Life’s Work: An Interview With Mridul Chowdhury, Founder and CEO, mPower Social Enterprises

Life’s Work: An Interview With Mridul Chowdhury, Founder and CEO, mPower Social Enterprises

Dhaka Bank GO Credit BannerMridul Chowdhury is the founder and CEO of mPower Social Enterprises. Prior to starting mPower, he worked in a host of sectors starting from academia to government to NGO. After his post graduation from Harvard University, he made a conscious decision not to pursue a conventional career,- “throughout my life, I have often ended up taking the path less traveled” – which eventually led to the founding of mPower.

Over the past years, mPower has done groundbreaking works in bringing systemic change in the development sector and grown into a development giant spanning multiple sectors and countries. It has created a new paradigm in the field of social good and now it is aiming even higher.

In this interview, Mr. Chowdhury takes us through his journey to what he is doing today, trials and tribulations he has had to face throughout his career, his strategy for dealing with self-doubt and stress that comes with being an entrepreneur, talks about how mPower is approaching its next phase of growth to how shared autonomy defines its internal culture and why finding right people remains a key challenge for his company to his ambition for mPower over the next few years, shares his thoughts on education, leadership and strategy, discusses the metamorphosis that the development sector is going through and his views about the future of the sector, and reflects on why our deeper meaning and soul-satisfying joy comes from taking the uncharted path and bringing about enduring change and why we should actively resist mere busyness over living and the temptation of pursuing fame or wealth alone over meaningful work.

This is a gratifying read in its entirety, sublime and intellectually empowering. Happy reading! – Ruhul Kader

Future Startup

Where did you grow up? Please tell us about your journey to what you are doing today.

Mridul Chowdhury

I grew up in an academic kind of family. My father is a space physicist, a Ph.D. in Space Physics. He has always been deeply interested in science and mathematics. During the Liberation war, he, my mother and my elder brother were under an unofficial house arrest in West Pakistan, Karachi where my father was working for the Space Research Organization, Pakistan. My family had to flee from Karachi to Dhaka.

After the independence, Space Research Organization, Pakistan was turned into SPARRSO which my father led in various capacities until his retirement. After retirement, he became the executive director of Bangladesh Computer Council. Ever since he came back from Pakistan he had dedicated his life to helping to rebuild this newly born country.

My mother was a mathematics graduate. She did her Master’s in Mathematics from Dhaka University which was rare at that time for a girl to pursue. She was a principal, and administrator of several colleges. After retirement, she started an NGO to develop technology based education materials.

I think I inherited two things from my parents. One is a passion for technology as a means to solving humanity’s problems. Both my parents were very passionate about technology and its power in making lives better. The other thing that I inherited from them is a passion for playing a role in building the nation, however small that role may be. They created the value system in me, which I still think has been a driving force for all my actions. While many of my classmates that I grew up with cannot read or write formal Bangla, my mother made sure that the language and culture of this land is an intricate part of my identity. This was the environment that I grew up in.

I went to the USA for my graduation and post graduation but I never thought of settling in the USA. I think this was because of my family and the way I was brought up and also the influence of my elder brother, Anir Chowdhury, who came back to Bangladesh after 17 years in the US and relentlessly and patiently pursuing a dream of better governance through technologies in Bangladesh.

I always had in mind that I am going abroad for gaining skills and experience, but that I have to come back and help contribute to the development of my country with that skill.

I went to Maple Leaf International School back in the 1980s and 90s. It was one of the top few English Medium Schools in Dhaka. My years in school were some of the most formative years of my life. English medium curriculum was different at that time. There was no subject on Bangladesh and our history. We were growing up in a school environment where we couldn’t connect with the country and the people. The school environment was so “international” that it could have been anywhere in the world.

We decided to do something about it. We designed and ran a survey in different English medium schools to understand the state of knowledge regarding Bangla and Bangladesh among students. The findings surprised us all. For example, many people struggled to tell the years of Language Movement and the Liberation War and the exact role of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman during the Liberation War. It was a horrible reality to wake up to.

When the findings came in, we wrote an article in The Daily Star’s ‘Star Weekend’ magazine titled “Stunning Revelations” that invoked a nation-wide discussion around the topic. The editor of The Daily Star, Mahfuz Anam, called us and told us to put together a movement around it rather than running a one-off survey which eventually led to the founding of an organization called Teenage Awareness Group (TAG) to promote inclusion of Bangladeshi curriculum in English medium schools with an alignment with the country’s culture and history. It was supported by many parents as well.

Knowing your own history and roots is incredibly important. It gives us our identity. Not knowing your root or your place in the world may lead to identity crisis which may lead to an unpleasant outcome for many people including a sense of lack of belongingness and happiness as well as a high chance to become extremists. People are naturally prone to seeking an identity, and if they can’t find one in the society they live in, they try to find it somewhere else.

The school years were defining years for me in many ways. I was not exactly sure about what I would pursue in my life, but at a broad level, I felt that I needed to contribute to building the nation. I felt that people like my father who sacrificed their promising opportunities in other countries to develop the nation, left an unfinished task. To be very honest I really felt that there was not much difference in the necessity and urgency of building the nation between 1990 and 1971. We still couldn’t move on to the next level of building the nation even after 19 years of freedom.

After my A levels, I went to The University of Texas, Austin, in 1995. I did my major in mathematics and computer science. Mathematics runs through my family but computer science was the trend at that time. The South Asian parents were very optimistic about computer science. There was social and peer pressure for studying computer science.

