Zareen Mahmud Hosein on her personal journey, making of Snehasish Mahmud & Co, HerStory Foundation, Cholpori, and life lessons
Zareen Mahmud Hosein is a Dhaka-based successful serial entrepreneur, with a range of impressive initiatives across sectors. She started her entrepreneurial journey as a Founding Partner at Snehasish Mahmud & Co, one of Bangladesh's top audit, tax, and consulting services firms, and has helped to drive the company's success. She is also the Co-founder of Cholpori, an edtech company focused on transforming K-5 education in Bangladesh, and HerStory Foundation, a publishing and content company dedicated to empowering women and promoting girls' education.
Ms. Zareen's impressive career has been shaped by a wealth of experiences, including her fascinating upbringing, and her training at Smith College in the US. Before embarking on her entrepreneurial journey, she worked as a Vice President of Finance at Newton International, a start-up training and education organization where she helped set up the business, and as a Manager of Audit & Consulting at ACNABIN Chartered Accountants, one of the largest accounting firms in Bangladesh. She began her career in the US, working in the Corporate Tax Division at KPMG LLP.
Recently, I had an opportunity to interview Ms. Zareen about her personal journey and her work. We talked about her background and formative years, her experiences in the US, her path to entrepreneurship, and her experience of building several ventures. We discussed the founding and making of Snehasish Mahmud & Co, how HerStory Foundation came into being, and her passion for education and her ambitions for her latest venture Cholpori. We reflected on lessons from her journey so far, her approach to work and productivity, the incredible importance of practicing kindness and why we should actively cherish our life, and much more. The entire interview is a fascinating read. I am delighted to share it with you.
Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. I want to start with your story. Could you please introduce yourself, and tell us about your journey to what you are doing today?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: By profession, I'm a chartered accountant. My day job is to run an audit and accounting firm. Currently, I also work with Cholpori, which is an ed-tech platform. We recently rolled out. Cholpori is built on my experience of HerStory Foundation, which I founded about six years ago, where we create content for women and children.
I went to Smith College, a women’s college in the USA. A lot of what I do and how I see the world today has come from the experience of being at Smith. Recently, I was talking to a friend from Smith about our college essays. And we realized that a lot of the things that we wrote in our essays, we still do some of it. My college essay was about sort of being an activist. Seeing my grandmother who ran an NGO, I wanted to be like her in some way. I used to go to a lot of places with her in Chittagong when she was off doing that. I wrote about that experience in my college essay — that this is what I want to do and this is the change I want to bring. You do take your dreams and hopes along with you and build on them. But you need that big-picture understanding of possibilities.
However, having these aspirations is not enough in itself. You have to believe in yourself. That belief comes from our environment. We can never do things alone. That environment can be our families, friends, teachers, schools, institutions, and people we meet along the way. They build our ecosystem and we need that ecosystem to be conducive and supportive.
I was born in Chittagong. A big part of my identity comes from being raised by strong women. My Nani (maternal grandmother), my Dadi (fraternal grandmother), and my mom have played an important role in my life. My two grandmothers have been pivotal in my life.
My Nani was the founder of Ghashful, the first registered NGO in Chattogram in the 70s working on healthcare and related issues. They started in Chittagong in the 70s, and are now a national-level NGO.
My Dadi was a typical Chittagonian conservative Muslim woman. She became a widow at 27. She was very religious and lived under purdah. When her husband passed away, she was only 27 with four children. She took over her husband's business and made it much bigger. I think her upbringing played a role in her life. She went to Sakhawat Memorial School in Kolkata where she studied till class five.
These two women were very different in personalities. One was conservative and the other was doing NGOs, and going out there. But both were strong women in their ways. They had a huge influence on me during my formative years. I’m strong-headed and try to do things my way. People in my family say I was influenced by these women. My mother tells me that she sees the spirits of these women in me. For me, it's a compliment and an honor. Although my mother sometimes complains about it. But I take it as a blessing. My mother herself is a professional. She's broken her glass ceiling. Being raised by these women has been a big part of my journey.
I came back to Bangladesh about 15 years ago. I studied and worked abroad. I'm a CPA as well, a certified public accountant. I worked for a big four firm in the US. After I moved back to Bangladesh, I was with an accounting firm, then I started my own. That's kind of my big-picture story.
Ruhul Kader: Could you please talk about your school and college days and then any formative experiences from those early years?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: I often go back to my early years of experience and the story times with both of my grandmothers and the times I spent with my mother. My Nani was a pioneer in family planning. She would talk about family planning, relationships, and everything in between with children of my age. I was about 10 at the time. I didn't understand half of what she said but she would talk to me about all these things. I remember I was mortified in some of these conversations. I could understand these were taboos and nobody talked about these things with girls of my age. But she was very out there and didn't care much what other people thought. If it was the right thing to do, she did it regardless. She didn't care about societal norms. She wanted to bring these changes. The population was a problem in Bangladesh in those days. And they were addressing it.
The other lessons were about not giving up and being resilient. She was a headstrong woman. Not everyone was fond of her style. My mother and her sisters were proper women. I think they saw their mother and decided that they don't want to be like her. They were more traditional. I remember one incident in the 80s. There was this big mela happening in Shilpokola. Ghasful, the NGO my Nanu founded, wanted to have a stall in the mela but they were initially denied permission to give a stall. It was a quite high-profile event and my Nanu wanted to have a stall. She took a stand and said that if she was not given a stall she would do these and these things. My mother and others in the family were mortified that their mother would do those things. I was rather surprised and thought, wow, you could talk like that. And it worked. They gave her that stall. That was my Nani.
