change and dependency on donor funding is unsustainable in the long run. We need to figure out ways to be self-reliant and self-finance our programs independent of changes in donor funding.

For a lot of organizations, the strategy probably is to continue the programs as long as there is donor funding and then scale down once funds stop coming but for us, that’s not the case.

We are a highly ambitious organization. We don’t want to compromise our scale. We don’t want to stop fighting newer kind of challenges. That’s why we are coming up with a different kind of financing strategy.

We used to mostly rely on donor funding in the past for financing our programs but we are now trying different models. We are doing cost recovery, investing, running social enterprises to ensure different streams of financing to run our programs. We have not scaled any of these models yet but that’s where we are going. We are 70% self-funded right now. Our plan is to be 90% self-sustainable by 2020.

Another change is that we are trying to add more new and young people to the organization who can bring new ideas because the way we are moving ahead, we not only need diversity in race or gender, we also need diversity in ideas and age.

Future Startup

On a similar note, how much has the development sector changed over the past couple of years?

Asif Saleh

Everybody is sort of waking up to the fact that this donor dependency must end. Many governments that were development friendly in the past are now led by right-wing parties across the globe who are not aid friendly. They are trade friendly.

The world is shifting from aid to trade. As long as you give me more business I will link up that with aid that’s becoming the strategy of many donor countries. Everyone in the development world is trying to figure out how to tackle this impending sustainability challenge. People are trying new models and strategies but almost all the NGOs are struggling.

To some extent, organizations like us are in better position because we started our first social enterprise 35 years ago and over the past years, it has become a thing. I think our founder was extremely forward thinking when he decided to start our social enterprises. He almost saw these days coming.

That’s one major shift.

The another shift is that the era of traditional NGO workers is almost over. We have a lot of young people today who are ambitious and who want to change the world and society for better. They usually start with working in the private sector for a while and then they want to contribute to the world and the society and switch to the social sector. As a result, your are seeing a lot of convergence.

These people are coming to the social sector with a lot of new ideas about work and achieving objectives. Consequently, a new model for social change is emerging that challenges the notion of old model NGOs that used to depend on philanthropic money and charity.

My take is that over the coming years the difference between social enterprise or development sector and private sector will become relatively thin in how they operate. We will see a lot of convergence. I think the days of the traditional model of NGOs who don’t have a sustainable model in place are numbered.

Future Startup

BRAC is an incredibly large organization. How do you make and then align everyone with major strategic decisions and changes?

Asif Saleh

It is not easy and takes a significant top-down effort. That said, a big part of any change management is building a coalition, communicating clearly and offering the big picture to all the stakeholders. That’s something we are trying to do under the leadership of our Executive Director Dr. Musa.

Our vision and mission remain the same as before but this strategic shift that we have put together last year for the following five years is about how we finance our large scale programs and do things. It has a clear roadmap and is about making sure that we continue our work and make change happen in a sustainable manner.

Communicating this change effectively along with the impact of it to the various layers of the management- particularly to our crucial middle management and regional managers who are our link between our field and head office- is important for us.

For BRAC, they play a particularly important role because if the information flow stops at their level then the biggest group- our field force- would be completely blocked out from any information.

We are figuring out how to effectively communicate with them, listen to them and give them ways to voice their concern to us.

We have a small change management team who are working hard to keep things in sync. We are doing town hall meetings where our leadership team is interacting directly with the staffs and listening and answering to their concerns.

Almost 96% of our manpower, at BRAC NGO part, are based on the field. They are the blood of the organization. Unless we get their backings, no change effort will succeed. It is a constant work in progress.

My take is that over the coming years the difference between social enterprise or development sector and private sector will become very thin and we will see a lot of convergence. I think the days of the traditional model of NGOs who don’t have a sustainable model in place are numbered.

Asif Saleh

Asif Saleh

Future Startup

Why do you think this shift is critical for BRAC in the long run? How do you plan to get there?

Asif Saleh

BRAC is a complex organization. We have social enterprises such Aarong and others that sit within the BRAC. These are independently branded initiatives. Then there are investments such as BRAC Bank, IPDC, Delta BRAC Housing and a few others where we are investor along with other partners.

We have started many of these initiatives early which is why we are in a better position in terms of long-term sustainability. As I mentioned earlier, about 70% of our annual budget, which is about $1 billion, comes from our own resources. A big part of it comes from the micro-finance and the rest from the enterprises.

