How Light Of Hope Is Shaping The Future Of Education In Bangladesh, One Kid At A Time: An Interview With Waliullah Bhuiyan, CEO, Light Of Hope

How Light Of Hope Is Shaping The Future Of Education In Bangladesh, One Kid At A Time: An Interview With Waliullah Bhuiyan, CEO, Light Of Hope

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Light Of Hope Founder, and CEO, Waliullah Bhuiyan, on his journey to the world of entrepreneurship, how his passion for literature, art, and culture shaped his outlook towards life and the world, talks about Light Of Hope’s journey from idea and a small team to a team of over 60 people, what went into building the initial operation of Light Of Hope, how Light Of Hope has managed to find a sustainable business model to scale, how Light Of Hope has used a combination of hard work, hustle and efficient execution to grow its business, the state of Light Of Hope’s business today, how Light Of Hope operates as an organization and how it has built an entrepreneurial culture, and how Light Of Hope plans to shape the future of education in Bangladesh, shares his on challenges of entrepreneurship and how he deals with stress of being a founder, the infinite importance of having right people around you while building a company and why you should ignore what other people think of you if you are into making something meaningful and be obsessed with a seamless execution over having a beautiful idea.

Future Startup

We did a profile on you in 2016 from where people could get a sense of your journey. Regardless, I want to start from the beginning of your journey for this interview, could you please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

I was raised in a joint family and had a wonderful childhood in Mymensingh – natural beauty, river, playgrounds, a lot of friends, and a lot of books.

My second life began at Mirzapur Cadet College where I studied from Class 7 to Class 12. My parents wanted me to be an Engineer or an Army officer – since I studied in Cadet College. I wanted to become an artist or study Bengali Literature but that obviously was out of the question because of my very good result in SSC and HSC. Eventually, I had to give up on my dream and choose Engineering. I studied EEE at the Islamic University of Technology (IUT) in Gazipur.

After graduation, I didn’t want to pursue any Engineering job. I wasn’t sure what I want to do with life. I didn’t see any value in getting jobs at telecom companies and wasn’t very eager to do it either. Instead, I joined BRAC as Young Professional. It was like Management Trainee program in Corporate Sector. But this was different. It was about developing a group of Development Cadre who will take lead into the mid-level positions in different departments of BRAC. I wanted to see whether I could use some of my skills to solve different social problems. Working at BRAC was a wonderful experience for me. I learned a ton about the intricacies of development work and social change.

After 3 years on the job, I decided to take a break to pursue my Master Degree. I got DAAD Scholarship and went to Germany to do my Masters in Energy and Environmental Management. While doing my Masters, I along with 3 other friends came up with an idea at the intersection of education and energy which eventually led to the founding of Light of Hope. We planned to develop a solar-run multimedia classroom for off-grid primary schools in Bangladesh that runs with just 60W of energy. Once we came up with the idea, we applied to a competition called the Dell Education challenge.

Eventually, we won $2500 prize money, competing with 816 teams for creating the world’s most efficient solar-powered classroom. We then raised another $4500 through crowdfunding. During my Masters Thesis, I came to Bangladesh and set up 2 such solutions in two schools in Kishoreganj and Chittagong.

After graduation, I came back to Bangladesh to work on the project further. Maruf, Shoeb, and Momel – 3 of my other friends also returned from different parts of the world — Netherlands, and Australia after their Masters and Ph.D. And we decided to start an organization called Light of Hope.

Initially, it was a charity model. But in 2015, we decided to run it as a company. We started by simply having a registration at the Joint Stock as a partnership company with a trade license, in 2017, we registered as a Limited Company, and then started working.

Initially, none of us worked full-time. After a while, we realized that it would not go anywhere if one of us, at least, spends full-time in building the organization. In 2015, I left my job at BRAC and started working at Light of Hope full time. When we started, we did not have a business model in place. I had some personal savings that would give me a six-month run. The challenge for me was to figure something out within those six months.

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Just because you don’t have money, doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up. You continue putting small investments, your time and effort consistently and after a while, you would certainly reach somewhere. This has been the model for most of our products. We started small, almost always as an experiment, and then gradually took it forward.

Future Startup

Then what happened?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

Our idea was that if we develop a solar-run multimedia classroom model, other big organizations can easily take the model and scale up. At that time, about 30 thousands primary schools in Bangladesh either didn’t have access to electricity or very limited access to electricity.