Those experiences have shaped me profoundly. I have come to learn that a lot of times you have to do it your way and people would eventually come around. Sometimes you need to question the system. Sometimes you need to do things to make your voice heard.
My Dadi raised me. I wear her bangles, the only jewelry she wore as a widow. I also inherited her letter and still have those. She used to tell us bedtime stories, mostly about her childhood, her school, and her memories from those days. Later on, when we started working on HerStory, we wrote about Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. For me, it was paying a tribute not just to Begum Rokeya, but to my Dadi as well.
My Dadi had a deep connection with her village. She was a rich lady but humble. Nobody would know outside because she used to wear white sarees and never went out but she was an excellent businesswoman. She had her tannery and many other things. A lot of people from the village used to come to her and she would take care of these people. From her, I learned that you must respect people who come to you for help and should never put them down.
My mother also points this out to me. She would tell me I learned from your grandmother that if someone, a not-so-well-off relative, comes to you, you never make them feel small and give them the respect they deserve. She would tell me that whoever comes for help, help them as best as you can and don't talk about it with anyone.
When my Dadi passed away, we realized that she kept some of her savings separately for the widows and orphans. She was a widow and she felt their pain. It was not a huge amount but it was those little gestures of kindness done in a discreet manner that defined her way of giving. The biggest lesson I learned from her is that always respect a person regardless of their social standing. Both my grandmothers were good at that. That kindness is something I carry with me.
For school, I went to Manarat International School and then Holy Cross Girls High School for five years, which was an amazing experience. After that, I went to Scholastica. It was two different experiences. I could see two different types of people and environments. It was a grounding experience. I had some teachers in Holy Cross and Scholastica, who were pivotal. I had a teacher in class three, Mrs. Sarkar, who taught us math in class three and English in class four. We rarely studied in her class. Instead, she used to tell us stories. But I learned the most from her. I learned that there is a vast world outside of your academic books. What I do with Cholpori now is because of those teachers.
We had another teacher, Farida Tarek, sister of Ali Zaker. She was our Bangla teacher in Scholastica. We were English medium students. So she encouraged us to read Bangla fiction. We used to bring fiction to her class. One book I read during this time was Iti Tomar Ma by Sanjib Chattopadhyay. A beautiful short novel but not that popular. The book is about life and the fact that in life, you find joy in small things. That it's not about how much money you make. Rather it is about spending time with your loved ones and finding those little joys instead of following the rat race. I was into writing. So it was inspiring for me. I remember she would take my write-ups to the teachers' room and read it and share it with other teachers. That encouragement was life-changing for me. It has shaped me in profound ways.
I was a serious student and used to study a lot. From time to time, my mother would remind me that everything would be alright and that I don't need to worry that much, and so on. Instead, she used to take me to art and music classes. I was not good at music. I used to fail. But my mother never criticized or discouraged me. A lot of the work that we do at HerStory comes from that. That it is more important to be a full human being. My mother was really into that. She used to do stitching, I picked up that. She used to paint and I took up painting at some point. Of course, she would nudge us. She is a big-picture person. I’ve learned those values from her.
Today, when I manage people, I approach things from that big-picture perspective. When something doesn't go according to plan, I don’t panic. I say, it is alright and focus on what needs to be done next.
This is a common thing I’ve seen in both of my parents. When we were small, my father started trying his hands at business. He was and is in politics. He was mostly supported by my grandmother's businesses in those early years and never made money until much later in life. At the beginning of his business life, he had this trawler, a common business in Chittagong. One day when attending a family occasion, he came to learn that the trawler had gone down. He spoke with the people for a few minutes, gave them some instructions, and went back to the event without apparently panicking about it. He was like “it wouldn't make any difference if I complain or worry about it. He was like, look at the big picture. It's not the end of the world. What has happened, has happened.”
I do the same thing with my people at work. If something goes wrong, would work hard to figure it out. But we don’t act like it's the end of the world.
Ruhul Kader: That's beautifully put. So you went to Scholastica and then to Smith College for undergrad. After graduation, you spent several years working in the US before coming back to Bangladesh. Could you briefly talk about your experience in those years?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: I went to Smith College with a scholarship. The four years at Smith were the most beautiful four years of my life. I think I made full use of it. I was a class president in my junior year. I was in charge of my dorm. I chaired a few college-wide communities. In one of those committees, I sat with Gloria Steinem, a leading feminist who went to Smith. It was a huge moment for me. I was a girl from Bangladesh. I was in my junior year. I didn't realize how big she was, what her stature was and to be a 20-year-old and give your opinion to people like that at the time, I understand it now. That kind of exposure builds you. Smith was this little place where women do everything on their own. It builds your confidence. There were other opportunities. If you want to build an organization, you can apply for a fund and get it. It was an amazing experience.
After that, I did my master's at New York University in public administration. After graduation, I worked in the mayor's budget office in tax policy because my focus was on public financing. This was the time of Bloomberg. While doing that, I wanted to take a couple of tax classes. While doing those classes, I realized that I could prepare for the CPA. One thing led to the other. I took classes for a year, prepared for a CPA, and then took the CPA exam. I worked at the Mayor's Office for three and a half years. During that time, I completed a couple of parts of my CPA. After that, I joined KPMG, one of the big four firms in the tax practice, and worked there for another two years while finishing my CPA.