Our biggest programs other than micro-finance are education, health, and ultra-poor program. These are almost entirely funded by donor money. We have almost 30,000 schools across the country. We have 100,000 healthcare workers. We run one of the largest non-State social safety net ultra poor programs. In sanitation, our program covers half the country. These are large scale programs where this new change initiative is taking the most effect.

We are seeing two fundamental shifts. First, our people’s needs are changing. It is shifting from just asking for access to basic services to getting quality services and they are ready to pay for quality service but in most cases, they are not getting them.

About 20 years ago, the challenge was around access to education. Today it is more about quality education and other new challenges. 20 years ago, challenges were around diarrhea and similar disease but today the challenges are non-communicable diseases, malnutrition, lifestyle problems, mental health problems and the likes.

Secondly, as the country is heading for middle-income status, our organization aims to be self-sufficient and not depend on foreign aid so much. We have come to realize that donor money that helps us to run these programs will not last forever.

We have schools all over the country but only for a certain group of people. Since there is a new kind of demand for quality education, we think we can do that as well where kids will get the quality education for a fee and people who can’t pay still can get the quality education because we can cross-subsidize.

We see that 10-15% of Bangladesh is ultra-poor who will need support. So if they need to send their kids to school, they can send them to a government school or to a BRAC school for free if they are not capable of paying. But if they are capable they would pay a fee based on their ability and location.

The idea is that we want to cover the cost of the school so that we can be self-reliant. We don’t want to make money out of education rather we want to cross-subsidize the poor children using that money so that everyone can have access to quality education.

The same model is for Aarong. The target market for Aarong is not poor people but the people who can pay that amount- middle class, upper middle class, and rich people. We are earning surplus targeting these group and then spending the money to run our legal and other programs for people in need.

I often get this question about Aarong that why we can’t reduce the price for Aarong products. It is because Aarong’s target market is not BRAC’s target market. It is completely different. Aarong targets the rich and upper middle class so that the surplus generated can pay for legal aid for the poor.

Our ambition now is to replicate the social enterprise model in other areas such as health, education, legal services and more. You can call it the Robin Hood model.

We are using the next two-three years to test some of these ideas. That might be in health, where we are looking at starting diagnostics centers and telemedicine facilities.

In education, we are going to try different types of schools. We plan to start a secondary school chain over the next few years. Our free schools will remain free but our ambition is to make future citizens take up the challenge of middle-income Bangladesh.

The target market for Aarong is not poor people but the people who can pay that amount- middle class, upper middle class, and rich people. We are earning surplus targeting these group and then spending the money to run our legal and other programs for people in need. Our ambition now is to replicate the social enterprise model in other areas such as health, education, legal services and more. You can call it the Robin Hood model.

Future Startup

This is a major shift and it will come with its own challenges. What challenges do you anticipate when you change your model upside down?

Asif Saleh

Our social enterprises used to be tax exempted before but from last year, Government has said that we have to pay taxes. Our social enterprises are now paying corporate tax. From a private sector perspective, we are being treated equally with private sector even though we are not.

One of the challenges will be fighting perception. When we started our first social enterprise, we had to face the criticism because of a misperception that BRAC is doing business with the poor which was not and is not true. We feel that having a market-based intervention is important, sustainable and effective.

For instance, Aarong operates like a private sector organization. It earns surplus and that’s why it has sustained for so long. It now engages 65,000 artisans and ensures their employment.

If we think like a conventional NGO, we are only going to last as long as there is donor funding for doing the important works that we are doing. We would not think much about users and sustainability, but when you let the market decide you also need to respond to changes in the market and cater to the demand.

The biggest shift that has taken place within the BRAC is that from a supply-driven organization we are becoming a demand-driven one.

For instance, we are now setting up these migration support enterprises for potential migrant workers. We used to run a similar program in the past which was funded by donors. Now we are running it as a social enterprise.

Our centers that we used to run in the past would offer products and services which were not necessarily very high on demand. It was heavy on awareness-raising activities. But when we asked our migrants workers, they said that they want service from us and not just information and that they would like BRAC to help them with passport, skills and language training. We are now introducing these services for a fee. It is no more donor dependent but customer dependent.

