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DataBird CCO Sadia Haque Reflects On Life, Work, and Travel

Sadia Haque is the CCO of DataBird and co-founder of ShareTrip. Before beginning her entrepreneurship journey, Ms. Sadia spent 10+ years in the marketing and branding department of some of the leading brands including Grameenphone, BBC, Nokia, and Banglalink. Currently, she leads DataBird’s marketing, human resources, and customer support efforts. Read part one of this interview here. 

Future Startup: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Several months ago, we had a fascinating conversation about the changing world of communication and how DataBird's and ShareTrip's communication strategies work. However, we have always wanted to learn more about you. Our earlier conversation didn't allow us to do that, so we wanted to give it another shot. To that end, I wanted to begin with your background story. Could you tell us about your childhood and upbringing, and then probably your journey to what you are doing now?

Sadia Haque: I completed my O Levels from Maple Leaf International School. My mother and maternal aunts were teachers at Maple Leaf International School. Therefore, my brother, I, and our cousins attended the same school. When I finished my O Levels at Maple Leaf International School, some of my teachers left to join Cephalon International School. I moved along with them and completed my A-Levels from Cephalon International School. 

Until my A Levels, I wanted to be a doctor. But after studying A Levels biology, I realized medicine was not for me. For undergrad, my parents wanted me to attend IBA-Dhaka University. At that time, the English medium curriculum was different from Bangla medium curriculum, and admission tests were in Bengali. As a result, I did not make it. 

I went to North South University and chose to study BBA because that was the trend at the time. I studied science up to A level. I double-majored in Marketing and Human Resources Management. While studying Human Resources, I realized there is a lot to do in the field. I shifted to the HR department with an ambition to make a change in the human resources sector. I, however, quickly discovered that HR in Bangladesh means mostly administration jobs, not my cup of tea. Once again, I changed my focus to marketing. Upon graduation, I attended a few job interviews and eventually joined Grameenphone in the Market Communication Department.

I won’t say that I was super passionate to work in marketing. I knew little about the corporate world and was not sure about the scope of marketing. After joining, however, I found it to be an exciting discipline. I had the opportunity to do a lot of fascinating work. I worked at Grameenphone for about 4 and a half years, mostly doing market communication activities for different portfolios of GP. I, however, wanted to explore other areas of work and gather more experience. So I left GP and joined BBC World Service Trust which is now known as BBC Service Media. Although I worked in marketing there, the operations and targets were different from my previous job. The focus was more on social community development. I did not work there for long due to some personal preferences. I am more comfortable working for a company whose values align with mine. I then joined Nokia as a marketing manager where I worked for a couple of months. Unfortunately, Nokia was going through a global layoff at that time. The company had to make some major changes in its Bangladesh operation. Everything happened so rapidly that I was surprised. However, every challenge comes with an opportunity. You just need to look on the bright side. From Nokia, I joined Banglalink in PR and Communication where I worked for another 3 years until I left the corporate world and started working for ShareTrip and eventually DataBird. There is more to that story though. 

In 2007, I got married. That's how my travel journey with my husband Kashef began. At the time, we didn't earn much. We used to save up our bonuses. Because we lived with my in-laws (still do), we were able to save some money. The aim was to take two international trips every year, saving money by finding the best deals for flight and hotel accommodations. 

Kashef made great trip plans. He started getting calls from people seeking help making travel plans - at first our friends and family and then extended network. That's how Travel Booking Bangladesh was born. By then, we already had our first child. Since we were unsure how a business would work or whether it would succeed, we did not want to leave both of our jobs. After much thought, Kashef decided to leave his job while I held on to a confirmed source of income.

I worked at Banglalink for three and a half years. I found it hard to maintain a balance between work and my personal life after I gave birth to my second child. Therefore, I decided to take a break from work and prioritize my family. In around 2016, I left my job and became a full-time family person. My husband suggested that I join Travel Booking. Travel Booking was growing fast at the time, and I began to contribute whenever needed. However, I used to spend most of my time with my family. 

When Travel Booking became ShareTrip, my second daughter was two and a half years old. I worked in Travel Booking only in the background until then. When ShareTrip was formed, I realized that I could manage working there since both of my children had already grown. So I joined ShareTrip to work full-time.

I never see things from a failure or success paradigm. I take them as changes and chances to grow. Each one leads me in a different direction, and they are all equally valuable to me. Every journey changes you regardless of where you end up. 

Future Startup: That’s a fascinating journey. I would like to go back to your childhood and upbringing. How has your childhood and upbringing shaped your outlook towards life and work?