After that, I moved back to Bangladesh. I thought if I keep doing this, I would always find something to do and stay in America forever. At some point, I decided to cut off and move back. That was 15 years ago. There was an election at the time. My father is in politics. I took a year off from KPMG, a sabbatical, and came back. I wanted to work on my father's campaign at that time. He's been in politics ever since I was born. He held elected positions and was in the cabinet. But in between, he went through various ups and downs. He lost one election because he didn't have enough funds. He then built quite a successful business. When the election was announced after the 1/11 government, I was thinking this might going to be his last election. I wanted him to win and wanted to be there as his daughter to run the campaign. I came back and was very involved. He ran and it wasn't his last election. I'm grateful for that.
Then I decided to stay back. I joined an accounting firm here called ACNABIN as a manager, did my local qualifications in chartered accountancy, and became a chartered accountant here. I worked in ACNABIN for a couple of years. After a while, I left ACNABIN to join another Foreign Investment, a skill development enterprise founded by a New Zealand-based billionaire. I helped set that up.
However, I soon realized that I was at that stage in my life where I didn't want to work for anyone else. By that time, I had close to eight years of experience and worked for several organizations. So, I resigned. The good thing about that experience was that it was the first time I set up a business from the ground up. I was the first employee there. I learned how to set up a completely new business. I was there for six months, but that experience was invaluable.
After that, I tried a couple of businesses. I started a furniture business, which I later shut down. I worked on our family business for a while. I was trying all these different things. Around this time I had my son. That's when I started this accounting firm with my partner Snehasish Barua. My son was two and a half months old when we started the firm. So they're around the same age. I've been doing this for 10 years. That's how all of it started.
Ruhul Kader: Could you briefly talk about the firm — Snehasish Mahmud & CO, the services you offer, and a bit about how big the organization is, etc?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: We started with two partners and a few employees. We currently have about 200 people. It's a partnership firm. We are three partners. We have about six chartered accountants and other qualified ACCAs. We have about 250 clients, mostly multinational. We also work with a lot of people and organizations in the startup ecosystem.
We have audit and accounting practices. We do advisory services and taxes. In the last few years, we have expanded into HR and payroll services. These services are provided through separate companies. We have an advisory company called SMAC. We have IT services. We just launched a product called the TaxDoo, which won the BASIS national award in the services segment this year.
We have always wanted to build an organization that provides quality service and takes care of its clients. Over the last 10 years, we've established ourselves as a firm that values quality. Now we're in that growth trajectory, where we're expanding. We have partly built on our previous experiences and we have also learned so much. We spent our 30s building this and have grown as individuals in the process.
Ruhul Kader: Could you please talk about that trajectory i.e. when and how did you come up with the idea, put together the initial setup, the challenges of the early days, and from there how you have grown to a firm with multiple products and services?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: We started in February 2013. We turned 10 this year. It has been an exciting journey. We are a bootstrapped company. We started by renting a floor on the J Block because it was the cheapest.
My mother actually introduced me to Snehasish Da. I just came back to the country at the time and didn't know many people. Initially, we were supposed to be eight partners. I and Snehasish da were the youngest of eight. He was already a star in the profession. Everybody knows him now. But he was already well known in those days. I came from KPMG. He came from Rahman Rahman Huq, the Bangladeshi KPMG. Eight of us discussed and brainstormed together. But when the time to leap came, one by one everybody backed out. They were like, you guys start, we would see. This was a risk. You give up everything else and start something from scratch. In the end, it came down to me and Snehasish da. My mother also said that she would join, but she didn't. Snehasish da was like, Zareen, we would do it. That was how we started.
For the first six months, we didn't take anything from the company because we couldn’t. After that, we used to take a small salary. We are blessed that we had excellent support in those days. We invested some money to set up everything and then put another small amount as FDR to pay the salaries of our people in case things didn’t go as well. Thank God, we never had to break that FDR. We probably kept about 3-6 months' worth of salaries in that FDR as part of a contingency plan.
We started with one floor. Today, we have three floors here for the firm and another office in Chittagong. We have always been lean. We had one person to look after our accounts and HR. I used to look after the internal operation — accounts, HR, and all those things and my partner would do external work such as sales and stuff. It was how things were divided up. It has changed over the years. As our business grew, we now have complete setups for accounts and HR. We have learned that investing in the organization is important. But it is also important to understand when to make that investment. You have to invest at the right time. In many instances, we tend to organize everything from day one even when that’s probably unnecessary.
The next thing is investing in your people and helping them grow. For us, when you provide a service, it's all about people. So we take investing in our people seriously.
The challenges are different now. As the organization grows, maintaining operational coherence, and cultural integrity become new challenges. For instance, in the early days, I used to know everyone in the company by name. That’s no longer the case. We now have people who sit in one of our other offices. It can make creating and maintaining the fellowship a challenge. Of course, the business has to grow. But it is equally important that everyone in the company see and own that larger vision.
We have been expanding and transforming ourselves over the last several years. There is now a bigger vision. In the next decade, we want to see ourselves as the market leader in certain areas. The first ten years were more about firefighting, managing growth, and building a reputation. We focused on building a business and taking care of our people. We have laid down the foundation. It took us ten years to build it in a managed way.
It has been a great education. I have developed an intuitive sense of timing about what to do and when. I understand when to invest in marketing and when to build the foundation. This sense of what to do and when to do it is important. I think you develop this sense over the years by working. That lesson has been invaluable.