After studying computer science for 3 years, I got an opportunity to do an internship at Motorola near Boston, where for the first time I was exposed to the professional world of computer science. Within a very short time, I found out that computer science is not the profession that I wanted to pursue. I did not want to spend rest of my life in front of a computer. When I returned to campus, I decided not to continue my computer science major, even though I had only a few classes left.

I cannot say that the decision was taken very positively by my family – my elder brother was a computer science major – but neither pushed me that hard. After leaving computer science, I tried to look for other subjects. I was interested in Economics and Political Science so I added those. I think I was also trying to push back getting into professional life as much as I could by studying and taking more courses. I had a scholarship so I did not have to worry too much about paying bills and tuition. I took the advantage and started adding majors. In the end, it took me about 5 years to complete my graduation and I came out with 3 majors namely in Economics, Mathematics and Political Science and a minor in Computer Science.

After graduation, while visiting my brother, Anir Chowdhury, who was living in Boston at that time, I came across a research project on technology and economic development by some professors at Harvard University which caught my attention. I was still not sure about what I wanted to do with my life but I was interested in Economics and development. I somehow managed the email address of the professor and sent him a cold email and showed up at his office the next day.

I told him about my background and my passion for development and also that I’m still not sure what I wanted to pursue in life but I found their research interesting and that I would love to be a part of it. After a few days, he called me back and offered me a job to work with him in his research unit. It was under the Centre for International Development at Harvard University. The research project was particularly looking at the interaction of information technology and economic development. At a macro level, how investment in information technology translates into the economic competitiveness of a country. I found it very fascinating.

I worked as a researcher in that research unit for two and a half years. It was a fascinating experience. I got to travel to many countries during those years including countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa and talked to a lot of people to understand their perspectives and the impact of information technology. I had the opportunity to work with Professor Michael Porter and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who were the heads of that research project. At that early stage of my career, I was blessed to have had the opportunity to work and understand their thoughts and direction and it was something incredibly empowering.

Interestingly Bangladesh was one of the countries in our research, for which I had to interact with stakeholders and people in the government which eventually led to my working with the Government as a consultant. The government was trying to develop their first project of e-governance at that time. This was back in 2002 to 2003. e-Governance was not something commonly understood. The government had the money and the intention to do something in the e-governance space but they didn’t quite know how to put the pieces together to develop the project. Eventually, I got the opportunity to work on the project which was to some extent, a predecessor of the current Access to Information (a2i) program. Working in the government as somewhat of a semi-insider was a fascinating experience for me.

I learned a lot about the challenges that normal people wouldn’t see from the outside. Moreover, I could see some real life unsung heroes working for the development of the country overcoming all personal and occupational obstacles. We, the common people only see the politicians but politicians are just one part of how the government works – no one actually sees and understands the work of bureaucrats – the ones who make the administrative mechanism function.

From there I switched to UNDP where my role was more from the donor side. a2i was coming into existence at that time where I had to participate from UNDP. I was also the acting executive director of an NGO called D.Net for a couple of months during a transition phase.

After working with UNDP for about a year, I went back to the US to do my post-graduation at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 2006 after postponing for 2 years, since I felt I had unfinished work at home.

By the time, I went to Harvard in 2006, I hoped that I would have clarity about what I wanted to do in life. I was not clear about what I wanted to get out of my two years at Harvard but I knew what I did not want to do after two years. By the time I was getting into Harvard, I had experience of working in a host of sectors starting from academia to government to NGO. I also experienced things from a donor perspective. I experienced the development sector from all sort of angles. I knew that I did not want to get back to the core of the development sector.

I was not fully convinced about the model, which was largely dependent on donors and was not sustainable in the long run. But I cared a lot about development.

Throughout my life, I have often ended up taking the path less traveled. It has not always been easy and without moments of doubt. In fact, in many instances, it was fraught (and still is) with difficulties but so far I have enjoyed it. For taking the path less traveled is often what makes all the difference.

At Harvard, I was studying development economics. Harvard and MIT allow you to cross-register courses which mean if you are enrolled at Harvard you can take classes at MIT and vice versa. Since I was more interested in technology, I was taking a lot of classes at MIT where I came across the Development Entrepreneurship course at MIT Media Lab.

The core focus of the course was coming up with business solutions to development challenges. It was an intellectually challenging exercise for me and taught me how to think about development from a private-sector perspective. That was the foundation of mPower and many of the work we are now doing at mPower.

In 2007, we started working on a solution related to giving people remote access to a physician that they would not otherwise get by using technology. This model is now being pursued by Jeeon, a spin-off from mPower. In 2007, this model was way ahead of its time. Even iPhone was not in the market yet. Our target was to enhance health service delivery based on smart phones.

That class was very different from a typical class. There was no exam, pass or fail – it was only based on business case presentations to a panel of judges. The entire course was comprised of lectures and presentation of guest lecturers who have done crazy things and pursued crazy ideas. At the end of the course, we had to convince a panel of judges that our business solution and idea has a winning proposition. Going through those 4 months was a life-changing experience for me.

The class gave me the confidence that I too can do something crazy which might work or not but at the very least I would be invited back to this class for that craziness which I felt was itself a goal worth shooting for. During my last semester, my classmates were applying for jobs at the World Bank and other multinational organizations, but with the experience of working at UNDP, I felt I had enough of that life.

