Kazi Monirul Kabir is a powerful, passionate, entrepreneurial, innovative and objective-driven leader with a global perspective and strong empathy for local realities. In his 15-year-career across FMCG, retail, advertising, telecom, media and internet industries, he has set examples of how a deep understanding of people, culture and beliefs can give birth to great ideas, reveal hidden opportunities and inspire people to drive growth of business and societies. Currently as founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Spider Digital Innovations, Monirul is working to develop and co-create solutions to help clients in redesigning their business models, recreating their customer experiences and transforming their operations for the digital age.
Before taking up his current gigs in the international markets for digital transformation and innovation, Monirul was busy rolling out Google Ops in emerging markets. He also served as the youngest CCO on the management team of Grameenphone/Telenor Ltd. The subjects of creativity, innovation and design are close to Monirul’s heart, and this is what drives his zeal when working as a member of the Berlin School of Creative Leadership. In 2011, Monirul founded a social innovation lab named Carefountain.org, and is actively involved in scaling it now. He is also board member and advisor to a number of very interesting startups.
With a pony-tail, mustache, fair skin and a gracefully volumetric girth, Kazi Monirul Kabir has an unrivaled presence. You can spot him in a jiffy even amidst a large crowd.
And he has a mellifluous voice. When he talks, you listen; willingly.
Thanks to his persona, communication skill and marketing mind, Kazi Monirul Kabir has become a ‘legend’ in Bangladesh’s marketing and communication arena. In his illustrious career, he climbed the rungs of the corporate ladder fast and successfully led the sales, marketing and communication departments of all the big names that you can think of.
Inspired by his passion around how technology can solve human problems he has put full focus of his passion on technology driven businesses across fintech, cyber security and IoT (Internet of Things) verticals.
Kabir, now traveling across Asia, Middle East and North America came to Dhaka recently. Fintech sat with him in his Dhanmondi residence and tried to pick his brain to understand his transition to such a phenomenal tech entrepreneur.
FiNTECH: You have had such an illustrious career spanning several multinational entities in different industries. Please tell us about how this journey began.
KM Kabir: British American Tobacco (BAT) came to our campus at Khulna University with a program called “We challenge you”. This was way back in 1997 and I was only a third year student! Despite the fact that BAT recruited only final year students, they decided to give us a shot and I was shortlisted! Luckily BAT allowed me to complete my academic first semester of the final year and offered me an internship role in their organization afterwards!
During my internship at BAT, I was offered to work in any of their business related departments. Since I came from a family of bankers, I always perceived a career in finance to be a lucrative one. So I opted to work in BAT’s Finance Department. BAT placed me in their Marketing Finance Department, a department that dealt with the dynamics of market from a financial perspective. And for the first time, I experienced marketing for real! This arena intrigued me. Eventually when I completed my internship and BAT offered me a job, I joined their Marketing Department in 1998.
I was posted in Srimangal as a Territory Officer. While navigating the complexities of various markets such Beani Bazaar, Habiganj and Moulvibazar, I picked up priceless experiences in the field of trade marketing and trade communication.
I worked at BAT for the next seven and a half years. My last held position at BAT was that of Regional Head in the Khulna Division. Next, I moved to Banglalink and I must say that this switch was very hard on me especially because BAT was my first job and I had really fond memories with my colleagues this company.
FiNTECH: Why did you switch? What motivated you to leave a coveted job in a company like BAT?
KM Kabir: I joined Banglalink because I found the challenge of creating inroads for a new telecom company in a market largely dominated by one operator, quite stimulating! The owner of Banglalink, Orascom, entered Bangladesh in 2004 and took over Sheba, a failing mobile operator. Orascom wanted to oust the then market leader and create a level playing field. The company developed various packages for the subscribers, and we, in the marketing department, designed innovative communications for customers. The team was young, vibrant and had an appetite for taking on new challenges. Moreover, I had pulled some of my best people from BAT to Banglalink and together we achieved some really cool objectives! I enjoyed every bit of it.
All the more so because, I was able to implement some adventurous ideas! We went on to create several disruptions in the market at that time. We reduced call price by half, and even started offering cheap handsets with new Banglalink connections – an unprecedented initiative in the telco market! We hired 10,000 young women and trained them extensively on direct sales. A team of two would go on door to door visits and educate customers on the benefits of mobile telephony. This was back in 2004 when mobile phone had just started gaining popularity.
FiNTECH: What happened after Banglalink? Where did you move?