Consequently, we are seeing a host of major changes in how we used to operate it. The entire dynamics has changed. There is a lot of accountability in the system now. The most profound shift is that everything changes when start treating people as your clients rather than beneficiaries. The people who are running the program now think more about the customers, demands of migrants workers, quality of products and services and much more.

Future Startup

You often talk about Smart innovation (BRAC promotes the idea of Frugal innovation) and scaling innovation for social impact. Can you please elaborate the idea? Is there any recipe for doing so?

Asif Saleh

Frugal innovation or smart innovation applies community resources, social capital and indigenous methods in designing solutions for complex social problems and delivering them in resource-constrained situations.

It is frugal and smart because here we are not investing in products per say rather we are investing in solutions. The problem with taking a product-centric approach is that you need to invest a particular amount of money and effort upfront which is often expensive. Moreover, your product might not solve the problem.

On the other hand, a solution driven approach is more appropriate because it allows you to think about problem rather than a product that would eventually solve a problem. It is obsessed with solving the problem, not a particular way of doing it.

The advantage of this approach is that you think through the entire process of designing a solution and delivering it which makes it easier to scale once you have the solution.

We have learned this from our early days where we applied low tech but a solution-driven indigenous approach to solving problems. The very latest example is bKash where we used our micro-finance borrowers to set up early critical mass agent network.

Unless you think through the entire delivery mechanism your innovation is likely to fail. When I talk about smart or frugal innovation, it is essentially about keeping your cost low and identifying critical aspects of the solutions, so that it does not require an enormous amount of money when you are scaling it up. That’s what we regularly try to do when designing a new program.

Frugal innovation or smart innovation is critical in conditions where you have to solve complex social problems in a resource constrained condition. Smart innovation applies community resources, social capital and indigenous methods in designing solutions and delivering them in resource-constrained situations.

Future Startup

You oversee Social Innovation Lab at BRAC, can you please give us an overview of the lab and how does it operate? What are the goals for the lab?

Asif Saleh

BRAC needs to be innovative as an organization but it is not like that you can create one unit that will do all the innovation. Innovation needs to happen throughout the organization- from head office to field office.

We don’t feel that Social Innovation Lab needs to be big and do a lot of things by and in itself. Rather we see it as a catalyst for innovation within the larger organization.

The companies like Google and Apple, they continue to innovate because they have a culture that helps foster innovation. We don’t want to be Google or Apple, but we would like to cultivate similar innovation culture within BRAC in the field of social innovation. We want to operate like a nimble organization despite being a big organization.

The other thing is rather longer term. At the end of the day, social innovators are problem solvers. In order to have more people who can think critically and come up solutions, we need to think from very early days, probably from school because it is a way of thinking. We need to train our kids to think like a problem solver.

I see Social Innovation Lab playing a role in introducing curriculum in school level so that we can teach our kids to become problem solvers from an early age.

BRAC needs to be innovative as an organization but it is not like that you can create one unit that will do all the innovation. Innovation needs to happen throughout the organization and come from everywhere regardless whether it is head office or field office. We don’t feel that Social Innovation Lab needs to be very big and do a lot of things by and in itself. We see Innovation Lab as a catalyst for innovation within the larger organization.

Future Startup

BRAC has recently invested in Maya, previously you invested in BRAC Bank, IPDC, and a few other companies. What are the plans in this space, particularly with investing in social impact companies? Are you considering to get into impact investment?

Asif Saleh

The world is changing fast and naturally, we would not be able to do everything on our own. At the same time, there are people and organizations that are working towards the same mission as we are.

We want to capture some of the values that these organizations are generating while also helping them with our resources to better accomplish their goals.

For instance, Maya is creating the same kind of space for urban women that we created for rural women 25 years ago. We saw social benefits in Maya and wanted to be a part of it.

We have not thought it through yet but what we are seeing is that 15-20 years down the line we will have a galaxy of companies supported by BRAC working toward the similar vision. It can be through direct investment or it can be through an impact investment fund. We are looking at various options right now. Investment is an area we are exploring much more rigorously to amplify our impact.

Future Startup

Can you talk a little about the organizational culture at BRAC?

Asif Saleh

BRAC has a very can-do approach within the organization. There is no task that can’t be done. We are also a very disciplined organization. Due to the process that we have been able to develop over the years, it is relatively easier for us to execute when a decision is made and scale quickly.