MIT had a competition called MIT $100K which was a 9 months long competition with more than 200 teams participating from different universities. In the social enterprise track, we ended up winning that competition which led to the founding of ClickDiagnostics Inc and we used the initial pot of money to hire ourselves and some people.

Our initial founders were from Harvard and MIT and I was the only one from Bangladesh. We got our first engagement in Cairo with the Egyptian Government. Right after graduation, I moved to Cairo and set up our base office. Our initial operation was in Africa for the next 3 years.

While in Cairo, I met Sir Fazle Hasan Abed in an event there and he put me in touch with BRAC which eventually led to our working with BRAC Health program. It was around that time that I started discussions with Rubayat Khan (who now runs the mPower spin-off, Jeeon) and Tahmina Khanam (who is now a shareholder of mPower) who willingly came forward to start the Bangladesh operations of ClickDiagnostics and that too without any salary. Through them, our Bangladesh operations found its footing. Without the Rubayat and Tahmina taking the blind leap of faith, the fate of mPower could have taken a very different trajectory.

Throughout my life, I have often ended up taking the path less traveled. It has not always been easy and without moments of doubt. In fact, in many instances, it was fraught (and still is) with difficulties but so far I have enjoyed it. For taking the path less traveled is often what makes all the difference.

A Message From Dhaka Bank Limited

Dhaka Bank Go Contextual Native Ad BannerINTRODUCING DHAKA BANK GO – LET THE BANK MATCH YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE

Dhaka Bank Go gives you secure access to your Dhaka Bank Accounts and Credit Cards and other exciting facilities from your mobile devices anytime, anywhere. Explore and enjoy the infinite opportunities. Learn more here.

I think I inherited two things from my parents. One is a passion for technology as a means to solving humanity’s problems. Both my parents were very passionate about technology and its power in making lives better. The other thing that I inherited from them is a passion for playing a role in building the nation, however small that role may be. They created the value system in me, which I still think has been a driving force for all my actions.

Future Startup

When you decided to shift you major from computer science to economics and political science, how did you make that decision? Most people either do not get this kind of opportunity or fail to muster the courage to do so.

Mridul Chowdhury

For that, I am very indebted to the American educational system. In Bangladesh, you cannot think of switching your major after 3 years.

The problem in our country is that at the age of 18 when you don’t know much about real life, you have to make the most important decision of your professional life which will impact the kind of occupation you will pursue in the future as well as the life you will have. It is very unfair to force that decision at such an early age.

Future Startup

Other than the education system, there has to be a certain mental maturity to make that kind of decision. In our country, our parents ask us to go and do BBA, be a doctor or an engineering and the children do that without even thinking about it. After college, very few students think deeply about life and occupation. My question is what prepared you for choosing your own path?

Mridul Chowdhury

My family never forced me to do something that I did not want to. At times, they were confused and perhaps even sad because of my decisions and choices, but they never forced me to do anything against my will. It really came from the family background that I grew up in.

The second point was my Liberal Arts education and the professors and mentors that I could talk to. There were professors that I could go to and talk about life and life’s choices.

I still remember that one of my professors had encouraged me to take economics rather than computer science even though he himself was a computer science professor. He could really see that my heart was not in computer science.

In Bangladesh that is not the kind of relationship that students usually have with their professors.

Moreover, Liberal Arts education teaches you a systematic process of thinking and help you in developing a personality. Mathematics and Philosophy were two of my favorite subjects that taught me how to disintegrate and simplify a complex problem or situation.

In our education system, a computer science graduate seldom goes through philosophy course. To be very honest, an undergrad education is supposed to be about forming a well-rounded personality who can think critically and look at things from different perspectives instead of building specialized skills. It should be about preparing you for the rest of your life rather than for just a specific occupation.

I could define four different critical junctures in my life where I had taken an unusual path to walk on. The first one was when I decided to change my major from computer science to economics after a short stint at Motorola.

The second juncture was when I finished my undergrad. While people were looking for ‘real’ jobs, I was not really looking for a job or career. In the end, I ended up in an exploratory research position, which was not really a ‘real’ job after graduation.

The third point was returning to Bangladesh instead of pursuing a Masters at Harvard. I was working there and I had the pressure to complete my Masters from there during the same time. But I made a conscious decision to come back to Bangladesh. If I had stayed back at Harvard then, I would never have learned about the passions and dreams that I really care about.

The final juncture was when I decided to pursue my passion to establish ClickDiagnostics instead of going for a job after my post graduation from Harvard. The fact that I had a full scholarship as a Dean’s Fellow definitely helped me in taking that decision since I did not end up with a huge student loan after graduation.

However, in each of these junctures, I think I might have been unconsciously eliminating my alternative options each time, so that I had to choose the only available option with no regrets or distractions from other possible options.

Mridul Chowdhury and Anir Chowdhury (from left to right)

Mridul Chowdhury and Anir Chowdhury (from left to right)

The problem in our country is that at the age of 18 when you don’t know much about real life, you have to make the most important decision of your professional life which will impact the kind of occupation you will pursue in the future as well as the life you will have. It is very unfair to force that decision at such an early age.

Future Startup

If you look back to your life and your decades of experience in building and growing companies and enabling social change, what are the biggest lessons from all those years?

Mridul Chowdhury

There are possibly three major things that I can recall as the biggest lessons from my life.

