Leadership is Rana Shohel’s forte; it is what he does best. His area of expertise also includes organizational development and driving top-line KPIs. In his career of 24 years and counting, Mr. Shohel has experienced the entire spectrum of IT including telecommunication, manufacturing, fintech and other industries.
As the COO of LEADS Corporation Limited, he is currently focused on data science, Artificial Intelligence (AI), IoT and blockchain. He has worked with both startups and established enterprises bringing innovation to the business and bridging the gap between executives and technical stakeholders.
When the Fintech team met him at his office, he spoke about his career, current state of fintech industry in Bangladesh, disruptive technology, automation and other topics. Here is the excerpt of that conversation.
Tell us something about yourself. How did you begin your career?
I am a son of a middle-class family. I grew up with dreams just like others. In the 90s I went to US for my studies. Prior joining to LEADS, I worked as an enterprise leader in different leading companies such as Manufacture, RMG Garments & Accessories, Food & Beverage, Retail & Shopping Network and Telecom industries. I joined the America-based company called AT&T then moved to one of the fortune 500 companies The Home Shopping Netwrok (HSN). I worked there for a long time and I spent around 14 years in America. In 2005 I came back to Bangladesh and got the opportunity to work at Robi Axiata where I was employed for around nine years. In 2008 I received the ‘Axiata Group CEO Merit award 2008’ for contribution to Axiata Group. That period was really challenging for me. It took me some time to adjust to working at home after working for a long time abroad. Another thing is that I often used to face the question about why I left a country like USA and came back to Bangladesh. What kind of a fool would leave all those facilities and privileges and come back? But to me, actually the situation is completely opposite. You acquire knowledge, learn about business strategies from abroad and then put them to use when you return home – I believe in this principle, but majority of the people do not have this mindset.
Your location is not a factor in your success whereas your success depends on how much you can give and how much you have achieved. I think I took the right decision to come back to Bangladesh. Actually, my country gave me the chance to work with leaders and thus enabled me to develop leadership skills to inspire the future leaders of tomorrow. Then I came back and worked in various departments at Robi Axiata limited. There were different complications but I managed to overcome them and I am grateful to them for boosting me up. Then in 2016, I came to LEADS Corporation Limited and I started working as the Chief Operating Officer. Taking the country forward along with the IT sector, how to work with various resources, automation and its capacity – I got the opportunity to do all these at LEADS. I am trying to make the IT industry more robust and develop it even further with outsourcing and software.
So you began your career at AT&T. After working in a leading foreign technology company, what was your experience working in the Bangladeshi market?
The main thing is that they will give you the chance to grow both as a person and a professional. You will keep on working and learning, and you will be able to move up with your education. ‘You Learn, You Grow’ – you will surge ahead in this process. You will get to know all the patterns from there. Whatever potential you have, it will come out through your work and you will get the chance to work on it. Even if you are a fresher, you will be employed in the segment where you can succeed. I have tried a lot to do that here but maybe I haven’t been able to do it completely. Another thing is that in a place like US, a person is considered a resource and that is why a person can grow through his or her work.
In 2017 you received the ‘Best COO Award’ from World HRD Congress. Tell us something about this. How did they elect you?
As you know the award is bestowed through South Asia HRD Congress. The South Asian Business Excellence Awards is the most prestigious honor in South Asian region to celebrate leaders around the region working to strengthen united, increase economic opportunity. The goal of the South Asian Business Excellence Awards is to recognize and honor the business leaders and professionals and organizations responsible for developing the most effective actions that exemplify business success in their respective organizations in our own South Asian region. They give this award every year. Based on my roles, responsibilities and contribution I was identified as one of the potential candidates for the award and after proper ratification from the industry peers I was selected as the recipient of the award. In fact, I was quite surprised by this matter. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how they did their work and I even learned about my nomination quite late. They had a strong team and after surveying different markets, they selected me. That is how I was summoned and received the award.
What is the current state of the fintech industry in Bangladesh? Will this sector improve without further automation?
In one word, it is impossible without automation. However, the fintech industry in Bangladesh is a promising area. Besides, many people have now realized that technology is the key for this industry. But I must say that this thought has not grown entirely. For example, there was no automation in the banking sector a few years ago but now they are coming forward with increasing automation. In fact, there is no substitute to automation if you want to run the financial sector in order to provide cost-effective banking services and cover large unbanked population in Bangladesh. With the advent of automation in Mobile Financial Solutions, gradually a significant part of population is gaining access to mobile banking and people are increasingly performing cash-less transactions in the system to the extent possible, they are not exchanging physical cash like before. Transactions are happening through payment cards or through mobile network. In this context LEADS is playing an important role. We have been providing back-end connectivity support for Mobile Financial Solution networks. We are into providing Agent Banking Solution as an important extended arm of Banks for providing cost-effective banking solutions and outreaching to general mass that are situated remotely and enabling them to participate in digital banking services. Briefly, we have been working a lot on fintech. Our AI and Blockchain based solutions are paving the way to widen the scope in these areas.
Do you think the ecosystem for large-scale automation can be created here?
Actually, I think the input technology is a medium necessary for creating the ecosystem for large-scale automation. We have to increase our local resources. You bring software from abroad and later you feel you are better off using local software as they are comparatively easier to maintain. This would not have happened if we had our own resources. We have to put our local resources to work. This should not be limited to a tech company. Starting from the banks, the government has to move forward in this regard. You will notice that the Telco sector as well as the R&D sector has experienced a lot of growth. Initially they brought foreign resources, investment and technology but gradually they started working with local resources and its result is there for all to see. The same thing should happen with the fintech industry. If the local companies get the support from local banks then we will be able to create advanced software and build the fintech industry.