KM Kabir: After working in Banglalink for a few years, I joined Rahimafrooz as its Chief Commercial Officer. My stint there was the shortest in my career. Rahimafroz at that time had a family business which they wanted to transform into a proper corporate structure. I was involved in that process but I was not happy with my work. After seven months, I moved out and joined Market Access, a company that specialized in activations. I realized at Market Access that there’s a lot that can be done in our market to engage customers and I enjoyed my work immensely. Under my leadership the company grew exponentially for the next twelve months and beyond. Next, my move was to Grameenphone.
FiNTECH: In what capacity? What was your responsibility there?
KM Kabir: I joined Grameenphone as its Head of Regions. The responsibility of that incumbency was huge and I had a large team to manage. I really enjoyed this role as well. I travelled with my team to almost all the districts of Bangladesh except for Bhola and Swandip to meet all the team members, dealers and distributors of Grameenphone at the field level. I did not want them to remain as a list of random names on paper, rather I wanted to see their faces and establish a connection with them.
After working in that position for two years, I was made the Chief Communication Officer (CCO) of Grameenphone in 2009. The responsibility was gargantuan because Grameenphone is the largest corporate brand in Bangladesh. People have huge expectations from such an iconic brand and in case the brands fails to deliver on its promise, the repercussions can be equally daunting. I needed to deal with the both sides of the coin.
FiNTECH: As the CCO of Grameenphone, did you try to bring any changes to its branding and communication?
KM Kabir: I realized that Grameenphone had a perceived brand image of being a ‘distant corporate brand’. People respected it, sure, and they put their trust on it as well, but the brand was really not ‘people-centric’. I mean, it did nothing to portray the everyday stories of people. Grameenphone only had a corporate face and focused on more functional aspects that served the primary purpose of meeting people’s need of communication. I wanted to change that. I wanted to give the brand a human touch. I wanted to make Grameenphone a brand which not only connected people in the ‘technological’ sense but also in the literal sense. I wanted to give the brand a more emotional positioning.
During Eid, my team and I launched our “Swapno Jabe Bari Amar’ campaign. In the TV advertisements, we did not show a mobile phone at all. Rather we portray an emotion that everyone experiences at some point in their lives – the joy of returning home to spend Eid with near and dear ones. We demonstrated an inherent message that the troubles of crossing miles before Eid is for staying close to your loved ones. And then we connected this journey with the core brand message of Grameenphone, ‘Kache Thakun’ (Stay Close).
On February 21, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, we also launched another campaign called ‘Dunia Kapano 30 Minute’. The Language Movement of 1952 – starting from the procession to the police firing to the deaths of our language martyrs – had taken place in a span of 30 minutes. We portrayed that in our advertisement campaign. It struck a chord with the citizens as was obvious from the response we received.
FiNTECH: How important is it for the corporate brands to connect with people?
KM Kabir: As I told you, behind any corporate brand, there are actual human beings who experience the same emotions as their their target groups (TG). So the task of making a corporate brand familiar to its TG is not supposed to be a hard task. But in truth, it is a hard task. You have to be very creative to hit the spot and once you have done that, you have to work harder to keep up the tempo. So it’s basically an ongoing creative process.
The fruits of this hard labor are very sweet though. Once people start viewing a corporate brand as a ‘brand that tells their story’, the acceptance and brand loyalty increase manifolds. Besides, the corporations, contrary to popular belief, are not just there to make profits. Most of them honestly want to bring about changes in the society.
For example, the telecom brands, really wanted to bring social changes with the help of technology. Yes, the drive to make profit is there and will remain there but the corporations have a social responsibility angle as well.
FiNTECH: How did you become the first Country Representative of Google in Bangladesh?
KM Kabir: It is an interesting story. I was going to Tokyo from Shanghai. While I was waiting for my flight in the Shanghai airport, one of my friends called me and told me that someone from Google would call me in the next ten minutes. That personnel from Google called when I was at the Jet Bridge boarding my plane. I told him to call me five hours later. After I landed in Tokyo five hours later, he called again. Unfortunately, the roaming service of my phone was not working well. I informed him that I would be back in Dhaka after three days and requested another phone appointment. He agreed. And he contacted me again. After returning to Dhaka, Google took a series of interviews over skype and phone. I was offered the position of the first Country Representative of Google in Bangladesh. It was a very big moment for me.
FiNTECH: Did Google establish any office in Bangladesh? Is there any office now?
KM Kabir: Google did not have any brick and mortar office in Bangladesh. Practically, I was the face of Google in Bangladesh and ‘practically’ I was its office. I did some exciting projects during my tenure in Google. We launched the famous ‘Google Bus’ in Dhaka. The Access to Information (A2I) project of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) helped us a lot to implement the project.
