Zara Jabeen Mahbub is a Senior Vice President and the Head of Communications and Service Quality at BRAC Bank. In Bangladesh, it is incredibly difficult for a woman to thrive in business, which can more appropriately be called a man's world. It takes immense passion, patience, and courage to make a mark. Ms. Mahbub is considered as one of the finest women business leaders in the country. She has experience of working in a diverse set of fields starting from fashion to garments to technology to banking.
In this interview Ms. Mahbub reflects on her journey to what she is doing today, shares her thoughts on communication, leadership and strategy, trials and tribulations she has had to face throughout her career, her strategy for creating a support network for her work and personal life which every woman (and man) should do to succeed, discusses BRAC Bank’s digital strategy, and explores eminent importance and the incredible power of hard work and why it is critical that we live in the present, act immediately instead of waiting for life to just happen to us. - Ruhul Kader
Where did you grow up? Tell us about your journey to what you are doing today.
I grew up in a joint family in the mid-70s. Although I was the eldest child of my parents, I basically grew up as the middle child of the whole family. Growing up in a joint family is a different experience. It is difficult to explain to someone who does not have this experience. We could not afford to be selfish. Sharing was a key part of our life. Everything was owned and maintained collectively.
Ever since my childhood, I was a little rebellious though ‘little’ is an understatement. To my family members and cousins, I was extremely difficult to handle. I never resorted to my gender identity. “Zara you are a girl and you cannot do that because you are a girl” - nobody got away with saying that to me. And luckily, in my family, no one ever said that either. Even though it was believed that girls should follow certain norms of the society, it was not about holding us back from pursuing our ambitions. And of course, I never adhered to the rules fully. I was in the community cricket and football teams. When we were 10 or 12 years old we used to play football together and I was never made to feel any different just because I was a girl. I was what people used to call that time a “Tomboy”! I am glad that these days this terms is no longer used.
My maternal grandmother was an extremely strong woman. She allowed and sometimes encouraged us to try new things which many people at that time would think twice before doing. She used to tell us that there is nothing you can’t do. She ensured that we read every single day, a habit that has remained with me even these days. I was raised in a family of strong women and a large of part of what I’m today is because of them.
My mother has always inspired us to dream big and to have a higher ambition. She says if you want to work on the moon, go work there. There is no limit set for us.
That said, we had to maintain certain things in the family such as saying prayers and fasting in Ramadan and maintaining other religious obligations as done in a traditional practicing Muslim family.
My first school was Happy Times - a tiny little nursery in Dhanmondi. After that, I studied at Willes' Little Flower and South Breeze School. After that, I applied to Assumption University, Bangkok for a Bachelor's and got accepted.
In 1996, when I was in the middle of my degree I had to return to Dhaka due to a family emergency. My father had suffered a heart attack. I was the eldest child of my parents and my younger siblings were very little at the time. My mother said I would have to take care of the family business while my father recovered and put my studies on hold for a while. I returned home to look after the family business and transferred my credits to North South University and lost more than a year in the process.
I started working in my father’s buying house full time while studying part time. As a result, it took me an extra year to graduate. By the time I graduated in 1998, my father had recovered fully and the buying house business was doing very well.
In 2002, we moved to San Diego, California, where I worked in a contract manufacturing company doing business development for printed circuit boards among other products. I worked there till 2005 and it was a great learning experience.
In 2005, seven years into our marriage when I became pregnant, we decided that I should pursue an MBA. Naveed said to me that ‘Zara, you have a degree from North South University which is great but let's get an MBA from a very good school.” He pushed me to do my MBA from the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. But this was not an easy decision.
We were living in San Diego which was an hour flight from Berkley and I was expecting my first child. But Naveed persisted, he said, “You need an MBA and you need it from one of the top schools and if needed I would also apply with you”. He coached me through my GMAT preparation. Surprisingly, both of us got in!. Our daughter was four and half months born when we began the MBA Program at Haas.
We used to fly back and forth every weekend with the baby. We had a nanny who used to pick all three of us at the airport and drop us at the University. She would take care of the baby while both of us were going through long hours of class. After the class, she would pick us up from the university and drop us to the airport. This was the routine for the first semester. However, in the next semester, Naveed decided to pursue his alternative career and take care of our daugher on the weekends while I attended classes.
I finished my MBA in May 2008, in two and a half years although it was a three-years program. Right after my graduation, the financial crisis happened in the US and economy started to go down. The US job market tanked. We went for Hajj in December 2008 and then decided to return to Dhaka where the opportunities were thriving.
