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Saturday, December 2, 2023

‘My dream is to establish 100,000 tech hubs in each of the 100,000 villages of Bangladesh’

From heading Microsoft’s business development for ‘South East Asia’s New Emerging Markets’ to leading the eponymous SBK Tech Ventures & SBK Foundation at the present, Sonia Bashir Kabir’s experience in the tech sector is vast.

She spoke to Fintech recently to share her thoughts on the current state of the tech industry and the economy in light of the ongoing pandemic.

You started SBK Tech Ventures last year. Tell us about it.

I have been funding tech startups for the last 4 years as an angel investor and in the process grew very passionate about the startup and funding eco system. While I was working in Microsoft, I learnt a lot about South East Asia, but my passion propelled me to leave Microsoft and chase my dreams.

There are two things I deeply care about.

First, strengthening the startup ecosystem. I worked with startups and investors in Silicon Valley. I witnessed how startups grew from zero to billion-dollar valuations. While I lived in the Valley for 20 years, I always dreamt of replicating their success in Bangladesh. I think I have that opportunity now. I am ready to seize the moment. Carpe Diem.

SBK Tech Ventures is my Tech Venture Investment Engine that funds startups. I want to help startups in my portfolio scale up and attract foreign investment.

Second, Empowering rural communities with technology. SBK Foundation a not-for-profit entity which work with youth and women.

Currently, we have established ‘technology hubs’ known as Young BanglaTech Hubs in each of the 64 districts of Bangladesh. Tech Hubs project is in partnership with Young Bangla, an initiative of Think Tank, Centre for Research Information (CRI).  Tech Hubs train Women & Youth on technology and connect them to foreign companies for outsourced work so that Tech Hubs can learn new digital skills and make money. I am trying very hard to ensure each Tech Hub has an income of taka 10,000 monthly.

My dream is to establish 100,000 tech hubs in each of the 100,000 villages of Bangladesh.

What kind of changes do you anticipate in the venture capital landscape in Bangladesh?

Silicon Valley has a mature venture capital industry and I am fortunate to have worked with them when I lived there. The investments began with high network individuals betting on startups and invest their money instead of saving in banks. It was a risk but the rewards were high and the valley became home for both successful startups and institutional VC funds which now take funds from high net worth individuals plus family offices, endowment funds etc.

Usually 1 out of 10 startups succeeds. VCs invest in many startups to hedge their bets. The 1 startup that makes it, delivers ROI on the full investment for all startups. We are now seeing the startup eco system and venture capital model developing in Bangladesh. We do have work to do to attract foreign investors from a policy perspective, deal sourcing algorithm and financial analysis/business projections of startups.

Good news is that there is a ‘startup fever’ in Bangladesh. Everyone has an idea what a startup is. As startups emerge and get funded, to ensure the venture capital industry flourishes in Bangladesh, we need some of our startups to be successful. Success does not mean raising lot of money. Success means two things for me: a solid business with positive unit economics.

What are the differences between companies in Silicon Valley and here in terms of environment and mentality?

One thing about mature markets is that there is little room for improvement available, competition is fierce and customers are on the  driver seat. Bangladesh is an open field. Many unmet and unarticulated problems need to be solved; customers do not have a strong “voice” perse. I relocated back to Bangladesh from Silicon Valley in 2005. It’s been almost 15 years that I have been living in Bangladesh and I am super excited to say that there could not have been a better time than now to live in Bangladesh. I wake up energized and charged every morning because there is so much to do. The digital transformation that happened in Bangladesh post COVID-19 in 2 months would not have happened in 2 years. Our people are ready to embrace technology. All we need to do is find the best way to serve them. By people, I mean the people of Bangladesh, not the city dwellers of Dhaka & Chittagong. I mean every citizen from metropolitan cities to villages. The time has come to democratize technology – take technology to the hands of the masses.

To answer your question specifically, Silicon Valley has 2 unique characteristics that I found to be very effective. The first is ‘process.’ Everything is process-centric there. From the Managing Director or CEO of a company to the most junior employee, everyone follows the same process. There are NO exceptions. Bangladeshi companies are beginning to focus on setting up processes. Companies locally are maturing and embracing professionalism. Centralized decision making is not a motivator. Companies need to evolve towards an inclusive decision making ecosystem.

The second is that in Silicon Valley the risk appetite of both investors and startups is high. Yes, they have seen success which stimulates higher risk taking mentality. Bangladeshi companies need to increase their risk appetite for tech companies which do not have huge bank loans with collaterals. do not require huge investments and leverage intellectual property.

You said in your previous interview with us that you don’t work anywhere for more than 3 years. Although you stayed longer than 3 years, you did finally leave Microsoft. Why?

Yes, I do remember saying that. My role in Microsoft was expanding so I was constantly challenged and learning. I joined as the Managing Director for Microsoft Bangladesh at first. When I left I was managing 5 countries: Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Laos and Myanmar. I wanted to leave after I completed my fourth year in Microsoft – but I was offered an attractive retention bonus to stay which I agreed to but finally quit after the 5th year.

The reason for leaving Microsoft was simple. I wanted to pursue my passion. I wanted to fulfill my dreams. The dream I had in Silicon Valley about my country. SBK Tech Ventures and SBK Foundation both are my present and my future now. I am excited about my journey forward.

Why are companies not trusting local software enough to use them?

There was no Bangladeshi University in the top 100 Asian Universities survey. For one reason – we do not have research and development facilities. Our youth are talented but when they come into the industry from academia, there is a gap. This is because our universities lack R&D facilities.

We cannot blame our youth – they have not received the exposure and training that would have enabled them to make world-class software, design cutting edge technology and solve deep rooted problems.

We cannot blame companies either. They have to run their businesses to the best of their abilities, and one cannot expect them to make compromises on quality. The Government and trade bodies are taking steps to promote deployment of local software but we also need to invest in getting our youth get international training to compete.

Work from home is the new normal now. Do you think this might continue in some form after the pandemic subsides?

I mentioned earlier that Covid-19 has helped with an accelerated digital transformation. We are getting access to digital education, digital medical treatment, digital finance and digital shopping (e commerce). As we the citizens embrace the convenience of a Digital World, Bangladesh can be an example globally in this regard. We have strength in numbers – our population of 160M + cannot be ignored.

Whether the new normal working from home will continue, I feel this will morph into a hybrid model. For example, people will balance commuting long hours which was a necessity previously with efficient time management now.

The Covid pandemic has caused a big blow to the economy and the tech sector is not outside of the impact. What is the way forward?

This is a global problem. Everyone from the developed to least developed countries is facing the same problem. In a way, this has a balancing effect, kind of like a reset. We had a good GDP growth rate prior to CV-19, but it has slowed down since. But remember, this is true for every country. This year is going to be tough globally. We will bounce back in 2021. We will revert to 8% GDP growth.

Our GDP is now at $275 billion. I am optimistic about the future. We could become a $750 billion economy by 2030. This is not a small feat. The future of Bangladesh is extremely positive. Technology will be the enabler that will help Bangladesh leapfrog. Times are tough now. We cannot be afraid of the situation. We have to be bold, positive and strategic to plan for our bright future that lies ahead.


Fintech Advisor Shafiul Azam has taken the interview of Sonia Bashir kabir. 

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