Google still does not have a brick and mortar office in Bangladesh. Its Bangladesh office is basically a virtual extension of its Singapore office. Now there is one person in Bangladesh who looks after the marketing side.
FiNTECH: When did you leave Google? Why?
KM Kabir: I left my job in Google in 2014. While I was working in Google, I got the opportunity to study and work in Strategic Design lab in Canada. In fact Google facilitated this opportunity for me. I was very inspired during my stint at the design lab especially from some of my entrepreneurial batchmates from different parts of North America. I was motivated to create a company of my own. So I quit Google and formed my own company in Dubai together with couple friends from Microsoft and one of my very first recruit in corporate world .
FiNTECH: What is the name of your company?
KM Kabir: My company’s name is Spider Digital. Now we are also registered with the Joint Stock Companies in Bangladesh.
FiNTECH: Why did you start your company in Dubai?
KM Kabir: There are several reasons behind opening my company in Dubai. The first reason is the location. Dubai is located in a very strategic position and if you have an office in Dubai, you have easier access to Europe and Asia because Dubai is a regional hub. Yet another reason to set up office there was the fact that I got the ‘Smart Government’ consultancy project with the UAE government. Obviously setting up shop in Dubai made my work smoother!
Moreover, I started exploring other areas too. We discovered huge potentioal in the areas of internet of things (IoT), financial technology (Fintech) and cyber security. Some of my friends and former colleagues joined me to venture out and tap into this untapped arena especially in countries like Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Middle East and North Africa.
Over time the structure of our company evolved and became more robust. We are working in three verticals now – cyber security, innovation and Fintech. In fact, we formed three separate companies targeting each of these areas. Spider Digital Innovation works on innovation; Spider Security works on cyber security; and Spider Digital Commerce works on Fintech. In Bangladesh, we have already started working with our Spider Digital Commerce.
FiNTECH: Do you think Bangladesh has the right environment to set up a Fintech startup? I mean the big investors here are still not that interested to invest in IT or Fintech startup…
KM Kabir: I believe there are a lot of scopes in Bangladesh. In terms of setting up IT or Fintech ventures, Bangladesh is like a virgin territory where you can do a lot of things if you come up with the right ideas. Having said that, I have to admit that there are a lot of barriers as well. It is true that big investors, especially the large corporate groups still have trust issues about IT investment. Most of them believe they will not be able to get returns on their investment quickly enough and so they shy away from making significant investment in IT or Fintech startups. But I think, things are changing and the large corporate houses eventually will realize that the future lies in IT.
FiNTECH: Bangladesh is now earning about 700 million USD from IT outsourcing. There are targets of earning one billion and later five billion USD from outsourcing within the next few years. Do you think it is possible?
KM Kabir: We are earning from outsourcing now but we have to really critically look at the outsourcing projects that have been generating money for us. The truth is, a lion’s share of this money generated through outsourcing, is being earned from low-skilled jobs, similar to our earnings from the RMG sector. Most of the money we earn are from, say, jeans with 40 USD price tags and not from high-end jackets with 300 USD price tags. So the profit margins remain low.
In the same manner, the IT outsourcing works that we have been doing now remain confined to low-end and low-skilled jobs. We don’t earn from high-end programming tasks. We could though. If we target the market properly and get prepared for it, then we could boost up our export earnings from IT outsourcing significantly.
FiNTECH: The outsourcing market is very competitive. Will we be able to compete in this arena where there is intense competition from countries like India?
KM Kabir: The IT market is probably the most neutral market in the world. If you can deliver good quality work within a reasonable price range, you will be able to compete in the market. You have to understand that all sorts of softwares are basically sold as services. So you have to hone your skills and be able to provide end-to-end businesses to different entities as they assign you to different projects from their businesses. Unfortunately, there are not many trained and able end-to-end developers in Bangladesh.
To create a pool of able and trained developers, education is very important. In Bangladesh, organizations like BUET creates world class software developers but hardly any of them stay in Bangladesh. And that’s quite normal, because, if you get a better opportunity elsewhere, you must take it for your own sake. But I think it is time for our policy makers to start planning towards creating a pool of skilled IT professionals. If you look at India, you will understand what I am talking about. In most of the renowned IT companies around the world, almost three out of five engineers are from India. Why? Because, they put serious emphasis on technical education and they have been investing on it with a long term plan. We need to do this as well. ■