Ruhul Kader: You started in 2013 as a small operation. What were some of the challenges in those early days? Were there any inflection points that sort of helped you to break out as a firm and find a solid growth path?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: The personal challenge was that I had a child. The first time I went out of Dhaka, my child was a few months old. I left him and went around Bangladesh on an assignment. That was a personal struggle — to manage the work-life balance.
As a firm, we have always been focused on building our reputation. A lot of times, we let go of clients even when it meant we were giving up money. We were two partners at that time. We would sit down and decide. That's why partnerships, whoever you work with, are important. To have that confidence in each other and provide each other that sense that we're in this together. Trust and confidence is the cornerstone of a strong partnership. I've been lucky to have such people in my life. These people have played an important role in my journey. When you have people who are always there to support you, it becomes much easier.
We understand a lot of things now. In those days, we were new and didn’t know a lot of things. We had to have that front together. I'm not talking about technical skills, we all need those skills to deliver services. But all these other decisions are different.
For instance, culture. How do you build a culture of high standards where you take certain things very seriously? There were instances where we took steps regardless of the cost. It has made us stronger as an institution. It sets the tone for the future. I now don't need to worry about these things. People know that this is how it is run. Building that culture, not only within the organization, but also outward culture like how people perceive you is where we’ve invested our efforts, and we're reaping that benefit. After 10 years, people know us for our reputation. But to come here, we had to make difficult decisions.
The other thing is that we had our mentors. We brought in people from outside to speak to our people. We did it for ourselves. We would reach out to people for guidance and support. That little hand-holding was very helpful. And we now try to do that for others.
Ruhul Kader: How does the market for professional tax, audit, and consulting services work? How big is that market in Bangladesh? Where do you see the market going?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: We're a growing economy. The number of professionals in this field is limited. The total number of qualified chartered accountants in Bangladesh is something like 2500 or so. There are some professional firms. But the market is huge.
For instance, even during the COVID, we didn't take a hit. We were conservative. But instead, we grew as a business. So you can see that the market is growing.
Some of the services we provide are compliance requirements. Regardless of what you do, you have to do these things. These are mandatory and statutory compliances. Investments are happening now, where there are needs for various advisory services.
Our biggest revenue vertical is advisory. We're known for tax and VAT services. The number of taxpayers in Bangladesh is small but this number will grow. There are many opportunities in taxation. That's why we are investing so much. We see that growth is coming in terms of outside investments, and local market expansion. There is a tremendous opportunity.
To make the best use of it, we're investing in our people and infrastructure. We have an end-to-end ERP system that runs our operation. From attendance to billing, everything is run through the ERP system. I think very few accounting firms in Bangladesh have that. We invest a lot in IT as part of our strategy. The systems are automated. Things run smoothly. Everything is transparent. It makes scaling much more feasible.
In terms of the market, things are getting interesting. There are a lot of areas where we can collaborate with government authorities since they're also trying to get more foreign investments, maximize the tax net, give benefits to the taxpayers, and deliver services smoothly. In all those areas, there are scopes where firms like ours can play a role. We see that and have been working on that with the authorities.
Ruhul Kader: What are the plans for the firm going forward?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: Our big picture is to build an institution. We are just a 10 years old company. As an audit firm, we provide services. At the same time, a lot of students come to us to do CA Articleship. We want to build SMAC as a go-to institution for Articleship, so we can produce and have the best people. That's one of the major goals, which aligns with long-term ambition. If we can do that, it will add to our service delivery and these people will represent the firm and the profession.
We don’t want to be known as the biggest firm. We want to be known for quality service and high standards. We've been vigilant about that. We’re always conscious of our culture.
We have invested to make SMAC a go-to place for people to work. For instance, we pay students well. In the past, only the big firms used to do this. We make sure that we pay them enough to maintain a certain standard of living without needing to work elsewhere. Because we want them to learn at work, study, and prepare well for the exams. We now have several people in the pipeline who are coming after exams. For the first time, we will have qualified Chartered Accountants. Before people would do the Articleship elsewhere and then join us. It has changed. That's one of the areas we're focusing on. It has also made an impact on the industry. We’ve noticed others have also started paying more, which is good for the profession.
Before the pandemic, we used to go to universities outside Dhaka for recruitment. Now other institutes have started doing it. The goal is to take that bigger picture and long view to build our institution and of course, grow our business.
We are at an exciting time in Bangladesh. We want to be part of that growth. We are bringing in people, looking into their needs and their strength and what they bring to the table, and placing them in that way. So they have a bigger stake in the organization.
Similarly, we've been having this discussion about going international. We have foreign affiliations. Many firms in Bangladesh have. We're thinking why can't we go global and do that? We believe that we have a lot to offer. We are working on becoming that institution of global standard. We're in the early days of that but we'll get there. That’s the vision.
Ruhul Kader: Do you have any particular market in mind for expansion?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: Asia. There are a couple of markets where we are already doing business. Our local companies operate in these markets. These markets are the natural progression areas.