First, you can look at the worth of your life from many different perspectives, but one of the most important ones is the number of lives you have been able to touch and the number of lives you have been able to impact positively. That is one of the reasons why I’m more interested in systemic change that can affect a large number of people than getting involved in any specific charity work of one single organization or initiative.

Take Jeeon for example. From the outset, it seems like they provide a new kind of health service but it is more than that – it is about holistically changing how healthcare is delivered in Bangladesh and around the globe. It is about trying to bring a systemic change rather than just one new service in the market.

The second lesson is that if you want something badly enough, the entire universe will conspire to make it work for you. People believe in their faith and can achieve success by just believing in it badly enough. My religious view corresponds to it.

I believe that there is a Higher Power who is looking after me. There may be bumps along the way but they are just minor bumps and there is a Higher Force that is ensuring that if I want something badly enough with enough commitment, then it will happen in the end. This is my faith and it has carried me through my hard days.

The third lesson has been around family and fatherhood. My perspective on life changed entirely when I became a father for the first time and when my first child, Mrinmoyee, was born, and then reinforced when my second child, Maheer, came to this world. A big part of my focus in life now centers around ensuring that I am able to transfer the value system that I grew up with to my children, just like my parents did. I realized that even if I have touched a lot of lives, I would ultimately be a failure if I am not able to transfer a humane value system to my children.

Mridul Chowdhury

Mridul Chowdhury

You can look at the worth of your life from many different perspectives, but one of the most important ones is the number of lives you have been able to touch and the number of lives you have been able to impact positively.

Future Startup

Please give us a short background of mPower and then an overview of mPower including team size, the scope of operations, solutions you are offering now and how does the institution work?

Mridul Chowdhury

The way mPower came into being is interesting. I was looking for ways where I could enhance the impact of the development sector in general. You have NGOs, you have donors and governments and they will carry out development plans and sometimes not so optimally. Now you have two options to choose from. One is to sit on the fence and criticize, and the other one is to work within that system to enhance it.

As I said earlier, ClickDiagnostics was the genesis of mPower. mPower was born from it as we expanded to domains other than health. The lessons that we learned from ClickDiagnostics later helped us to build mPower.

ClickDiagnostics was about taking doctor’s services to areas using technology where there is a scarcity of doctors. While running ClickDiagnostics, we came to understand that we were actually dealing with a failure of flow of information to the right person at the right time.

When we looked at the entire development sector, we found that there is an overall problem in the development sector related to information flow. In the development sector, about 10 years ago, they were not using data all that much and making data-driven decisions.

At mPower, we are working towards a profound systemic change in the entire development sector. We want to do that by optimizing information flow across development actors.

From mPower, we build technology solutions so that information gets digitized and reach to the people who need it in order to make better decisions. This regular update not only help with understanding the progress, it also allows you to know in real time what is working and what is not and what needs to be done to fix the problem. At the same time, it also creates accountability because everything is recorded and available to everyone now.

That is why we never say that mPower just creates software solutions. We say that we are like an amplifier that enhances the work that development agencies are doing.

Think about information flow in health services. If you can digitize information about pregnant mother, you know when a child will be born, when they will need vaccinations and if they don’t show up for their services, the system automatically generates alerts about specific actions to be taken – actions if taken on time, can save lives, or prevent life-long disabilities.

Think about optimal information flow in agriculture services. Potatoes have a disease called blight disease. A certain combination of temperature, humidity, and other parameters act as favorable factors for blight disease attack on the potatoes. Now if I can tell the farmers about the possibility of the disease before the attack based on the symptoms and assessment of environment then that is a valuable information for a farmer because he/she will be able to take preventive measures against the blight disease by putting in pesticides on time. Every year blight disease causes the destruction of 20% of our potatoes but if you can provide actionable information at the right time, you can play a role in avoiding some loss. That is what mPower does, creating actionable information to save lives, to save livelihoods.

The second area of our work at mPower is decentralizing services of experts such as doctors, agriculture specialists, veterinarians, teachers. For instance, there are experts, who are few in number compared to the people who need their services. We use technology to link up local resources with experts so that community members can access their services and knowledge.

The third area is using technology to give the citizen a voice so that they can make their grievances heard.

The fourth area is around using technology for learning in a fun and interactive manner.

mPower provides solutions for these above 4 areas.

We now work in a host of sectors including Health and Nutrition, Water and Sanitation, Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Governance and Rights, Education, Livelihood and Poverty Alleviation, Climate Change and Environment.

We are a team of close to a 100 people at mPower. With incubated efforts such as Jeeon and Trauma Link, the number will be somewhere near 150.

Future Startup

How do people work at mPower? Can you talk about organizational culture at mPower?

Mridul Chowdhury

We have people from diverse backgrounds which we take very seriously. Having a diverse team is critical to us because of the nature of our work. The biggest part of our work is designing the solution, which means we need domain experts besides technical people. The software engineer needs to understand the problem of a veterinarian or a farmer in order to design a system or software that would help them. So we have to ensure that we are having an interdisciplinery work environment with informal and formal collaboration among teams.

We provide lunch at the office canteen so that we all can have lunch together and exchange ideas. We organize cross-learning sessions where individual team members share their perspectives where team members from different units participate.

We also have table tennis and some other recreational opportunities that bring people in informal non-work related environments during work hours.

We try our best not to act like a hierarchical organization. We believe more in creating leaders than exercising authority.

There are possibly two types of people in the world when it comes to working within a structure. The first group is more comfortable in a structured environment.

