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On Innovation Culture, Leadership, and Startup Ecosystem: An Interview with Sajid Amit, Academic, Researcher, and Development Strategist

Sajid Amit is an Academic, Researcher, and Development Strategist and has been working at the intersection of academia, education, enterprise, and society. Mr. Sajid currently works as Director, Center for Enterprise and Society and Director, EMBA Program at ULAB.

Before joining ULAB, Mr. Amit attended some of the best institutions in the world: Dartmouth, Columbia University, and SOAS, studying subjects as diverse as History and Economics, Applied Mathematics, South-Asian Economies, and Business and Islam in South Asia and worked in diverse sectors spanning multiple countries. 

In this excellent interview, our second with Mr. Sajid, he talks about innovation culture in Bangladesh, startup ecosystem, the discourse of leadership in Bangladesh, leadership imperatives, ecology and evolution of our social values, sectors he is bullish about, lessons learned, and much more. 

Future Startup: You have written about innovation culture in the past, how would you describe the innovation culture in Bangladesh, particularly as it relates to startups?

Sajid Amit: It is a million-dollar question, isn’t it? We talk about GDP growth like it’s the only thing that matters. Every year, we celebrate a percentage figure that had great meaning at first, but now, seems, increasingly ornamental. We do not track employment generation, intellectual achievements of our youth, scientific discoveries, nor do we take pride in technical prowess. Naturally, we rank in the bottom decile when it comes to global innovation indexes. 

Recently, I was reading about how small businesses, at a time of COVID, are mixing agorbati (incense) with Hexasalt to give the alcohol-based product a “halal” touch. It was both sad and laughable. In many ways, we are an innovative nation but in other ways, we are not. We see chunks of innovation in areas of international development, large enterprises, some in the SME space, and in the case of select start-ups. But in my opinion, considering our population and innovation elsewhere, we have not innovated adequately in the tech space.

In the course of my PhD research on the startup ecosystem, I realized that although 2021 was a good year for Bangladeshi startups, it pales in comparison to peer countries like Nigeria and Vietnam, to say nothing of India. We have taken pride in surpassing India in terms of income per capita, while India added 40 unicorns last year. Just think of the role these billion-dollar startups will play in employment generation, FDI, of course, as well as knowledge transfer from the best of the West.  

While we have raised less than 500 million in the startup ecosystem till date, i.e., in our history of startup fundraising, Nigeria apparently raised over 1 billion dollars in 2021 alone, and Vietnam crossed 600 million in the first 9 months of 2021.

Clearly, there are things we are not doing, given that our economy is growing; the demographic dividend is firmly in our favor; the people of Bangladesh are hardworking, and we are not a people to whom innovation is foreign, pun intended. 

I am involved with the startup ecosystem in Bangladesh, and I don’t mean to ignore the considerable innovation displayed by startups of our country. There are lots of challenges to starting tech-based businesses in Bangladesh, and faced with such, start-ups have done exceedingly well. 

bKash is one of the most impressive and innovative startups in the fintech space, not just in Bangladesh, but globally. I think they are poised for a level of impact at an unprecedented scale. They have recently gotten into digital credit, which was never going to be easy, but it wasn’t unexpected for those who have followed this company’s meteoric rise and visionary leadership. 

Pathao, ShopUp, and a handful of others deserve praise for innovating relentlessly and sustainably. 

“We were encouraged to learn from the books of the rest of the world, and also think about our role as citizens in Bangladesh and what we ought to do for the country. At a young age, to be in a culture like that, leaves an impression on you, an indelible one.” 

Future Startup: Why do we lack innovation? What are we missing? 

Sajid Amit: There are lots of things at play here. 

Some of my friends think that in a conservative country, innovation is more difficult. We have authoritarian structures drilled into us from the time we are born. We start with authoritarian parents, then authoritarian teachers, and finally authoritarian bosses. We also heavily discourage risk-taking. We are scared to death of society admonishing us, should we dare to take a path less traveled. 

There are also other things at play. 

We have a tough labor market. Jobs for white-collar workers are few and far between. I wonder sometimes why policymakers or private-sector researchers have not explored why the number of white-collar jobs is so low compared to the number of graduates. It is a sensitive topic I suppose, but an important one, if we have to push our nation further up the growth and development curve. 

I also recently saw this graph on TBS that showed we have one of the worst wage stagflation in recent history, among comparable countries. I think you will see this anecdotally. In many sectors, salaries just do not go up, regardless of how long you have worked. Many organizations are paying entry-level staff with MBAs, peanuts, sometimes 10-12,000 taka a month. 

Is this an inevitable outcome of labor supply vs demand? I don’t quite think so. I think we need to take a harder look at equitable distribution of income among many of our private businesses. 