Well, that didn’t happen. No other organization took or scaled up the model. This was back in 2015. We didn’t have a formal company yet. We took the whole operation of the Kishoreganj School under a sponsorship program. After we started running a whole school operation, we realized that simply by setting up a multimedia classroom in a school, you can’t change the overall quality of education. Education is a diverse and complex system and it needs to be tackled from multiple angles. So this school became our testing ground for new ideas and projects.

As a startup, we decided not to do anything that other organizations are already doing or doing well. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. And we decided to look into the future of education. We started asking what should be the role of schools, the teachers, and the parents going into the future where 70% of primary level children will end up in a job that doesn’t exist. Are we running a system that is preparing our children with necessary future skills like creativity, problem-solving or critical thinking? So, in the year 2016, we went back to the drawing board again to re-think Light of Hope’s role in shaping the future of education in Bangladesh.

Future Startup

Okay, you went back to where you started from, what happened after that? Today you have a successful operation, multiple brands, could you please tell us about the development, your path from those scrappy early days to where you are today?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

In 2015, when we formally started, we decided to do few things. One, we are going to work in primary level education only, at least for the next few years. Two, we are only going to do things that will give the highest ROI (Return on Investment) from the educational outcome point of view. There are a lot of things you can do to improve the quality of education in Bangladesh. But from an economic point of view, if you have 100 taka (meaning limited resource), where do you invest to get the highest impact?

Our research suggested that there are few things we should do to improve the quality of primary level education. So we started our Porua project where we set up a small school library with age-appropriate storybooks with just $100. These are all old and collected storybooks. We wanted to show that with just $100, you can improve the reading skill, imagination, and creativity of a school of 300-400 children. In those early days, our team would go and find age-appropriate books from old bookstores in Nilkhet, I would go visit different organizations and publishers to collect old story books. I can recall myself carrying 10-12 kg weight sack full of old and new books to set up a library in some rural remote school.

We could manage to rent a one-room office in 2016 in Mohakhali DOHS. We would sit there 3-days a week. We did everything ourselves starting from cleaning our room including toilets. We started a project to develop a Puppet Show called ‘My Puppet Friends’ for children to create awareness on environment, climate change, disaster, renewable energy. We had a very small fund that we got from the Korean National Commission for UNESCO. When we contacted a group of puppet makers, they said it would take almost 20,000 taka to develop per puppet character. We needed to design 5 characters for the show. That was like our entire budget. So, in next three months we learned how to make puppets from reused materials, develop scripts for the puppet show, learned how to use hand puppets, we gave the background voices and did everything needed to do to successfully deliver the project. A team of about 10 people who didn’t have any idea about puppet, made country’s first-hand puppet series focusing on Environment and Climate Change for children in 3 months with almost zero cost. You can find the series on our Youtube Channel.

That was the point when I realized that if we want we can do anything. You don’t need to be an expert. There is nothing you can’t learn. So, I taught myself to become an educator in the next two years, although I came from an Engineering background. So if I sit with some 50+ years old guy from UNICEF or Save the Children, I need to know more than them about education. Otherwise, why should they listen to me?

Two more big things happened in 2016. One is Sesame Workshop Bangladesh (locally known as Sisimpur) came to us to find out if we have any mobile multimedia solution that they can carry to schools in a backpack. We were working on our first prototype at that time. But since we didn’t have almost any money, the progress was not fast. It was a side project. Anik, a 4th-year AIUB student from EEE dept. was leading the project. We showed our working prototype to Sisimpur and said that if we get advanced payment, we can make 10 prototypes for them. They agreed. In the next 4-5 months, we first developed our solar-run multimedia solution that fits inside a backpack. We named it ‘Sputnique’. Anik went on to become the CTO of Sputnique.

The second big thing that happened to us is that we got selected at YGAP Accelerator (it was called Spark* Accelerator back then) program when they started their first batch in Bangladesh back in April 2016. It was a 5-day program where I met Aaron – Spark* Co-founder and also Co-founder of Education Changemaker. He was the main facilitator of the Accelerator program. The program was life-changing for me and also for Light of Hope. We performed very well for next 6 months and secured an AUD $20,000 grant from them to expand our operation and later another AUD $25,000 to further expand our library, multimedia classroom, and our content development projects. We didn’t have to look back after that. That was 2017.

We didn’t spend a single penny on things that aren’t necessary. We hired people. We started to develop products and services that children, parents, teachers, educational institutes, and organizations will love to have and will be happy to pay. Almost all the big organizations that work in primary level education in Bangladesh are NGOs. They offer free services. So, we’re aware from the beginning that we have to be innovative if we want to stand out and do something meaningful in this segment.