In March 2009 I came across an opportunity at BRAC Bank and joined as Head of Service Quality. In 2010, I became the Head of Premium Banking which is the Priority Banking service for us. After that, I headed the Retail Marketing and Call Centre teams for a while and also headed the Customer Experience team for two years. Then I became the Head of Communication and Service Quality on February 12th, 2015.
I immensely enjoy my work. My work is just complete adrenaline all day long and that keeps me going. I am not the kind of person who can live with a predictable work routine- coming to office in the morning and returning home in the evening is not my cup of tea. I need firefighting. I need a lot of excitement and entertainment.
I am responsible for Communications, CSR, external affairs and media, public relations, Brand/marketing and all external and internal events and activations. Working at BRAC Bank continues to be an incredible experience for me. This is a bank that started its journey in 2001 to empower the small and medium enterprises in the country when almost no one was looking at that segment. BRAC Bank is a brand that has believed in the hopes of millions. Today, the SME sector is one of the major contributors to our economy. It creates the largest number of employment. This was what our Chairman, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, had in mind when he set up BRAC Bank. BRAC Bank is the pioneer in small and medium enterprise banking. Till date, we have given the largest amount of collateral free loans to SMEs by a significant margin. I look at my work as a cause that I believe in dearly.
I joined the Communication Department in February 2015 and our new Managing Director, Selim R. F. Hussain, joined in November. From day one, his mission has been very simple and very clear: we are going to be the best bank in the country in 3 to 5 years. And we have already begun working towards our mission.
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Ever since my childhood, I was a little rebellious though ‘little’ is an understatement. To my family members and cousins, I was extremely difficult to handle. I never resorted to my gender identity. “Zara you are a girl and you cannot do that because you are a girl” - nobody got away with saying that to me. And luckily, in my family, no one ever said that either. They said that girls should follow certain norms of the society but that was not about holding us back from pursuing our ambition. And of course, I never adhered to rules fully.
Our experience often shapes us to a great degree. Any particular experience that you’ve had that has influenced you to a great degree to become who are today?
My father's first heart attack made me realize that life can change any moment. It taught me to be adaptable - the most important skill I deem necessary to living a good life.
Change is inevitable. Nothing is permanent but change. Our responsibility, essentially, is to make sure that we don’t hold onto things.
At the same time, you have to consistently invest in improving yourself. You cannot be complacent. You have to develop the capacity to adapt to any given situation.
Our life is full of ups and downs and it maintains a kind of ebbs and flows and often we give up when our journey becomes fraught with challenges. How do you deal with challenges that life throws at you?
Right after I graduated from Haas School of Business, one of the top 10 business schools in the world, I thought I would get a job with a 6-digit salary and what not. And then the recession happened and the job market crashed. It was a tough time for MBAs. That said, when one door closes, many more open up. I returned to Bangladesh and today if you ask me, would I move back to the USA today? Absolutely not. Bangladesh is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and things are happening and the future is here.
In my professional life I went through many ups and downs but every time I went through a challenging situation it taught me something or the other that eventually helped move forward. Life takes interesting turns. It sometimes surprises us, but our job is to keep the steady pace, stay on course and never back down.
I'm a very emotional person. One of my biggest weaknesses 🙁 I’m known to wear my heart on my sleeves and if I’m upset you can see in my face immediately! Depending on the nature of the event, I can stay upset for two or three days and then I bring myself back.
One thing that helps me is that I have hit rock bottom so many times in life that I know that In Sha Allah things will be better no matter what. I think this is the silver lining of any difficult experience; it makes you stronger and prepares you for the next one. Our tough days are our training period.
As a child growing up, I was not the prettiest or the most talented one in the family. But I can work really hard. I can fight and compete. I don't mind losing once in awhile but I keep at it. I keep trying and I keep fighting.
I am an optimist. I believe in big miracles and I believe thateverything happens for the best. I go back to myself and the higher power. I pray. I do the things that I like. I go back to my family and I go back to my friends because they are the ones who carry me through all the difficult times.
You have experience of working in a whole lot of different industries. You briefly worked in modeling as well. From there, you started your own business for a brief period of time. If you look back, what are the biggest lessons from all those years of working and living?
Modeling was something that I thought I would never be able to do. As I have said, I was never the prettiest child in the family. Moreover, there was only one television channel at that time and I ended up working in four different commercials. I walked the ramp at a time when modeling was almost taboo.
My personal learning is that you can do almost everything as long as you have your integrity and confidence and you put in hours.