Sadia Haque: My family has a great impact on my life. I come from a middle-class household. My father was a banker. My mother was a teacher. We did not live with my grandparents. Nevertheless, we had and still have a good relationship with my relatives from both sides. My relatives from both my maternal and paternal sides used to visit and stay with us frequently. 

I am more of a people person. Growing up with so many relatives must have contributed to this. Having the opportunity to interact with all of them taught me how to deal with cultural differences. I learned how to be approachable and engage with people. Throughout my professional career, these skills have proven useful, especially at ShareTrip.

Growing up, I learned to be practical and realistic. We had a comfortable life but not lavish. And we were content with whatever we had. This has come in handy when we are building a company. Our feet are always on the ground. 

Coming from a middle-income family taught me to be realistic and humble and at the same time, confident enough to go for my dreams. That's how my brother and I have been shaped. Although it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact teachings, our family eventually makes us who we are. We are our families. My upbringing and childhood have a lot to do with who I have become over the years. 

Travel is not about seeing places alone. It separates you from your daily life and puts you in a position where you can see things from retrospect. Usually, when you are at a regular operational flow, you are immersed in doing things and you don’t see many things where you might do things differently. Travel breaks this spell and allows you to return to your show anew with fresh ideas. 

Future Startup: Throughout your journey, you had to make several changes. Generally speaking, we encounter shortcomings, disappointments, and failures in our journeys. In your case, for example, in your early life, your parents wanted you to get into the IBA-DU but you did not make it. How did you handle that disappointment? We all experience failures in life. What are your thoughts on failures and disappointments that will inevitably come our way?

Sadia Haque: From my father’s side, I was the first child to attend an English Medium school. So I was the first one in the family to break the stereotype. My relatives on both sides were conventional people and had their point of views. For instance, many relatives from my fraternal side used to think that studying in an English medium school would spoil me. 

On the other hand, my maternal grandfather was an officer in the foreign ministry and my uncle and aunts spent most of their childhood in different countries including Pakistan, India, the UK, the USA, Saudi Arabia, etc. So they were supportive of me studying in English medium as it creates opportunities to study abroad. Unlike now, the gap between Bangla medium and English medium students was huge back then. So it was quite expected when I did not make it. 

One of the reasons my family wanted me to study at IBA-Dhaka University was the cost. Private university education is expensive. It would be a burden for my middle-class family. Right after my O Levels, I started teaching at a school and used to tutor at home. As soon as I got admitted to North South University, I began teaching at an IELTS center in Lalmatia, which was my major source of income at the time. I used to teach there from 6.30 am to 8.30 am in the morning. I would teach a second round after my university classes. By the time I returned home, most days, it was usually 10.30 or 11.00 pm.

I started earning money from an early age. I contributed to my tuition fee with my parents. I never had any regret for not getting into IBA. All my hard work paid off when I landed a well-paid job after graduation.

I told you that I wanted to be a doctor when I was young. However, during my A Levels years, I realized that medicine was not for me. So I changed course. I do not consider that a failure. I simply decided to pursue different things in life. 

Over the years, career-wise, my path changed significantly. I came to business from a science background. Then I changed my path from HR to marketing. I have evolved throughout my career. I used to look into things differently back then and I now see things differently. 

There is a difference between how we think and how the world operates. I never consider myself a failure because I wasn't able to pursue medicine. Since I realized that real life is different from what I thought, I grabbed the next best chance to move forward.

It depends on how positively you accept a change. If I get depressed over not achieving something, it will only make my life harder. In recent years, depression has become more common, especially among young people. There are different types of hardships. Some hardships and failures should genuinely make you sad. However, if I consider not reaching a minor goal as a hardship and give up, as a result, I wouldn't benefit from that. I have always thought that way. 

I never see things from a failure or success paradigm. I take them as changes and chances to grow. Each one leads me in a different direction, and they are all equally valuable to me. Every journey changes you regardless of where you end up. 

My family has always been my priority. Before marriage, my parents and relatives were my priority. After marriage, my in-laws have taken that place alongside. Now my entire world is centered around my two daughters. It allows me to stay positive. I draw meaning from all these people in my life that make small hiccups quite inconsequential. 

I think remaining positive is important. There will be difficulties. It is better to change it to something good rather than regretting and worrying about it. If it is not possible to change it, then it’s better to shift your focus to something else.