Ruhul Kader: You mentioned a couple of times about being quality-conscious and intentional about the kind of organization you wanted to build. These days, we talk a lot about culture, how culture is so important for an organization, and so on. What's your take on building a good organizational culture? For instance, quality is a matter of cultural orientation. From your experience, how can organizations approach building a culture, which is conscious of quality and conscious of the people that are working there?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: You have to set the tone first. It is about both what you talk about and do. At every meeting, the first thing we talk about is confidentiality because it's one of the cornerstones of our profession. We remind our people about these values all the time. You can't do it via a one-time training. You have to practice it. If the client has entrusted us with their information, with their work, we value it, that's above everything else. That ethical practice comes before everything else for us. The quality starts from that for us.
We have a culture of respect. I think when you give respect you get respect. There is a lot of focus on gender parity. The percentage of the female is low, but that's across the industry. But we make sure that we have gender-friendly policies and people-friendly policies. We focus a lot on the team.
In the early days, we knew everyone in the organization. It is no longer the case. But when we work with a client, we provide them with five different services that come from five different teams, which requires internal collaboration. We invest a lot to make this collaboration happen. We just came back from Cox's Bazar as an organization. We keep on doing these things. We make sure that everybody feels that they're part of a bigger purpose. It's not just me and my partners creating this institution, everybody has to be part of this and own that dream.
We have a lot of these engagements that have been good for building that culture. We operate from a sense of empathy. We pay a ton of attention to learning as an organization. We help our people develop skills, professionalism, and an understanding of work and interpersonal dealings. We do make a lot of mistakes, but we learn from our mistakes. Our intentions are good. That’s I think how you approach it.
Ruhul Kader: Moving on to HerStory. You do this important work around woman empowerment through HerStory Foundation. Could you please tell us about how did HerStory come into being and what was the initial inspiration for starting HerStory Foundation?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: When we started the firm, there weren't that many female professionals in practice. The total number of professionals is low and the number of female professionals is even more dismal. It's a small number. The initial inspiration was to build a female professional network. Men have this old boys' network and women don't have that. I'm lucky that I think I have that now. I get a lot of clients who are female, or I get a lot of referrals through this amazing female network. Initially, since there were/are not many women in the CA profession, I wanted to meet other women professionals, even from other sectors. That was the inspiration.
The first few years we were busy setting up the firm. We didn't have time. I would talk about it, and think about it, but it was just not possible. My son was little at that time and we were building this thing from scratch. We started SMAC in 2013. In 2016, I was finally able to bring together 80 women from different professions. It was around Women's Day. Three generations of women came. We realized that the first generation, my grandmother's generation, was mostly academics, or activists because there were not many other scopes in their time. This was how they could channel ambition. In my mother's generation, there were more professionals. My mother is a chartered accountant, there were doctors and lawyers, and other professionals. In my generation, it was like across the board and doing different things. And people who are younger than us, they were doing like niche stuff, almost whatever they wanted to do.
I was talking with my mom about it while putting together the list of people. She actually helped me with that. I didn't know many people at that time. And we realized that if they didn't do their part, we wouldn't have come this far. So how do we tell that story? The next year, we officially launched HerStory with an exhibition.
We had this one event where a lot of women came together, from members of parliament to actresses to every other professional. It was so full that we couldn't arrange sitting for everyone. It was the first time I was organizing something big and didn't have as good organizing capacities at that time. I couldn't guess that everyone would come and also bring another woman with them. Now I make arrangements. Luckily I made additional arrangements for food, somehow this is that Chittagonian thing, but didn't make arrangements for sitting. Aroma Datta, who is now a member of the parliament, also came to that event. She wrote to me afterward and told me that maybe you could put together a book or something with the exhibition materials. I didn't have a proper introduction to her at that time. But that was very kind of her that she attended. There were women from all walks of life. That kind of got me thinking. I thought if I do a coffee table book, it wouldn't be useful to many people. A few people would keep it on their coffee table and that would be it. I started to think about how we could do something that we could take forward.
We were trying to figure it out and that’s how we stumbled upon the idea that a children's book would be interesting. After three/four months, we decided to do children's books to introduce them to the female heroes of our country.
In that context, I'm going to digress a little, today what we do at HerStory is: run these women's libraries called Sister Libraries in collaboration with others. We read works of female authors and run reading circles. We're making a list of books of female authors for 10-24 years old girls, which will go to some places. There are a lot of women writers but we don't put their work to the forefront. This is how we started working on the books. I think we've kind of been able to make this into something of a trend.
Then we built our publishing house, HerStory publications. We now do third-party books as well. We have published three books this year. Each of our books is in two languages. We have a long list of books in the pipeline for the next year. We do digital books as well for others, not just for us.
While doing all that, we were also running a reading fellowship, where we inspire children, both boys, and girls, and tell them about dreaming big. We were running this program in 10 underserved schools in Dhaka. We would train university students — initially, Dhaka University and IUB students and they would then go and read in these classrooms. We started the program in 2019 and ended it in 2020. This was right before the pandemic. While running the program, we came to see that many kids struggle with reading competencies. These were class 4-5 level readings, but kids, in many instances, couldn't understand them because they were falling behind on reading competencies.
That’s when we realized we have a bigger problem to address. Our children need to dream big, but they need to meet their required grade-level competencies in math, English, and Bangla first.