And there is the second type of people who don’t do well under a strict structure. They like more freedom. You give them broad guideline and they will figure the rest out.

We try to figure out our people who are what and try to deal with them accordingly. This is important to us because if you expect a fish to climb the tree and set success criteria based on that, then it will not be fruitful.

We have people from diverse backgrounds which we take very seriously. Having a diverse team is critical to us because of the nature of our work. The biggest part of our work is designing the solution, which means we need domain experts besides technical people.

Future Startup

mPower promotes an idea called ‘Smart development’, can you please elaborate the idea a bit?

Mridul Chowdhury

As I said earlier, mPower is not about technology or a mobile app. Our approach is more around bringing systemic change in the whole ecosystem. Ecosystems are comprised of people.

Smart Development is not necessarily about a smart App or technology itself. It is about creating an ecosystem which can deliver an optimum information flow with a proper understanding of human psychology.

When designing a product or solution, people sometimes forget this and focus too much on the app or the technology. But when you are designing a solution, it is not about technology, rather it is about the problem and the solution.

Our approach is more about understanding the essence of the problem, taking all the relevant circumstances into consideration and then designing a solution that works.

Future Startup

If you look back, then how much has mPower evolved over the past years?

Mridul Chowdhury

The core part of mPower is a B2B service where we are giving services to different organizations. We have been doing this for a while now.

One of the major strategic departures would be that we are now working on some more consumer focused efforts. We have realized that in order to scale our impact we need to go beyond the B2B model.

We are incubating a few efforts where we will directly provide services to the citizens. Jeeon – a healthcare service, and TraumaLink – an emergency aid service that deals with road accidents, are two examples. TraumaLink is adopting a social enterprise model. We are also trying to develop social enterprise model for our agricultural products.

Apart from existing services, we are working on an initiative, through which the unemployed young people in the village who have smartphones will be working as an information hub for an income. Our challenge is to find a model where we will be able to enable these young people to make a meaningful contribution as well as find a sustainable business model for all of us.

One of the major strategic departures would be that we are now working on some more consumer focused efforts. We have realized that in order to scale our impact we need to go beyond the B2B model.

Future Startup

Tell us about your incubation effort at mPower. You have been incubating some of your in-house products for a while now, what are the plans with the incubator?

Future Startup

There are a lot of young people with bright ideas but due to lack of proper platform, they often cannot take their ideas to the market. Some of them manage to fund their ideas from their own pockets or through a grant or competition but often with the limited funds they fail to assess the market feasibility let alone getting some traction.

Due to lack of opportunity to test their ideas, many ends up doing things that are often supply driven and based on pure gut feeling that “I think it will work”. But in reality, a lot of intuition doesn’t work.

You have to test your idea. There is a rigorous process of testing intuitiveness. Unless you go through this process you cannot say whether it is worth investing or not. Just because it makes sense logically it does not make it a good investment. This is where we can help startups and early-stage ventures.

We have a limited scale incubator, we call it mCube initiative. Our tagline is “initiatives worth growing”. mCube has helped some of our internal projects such as TraumaLink, Jeeon, mTracker etc which were initiatives by our own mPower family members.

Now we are opening it up for people outside mPower. We have experience of building companies from scratch, we have our technical team, our connections across industries and other resources that we want to share. They can use our resources and network to test their products. We have also developed a rigorous procedure of testing market feasibility. Along with this support, we are also offering work space.

So if you are building a technology driven solution that has a social goal, we think we can help.

We have a limited scale incubator, we call it mCube initiative. Our tagline is “initiatives worth growing”. mCube has helped some of our internal projects such as TraumaLink, Jeeon, mTracker etc which were initiatives by our own mPower family members. Now we are opening it up for people outside mPower.

Future Startup

Do you provide funding?

Mridul Chowdhury

We do provide seed funding for a small equity in the company but it is not structured yet and depends on the collaboration structure, what we are providing and what they are providing etc.

Future Startup

The development sector has been going through a lot of changes over the past years starting from the shrinking donor funding to impact investment to NGOs adopting social enterprise model. How much has the sector evolved over the past years? What do you think about the future of the sector?

Mridul Chowdhury

One major change is of course that the development sector is becoming more and more data-driven.

Private sector companies are always collecting and analyzing data about their customers in order to develop a better understanding of their market and customers. Because if they cannot keep up with the customers and the changes in the market, they will be out of business soon. Unless you understand your customers, your competition, your market, you will not be able to compete in the market.

In development sector, this scenario is different because my customers are not actually paying for services. Rather someone else is paying for my services. This reality changes the whole strategy. Since my survival does not depend on the end users, my existential threat also does not come from them which eventually leads to a sluggish approach to development work without any regard towards data.

However, this scenario is changing gradually. Previously data generation was very complex, difficult and costly. Moreover, development partners are now asking for more things in exchange for their support.

Due to digitization, data collection, analysis are no more a costly task. We can now generate data on the go and digitization of data has become very cheap. For instance, while running vaccination programs, you can now use devices to generate data and store it which can eventually give you a clear picture of the program and progress. As a result, you can better understand your customers.

This has deeper implications. Through using data you can understand your individual customer or beneficiary and design interventions accordingly. This is a big change that has happened in the development sector.

In the next 5 to 10 years, there will be profound changes in the structure of the sector, the way service delivery is organized and the way donor funding works.

As the industry becomes more data-driven, donors are also able to demand to know what is exactly happening with their money.