See, my ongoing research on startups increasingly sheds light on how a strong job market is important for people to want to take risks so that they have jobs to fall back upon. When people know that they can go back to a decent 9-5 job, there is greater risk-taking. It is counter-intuitive but that’s one of the findings from my research so far.

Second, I think we are yet to emulate the example of the IITs of India, and the revolution they have created both in the tech space in India and now in the startup ecosystem. It’s amazing when one thinks of how they have taken the success of the first 6 or 7 IITs, and have gone on to create 20 or 23 now? 

Each of them was set up in partnership with leading international universities from different parts of the world. They have an admissions test that’s far tougher than any admission test I have seen in any part of the world. And they self-select high achievers, promote a culture of research and learning, and instill in their graduates a will to be world-beaters. 

In general, in India, for decades, there is a self-awareness that they can be a world player, compete with the US, etc., which I think trickles down to the common person. 

Of course, I am very proud to be Bangladeshi and very, very proud of how far we have come. We have eclipsed Pakistan in every conceivable social and economic indicator (except for wage rates of the workforce). We have overtaken India on select parameters. We have extinguished the problem of terrorism, or at least so far it seems. The government has done exceedingly well in making Bangladesh a prosperous and confident nation. 

But we, as a people, can do much more. Much, much more, especially in the realm of innovation. 

Prof Imran Rahman and Sajid Amit (left to right)
Prof Imran Rahman and Sajid Amit (left to right)

Future Startup: Related to that, our neighboring country India has done exceedingly well in the realm of the startup. You lived and worked in India, is there anything cultural that has allowed startups to flourish in India, something that is still missing in Bangladesh?

Sajid Amit: Indian parents take what Bangladeshi parents do, in terms of their own household frugal innovation, channeling the family’s resources and encouraging their kids towards academic excellence, and then dial it up to 11. 

Indian family values place far more importance on education. 

I am speaking based on experiences and anecdotes, of course, no hard data. 

I have lived and worked in India and still have ties with people there, and I find it remarkable how large chunks of their population dream of entering the IITs and IIMs and getting into competitive jobs. Of course, this is not true for 1 billion people over there, but a significant percentage of the Indian middle class. 

Moreover, Indians have had a very different experience with tech businesses. Bangalore became the Silicon Valley of India decades earlier, when software and programming took off in the 90s. Indians have gone on to build successful BPOs, then KPOs, and now tech startups, attracting more and more large foreign institutional investors who have set up offices in Bangalore, Gurgaon, Delhi, and Mumbai, and now in other metros and cities. 

On the tech front, education has a lot to do with India’s successes. The Indian high school curriculum was always robust, especially in terms of STEM, and they built on that by investing in a handful of wonderful engineering universities, we now know as the IITs. 

Many of these were set up in collaboration with international institutions and governments, from the Soviet Union to the United States to Germany. In 2010, when I worked in India, I had learned that the smallest of the IITs received one crore rupees annually for research and development. 

The Indian government has also engaged the earlier generations of IIT and IIM alumni working overseas to contribute meaningfully to the development of the Indian IT sector. But that is also because Indians have done very well in the Diaspora. The IITs have been masters at engaging their alumni, taking a leaf out of the US Ivy League playbook. 

So, there are many factors, but if I had to zero in on one, I would say that STEM education in India plays a larger part in their social fabric and collective imagination. 

Future Startup: You talked about leadership as a driver of innovation. What are your views on leadership practices in Bangladesh? 

Sajid Amit: Leadership is not something our families talk about much, to their children. Neither do schools or even universities. Therefore, a young person in Bangladesh tends not to bother about it much. It is usually after a boy or a girl graduate from university, joins the workforce, starts engaging with formal authority, and finds good and bad bosses, that he or she starts to differentiate between a good or bad manager. Still, then, it is rare that he or she would assess the boss’s performance through the prism of leadership qualities.

In our society at large, it appears that there is still a certain timidity among young people when talking about leadership, firstly, because it is not given its due importance; secondly, they are afraid of coming off as brash or overconfident; and in some cases, they perceive it as this amorphous, indefinite thing that is hard to quantify. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you have no shortage of leadership trainers without practical experience in managing teams or formally leading others. 

That has its place too, I suppose, but to a large degree, I don’t think our formal education institutions have adequately addressed the issue of leadership development.

Starting with schooling, all the way up to an MBA or an EMBA, we need to encourage a culture where children think of themselves as problem-solvers, contributors, do-gooders, etc. 

But it has to start at the school level, I am certain.

I think that the Scholastica that I went to, grew up in, played a big, big part in how I think of myself and my role in society. And I have to thank our Chairperson at the time, Ms. Yasmeen Murshid, for the culture she created in our school. 