At that time my son was also struggling at school with reading. I'm into all these things and I do a lot of reading as well. One day his teacher called me to tell me that your son is not reading and writing at grade level. I was taken aback that my kid could face this kind of challenge. For one year, I didn't do anything. I would work and then come back home and read and write with my son. All this thing coincided with our work at school reading project. We could see that our kids are falling behind in these basic competencies. My son managed to improve by the end of the year. He went to a privileged school. He had a lot of resources. Using those resources, I was able to bring him up to speed and now he's doing very well. But in that one year, I realized that it could happen to any child. For my son, there were some reasons why it happened. I didn’t encourage him to write at home. That’s a different story. For a lot of children in these schools, teachers are not trained enough and often don't have adequate tools. Their classrooms are big. Parents, a lot of times, probably are not equipped to teach their children. There is a lack of resources in many different ways. With all these limitations, we can't expect them to meet their grade level competency.
We started thinking about how to bring them those tools. We were looking into whether we should build exercise sheets for children, provide books, and if so, how would we do that in classrooms. How do we send it to villages if we print the materials? Do we tie up with schools? Then COVID happened and the country became digital overnight. We were seeing even in the rural setting a quarter to a third of people had access to smartphones and people were trying many innovative solutions.
We had this product/solution in mind, but we didn't know how to deliver it. Then we realized that a digital platform could be a natural fit for our solution. Then we ran with it and built it. We worked on the methodology and the pedagogy.
We have a culture where we tend to focus on root memorization. We wanted to come out of that trend and help children develop critical thinking, and develop skills that are needed for our times. We understand that things are gonna change drastically in the next few decades and we have to prepare our kids. That’s how Cholpori came into being.
We took the national curriculum material, English, and Math and we've created this Level Reading System aligned with the national curriculum. We created fun and engaging learning materials for primary school kids. It's not about coming first in class alone. Of course, I have to do well. That's why I'm doing all these practices. But it's more than that. It has social-emotional learning embedded with gender sensitivity, respect, and all these other components. We have invested in the methodology and then built the product, which we've been piloting in schools.
Children are super engaged when they are reading our materials. We provide some training to teachers. But children are perceptive, and fast learners. And it's rewarding to see that engagement. This is where we are.
HerStory still works on the publications. At Cholpori, we do more on-the-ground education things in a blended learning format.
Ruhul Kader: That's interesting. You were working on a different problem. And then you came across an even larger problem and that’s how Cholpori was born.
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: This is a scalable solution. We have one crore and seventy lakh children in the primary system. This is a solution that can be taken to every child. We just finished pilots in three schools.
In January, we started working with a total of another 15 schools. Right now, we have schools in Chittagong and Dhaka, and a couple more schools are coming on board outside of these two districts.
Ruhul Kader: What I read from your website: Cholpori is described as a tool for primary school students. You offer three different subscription tiers including a free one. Students can access digital content. You also send them books and other tools and you are also working with schools. How does the entire model work? Could you please tell us more about the product and the business model?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: Cholpori is a one-stop digital learning solution for K through five. It is blended learning for classrooms and independent learning for home — we have a B2B model for schools and institutions and B2C for independent learning at home. These are the two areas where we are focusing and both are subscription based.
In classrooms, schools pay for it. Depending on the schools, some schools are more affluent such as the English medium schools and they could pass on the cost to the students. So it's priced that way. But for the local schools, we offer more affordable pricing.
We’re going to the schools to introduce the product to teachers because we want to help the teachers teach effectively. We do that in classrooms. This is also our way to familiarize the product to a greater number of people. We've been piloting the B2B.
From January, we have started individual subscriptions and started acquiring subscribers. Currently, we have 30 schools on board and are slotted to onboard another 100 schools this year.
Ruhul Kader: For the schools, is it like you provide the teachers with materials that they can take to the classrooms and use to teach kids? How does that work?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: It's digital. Right now, we do give practice materials, which will be online soon. Then they wouldn't need any additional materials anymore.
Cholpori has three different segments on its platform. We have the Pathshala, where you get the animations, audio, podcasts, and other learning materials. Kids learn and practice here. These materials are aligned with the national curriculum. But we go above and beyond. It is designed inclusively. We have designed fascinating characters that not only make learning fun but also teach kids empathy, inclusiveness, and other important values. So that's Pathshala.
Then we have Boighor — a digital library, which is again aligned with the national curriculum, where level reading is there. We have books for different levels. These are read-aloud books. Eventually, we'll build comprehension features in there. This is a product that a lot of English mediums and international schools are taking now. It is hard to find English books in the cultural context of our country. We are always reading Tom, Dick, and Harry, we don't learn about Minivini or, the local context or our heritage. That's why many schools are showing interest in this. These are also attractive, illustrated, and read-aloud books, so kids can learn.
Then there's a third segment called Bottola, where you have extracurriculars from coding to different crafts. That's the area where we've been working with 70,000 students in 80 schools across Bangladesh in four districts. This is how it works.
Ruhul Kader: Is it the same product for the schools and teachers as well as for the students?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: No. Right now, we're using the B2C for B2B as well because you can do that and we're learning. In July, we will launch a separate B2B product, which teachers will be able to use in the classroom.
The product is designed in a way that caters to the needs of all kinds of kids. Some kids learn through reading, some through watching, and others through listening. It has all these different versions. A teacher, in a 45 minutes class, can easily use all the materials that are provided one after another, and they can do back and forth when there are questions from the students. We also provide a guideline for the teachers based on lesson plans. We've been running physical training for the teachers on using the materials and conducting everything.
To have a Cholpori classroom, you just need four things — a teacher, a projector with a sound system, Internet access, and a laptop. Once you have the basic set-up, you can put it anywhere in the classroom.
Ruhul Kader: This is fascinating because primary education is often overlooked in Bangladesh.