We encourage independence and ownership. People do things as if they are doing it for themselves. There is this sense of meaning in what you are doing.

I have asked a lot of field officers- who work really long hours although they don’t have to- why they work so hard and one common answer is that they value the work and find meaning in it.

The sense that you are working for others is incredibly powerful. The dedication and commitment that people have for the organization are extraordinary. That said, there are areas to improve, of course. We are still quite hierarchical which we actively want to change.

We have not thought it through yet but what we are looking forward to is that 15-20 years down the line we will have a galaxy of companies supported by BRAC working toward the similar vision. It can be through direct investment or it can be through an impact investment fund. We are looking at various options right now but the investment is an area we are exploring much more rigorously going forward to amplify our impact.

Future Startup

How do you think about strategy?

Asif Saleh

At the end of the day, a strategy is about making choices, choosing your priority and resource allocation. You have a limited pot of money, depending on your strategic priority you would spend that money.

For instance, if you have TK 100 and you think youth unemployment is the biggest challenge in Bangladesh, you would spend more on youth unemployment and less on sanitation.

One of the central tenants of strategy is saying no to things that don’t add up to your vision and focus.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Asif Saleh

I am a firm believer in the adage that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Setting targets, goals and performance indicators are a big part of it.

The other part is that at the end of the day it is all about people. If you want to get best out of your people you have to make sure that their motivation is high, empower them, mentor them, give them feedback and that they have the authority to make decisions in their roles. My role is more like a mentor and guide who they come to for advice and guidance when they are confused about certain things.

A big part of being a manager is making decisions. As a manager, you need to be on top of things with all the information that you can get so that you can make decisions with speed.

Every organization is complex. There are things within an organization that are not visible from the outside but you need to be able to manage and navigate these complexities in order to be effective. Many people get frustrated when they come across roadblocks or politics within an organization and give up too early. Politics is not ideal but your effectiveness as a manager will greatly depend on your ability to navigate complex situations.

One of the lessons I have learned from working for the government is that you have to be patient and see the bigger picture in order to go through it and be prepared to labor hard to keep a sense of positivity in your daily workload.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Asif Saleh

Life is a journey and it only makes sense that way.

Comfort is the enemy of growth. Our life shrinks or expands in proportion to our ability and willingness to embrace the unknown. I have always tried to expose myself to risks and push myself out of my comfort zone. Going out of your comfort zone is how you learn and grow.

Like all the journey it only makes sense when you are moving forward and growing. Our consistent pursuit of growth is what makes our life richer and fuller. I try to be curious and try to make sense of life. It’s a relentless pursuit.

I am a firm believer in the adage that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Setting targets, setting concrete goals and performance indicators are very big part of it. The other part is that at the end of the day it is all about people. If you want to get best out of your people you have to make sure that their motivation is high, you need to empower them, mentor them, give them feedback and that they have the authority to make decisions in their roles.

Future Startup

I have been reading this book call Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance lately, an autobiography and interesting read on the state of upward mobility among American white working class. While reading the book, I have realized that upward mobility is quite hard in Bangladesh. How do you think about upward mobility and social change in the context of our society? What does it take to make a material social change?

Asif Saleh

No doubt it is hard. Meritocracy is not there as yet but it is happening more than ever before. There is a thriving new class of small and medium entrepreneurs in villages in Bangladesh who are doing well and also helping their community. Perhaps, it will happen more as we become more prosperous and focus on systems rather than individuals.

I think one big cause of inequity in our system is education and the gap is widening fast. The success of anybody I think depends, to a great degree, on what kind of education you get in your early days. In an ideal world, whether you are getting an education from a village school or a school in Dhaka, it should not matter- both should equally prepare you for a university exam as well as for life.

But our education system, unfortunately, is in a downward spiral in terms of quality and it is also unevenly distributed. If you can’t afford a private tutor or can’t go to a good school, you are kind of set for failure from the beginning. The system is rigged against you before you even had a chance to prove yourself.

From the very early days, the kids who attend English medium schools are more likely to get a good job than the one who is coming from a village and went to a standard regular school. That should not happen.

Our challenge in the coming days is to ensure quality education for everyone so that everyone can have a fair chance at life. I think real material social change comes from getting equally good quality education across the board regardless of what political or economic class you are from.