At Scholastica, in the ’80s and ’90s, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as both Bangladeshi citizens and global citizens. We were encouraged to learn from the books of the rest of the world, and also think about our role as citizens in Bangladesh and what we ought to do for the country. At a young age, to be in a culture like that, leaves an impression on you, an indelible one.

 You will see most Scholasticans of my generation have returned to Bangladesh, are very connected to their friends here, and are all in positions of leadership in various organizations. 

At a young age, to be in a culture like that, leaves an impression on you, an indelible one. I remember our Chairperson addressing the entire school and discussing values during our morning assemblies. She was an outstanding public speaker, motivator, and above all, a successful organizational leader who has contributed massively to Bangladesh.

Future Startup: You have held senior positions at organizations like KPMG and a BRAC company at a young age. You were a manager at KPMG at 27, a Director at a BRAC Company at 29,  and now you wear multiple hats at ULAB in addition to several other engagements. How do you judge whether a leader is successful? How would you evaluate your own leadership?

Sajid Amit: Well, everyone has his or her articulation of success as a leader, and it can vary from organization to organization. One way to look at it is to see whether the leader in question has been able to create an outsized impact. It is easier to create an impact when you have large resources. But let’s say you have a small team but you have the impact of a much larger team, that’s probably leadership at work, amplifying impact. 

Of course, I don’t think I am a good or bad leader. I evaluate my performance without putting any tags on myself. But I do work hard at it, and I take leadership seriously. 

I have had small teams with a large impact. In India, initially, I had a 17-member team, which I later grew to 120. This offshore team managed the work which used to be done by 250 people overseas. It was the time of the global financial crisis, so our team’s performance meant that US, EU, and UK offices could offshore work to us. 

But coming to Bangladesh, at BRAC EPL, we had less than 15 people overseeing foreign investments and we were responsible for 75% of all foreign investor trades in the stock market. I later became a Director but I think I am more comfortable where I have to build rather than in situations where something already built is handed to me.

At BRAC, we were also the first Bangladeshi broker to win international awards, from Morgan Stanley and BlackRock no less. 

At present, at ULAB, I have a small team but a larger group of contractors, and our business research and programming are arguably the most visible and high impact than any other university I can think of, in Bangladesh. We recently ranked 39 out of 50 among the Top Universities of the world in the WURI World Ranking of universities.  

I also have to say that the ULAB example is also noteworthy as a case study of successful leadership. ULAB is a very young university with a unique mission and vision and culture. We have been in existence for a far shorter duration than the NSUs and other universities of Bangladesh, but we have already begun to scale global rankings, thanks to the vision of the leadership at ULAB as well as a very enlightened trustee board. 

The leadership at ULAB is dedicated, conscientious, hardworking, and very, very hands-on. I honestly like working at ULAB because of the leadership there. You will know Professor Imran Rahman yourself. I enjoy working with him. I keep telling people this. 

To me, personally, it is far more pleasurable to work with great leaders and build a great organization than to work in already-large setups where you are a small piece of a puzzle. 

Overall, I would say I am very self-conscious about how I lead. I have made mistakes, of course, but I continue to learn. 

Sajid Amit
Sajid Amit

Future Startup: What do you think makes a good leader? 

Sajid Amit: I think for any young leader, you should start with service orientation. You should start by asking yourself what you can do for your organization. It may sound cliche, but even in practical terms, when you submit to something that is larger, a collective vision, you create passion and motivation which will allow you to excel and also create excellence among those you lead. It is a productivity-enhancer. 

Next, I think you should trust those you lead, but also actively collaborate, to ensure they are engaged. 

You also must see, tease out, and nurture the leadership potential of those you lead. You just don’t go very far as a leader, if you cannot create leaders. I think a leader also needs to have a vision and articulate it well to his or her team. The vision should also be open to feedback and change, as different opportunities present themselves. 

Future Startup: How have you dealt with COVID-19 so far?

Sajid Amit: Rather well, I have to say. Of course, there was a lot of shock in the beginning, reading news and updates from all over the world, late into the night; grief at the passing of people known to family and I; and concerns remain with regard to the safety and well-being of my loved ones. However, all in all, I think, thus far, I have quite adjusted to the COVID-normal. I am productive working from home. 

I have kept myself busy which has greatly helped with staying positive at this time. Team management has not been an issue because I have tech-savvy teams, who are used to communicating online and executing responsibilities, and reporting online. I am also fortunate my team members have been healthy. On the results front, I think we have done some good work during COVID. A wide group of private and public stakeholders has responded very positively to our research and programmatic work. 