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: Yes. All players are in secondary because that's where the money is. And it's exam-focused, which is part of the culture we have. We're aligned with the national curriculum. But we’re more learning focused. Changes are coming to our education. Exams are about to exit. The new curriculum for classes one and two and the senior classes is on the way. Once this craze for exams and grades goes away, it will be only about learning. We are a little ahead of the curve that way because this is what we're proposing. It's about learning and gaining the competencies and not so much about being the first boy or girl in class.
Ruhul Kader: As you mentioned, parents are more interested in investing in kids who are post-class five, it's like 6-12. K-5 is neglected in many ways. But it also offers an opportunity, if you could align with the policymakers and stakeholders in schools and the government. How do you see the overall state of K-5 education? For the kids, parents do invest a lot in purchasing books and those things. There are a lot of digital materials as well — YouTube and those things. At the same time, do you see, on the one hand, there is a market for a product like Cholpori from the schools' side because there are private schools, where they have money to invest in teachers' training, and more advanced educational techniques, etc? But a large percentage of K-5 is government schools or semi-government schools. Is there a demand for that from these schools?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: There are 119,000 schools for K through five. Of that, 65,000 schools are government schools. The other 55,000 schools are our initial market — kindergarten schools and private schools. As I said, the pricing is competitive because it's a social good that we're creating. While we want to make money, money is not the sole purpose.
School-wise, there is that market because it's priced affordably. Moreover, in the schools we are going to, teachers don't get proper training. Something like Cholpori is helpful because it can engage students and teachers can teach more effectively. Once schools see the merit in it, they realize that our students are so much more engaged.
On the individual parents' side, right now a parent spends about $300 on average on a child's supplementary education per household for K through five. Some people spend on supplementary education. If you give them an alternative, they usually take it.
We expect that the initial subscription penetration to mostly happen in Dhaka and areas around Dhaka and later on maybe outside Dhaka and other places. These parents are more conscious and invest in their children. These mothers are not just exam focused because they want their children to learn other attributes not just pass exams.
Culturally, and institutionally, we are still very focused on the idea of being first. With Cholpori, we're coming to a middle ground that it's not only about becoming the first in school, learning is equally important. We're giving enough practice so that children learn and become proficient. Instead of solving only five math problems, we encourage them to solve fifty math problems and achieve mastery. When doing English, there is listening that helps smooth out the pronunciation. You didn't have a proper teacher before, so you had to memorize. With Cholpori, it is no longer the case. Instead of memorizing a few formulas, my child is doing 50 problems. So they learn.
That's why in the early adoption, this blended learning is important. Parents want that blended learning experience. If you want to do something 100% digital, there is a barrier. We all know that. But if it goes through the classrooms, it becomes more acceptable that it is done in classrooms.
The other model we are looking into is doing after-school learning centers, similar to coaching centers. We are looking into making things as palatable as possible for our market with these initiatives, but with cutting-edge content.
Right now we're in the process of getting our content reviewed for alignment and one thing that I take a lot of pride in is that people admire our quality. Quality for me, no matter what I do, is very important. I can do the smallest little thing but it has to be of high quality. We have tried to do the same with HerStory books.
At Cholpori, what we take pride in is that if you look at our material, anyone would tell you it's of global standard. We have many shortcomings, we're a young group of people, but we take our work very seriously. We have 35 people on the team. We have educators, illustrators, and animators. The people who do the pedagogy all are teachers. We've invested in that.
Sure, we want to make money. But this is about our children's education and I'm a mom at the end of the day. Everyone working at Cholpori wants to make a difference. We operate with a sense of mission. Everybody owns this and believes that we can change the primary education landscape in Bangladesh. If we can do that, then our work is done for Bangladesh. We’ll go elsewhere.
Ruhul Kader: Could you talk about what went into building the initial operation of Cholpori and also give an overview of the operation?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: We've been bootstrapped until now. We didn't take in outside investments, because we believe in the product, and we wanted to hold it off for as long as possible for valuation and everything. We are currently going through due diligence and hopefully, investors will come on board. We're at that stage right now.
I have a co-founder, Katrina Dawn, who is also the curator of HerStory. We've been working together for the last five years. I think we make a great team. I'm more of a big-picture person. Of course, I do the finance and stuff. She's very good with operations. She’s creative. We kind of complement each other.
We are a strong team — female lead and female-managed. We have 50/50 men and women. We have a team of content creators. We've always been content creators because of HerStory. We have the content creators, we have educators and designers. Writers work with educators. We have illustrators and animators. We have a tech team who are building the platform and the UX, so the design team is there with them. But it is a very collaborative culture where people work with each other.
Now we're moving forward to build a sales and marketing team. In the first year and a half, we built the product, took it to schools and we have been piloting it for the last several months. We have about 1000 users on board. We hope that number is gonna go up in the coming days. This is outside of the development organization numbers, 70,000 users that I was talking about.
We do other third-party content sometimes as well. In a nutshell, this is how it's structured. Like many other startups, it's a young team, but committed and talented team. They are here because they get to experiment and love their work.
Some of the people are not in the country physically. Our animation lead is in London. Our education lead just came back after doing a master's in the EU. I couldn't have started this without these people. Our education lead was HerStory's fellowship coordinator. She mapped out the whole national curriculum for me from classes one to five when I first started thinking about Cholpori. I'm not an educator. She's a teacher. So she could do this. When she left, I was like, are you going to come back? She's like, I will come back because this is my baby. When she was in the EU, other than her classes, she just worked full-time. And she came back. If you have people with that commitment, magic can happen.