Just because you don’t have money, doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up. You continue putting small investments, your time and effort consistently and after a while, you would certainly reach somewhere. This has been the model for most of our products. We started small, almost always as an experiment, and then gradually took it forward.

For instance, Kids Time, our after-school brand started as an experiment. The idea came from the fact that kids in Dhaka don’t have many places to spend some quality time doing things they love. Their weekend entertainment is usually visiting a fast food restaurant with parents where parents spend about 2000 taka and return home. We thought could we design a 3-hour workshop in restaurants where kids and parents can come and kids can learn crafting and parents attend a parenting session. We would charge them tk 2000 including food. So, it’s a very good value proposition for all – children, parents, and restaurants. That’s how Kids Time started. It was Sathi’s idea – one of our volunteers at that time. She is now leading the entire program.

In one year, Kids Time has become the largest Bangladeshi after-school program brand with 4 centers in Dhaka, 1 in Chittagong and several others in the process. Kids Time now offer ranges of courses for 4-10 years old children to improve their creativity, problem-solving skills, and emotional intelligence. Articles and blogs on parenting published in Kids Time are read by hundreds of thousands of parents every month. Some of the centers are in our own rented space, others are with schools. For example, our Kids Time Gulshan Center is in Singapore School Kinderland.

To my knowledge, Kids Time is the only place in Bangladesh where we are measuring how children’s level of creativity, problem-solving skills etc. are improving. We keep track of every child’s progress regarding these future skills and report to the parents accordingly – a genuinely interesting assessment system that we are planning to scale nationally at some point.

Initially, none of us worked full-time. After a while, we realized that it would not go anywhere if one of us, at least, spends full-time in building the organization. In 2015, I left my job at BRAC and started working at Light of Hope full time. When we started, we did not have a business model in place. I had some personal savings that would give me a six-month run. The challenge for me was to figure something out within those six months.

Light of Hope

Light of Hope | click image to learn more

Future Startup

That’s a brilliant way to put it. How did you reach out to these people, say the school in Gulshan, and convinced them to work with you?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

We appealed to their business side and branding side. The schools are usually closed on Fridays and Saturdays, so renting one room or two rooms to us is good for them. Since Kids Time became a known brand to a lot of parents, having a Kids Time center in the school also add value to the school management. We’ve seen that usually, the school gets more students when they rent us their space.

Future Startup

How big is your team now?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

It’s about 60 people. 40 of them are full-time and 20 Kids Time facilitators who work 3 days a week.

Future Startup

One of the programs that you run is this Library program which depends on donations and sponsorship, right? How do you maintain these libraries? Do you have individuals assigned to individual schools or how does that part work?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

Yes, it’s called ‘Porua’. Under this project, we help schools set up a library with age-appropriate storybooks. Currently, we are working with 200 schools from all over Bangladesh. Through this project, we are giving access to storybooks to over 60,000 children. This is the largest school library project by an education company in Bangladesh. Obviously, I am not counting projects run by INGOs and NGOs like Save the Children or BRAC.

Porua project is run by Kiron who started with us as a volunteer and ended up leading the entire project. When we select schools, we focus on one thing. That is school leadership: how motivated the head teacher or principle is. If she or he is motivated, you don’t need to constantly monitor the progress. The schools also need to contribute – the shelf, or the transportation cost etc. We don’t give everything for free, no matter how poor the school is. When you give for free, people don’t value it.

When we see that a school is ready to invest, we become sure about their seriousness and we partner with the school. A teacher from the school is initially responsible to maintain the library. But gradually we shift the responsibility to a few senior students, usually, students of class 5. Through maintaining the library, they gradually improve their leadership skills as well.

The library project is our way of growing our network of school which will eventually allow us to work on other education projects with these schools. If we have a large network of schools, it means we could do many things with these schools.

Future Startup

Your library project runs on a sponsorship model, is it a regular sponsorship model where a sponsor continues to sponsor on a monthly basis or is it a one-off model where a sponsor pays you a certain amount of money for one and you go and establish a few libraries?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

The library project itself is a one-off model. But under our School Development Program where we focus on the quality development of an entire school, setting up the library is the first step. If the schools perform well, then we set up a science lab, then solar-run multimedia set up and provide training to the teachers to bring teacher-led innovations in schools. So, out of 200 schools, we are working in Bangladesh, they are all in different stages of development. When a school completes the whole journey with us we call them the Model School. For example, Miapara Government Primary School in Kurigram district went through all these stages. Last year, they become the best school in the entire Rangpur Division and their head teacher Mr. Mijanur Rahman was awarded from the Ministry for his effort to bring changes in his school.