In my personal life, I follow this. I tend to overlook any regret or bad experience and look on the bright side. I cannot watch horror movies. But that is not the end of the world. I can watch a comedy movie instead. How you shift your focus and accept the change is the key. The change will always be there whether you like it or not and there will be unfulfillment. But if you choose, these things should not bother you much if you know how to live. 

Future Startup: You are a traveler personally and run a travel tech company. What do you think about traveling? 

Sadia Haque: In the past, we used to travel on a limited budget. We used to visit as many places as possible within our budget. Since there were only two of us, traveling was a lot easier. However, over the years, our view about traveling has changed. Now we do not try to take a checklist with us to visit every tourist spot. Rather we focus on relaxation. I love to explore different cuisines. So I prefer to go to places where I can have different types of food. As our kids travel with us now, it is an advantage for us if there is a kids zone in any tourist spot.

The focus has changed. We look for depth rather than breadth now. We focus on experiences, foods, and relaxation mainly. And when we are doing something, we try to enjoy and do it fully instead of adding more places and tasks to our list.  

We went to Fiji last time and we did not even leave our hotel. My husband and my kids slept till 2 pm and then went to the pool after lunch. By the time they would return they were too exhausted to go out. They would eat dinner and go to bed. 

Travel gives me a fresh perspective of looking into things. Travel is not about seeing places alone. It separates you from your daily life and puts you in a position where you can see things from retrospect. Usually, when you are at a regular operational flow, you are immersed in doing things and you don’t see many things where you might do things differently. Travel breaks this spell and allows you to return to your show anew with fresh ideas. 

For example, in Srilanka, we were talking with our taxi driver and when he came to know that we have a travel agency, he gave us the number of his rent-a-car service. He has been working with us for years now. It taught me that life could be quite serendipitous. 

Travelling does not mean you’ll have to go abroad. Even going to Gazipur can do it for you. Because you are going out of your normal operations and taking a break.

Future Startup: How do you make travel plans?

Sadia Haque: My husband selects the destinations and I make the schedule considering the school days of my daughters, appointments with family and friends, different events, etc. 

In terms of selecting the destinations and making plans, we always discuss. Since he is an expert in it, mainly my husband makes the tour plans including how many days we will spend, which tourist spots we will visit, how we will get there, where we will stay, etc.

The three things I have to confirm are when to start packing our bags, getting my kids ready and when we will land at Dhaka airport. 

Future Startup: When selecting a destination, what do you look for?

Sadia Haque: Both of us like the sea. We love to stay near any water body, though neither of us knows how to swim. We do not like trekking. 

Future Startup: You have been to many destinations, what are your top five or six destinations?

Sadia Haque: After our marriage, the first luxury trip we took was to Malaysia and Langkawi. We were so excited to see the blue ocean. Langkawi is one of my favorite places.

Another place I love to go to is the Maldives. I was simply blown away by its beauty. If someone tells me to visit Maldives three times a year, I will happily do that. Because that is the place I can relax and spoil myself. It is like my biggest weak point.

In Europe, I like London and Prague. I did not expect Prague to be this beautiful. European countries are mostly about history and in Prague, you can experience both the history and the modern way of looking at the historical places. Although there was no sea, it was a beautiful city to travel to for me.

Future Startup: Do you think travel can change people and how people think? 

Sadia Haque: Of course. Travel can completely change someone’s outlook on life.

We believe in several stereotypical philosophies and most of us do not want to go beyond that — an outcome of our cultural compartmentalization. The moment you start traveling, you go out of your comfort zone and your overall understanding of the world and mindset changes whether through the people who live there or the food they eat or through the major sector of businesses of that place or the exposure to a completely different culture. 

The world has changed over the past years. We live with our devices nowadays. Nowadays people get depressed over small matters. It’s because we are not connected with the external world. Through traveling, you get to see both good and bad things out of your comfort zone. Seeing bad things can make you grateful for what you have and make you stronger. 

Travel allows you to see life from different perspectives and develop yourself and become more mature. No matter how many travel shows you watch on TV, the first-hand experience is always the best. It is like: no matter how fast you can type, you will not know how good your handwriting is or how much improvement you need in your handwriting unless you start writing. 

You do not have to travel to Europe to learn that. You can go to Sylhet or Gazipur. Different parts of Bangladesh have different cultures and all of these add value.

Future Startup: You were talking about the rise of depression among young people these days. How was it when you were a teen?

Sadia Haque: Back in our time, we did not even know this term. We used to be so busy thinking about our studies and career that we did not have time to get depressed. 