Next, on the family front, I have to admit I have enjoyed spending more time with my wife, my mother, and father. My mother and father live near to us, so after one month of staying put and not visiting them, we now visit them frequently, maintaining health and hygiene best practices. It’s nice. My wife and I do have to check in with our parents to make sure they are staying safe, so there’s that on top of our minds, but by and large, we have been dealt with COVID well. We miss traveling, going out to the movies, eating out, but it is what it is, and we have adjusted well so far. 

I have also picked up on old but good habits during COVID. I have re-engaged with my love for music and audio, so that’s been quite a silver lining. 

Future Startup: What are the sectors poised to succeed, post-COVID?

Sajid Amit: Well, stakeholders in Bangladesh and overseas tend to think that the post-COVID normal will be good for startups. I tend to agree. COVID, after it is gone, will see renewed investment in tech and tech infrastructure by the government, corporates, and individuals.

In terms of sectors, some have already taken off. Health tech, or more precisely, telehealth, is increasingly a part and parcel of our daily lives. I have taken telehealth consultations a few times already. My friends who run startups have launched telehealth platforms which have gained some traction. 

E-commerce is of course a huge opportunity, not to be missed, despite all the recent controversies. The controversies were of course terrible for the sector. They will dent the confidence of investors. However, the sector will recover. 

However, controversy aside, the larger e-commerce platforms still have low ticket sizes, and surprisingly low levels of revenue, while quality control complaints persist. There is a big gap between e-commerce platforms and quality control at the merchant’s end. Meanwhile, Facebook commerce has grown manifold in the last couple of years and will continue to grow during the pandemic. 

Edtech and online learning are also being ramped up. Our ed-tech startup scene is fragmented, but one or two have been funded, and there are interesting players in town backed by foreign investors who have the scope to have some real impact, raise some serious money, and scale. 

Other on-demand services will continue to have great potential to grow. 

Last but not the least, fintech will continue to be relevant. I am a part of this platform called Digital Finance Forum Bangladesh, which has leaders from banks, fintech, telcos, mobile finance, universities, and regulators. In fact, about 400 Bangladesh Bank colleagues are a part of this. We are eagerly looking forward to the role mobile payments companies can have on digital credit, as large parts of our population are still unbanked. 

Credit is an important lever for growth and development if used judiciously. I think you will also see more credit-based approaches to international development in the future. 

Future Startup: The society we live in today is essentially very different from the one 10 years back; it was close-knit. And now the society we live in is very individualistic. The world is in constant flux. If you take in all the imperatives that are around us, can you tell us a little bit about what kind of people you think will thrive in the future?

Sajid Amit: COVID’s impact can go both ways. You will have people who have moved back with their families to save expenses and are thriving in situations where they are closer to their families. You will also have people who are distant from their families, and COVID will exacerbate their individualism. 

You have people for whom COVID is proof that there needs to be greater investment in public health. You will have others in whom COVID will energize conservative impulses, be it germophobia, racism, classism, or sexism.  

Regarding the kind of people who will thrive in the post-COVID world, I think people who are able to think critically, be mindful, be present, are good at learning new things, get along with people, and are good with technology, will thrive. I will tell you the kind of people who may find it difficult: people who are resistant to change and people who are reluctant to learn new things.

Of course, your readers will already know this, but COVID and digital transformation will drive a deeper wedge between elites and the rest. The digital divide will worsen the income divide. You will see that tech company founders have added billions to their net worth while billions have evaporated from the net worth of the bottom of the pyramid. Of course, these trends are not inherently connected, but it’s worth thinking about the damaging social effects of technology as well, and not just being starry-eyed about its ability to create progress. 

The post-COVID world will continue to reward those who have ideas that can be scaled using technology, and the era of the tech entrepreneur will continue. There will be more interesting and innovative financing models for financing high-risk ideas. That’s another area where knowledge workers will be valued, including market researchers, data analysts, good strategic thinkers, as well as good people managers.

Lots of large corporations will embrace digital platforms and the prospects for this in the context of Bangladesh, is very exciting. 

Future Startup: What is one piece of advice you would give to your 20-year-old self?

Sajid Amit: Don’t overwork to the point you give up your hobbies and pleasure pursuits. I did this after I went to Dartmouth. I had a large “portfolio” of hobbies, whether it’s watching football, playing tennis, painting, watching movies, and being a music aficionado, before I went to college. The Ivy League workload coupled with an underestimation of my need for rest was not healthy. 

So, the advice I would give to my 20-year-old self would be to worry less about achievements and focus more on enjoying the ride and being grateful. 

It is important to be disciplined about work but also be serious about fun, as long as it’s healthy. 

Balance is not easy, but balance is critical. 

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