If you decide to do something you have to be prepared to endure criticism, backlash and some more. If you think it is too much for you to take, then you better not try anything new. I have been working in various industries for 21 years now; even today I have to endure things that are hard to accept. I've been dealing with it since I was 15 years old when I first did modeling. I make an active effort to not react to these things.
My take away: be strong and never allow anyone to dictate who you are. It is extremely difficult to be strong but you have to do it. Do the things that give you peace of mind and carry you through the difficult times.
If you know that you are doing the right thing for yourself, for your organization and for your family then be strong and pursue what you are doing. The idea that passion has to be something preordained and if you can’t find it you are doomed is a quite dangerous one. If you can fall in love with a life partner in arranged marriage, you can learn to love what you do on a daily basis given the fact that it actually runs your livelihood. One should love the job they are doing because there is no boring job nor is there a small one.
How should other women approach their work given that our society is not yet that friendly towards the idea of a working woman? How should they pursue their dreams and ambition? Would you suggest any strategy for them from your experience?
This varies depending on who you are and your circumstances regardless of your gender.
For me, I try to share my success and give due credit to the people who have supported me and contributed to my success. I call this creating a success circle.
A Success Circle helps you to create a coalition with the people who contribute towards your success. The way I see it is that if you have a strong support circle - which I have been very lucky to have, Alhamdulillah -you are all set to go and do what you got to do.
I have learned over the years that bringing people into your support circle or success circle has incredible power. Every time something good happens I attribute it to each and every one in my circle because their support helped me achieve it.
I think sharing success with others as well as being there for other people in your circle when they need your help makes things simpler. Give support to each other so that you can grow as a community.
For most of us, particularly in Indian subcontinent, we end up with careers we don’t actively seek or choose. We study subjects that we don’t like but our parents do and that is true for a career as well. What about you? Have you always been passionate about marketing and communication? Is this something that captures your imagination?
In school, I was exceptionally fond of mathematics. If I retire tomorrow, I will probably go back to studying mathematics or painting.
I picked Marketing and BBA for practical reasons but eventually, I fell in love with it. Over the past years, I have developed an intense passion for communication, marketing, and branding. I think passion is not something preordained. It is hard to know what you love unless you spend enough time with something.
Most people start with not knowing what they want in life and subsequently end up finding something they love. The key point here is that keep looking for it and it will find you.
The idea that passion has to be something preordained and if you can’t find it you are doomed is a quite dangerous one. If you can fall in love with a life partner in arranged marriage, you can learn to love what you do on a daily basis given the fact that it actually runs your livelihood.
One should love the job they are doing because there is no boring job nor is there a small one. It is all in our minds.
BRAC Bank is celebrating its 16th anniversary. How much has BRAC Bank evolved over the past years in terms of innovation and strategic point of view? What new products and services are you eyeing next? You have launched some very interesting products and services recently such as same Day Loan Processing is an interesting proposition and you have also launched a product for women called Tara.
We started off as an SME focused bank which we are even today. We have the biggest SME portfolio in the country and we continue to do an excellent job in that front.
Now our ambition is much higher. We want to be the best bank in the country. We are widening our horizon and this is the biggest strategic shift in the recent years. Every business and every support function is working hard to deliver its best. We will be the best in each and everything that we do.
We have introduced some very interesting products in the last few years. We are heavily investing in technology and human resources.
We are a member of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values which focuses on inclusivity, incidentally aligning with the Central Bank’s agenda of making financial inclusivity a priority. We focus on the 3P philosophy - people, planet, and profit. If you take care of the former two, the latter automatically follows.
The entire point is that you need to focus on doing business responsibly. We have a product called Planet Solution - a corporate loan that is given to energy-efficient industries.
The other one is ‘TARA’. It is a 360-degree banking proposition for women. It is not a mere banking service. The Women Banking Segment is divided into three pillars: Financial Inclusion, Financial Solution and Capacity Development and Networking. We have made it easy for women to avail the TARA service. We have women’s counters at all our branches and a dedicated relationship manager to help women with whatever banking needs they may have - starting from opening an account to bookkeeping.
There are around 50+ merchants who are now offering TARA customers’ special privileges. There are SME loans offering preferential rates for TARA customers. There is also the TARA Platinum credit card.
We are also working on a few other exciting projects that you will see soon.
Globally Technology is disrupting almost every industry. Everyone is now talking about digital banking, what does this mean to you? What is your digital strategy at BRAC Bank?
We are aligning ourselves to go into the branchless banking concept. We are completely revamping our mobile banking services. It will take banking to the customer’s fingertips and make banking easier and accessible.
You look after External Affairs, Marketing, CSR and Service Quality as a Senior Vice President and the Head of Communications and Service Quality. Can you talk a little bit about how you operate?