Now I don’t want to sound rude and insensitive. Mental health is a real problem. People have life experiences that I can’t comprehend, to be honest. Real problems are there. Some people suffer. Our brains are weird in all sorts of ways and for many people, things are not as simple as I made them sound. So I think depression is a hideous disease for many people. We genuinely need to support these people and need a better society that is compassionate. 

At the same time, I don’t want individuals to give up on their dreams and ambitions because they feel down and sad. I think we should wrestle with life’s challenges no matter how hard it gets and try to live a better life. Seek help when you need it, but never give in to the desire to submit to your own demons. 

Future Startup: You started working from a young age, was that common among young people of your time?

Sadia Haque: If I look at my cousins and classmates, not many of them started working right after O-Level. Most of them, however, started working after A-Level and after getting into university. 

I saw my mother being an independent woman and my father working hard. Seeing them encouraged me. I wanted to contribute to my family and decided to earn my monthly expenses. My parents were supportive of my decision as long as I was sincere about my study.

I have told you how I started teaching at 6.30 am and used to return home at 10.30 pm. Despite being a conservative family, my parents never put restrictions on me. Also, I was aware of the expectations of my parents from me and my responsibilities. I tried my best to do something for myself.

I don’t want individuals to give up on their dreams and ambitions because they feel down and sad. I think we should wrestle with life’s challenges no matter how hard it gets and try to live a better life. Seek help when you need it, but never give in to the desire to submit to your own demons. 

Future Startup: You need to spend time with your kids and family. There is work that is not a 9-5 job given you work for your organization. Then as you mentioned it is necessary to have some personal space to recharge yourself. How do you navigate? 

Sadia Haque: For me, personal space is not necessarily alone time. Yes, I do take alone time but it is not every day. If I can spend quality time with my family that is enough for me. I have an excellent relationship with my mother-in-law. We joke around, discuss things and even talk about TV shows. For me, this is what personal space means. You have people you enjoy spending time with, you can unwind and be carefree. 

I have developed my tempo over the years. I tend to design my day around people in my life. 

Now my daughters have a busy schedule. They have online classes. They have playtime in between classes but they are no less busy these days than me. But I try to ensure I spend quality time with them. It makes me happy to be part of their growing up and development.

I do not want to disconnect from all these important people in my life. Growing up, I was never distant from my parents and my relatives. I want my daughters to have the same experience. I want them to share everything with me without hesitation. The same goes for my mother-in-law on whom I completely rely. That is my personal space.

Sadia Haque: Normally some times are fixed. For example, I know at what time my kids are at school or my mother-in-law is on a namaz break.

When I get home intentionally or unintentionally my schedule gets organized around what everyone else is up to. If I know that my daughters will watch TV before dinner, then I do household chores or some office work at that time. Then from dinner, till they go to bed I spend time with them.

After they go to sleep, I usually do some more work or watch TV or go to sleep if I have to wake up early the next morning. When my kids study, I do my work and after that, we spend time together.

My mother-in-law is usually free after 9 pm. So after 9 pm, I do not remain sitting in front of my laptop or do office work unless it is very urgent.

My relationship with my family members is my top priority and I do not want to compromise it. 

Future Startup: How do you deal with stress and challenges that come with your job?

Sadia Haque: Challenge is a part of life. Over the years, I have learned that every day will have its challenges. Stress is something that will inevitably come and will inevitably go. I try not to give in to these moments. 

Working with Kashef side by side has been super helpful. I know his strengths and the things he can take care of, and where I can rely on him. It has worked for me well. Whenever I feel any challenge I know that I have an able hand by my side I can rely on. This has been an advantage for both of us. Since we sync well, it has been easier to jump into when one is struggling. It has been a great stress reliever for me. We are always discussing challenges and our work and operational aspects which helps us to have more ideas.

Initially, managing multiple functions — sales, HR, customer service — was challenging. The whole portfolio was different for me. We, however, have been blessed with excellent people who are driven, believe in the same philosophy as we are, and are proactive and adaptive. I rely on these people. I do not have to take all the responsibilities on my hand. 

The key is delegation. Controlling everything makes you powerful but it also limits the growth of your organization and your people. We operate differently where we empower our people, which helps them to grow. In many ways, my team helps me to deal with stress at work. 

Apart from that, my two exit points are my mother and my mother-in-law. No matter what I am going through, the moment I share it with them, half of my troubles are gone.

Future Startup: How quickly do you share your problems with them?

Sadia Haque: It depends on the urgency. Whenever I see that I am not being able to handle something I go to them. I have a transparent relationship with them. I even go to them for minor problems.