LEADS Corporation Limited is working in many sectors. You have achieved unprecedented success in products for banks like CBS. Give us an overview of your present business.
Currently LEADS Core Banking Solution (CBS) “BankUltimus” is operating in 12 banks and 13 Non-Banking Financial Institutions. Apart from the local market We want to create a position in the foreign market with our CBS. We have been able to take our CBS to that level where we are fully ready to serve any foreign market and that is how we continue working. We are already working in Hong Kong with our CBS. Since we have the proof that our CBS has reached global standard, we are thinking about taking the CBS to different part of the globe. As technology is changing, we believe we can carve out a huge space in the foreign sector using this transition. I would say our team management is very strong. We have gone very far over the last two years with a young team. We are thinking ahead of empowering our CBS with disruptive technologies such as BI, AI, IoT and Blockchain to further make it an exclusive product for not only the local but also the global market. I hope we can create a huge market with the new technologies in the next two to three years.
What type of disruptive technology are you working on?
We are thinking ahead of empowering our customers through disruptive technologies such as BI, AI, IoT Blockchain and private cloud. Actually, the vision of LEADS is very clear. The way developed countries are being benefited by technology, similarly we also want to be benefited by technology. We want to move forward digitally far more than other countries – that is our belief. We are not only focused on working with disruptive technologies but we also want to develop expertise and resources for both local and global market.
Bangladesh is being affected by various disruptive technologies. However, the change is very slow. Even after introducing different services, we still see long queues in banks. Is this due to the lack of tech education among people?
When I was in USA, I saw there were many training sessions on various topics like mobile phones, software usage and others but such trainings do not take place in our country. Whatever our people learn, they learn by themselves. There is some good work done in our banks but since there is no proper training, the process of adaption becomes slow when there is any change. Another reason is the fact that the mass people do not know how to properly use a mobile phone or they are ignorant about the transaction processes. The city dwellers have some idea about the usage of a mobile phone but those who live outside the cities still do not know. Banks are compelled to have long queues considering those people.
We will only be able to come out of this situation when the simple things become more user-friendly for the mass people. If all the people come under the fold of technology then we will be able to move out from the common section and our adaptability will improve. A lot of companies are making these functions easy to people in Bangladesh. For example, we have an application called TouchPOINT. It was created in such a way that even people with minimum literacy will have access to avail the banking services. The most important thing is that people have yet to develop that trust and that is why we still need to maintain the traditional system. Change is a small word but its boundary is huge, it takes a lot of things for a person to change and it will take time to get used to the change.
Can you give us an idea what responsibilities you have to discharge as a Chief Operating Officer?
As the Chief Operating Officer, I ensure that my vision and values is aligned with that of the company to foster business growth and create a customer centric organization. One of my key roles is to develop short- and long-term business strategic plans and execute them accordingly. It is not that I have responsibilities for a particular department; in fact, I have various types of responsibilities. My everyday work involves not only the technological side of things but also activities related to business operations and marketing. Whether you talk about a new software or fintech, we discuss these issues, sit with the team, chalk out a plan and work accordingly. I analyze our existing products as well as new products in the pipeline, what type of products will be suitable for us and then there is market research which I do, it is very important to say the least. I have to work with customer service but I cannot discharge all these responsibilities by myself, I can manage because I get support from the team members. Furthermore, I am also in charge of our training and consultancy wing of the company where our vision is very clear, to align with our ICT Ministry to develop technological expertise and resource for local and global market. We are very much focused on contacting disruptive technologies in our training center. As one of the pioneering companies in the field of ICT we have the social responsibility to guide our new generation on adopting and preparing themselves for latest technology so that they can avail the opportunities in the global workplace. I assist the team members on how to support the customers, how to appreciate their experience and how we can benefit from that. Our main purpose is to move forward keeping in mind both the technical and business aspects.
What are new ventures of LEADS in 2019?
As a renowned ICT company in Bangladesh LEADS always tries to work with something new. LEADS has been providing service for the last 27 years and we are pioneering to bring new technologies and products & services in local market. Just recently we participated in Soft-Expo 2019 were we showcased our IoT enabled device for handicapped individuals. We are also working in the education sector and implementing Blockchain based solution for further betterment of the sector. Our Blockchain based solution for the education sector which is known as LEADS Educhain will help to educational institutes and employers to differentiate between original and counterfeit certificates thus ensuring transparency and reliability. This technology can also be used to verify legal documents. For the pharmaceuticals industry we have developed LEADS Pharmachain a Blockchain based solution for Pharmaceutical product authentication. We are working towards preserving the consumer rights of the customers and stakeholders alike through these solutions. For Banks and NBFI we have already launched an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot and working on our own Business Intelligence (BI) tool for the massive data driven organization. These technologies will definitely further help to automate the banking and NBFI industries and LEADS wants to play a pioneering role in this regard.
Finally, we are working on Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and addressing the needs of agricultural as well as RMG sector.
Thank you for your time. If there is anything you want to add, please do.
I think this is the suitable time for Bangladesh to rise. There is a lot of scope to work on the areas of basic needs like education and healthcare. We have to think about that. We have to promote Bangladesh as a Green Country to all and must work with technology. I believe that day is not far when Bangladesh will be established as an exceptional country in the comity of nations. In today’s 4IR era there is ample of opportunity for the youth to capitalize on the huge demand for technological experts in global market. In order to take our country to that next level the government, companies, education sector need to work in collaboration. As a leader it is our social responsibility to guide and advise our new generation to prepare them for the global workplace.