Ruhul Kader: What are a couple of priorities for 2023?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: Taking the product to the market, getting the traction, getting the early adopters on board, schools on board, adding more content, and then rolling out the B2B product.
We currently have class 4 and 5 contents. We're gonna add a third grade and add science. For early learners, what we're trying to do is not just an NCTB-aligned syllabus but gamifying things to make it more engaging. So bring in a lot of innovation there as well.
Ruhul Kader: Could you offer us an insight into how you approach your work? You are into so many different things and all these are full-time work, how do you manage? What's your philosophy about work?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: You have to love your work. I come home, and then I work again. My son is a priority, of course. My bonding with my son is such that he's helping me with my pitch. He's 10 years old, he's like, ma, your pitch is not coming along (laugh). I'm not a good public speaker. The last sentence I say in my pitch, “if you would like to invest in our children's future in education with Cholpori, come join us”, is my son's line. I love my work and he sees it. He picks things up.
For me, it's loving your work and believing in yourself, in your people, and knowing that you can make it happen. And you have to put in your hours. That's my work anywhere I go, be it at my accounting firm or HerStory to make the children believe anything is possible.
I had to sit through many exams, real exams, not just figurative ones, to be here. I'm sure it's never easy. I’m also aware I come with a lot of privileges. A lot of things that I have done, I've been able to do much more easily than others. But that also gives you all the more reason that you can do much more.
To conclude, you have to love your work. You have to have a lot of grit and determination. There will be inconveniences and failures. You'll have many setbacks. Everybody has to go through these challenges. Your job is to keep going regardless of challenges.
Ruhul Kader: How do you stay productive? What does a typical day for you look like? Do you have any unusual productivity habits? How do you structure your day?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: I walk with my son in the morning. I walk him to school. This is how I start my day. Then I walk. A few times a day, I walk with a different woman, a girlfriend, usually a professional. Today, I walked with a diplomat. It's a good networking. They are my friends and it also works for building relationships. These are all women from different places. People schedule walks with me. They know that I do this. The other thing is, every day, I talk to a girlfriend. I make it a point. I have a lot of things happening and talking to a friend allows me to de-stress. I invest in friendships. It's important for me.
I'm quite an organized person. My days are usually planned out. In the morning, I know what I need to do and I check things off throughout the day.
I take physical well-being seriously. Last year, I learned how to ride a bicycle. This year, I learned how to drive. Before that, I learned to swim last year. I started running. I've had a lifestyle change. I focus on well-being because it's important. I try being a vegetarian once a month, every year. This is my third year doing that. So it's a lot of these things.
The other big thing that has helped me a lot is that I help others. If people come to me, they know, I'll try my best. I have a lot of people who come to me. I am a good listener and a good confidant. This is a professional skill. People share their personal/professional information with and they know that it wouldn't go beyond that. I also sit on a few boards.
I'm a big people person. Part of my work day is I'll take a friend out or I'll invite somebody at work to have lunch. These are some of the things I enjoy.
Outside work, I read. I do puzzles and a lot of fun stuff. I love building legos. I have a dog, which I think is therapeutic to have.
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: A couple of books you would like to recommend to our readers.
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: I read a lot of fiction. These are not self-help books. My son's name is Gabriel, after the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite book. An Awakening by Kate Tropa, which she wrote more than a century ago, is another of my favorite books. Begum Rokeya's Sultana's Dream, I go back to that book from time to time and wonder how she wrote that book, science fiction, more than 100 years ago. There is a book called Iti Tomar Ma by Sanjib Chotropadday. The other book I go back to is Siddiqa Kabir's Ranna Khaddo Pusthi. I love how she's made it easy for women and men to cook and do it at that time, it's just amazing.
Ruhul Kader: Advice for young people.
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: Dream big. Don't give up. Be kind to others. Practice kindness. It comes back to you.
Ruhul Kader: What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far?
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: The biggest lesson is that anything is possible. If you put your mind to things, anything is possible, but you have to work hard. Nobody will give it to you on a platter.
Young people today have much more clarity about what they want than our generation. I was interviewing somebody yesterday, and I was like, you're like 23 and you already know what you want. But not everybody has to have clarity. Life is a journey. You take a path and start walking and you figure things out, and you find your calling. In my 40s, I found my calling in Cholpori. The journey is different for each person.
The other lesson is, life is beautiful. We just have to live it. Everybody has a set of responsibilities. We have family responsibilities, professional responsibilities, and responsibilities to our country and people. Responsibility and duty are important. When we take our responsibilities seriously, it makes life fulfilling. Few things are more rewarding than that.
Ruhul Kader: One final question. What do you think about life and death? Life is short. We do all these things, and then one day we will not be here.
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: Life is transient. We don't know if we're going to be here the next day. So live each day to your fullest, as if it is your last day. I believe in it.
I am a positive person. People who know me would tell you that. You would never see me depressed. Even in the worst of situations, I try to be positive. That, I think, is my gift. This is what people tell me.
I have been through a lot of ups and downs. But I wouldn't talk about it. It's just not in my nature. I don't look at it that way. Even on my worst days, I simply deal with it head-on because we have this one life. So cherish it.
Ruhul Kader: That's beautifully put. I think this is a good place to end this conversation. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
Zareen Mahmud Hosein: Thank you so much. It was great meeting you. Take care.