I have a small team, 8 people including myself, each of whom plays a very active and strong role in how we operate. We work as a team and, each and every person has to be really good at what they do.
Communication is a demanding business. You have to be always available and always prepared to run and get the job done. Of course, we take the time to brainstorm and ponder and come up with ideas but most of the time we are focused on delivery. The way bank is moving forward and evolving, we can't afford to lose a day being in the creative mode.
We have some strong partner agencies we collaborate with when there are projects.
My teammates work really hard but we also have fun. There are days when we work till late into the night. Our families understand the nature of our work.
My team is a good balance with young and energetic individuals working with an old boss like me. I am the conservative one who tends to put brakes on their ideas. But they do a great job at convincing me and then all hell breaks loose!
We support the businesses through sales campaigns, product launch and events. We are a very happening bank with lots of internal events and engagement programs which keep us aligned with our long-term strategy.
What does it take to design a communication strategy that works?
To begin with, you have to think long-term and invest in right resources. Investment in people and technology should be the priority.
The second one is to be able to sell your product or service. Does McDonald's make the best burgers in the world? We do not know. But do they market them as best? Yes, they do. It is critical that you tell people about your product and services. It is about talking, eating, sleeping and breathing your brand 24/7.
When it comes to executing a communication campaign, I believe in simple, direct and clear communication. It has to be authentic.
People have to see the core purpose of the product or service. If the core purpose of your product or service is communicated simply then the rest is history.
The basic thing is that your plan can be ideal and well thought out but the reality is not. Reality changes all the time and your job is to address it accordingly.
How do you think about strategy?
The first thing you need to know is where do you want to go and what do you want to achieve? Then comes how do you want to achieve it? You can either achieve it through quick fixes or short-term immediate strategies or you can go for a long-term strategy. There can always be multiple ways to achieve your goal with the resources that you have. Strategy often comes down to making this choice.
The important feature of a strategy is to be flexible, to be able to shift gears and switch tactics. You have to keep flexibility and contingency in mind when you are designing your strategy. For instance, your plan is to achieve something in a particular way or within a particular time but if it does not happen or if something fundamental changes what is your contingency plan? How will you go about achieving your goals now?
You have to have enough flexibility and contingency built into your strategy so that you can make adjustments when required. The basic thing is that your plan can be ideal and well thought out but the reality is not. Reality changes all the time and your job is to address it accordingly.
Thinking long-term particularly helps because you can add flexibility measures, gears, and instruments so that you can tweak here and there and reach the ultimate goal.
The marketing and advertising industry is going through a major shift globally. We are seeing, for the first time in decades, the great unbundling of TV, thanks to Netflix and relentless pursuit of TV ad dollars by major social media networks, slow death of advertising as we know it, a handful of alternatives to banner ads and more. What changes do you see down the line of 5 to 10 years in marketing in the context of Bangladesh?
There are many things that Bangladesh is going to do where the other countries will not in the next few years. Dhaka has the second-highest number of Facebook users in the world. One thing that has fundamentally changed is the targeting and precision of communication. Now you can reach out to a specific community of people with greater precision which was very difficult before.
Digital will dominate a large part of the communication. Today, people do not have the luxury of time to sift through the pages of a newspaper or scroll through TV channels for hours. We are on our phones or YouTube or on social media. The way people consume content has changed.
We are clearly seeing digital dominance over other forms. In the next few years, it will be a little more streamlined. Communication will not be random anymore, it will be more focused and we will be able to find the Ruhuls, Zaras, and Rahims. We will be able to pinpoint who will take that credit card and what he or she will buy or use the card for. Information is becoming scarily available.
At the same time, a convergence of online and offline platforms in a more seamless manner is inevitable.
Brands will have to act and operate in a more responsible way in a world where everything is public and everyone has a voice.
One of the fundamental shifts I think is how communications works now. In the past it was one-way communication, brands used to talk to customers and customers had very little opportunity to talk back. But now things are different. Customers have platforms where they can talk back and they are in fact talking back. This has created a whole new dynamics for brands. What challenges do you think the brands and companies are going to face due to these changes?
One of the things I guess is brands and companies will have to act in a more responsible manner. Gender issues, political issues, and all social issues have to be taken into account in a progressive and wider manner, I have to pick and choose what I will show and what I will not show, and how I choose to market and what I choose to market.
For instance, take TARA. Yes, it is talking about woman empowerment and supporting women but in no way, we will portray TARA in a way that indicates that women need my help. It is not about needing the help, it is about being a partner in someone’s struggle or mission. These are two different things.