Another major shift I can see is around sustainability. Sustainable social enterprise model with innovative solutions will be a more commonplace approach to solving development challenges.

Private sector works in areas where supply and demand meet at a certain price point, where you make a product and someone buys it from you. The NGO model is operating in places where the demand and supply do not meet at a price point that consumers can afford.

This is where the social enterprise comes in. The ambition of social enterprise is to be able to provide a service which would otherwise not be provided if the market were to be left to its own natural forces. And many social enterprises use innovative ecosystem approach so that there are many economic actors paying for services so that the burden is not just on a single consumer. Social enterprise operates in spaces where market-driven approach fails.

Previously social enterprise was not a big thing but now a lot of players are coming to this sector. There are many NGOs which are trying to project them as social enterprises but in reality, they are not. They are just old wine in a new bottle.

Essentially, Social Enterprise model is a sustainable model and depends on the innovative engineering of market forces rather than donors or charity funding. The added challenge for a social enterprise is that it has to be very innovative about business model and services because it aims to serve a market that private sector fails to serve in a commercial way. This is a place where major innovations will happen and more concentration should be given.

Mridul Chowdhury and Rubayat Khan at Harvard (from left to right)

Mridul Chowdhury and Rubayat Khan at Harvard (from left to right)

Future Startup

mPower has grown significantly over the past years. Can you please touch on a little about the challenges you faced in the early days and the challenges that you are facing now and the difference between the nature of the two?

Mridul Chowdhury

When we were starting out, we actually did not have a market. Data driven decision making was not a thing in the development sector yet. People did not understand the idea and many did not take it seriously. Naturally, the challenge was educating and preparing the market.

Over the past years, we have been able to create a market and it is now getting more and more sophisticated. The challenge is now to keep up with the changes in the market.

There are some large organizations that have micro-finance programs, extreme poverty programs, and health programs. Previously, they wanted a solution for one program and separately but now they are asking for a more complex solution where they can combine data from all the programs and see the impact more holistically.

Now we have to work hard on keeping up with changes in the market and requirements of our clients.

There is another sort of perennial challenge in retaining talents. We have a dynamic environment here. We recruit a lot of people from different backgrounds. In fact, when we hire people we start with having a discussion about their future plans. But often things don’t work out at the end.

Now we are trying to get used to it. We now expect that a lot of people will go for higher studies while working with us and we will be helping them in the process.

Now we take pride in the fact that a lot of people from mPower is currently in leadership roles in big organizations or are studying in universities like Oxford and Harvard among others.

Another challenge for us now is aligning everyone with our strategic ambition. We now have around 10 to 12 units in the company which was around one or two in the beginning and was easier to manage with respect to strategic alignment. It is much harder now because every unit has their own goals and objectives which have become their immediate focus. In order to bring everyone on a single page, we have introduced OKR (objectives and key results) approach. We have put together broader OKR for the organization and then broken them down into smaller ones for specific units. We have also put together a quarterly monitoring process so we are keeping tab of things on a continual basis.

We have a lot of things to figure out yet but we have largely figured things out and now the challenge is to fine tune the process and settle on the right ones.

We have started it in 2016 when we ourselves were not experts in this. Moreover, there was no one assigned for the leadership of OKR which caused some confusion about the management and the organization for a small period of time. But now we have a leader for the system and things are much more streamlined.

Future Startup

Going back to the previous question about the changes in the development sector, we are seeing a couple of trends such as behavioral economics playing a big role in designing interventions and the understanding of target audience better. For example, if there is a free school it does not mean that everybody will essentially send their children to school. There are other things that need to be considered, for instance, poor people probably involve their kids in income generating activities from an early age over sending them to school. The other change that we are seeing is in terms of funding, impact investment is slowly gaining momentum over pure donor funding. From these two perspectives, what major trends or changes you are seeing in the development sector.

Mridul Chowdhury

I think we are going to see traditional donors going away gradually. Traditional donor means the charity givers who just give you money and instruct you to do something.

Another major change that development sector will face is the emergence of adaptive management. It means to adapt to the situation and manage accordingly. For example, what happens now is that at the beginning of a project an NGO and a donor come to a binding contract for a certain duration with a budget allocation even before starting of the project.

It is just like our educational system when at the age of 18 we have to make the most important decision of our lives without even knowing the impact of one degree vs another.

Now, when a project starts, we learn a lot of new things and new challenges. This may call for a redesign of certain components. Data-driven decision-making will allow these organizations to adapt to dynamic realities and new findings.

The modality of the funding may change as well. Social enterprise model may get the priority. There are donor agencies who have already adopted the model like impact investment and social enterprise funding. Many donors are now organizing innovation challenge to fund sustainable solutions. Our social enterprises such as Jeeon and TraumaLink have received funding from USAID innovation funds.

Essentially, Social Enterprise model is a sustainable model and depends on the innovative engineering of market forces rather than donors or charity funding. The added challenge for a social enterprise is that it has to be very innovative about business model and services because it aims to serve a market that private sector fails to serve in a commercial way.

Future Startup

How do you think about strategy?

Mridul Chowdhury

To me strategy is a very practical term. I feel that too much strategizing can derail from execution. I have seen this in a lot of instances.

To me strategy is about finding a better way of doing things, choosing priority and being effective. While the intellectual part is essential, it is largely about better execution.

Future Startup

What do you think about management and what is your management strategy?