I’m very passionate about this secondary school chain that we are planning to set up because I’m aware of the paramount importance of quality education and the difference it makes in the life of a person. Ideally, the government should do it but you can’t wait for the government.

Besides equity, it is also important that we continue to provide tools to people in need to help them change their lives and protect them from various forms of shocks.

For instance, we have created a loan for potential migrant workers. Often people sell their assets and lands for going abroad. If a migrant worker could not earn or fall sick, the entire family goes back to their old stage of poverty. Our loan allows them to go abroad without selling their assets off and repay when they start earning.

We have also created micro insurance for our micro-credit borrowers to protect them from these shocks. We want to create these kinds of financial products for our people and offer them better tools so that they can go upward.

Future Startup

We have a huge young population, our median age is 26.3, which is a huge opportunity as well as a challenge. If we fail, this will be our biggest risk factor. How do you think about this opportunity or challenge for that matter?

Asif Saleh

I don’t think we are getting it right. There are multiple studies that indicate the rise of extremism and drug abuse among youth. These are symptoms of a frustrated young population who don’t see a good future and can easily be misguided.

In order to make sure that we don’t end up at a wrong place, a few things need to happen. Our young people need to have a steady flow of employment opportunities. They need mentoring and guidance which is becoming increasingly difficult to access because of the gap between children and parents which is now wider than any time before. We need to create space for our young people where they can go, share their thoughts and problems, seek help and also participate. We need to listen to them and talk to them as well.

The quality of people that our universities are producing continues to decline. There are young people with good university degrees who lack basic skills such as analytical and problem-solving abilities. We often come across this reality during our recruitment process. These are the things that make me worried about a massive educated unemployed young generation that we are creating which is like a ticking time bomb.

We now understand that everybody does not need to attend university when we have a high degree of unemployment among graduate students. It is very important to offer some early level guidance to young people about what sort of career one should choose and skills one should develop. We are designing a network and intervention program along with Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre which will focus on these areas.

Our plan is to run a one-year intervention where students from all backgrounds in the high school level will come together, form a network with mentors and develop some skills and also learn about career and life.

There are a lot of real work to be done in these areas and our young people should receive the highest priority when we are designing interventions. If we can’t get this right, we may get all our social indicators right and then one fine day we would find that all our achievements are gone because our young people are disgruntled and have no ownership of the society.

I think one big cause of inequity in our system is education and the gap is widening fast. The success of anybody I think largely depends on what kind of education you get in your early days. In an ideal world, whether you are getting an education from a village school or a school in Dhaka, it should not matter and both should equally prepare you for a university exam as well as for life. But our education system, unfortunately, is unevenly distributed and it is in a downward spiral in terms of quality. If you can’t afford a private tutor or can’t go to a good school, you are kind of set for failure from the beginning. The system is rigged against you before you even had a chance to prove yourself.

Future Startup

What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

Asif Saleh

We live in a culture of immediacy that relentlessly promotes the idea of overnight success and often impatiently overlook that the idea of overnight success is just a myth. In reality, it takes a long time to achieve anything worthwhile. The shortcut culture that we live in is disinterested in seeing the bigger picture and follow through but you should actively push against this limiting worldview because long-term is where great things happen.

Failure, in any journey worth taking, is inevitable. Stop worrying about it, rather fail fast and learn from your failure.

Expect struggles and hardships and difficulties. Nobody said that building a company or bringing about change is easy. You have to work hard and be very detail oriented and be patient. The nature of any impactful work is that it is hard and tedious so you must not give up.

You should not work for award or money or recognition alone. Those extrinsic rewards are momentary highs that often don’t last long and are often distract you from doing real difficult work. Seek more meaningful reward. In Bangladesh, many of our friends often get too excited when they get an award and forget, at least monetarily, the bigger picture but you should actively resist that. Recognition will come but that should not be the reason or the motivation for your work.

We live in a culture of immediacy that relentlessly promotes the idea of overnight success and often impatiently overlook that the idea of overnight success is just a myth. In reality, it takes a long time to achieve anything worthwhile. The shortcut culture that we live in is disinterested in seeing the bigger picture and follow through but you should actively push against this limiting worldview because long-term is where great things happen.

We Recommend

Type to Search

See all results
Shares