TARA is the partner to a woman's progress. Brands will have to act and operate in a more responsible way in a
world where everything is public and each person has a voice.
The second thing is we have to be in it for the long run and should not look for short and quick stunts that bring a quick result that is not sustainable.
Business is a male-dominated world and it is often unwelcoming to the women. From your own experience, did you face any challenge or discrimination in the past because of your gender? How do you navigate such challenges?
Well, no discrimination from BRAC Bank and my colleagues here in particular. But women do face discrimination every single day in many things that we do. We have not reached the ultimate gender equal world yet. But the world is getting better. Maybe, my children will see that world.
It is about resilience and getting used to many different things. Generally, I just keep at it and go ahead and do my job and try not to allow the negative opinions of others affect my work.
There is no formula about how to navigate such a situation. Sometimes I get mad when people say “Oh, you are a woman, you will not understand it!”
On the contrary, I should be able to understand it because I’m a woman. Sometimes, it is very difficult to stay calm. But then and again, that is how it is and we have to deal with it.
What is your management philosophy?
Be open, communicative and transparent. I manage my team like my family. Sometimes it gets tough because each person has their own set of problems.
I maintain a 'can do' approach. I believe every single problem has a solution.
Do you feel self-doubt? How do you deal with it?
Of course, every day! Then again I have a very strong team who tells me “Boss, there is nothing that we cannot do”.
Personally, I deal with self-doubt with activities that help me. I pray 5 times a day. This keeps me focused and motivated throughout my day
Also, I love to dance. Before my 3rd pregnancy and delivery, I used to run 2 miles a day, do kickboxing and also used to swim - I was a complete health freak. I also love to sit and relax with my friends and family. I love painting when I get the chance.
In order to be effective as a leader, you have to understand your people well. You have to find what your team likes and does not like.
How do you think about leadership?
Every one of us is a leader in certain areas in our lives. Life gives us different roles and we play our parts on different stages.
For me, leadership is about a couple of things. It starts with setting the vision and goal, explaining it to everybody in your team, getting everybody on board and then doing whatever it takes to get your ship moving in the right direction.
In order to be effective as a leader, you have to understand your people well. You have to find what your team likes and does not like.
You have to understand what your team wants individually and collectively. These have to be aligned. You have to find the balance in your team and work on everyone’s strength while strengthening and overcoming the weaknesses.
For example, my team enjoys eating out and partying. We work hard and play harder.
You have come a long way in your journey, what has contributed to your journey the most?
There are a lot of people stronger than me who have achieved much more than me. I have received an incredible amount of support from many people.
That said, I think I am very lucky. I have come across opportunities and taken them and have been blessed to be able to work very hard.
Luck apart; there is no shortcut to success. If I do not work hard, I will not be able to do what I want to do. My philosophy is simple, in any position or any work that you are given, embrace it, run with it and do the best you can. Work hard.
How do you think about life?
I believe that every single moment we live can be our last moment. Everyone knows that but we forget to live by it. Live life as if this is your last moment. If anyone is unhappy with you or you are unhappy with anyone then resolve it immediately. As Naveed jokes, “Zara and I have a pact that we will not go to bed angry at each other. That's why we were up for two weeks once.”
This is what I believe. If someone is upset with me or I am upset with someone, I just walk in and try to fix that and resolve it as soon as possible.
Love your work, it will become your calling.
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?
Life is unlivable without challenges. If you are not challenged then seek one. Take whatever you are doing as a challenge and only then you will be able to do well.
Pursue your dream. Instead of worrying, act. If you want to be a poet, write a poem and go find that publisher who will publish your book. Because if don’t, you will regret it someday. Don’t die with your poem inside. Each and every person has a calling. We are here for a reason.
My life's calling is to work to make things better in whatever I do, whether it is the call center or customer relationship or any other industry. Love your work; it will become your calling.
What books have you been reading lately?
Right now I am reading The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple. It is about the last Mughal emperor Zafar and the fall of Mughal empire with him.
I have a long list of favorite books. In particular, I enjoyed reading Agony and Ecstasy by Irving Stone on the life of Michelangelo and Muhammad: A Prophet for our time by Karen Armstrong.
Pursue your dream. Instead of worrying, act. If you want to be a poet, write a poem and go find that publisher who will publish your book. Because if don’t, you will regret it someday. Don’t die with your poem inside.
(Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Mohammad Tashnim, lead image: file photo/Zara Mahbub)
Updated on August 17: This interview has been updated for clarity.
Updated on August 22: This interview has been updated for clarity.