Mridul Chowdhury

My management philosophy centers around creating leaders and not exercising authoritative leadership. We have a flat hierarchy at mPower. We allow and encourage people to take responsibility and exercise their leadership skills.

Another aspect of how I look at management is that I try to start with developing a deeper understanding of the matter, either it is my people or a problem and then try to develop a response around that. As I mentioned earlier, there are people who need structure in order to be effective and there are people who dislike structure. I try to understand the person so that I can manage him accordingly.

What I feel proud about mPower is that our top leadership has been consistent for the last few years. One possible reason is that we are not running after money alone but the impact. Considering the market, many of us are underpaid, despite that there is a bigger force that is bringing us all together – the satisfaction of changing lives.

We often have disagreements in the team. Sometimes we lose our cool. My team can lose it when I am saying something wrong. Similarly, I do as well. But we generally don’t take it personally since we know that we have a common goal that goes beyond the walls of the company.

Many of our difficult meetings take place in our meeting room where there is no chair or setting arrangement. We all sit on the floor. The arrangement is intentionally so to break the power dynamics. The sitting arrangement is asymmetric and it helps to break power dynamics and offer everyone comfort to raise their voice.

My management philosophy centers around creating leaders and not exercising authoritative leadership. We have a flat hierarchy at mPower. We allow and encourage people to take responsibility and exercise their leadership skills.

Future Startup

How do you deal with stress?

Mridul Chowdhury

I share it with others and discuss the cause of the stress. I think it is better than keeping it to yourself.

I am also into documentary filmmaking though not very active. Any creative pursuit is a very effective antidote to stress and other form of mental challenges. I try to work on some unfinished script or story.

I also spend time with my two kids. It is pure joy and peace.

Future Startup

Do you feel self-doubt? How do you deal with it?

Mridul Chowdhury

A healthy dose of self-doubt is never a bad thing. I think self-doubt about the process is very acceptable but self-doubt about the ultimate goal is harmful.

Once you know where you want to go and where you have to go, questioning that objective is dangerous.

Future Startup

How do you work, prioritize and manage time and energy?

Mridul Chowdhury

Well, ever since my marriage, I have made conscious effort to manage time for my family. I try to maintain a healthy balance between my work and family. I try not to come at the office over weekends and I try not to bother people over weekends as much as possible, which I am sometimes not too successful in.

I often come to office in the afternoon. I spend my morning to gather thoughts and plan things. I have a small home office where you would find me often.

Recently, I am actively trying to come to office less frequently. I believe that we have grown enough leaders to handle situations on their own.

Future Startup

As a person what kind of challenges you faced in the early days, sort of personal cost of entrepreneurship?

Mridul Chowdhury

Since I had no prior experience of working in in a corporate environment, I had to learn things by doing. Before starting my own venture, I worked but in all of my involvements, I worked more as a consultant rather than part of an organizational hierarchy. In the government project and also in the UNDP I worked as a consultant and in Academia I was a researcher.

When I started running mPower, I was making a lot of mistakes in the early days in terms of hiring, in terms of finding the right people, in terms of assigning and in many other areas. It took quite a while for me to overcome that challenge and figure out things. Particularly, HR was a big challenge for me.

We had some challenges with managing cash flows in the early day which we eventually managed to solve but we had to suffer through rough patches.

The challenges now are different and mostly growth pains and around prioritizing, designing new structures, ensuring proper collaboration among units and the likes.

I think it is very important to have the right people on board. In a startup things often get tough and if you do not have the right people in your team, things will break apart.

Future Startup

You mentioned going through challenges around managing cash flow and the likes which is not uncommon for early stage companies and which, in many instances, kills highly potential companies. How did you handle such pressing situations?

Mridul Chowdhury

Psychologically, it was not easy but instead of dwelling over the challenge we worked hard to find a way out. Many of the challenges we encountered were because of our failure to clearly see the reality in the market. In many instances, we hired people for a particular project or segment of work without doing a proper study which led to trouble. We thought that there was a market for a product and hired people but then found out that we’re wrong.

That was one reason why we have had to spread from the health sector to other sectors. We never let any of our people go because of our difficult time. Everyone could not manage but for us, our top leadership has always been hopeful. We have always believed in the vision and objective of mPower and stuck around through hardships. That’s what has kept us going.

I think it is very important to have the right people on board. In a startup things often get tough and if you do not have the right people in your team, things will fall apart.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Mridul Chowdhury

Philosophically, I think we are all somehow connected to each other. We are all somehow responsible for each other’s well-being. It is the natural order of the world. So when there is a deviation from natural orders, which is when things go wrong.

Life is about being close to the natural state of affairs and having a life that is not only about the self but also about others.

Future Startup

What do you think about social mobility in our society?

Mridul Chowdhury

As a society, we resist people from moving upward and going from one class to another. We want people to be happier and earn more income but we don’t want people to change their social class. Upward mobility in its true sense is difficult in our society because structurally we don’t encourage it.

When we talk about development, we are actually not talking about people moving upward significantly. With development, we mean that people are a bit happier and earning a bit more. It comes from our social value system which is in a sense feudal in nature.

I never felt that in the USA. I have seen people from very humble background come very far in life and move up in the social ladder. Even if you look at the presidents of the US, you will see that many of them had come from the extremely humble background. We cannot find it here in our country.

Our educational system is somewhat responsible for this as well. Even in the educational system, we are creating strata which are clearly absent in many other countries.