I am extremely blessed to have these two people in my life. There are a lot of people who do not want to live with their in-laws and want to live independently. But considering the support I get from my in-laws and my parents, I would not be able to live without them.

When I am at work, my mother-in-law takes care of my daughters. Thus I do not have to worry about them while at work. I do not have to stress over anything. Staying with your parents or your in-laws is a blessing in disguise.

Future Startup: Where does your drive for success come from? 

Sadia Haque: Of course, we all want to work hard and be appreciated. We all want to contribute be it in the family or at work.

The thing that keeps me going is securing a good future for my daughters. I don’t want to compromise anything regarding that. I don’t need an expensive car or a building. Material things don’t inspire me. A decent life is more than good for me. Thinking that if I do something valuable it will pay off for my daughters in the future keeps me going.

Taking care of the team in my organization and taking responsibility for their contribution is the second most important driving factor for me. If I do something wrong, it will have an impact on these 140 plus people and their families. I want to make sure we are building an organization that will last and provides an excellent place of work and growth for our people. Ensuring the security of the career of our people is important for me. I understand that they have the same dream and love for their family and children as I have for mine. I don’t take that lightly. 

I want my daughters to be good human beings. Being a good student is important. But being a good human being is even more important. I want to teach them the values I was taught by my parents. Kids imitate adults. They learn by seeing others. If I behave rudely with my driver, my daughters will do the same. It is best if I set a good example for them. To me, I try to be the best version of myself so that they imitate that version.

Future Startup: What is your parenting style?

Sadia Haque: It has changed with time. My parents had a traditional parenting style which I can’t essentially practice with my daughters. 

Parenting is an ongoing trial and error period. Sometimes you have to scold your children and sometimes you have to make them understand something with care and love. Regardless of what I do, I want to make sure that my daughters feel close to me, the same way I am close to my mother. I want to be their best friend to whom they come whenever they need help. I try to listen to them, although often make them listen to me more. For me, parenting is hard to explain and I am still learning. I routinely look up articles and reading materials on parenting which sometimes gives very interesting ideas. Every day is a new day when you are raising kids. 

Future Startup: Do you have any parenting suggestions for working women?

Sadia Haque: Parenting varies from person to person. People have priorities and ways of thinking and doing. So what works for me may not work for other parents. 

I will share what works for me. I want my daughters to be good human beings. Being a good student is important. But being a good human being is even more important. I want to teach them the values I was taught by my parents. Kids imitate adults. They learn by seeing others. If I behave rudely with my driver, my daughters will do the same. It is best if I set a good example for them. To me, I try to be the best version of myself so that they imitate that version. 

Future Startup: You run a tech company. We live in an era when tech dominates our life. We spend a large chunk of our time on social media and similar platforms, often for no good reason. What is your relationship with technology?

Sadia Haque: While I use social media to keep a pulse on what’s going on around us, I’m not an active social media user. I don’t post and wait for the dopamine hits in the form of likes and comments. 

I think that social media has become quite toxic over the years. People mostly judge each other and feel bad about each other. That’s why I kind of avoid posting on social media unless something very significant has happened that I want to share. 

That being said, there are upsides to social media as well. There are a ton of good uses of the medium. Like any other tool, it is a double-edged sword. It depends on how you use it. 

Future Startup: How do you stay focused given that distractions are abundant these days?

Sadia Haque: I’m quite organized when it comes to work. I set daily priorities which helps me with focus. When you know what you have to get done in a day, it gets easier to stay focused. 

Future Startup: What do you think about life given that life is short and transient? 

Sadia Haque: Death is inevitable. I’m not afraid of death. But I don’t want to die with regrets. I don’t want to die with an unlived life in me. 

I have my priorities. I know what are the things that make me happy. If I have all the basic things such as a decent life, being able to help my family, etc is enough to make me happy. I don’t want to be remembered like Mother Teresa. But I do not want people around me to be happy after my death. I want them to miss and remember me. That’s what I live for.

Future Startup: How do you recharge yourself?

Sadia Haque: Sleep is my go-to antidote for energy and health. A sound sleep at night is enough to charge me up. I can’t nap during the day. If I can get to sleep for at least 4 hours, that is enough for me. 

We exert our bodies throughout the day. This exertion takes a toll on the body. When you sleep, the body heals itself. Modern people are sleep-deprived people. These days, we take sleep quite lightly. But a growing body of research shows that sleep is imperative to our health and cognitive functioning. Studies suggest sleep deprivation could potentially shorten your lifespan. 

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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