Porua program has become our core program. We don’t have any fixed target in terms of how many libraries we want to establish every month. In some month, we establish 10-15 libraries and in some month we do none. It’s all depends on the fund and our capacity to scale.

The library project is our way of growing our network of school which will eventually allow us to work on other education projects with these schools. If we have a large network of schools, it means we could do many things with these schools. For instance, many corporates want to reach these schools and we can work as a bridge for them. When we work with corporate, we make sure the project is designed in such a way that the schools and the children get long-term benefits out of the project. We don’t do 1-2 day school campaigns.

Future Startup

You now have these 3 different types of programs. For some, you take sponsorships or grants and a few are purely consumer-facing services, people pay and take the services. Could you please give us an insight into how your business model work?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

We developed Light of Hope as a 360-degree solution and service provider company for primary level education. Our mission is to improve future skills like creativity, problem-solving, emotional intelligence and moral values to children between 4-10 years old. We have both B2B and B2C products and services. There are total 5 established brands under Light of Hope.

Kids Time is purely B2C for parents who have children between 4-10 years old. Our Teachers Time brand offers a training program to individual teachers and parents, schools, organizations and institutions. We also offer a consultancy service for developing new courses or modules for teacher training. Now we have an online portal for teachers and parents where they can get training from anywhere. So Teachers Time is catering both B2B and B2C market.

Sputnique – the solar-run school in a backpack is a B2B product. Goofi – our international online portal for contents on future skills for children is a B2C brand. Parents and school teachers around the world use our contents for their children and students.

Under our School Development Program, we help set up low-cost libraries, science lab in a box, solar-run multimedia classroom and offer teacher training to bring teacher-led innovations in schools. This is a B2B service.

Our partnership program where other organizations and NGOs hire us to implement various education projects obviously runs as a B2B model. We have worked with or are currently working with organizations and institutions like a2i, Sesame Workshop Bangladesh (Sisimpur), Save the Children, UNICEF, ActionAid etc.

The other important aspect that helped us in growth is our capacity to take quick decisions. People don’t make decisions fast enough. They ponder over it. If you know something is not going to work, change it now. Don’t fall in love with your own product. Try something new when you see it’s not working.

Arif Md. Waliullah Bhuiyan

Waliullah Bhuiyan | click image to read his Innovators Under 35 profile

Future Startup

How do you integrate these two distinct models? On the one side, you are dependent on the grants and sponsorships, and on the other hand, you are directly going to the consumer and monetizing your products.

Waliullah Bhuiyan

In 2016, 100% of our revenue came from the grant. But now, only our school in Kishoreganj runs on sponsorship. Most of the students are sponsored there. That’s our own CSR Project along with the Porua project where we set up libraries in mostly rural or underprivileged schools.

When you become really efficient at doing something, people are going to pay for it. Porua project is a great example. We help to set up the most cost-efficient library in Bangladesh. Out of 200 libraries, we set up, 50% of the cost came from individuals who want to set a library in a school, probably in their village. They want to contribute but don’t know where to find the most age-appropriate storybooks for children or how to train the teachers to run the library. We fill in the gap. Organizations also hire us to set up libraries in rural and underprivileged schools. IPDC Limited has been our regular partner on this.

Our grant-based projects are more related to developing education quality of the existing schools and our commercial ventures are more related to journey into the future of education. Both are connected but not interdependent for growth or revenue for the company.

Future Startup

What’ve helped you to grow Light of Hope?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

Pure hard work. There is no alternative to this. The growth is all about hard work and commitment from our people. We actively encourage intrapreneurship in the company. For example, Anik, Sathi, and Kiron – these 3 started as volunteers in Light of Hope but now leading Sputnique, Kids Time and Porua.

In the beginning, we had no money. We had no connection. We had (have) no big-shot relatives. But as a team, we worked hard. Among co-founders, we put friendship before the company. We had fights. But we never fall apart. When you have 4 co-founders, usually the startup doesn’t survive for long.

When I started I had zero expectation of anything working out. Hence I had nothing to lose and I was more open to failure and rejection. It did not matter to me if a project failed or someone said no. That mentality allowed me to make bold decisions and pursue things that I would not have pursued if I were cautious.

The most important decision I made was leaving my job and going full in. What most people do is that they try to play safe. You seldom build a startup by playing safe. You have to take the risk.