The biggest problem lies in the lack of equitable policies. Society largely decides who should go where. But policies should be based on the concepts of equity regardless of the class background which is not the case in our country. Unless you provide equitable opportunities, people will not move up to the ladder organically.

As a society, we resist people from moving upward and going from one class to another. We want people to be happier and earn more income but we don’t want people to change their social class. Upward mobility in its true sense is difficult in our society because structurally we don’t encourage it.

Future Startup

What advice would you give to people who are starting out or trying to build something from scratch?

Mridul Chowdhury

First, you should not do anything out of social pressure or as you are expected to do. Otherwise, you will be hit by mid life crisis and you will be regretting not taking the decisions when you had the chance. While starting out, relentlessly seek your passion. It is not easy and many people give up on it early but it is worth the search.

Second, do not take failure personally. We take failure too hard on ourselves. Again our education system and our society don’t accept failures easily. There are enough reasons behind it. We are a small country with a huge population. Our opportunities are limited but that does not suggest that we can’t be bold. We can. The natural outcome of trying anything worthwhile is a temporary failure but our responsibility is to plow forward regardless of momentary setbacks.

Third, don’t over plan things. Having a plan is good but our reality often turns out to be different than what we plan. The problem is that when you over-plan and things do not go out as you expected, you feel overthrown and unsuccessful. Maintain flexibility, face things as they come. Never forget that “life is what happens to you when you are busy planning for it”.

Fourth, appreciate those around you, who really keeps life peaceful and meaningful, whether you realize it or not. We often get so busy with life that we forget to live, with those who care the most. When we go home and we feel like we are at home, we take it for granted but we often don’t realize that coming back home and feeling at home is what makes everything else possible in life. I am grateful to my wife, Tahmina Khanam, for everything that she does despite her busy life as a teacher at Dhaka University traversing the unforgiving roads of Dhaka from north to south and back every day.

Fifth, do not go after money or fame. I have seen many initiatives die in the process of driving after recognition and fame. Early awards can be distractive if you let it get into your head. Awards for a good concept and awards for changing the lives of millions are two totally different things. Make sure that the first kind of award does not pull you in a trap that may be hard to get out of.

For newly formed companies to grow, I have some advice. These are particularly applicable to social enterprises.

First, companies must understand the value proposition rather than be too hung up on the product. Companies need to understand what they are actually proposing as value. They should also validate and re-evaluate their value proposition on a continual basis.

Second is do not focus only on the end customers. The end customers will not often be able to make the service viable. You have to broaden the number of stakeholders and build an ecosystem so that you can add different layers of possibilities. To achieve continuous growth this is very important and growth is the key.

The third is on ‘retaining the market’. In the early days, we were actually creating the market for ourselves. There was demand but a huge chunk of it was latent and people could not articulate it properly.

But as you grow you have to consider the fact that when the market will grow, other competitors will come and may take over the market. A lot of startups make this mistake by investing more in the existing clients rather than building brand and adding product features and partnerships. When the competition comes, they fall short of resources needed to the grab opportunities. Social entrepreneurs have to think about being the market leader after the market has been created from day one; otherwise, they will lose the grip on the market. Build strong partnerships, brand recognition and contacts in the market so that new competitors with a lot of muscle power cannot wipe you aside.

The fourth is: create evidence of impact. After some time, you have to go in front of the investors and show them the result of your work. You have to tell them how much impact you have had in the field. Often we don’t think about it and don’t collect data systematically about our impact. As a result, we fail to provide evidence of our impact. I have seen a lot of social enterprises who said that they have done a lot of good things but they don’t have any evidence of their impact and outcome. You should keep this in mind while running a social enterprise.

Mridul Chowdhury and Tahmina Khanam (from left to right)

Mridul Chowdhury and Tahmina Khanam (from left to right)

Do not go after money or fame. I have seen many initiatives die in the process of driving after recognition and fame. Early awards can be distractive if you let it get into your head. Awards for a good concept and awards for changing the lives of millions are two totally different things. Make sure that the first kind of award does not pull you in a trap that may be hard to get out of.

Future Startup

What books have you been reading lately?

Mridul Chowdhury

I’ve started reading Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari – a fascinating book. We often use a very narrow and immediate view to see the world and everything that happens around us.

What Harari suggests is that if we take a long term view of things and use a long term frame of reference to a much larger period then we start to see the progress in things over the time.

I think the emergence of Trump and things like that push us to the bottom. Which although seems really bad at the moment but on a longer term horizon, it may not be as bad as it seems. Because when we hit the rock bottom, we can move up very fast. Hitting the rock bottom brings a sense of urgency in our recovery effort. But when we go down slowly and things deteriorate slowly we don’t really feel that urgency to recover and reset.

As a global community, we have hit the lowest floor in many areas which seems very depressing. But if we get a larger frame of reference, say 500 years, and see things then we will see that hitting the bottom is not as bad a thing as it seems. It is just a point followed by a rapid rise. It is a really good book in terms of looking at things from a broader, long-term perspective rather than what happened yesterday and what is on the news. I would recommend Homo Dues to anyone who is looking for an intellectually satisfying read that will leave you optimistic about human evolution no matter what.

For startups and entrepreneurs, The Innovator’s Dilemma, The Innovator’s solution, Lean Startup are some of the good books. Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson is among my favorite books. And finally, The Alchemist is a book that I think everyone should read.

(Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Mohammad Tashnim | Images by mPower, Lead image by Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

We Recommend

Type to Search

See all results
Shares