Secondly, we realized that in Bangladesh the primary education sector is huge and there are a lot of players as well. But they are mostly different local and international NGOs. They provide free services. We have to build a product or service that people want to buy. Making something mediocre is not an option. If we come up with a product or service that is great, people will eventually pay for it. Willingness to pay among parents for their children’s brighter future is increasing across different socio-economic groups. We decided to invest a lot of time into making a really good product. Instead of focusing on marketing, it’s important to create a good product or service. A good product sells itself. That was our second pivotal decision.

The other important thing that has been of tremendous value to us is maintaining a lean operation. We don’t hire managers. Every single person needs to bring some technical knowledge or skill. Then those people can start managing programs. We put a huge emphasis on what people love to do and try to match to their strength.

I try my best to maintain communication with everyone. We are a very flat organization; anybody can talk to anybody. I sit in a large room where anyone can come in. My phone is open 24/7 and I have told my team members to call me any time even if it’s 3 AM in the morning.

The other important aspect that helped us in growth is our capacity to take quick decisions. People don’t make decisions fast enough. They ponder over it. If you know something is not going to work, change it now. Don’t fall in love with your own product. Try something new when you see it’s not working.

You have to constantly develop your products and services; just because some strategy worked a year ago, doesn’t mean it will work now. It doesn’t matter which industry you are working in; value can be added from other industries as well. People get lazy, I think. But you can’t afford to be complacent while building a company. You have to consistently outwork yourself.

Future Startup

What are the biggest challenges you’ve you faced?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

The biggest challenge to date is to get the right people on board. Since we operate in a complex modality where all our brands are interconnected and serve a single purpose, people need to have a broader understanding of education, future skills for children and impact. Finding people with a mix of enthusiasm, commitment and professionalism is a hard work.

Now we have all the products and services are ready, we need to focus on effective marketing. Again, here, people who come from typical marketing background will not work. All brands have different target groups. Understanding the psychology of the target group is very important. Social media worked very well for us till date for marketing. Now we need to start focusing on B2B Marketing.

Since the team is growing, I am particularly concerned about the next level of leadership roles in the company. I’ve been micro-managing the teams on a daily basis. No matter how much I hate it, it’s time that I need to start hiring some efficient managers.

Future Startup

How do you deal with the challenges and stress that come with being a founder?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

Family plays a very important when you are building a company. If your family is supportive, it gets a lot easier. My wife Sathi has been working with me and she looks after the Kids Time program which means we are always busy and we are on the same mission. It has made things a lot easier for me. When your personal life and your work life is out of sync, it becomes stressful. I’m lucky on that front.

As I mentioned earlier, I try to start with zero expectation from people. It makes things a lot simpler. If you can do that, you would never be unhappy.

Finally and most importantly, when I reflect at the end of the day, I find meaning in what I do. The motivation stems from the fact that the work I’m doing is meaningful and is changing lives. Knowing that your work is making a difference is something that can stand strong before any stress.

Future Startup

What are some lessons you’ve learned?

Waliullah Bhuiyan

I would repeat this, Nobody gives a s**t whether you fail or succeed. Don’t be afraid of people’s judgment. Have zero expectation and don’t worry about what other people would be thinking about you. If you could internalize this, then you would have zero expectation from people and then you are a free man. When you are a free man, you can do almost anything. You can take a risk without being judged by people you know. For startup founders, having this kind of mindset is important. It allows you to go the extra mile and do the things that you would not be doing otherwise.

Building a startup is not about coming up with a great idea. Ideas are nothing if you can’t execute. The transition from startup to a formal company is way more difficult. Now you have to start thinking about legal stuff, revenue, people management and so many other things that I didn’t realize I have to worry about.

Building a company is about building a family who believes in a common vision. All the challenges will go away if you have the right team. As CEO, if I can do that properly, Light of Hope will go on doing amazing works in the coming days.

Future Startup

Where can our readers go to learn more about the Light of Hope?

Waliullah Bhuiya

People can go to lightofhopebd.org to learn more. This is the central website which is connected to our other brands.

Nobody gives a s**t whether you fail or succeed. Don’t be afraid of people’s judgment. Have zero expectation and don’t worry about what other people would be thinking about you. If you could internalize this, then you would have zero expectation from people and then you are a free man. When you are a free man, you can do almost anything. You can take a risk without being judged by people you know. For startup founders, having this kind of mindset is important. It allows you to go the extra mile and do the things that you would not be doing otherwise.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Shabiba Benta Habib

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