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‘THE CHALLENGE OF BEING A WOMEN ENTREPRENEUR STILL EXISTS VERY MUCH IN THE BANGLADESHI SOCIETY’

Photo: Arif Mahmud Riad

Farhana A. Rahman is currently serving as the Senior Vice President of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), the largest national trade body for IT and ITES of this country. She is the Chairperson and CEO of UY Systems Ltd, one of the pioneer organizations in outsourcing business and has been outstanding in the European market for more than a decade. With its web based software development skill, UY Systems makes a considerable contribution in earning foreign currencies. She is also the Managing Director of Healthprior21 and Secretary at Society for the welfare of Autistic Children.

Ms. Rahman has been an example in ICT industry and encouraged a lot of female entrepreneurs over the years. She received the prestigious Women Exporter of the Year’ award by International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development at Trade Development Symposium in Nairobi, Kenya. She was also awarded with the ‘Best Women Entrepreneur’ in ICT Award at Digital World 2015. Ms. Rahman has made substantial contribution in BASIS with different roles.

Ms. Rahman was the first elected Woman Director at BASIS and served the board as Treasurer and Vice President during the term, 2008-2010 and 2010-2012. Currently, she is the Chairman of International Market Development Committee. Her commitments and engagements are quite praiseworthy too with roles such as Secretary General of Autism Foundation & Advisory Committee Member of Shuchona Foundation. Ms. Rahman is a Master Degree holder from the University of Dhaka.


Farhana A. Rahman wears a number of hats. She is one of the few female CEOs of the country who leads a large software company, holds the position of senior vice president of the country’s apex software body—Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) and at the same time gives numerous autistic children a reason to smile by being the secretary of Society for Welfare of Autistic Children.

Farhana was awarded the ‘Best Women Entrepreneur’ in ICT Award at Digital World 2015, and was recognized further with the ‘Women Exporter of the Year’ award at the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development at Trade Development Symposium in Nairobi, Kenya.

Fintech recently catches up with her at the sidelines of a seminar and talked about her recent ventures and visions. Here is an excerpt of the conversation we had with her.

FINTECH: Besides your own organization UY Systems Ltd, you are also in charge of the Healthprior21 and UY Lab. Tell us something about those.

F.A. Rahman: We have a portal called Healthprior21, the UY Lab serves as a training center while the UY Systems Limited is mainly involved with development and outsourcing activities.

The UY Systems Limited began its official journey in 2003. However unofficially it came into being while I was working at home. After the organization was formally inaugurated around two years later, I continued working in the local market but after 2007, most of the work comes from abroad. I mainly served the European market, which I still do and I had several clients in the US. The firm currently works on developing software and mobile apps.

The training center we have provides training on IT. We are gradually offering new training classes in graphic designing and latest technologies Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). We are also working with the new technologies in the horizon and have launched training on hacking around six months ago.

FINTECH: UY means ‘Upload Yourself’. What are the reasons behind this name?

F.A. Rahman: When I started, web hosting was really new in Bangladesh. Very few companies had their websites in 2003. I was basically focused on web at the start, it was in the back of my mind and the main thing about ‘Upload Yourself’ was to display what I was doing.

So it is about letting people know that I have made an app or the detailed components in an app. The name Upload Yourself System came from that line of thought. Then I made it UY to shorten the name. The fact that it becomes easier to write and speak is also another reason.

FINTECH: When you began your business, you had to confront many challenges. What type of challenges you faced in those formative years?

F.A. Rahman: Being a woman entrepreneur itself was and still is the toughest challenge. Firstly, you have to understand that I am a woman and I choose to work in the IT sector which is still completely a male dominated domain. Back in 2005, people did not hold the idea of a woman entrepreneur that seriously and that is why they could not accept it the way it is.

But that came as a boon for me as well. It became easier for me to work for international markets. At the end of the day, people used to think that “she opened the business out of hobby and will close down after a few years.” But in my case, I had transformed that notion into the strength of mine and kept continuing what I wanted to continue.

To tell you the truth, that challenge of being a woman entrepreneur still exists very much. Many people hold this opinion that the women will lose their confidence after a certain period. This is a huge challenge because it acts as a mental pressure too. It is really about the mindset. To change a mindset is extremely difficult in the context of our country.

Then, there is the matter of investment. Even though I had to start with private investment almost completely, I would say I have managed to grow because of my clients. You may be aware of the fact that we hardly get any investment from banks, so I began with what I managed from family sources. But I had some clients! I would say I am really lucky because I was able to make those clients rich in shorter period thus it boosted my reputation in the market. Whether you talk about my skill development or business expansions, I feel I came this far by their support.

Apart from the financial challenge, there is the social problem as well. I told you earlier that the mindset is a huge fact. Accepting technology is another problem out there. Many companies have their websites today but back then, people didn’t understand building a website. In fact we had to create our own market.

When I reminisce about the earlier times, I feel I had almost nothing back then. I wouldn’t say that we don’t have any challenges now. In those days they used to take away our source code, we couldn’t do anything, and we still can’t do anything. But I can say the awareness among companies has increased, different systems have arrived and therefore they cannot take it now that easily if they wanted to. Back in those days people were hardly aware and there weren’t any certificates around. Many people think that in IT business, you can work by just sitting at your home, but it is not true. Large investments are necessary in the IT business and you need a continuous flow of investment when you set up one IT business after another. I would say these are the challenges.

FINTECH: Why do you feel women are lagging behind in the IT sector and business sector as a whole? Do they intend to come but somehow can’t, what do you think?

F.A. Rahman: I have already mentioned of “being the women” thing as a decisive factor. Frankly speaking, I had to compete with everyone including men to come this far. Even though we are harping on women entrepreneurship today and trying to make it a separate issue, it should not be done. Everyone must compete in the business world, and for that s/he must be ready.

The answer to your question sadly lies in the fact that we create the differentiation in girls from the very birth. We make them understand that this work is meant for boys, not for girls. Girls will go to a fixed set of professions; boys meanwhile are meant to work in certain fields where girls are not allowed. This sort of mindset is actually holding back our girls.

Girls are not poor in studying certain subjects like mathematics, they can work and can manage a business quite well also; they can do everything but they lack the confidence to move forward from where they stand. Why? It is simply because they are being told from the beginning that “this is not your work that is not your work, this is what you will do.”

Many are encouraged to enter the education sector since there is an emphasis on teaching in recent times. They are allowed to become teachers, allowed to become doctors, since these professions are quite safely tried and tested. Parents and husbands feel scared to allow women to join new professions instead of the more mainstream jobs. Doing business is really a scary thing. There is risk, no matter how much opportunities you have, you will always have risk. There is also risk in the IT business, but one has to take the risk, suffer its stress to make profit. This is the difference between a job and a business entity.

In business, I have to think about the families of many people at the end of the day and how to pay their dues, but in a job these things don’t matter. In a job you are at least assured to receive a salary at the end of the month, and no matter how much difficulty you are going through, you can take home some money. So women are moving forward accepting this and they have to endure the pressure from family as well. Even today, women are not given any leeway in social spaces because they work; not for a children’s program or for the in-law’s. These are the factors why women are not coming into the IT sector.

We are encouraging girls to be educated, but we don’t give them a guideline to develop their career. If we don’t think productive and intend to move forward while having our education, then it is quite difficult to start a business. In a business you require a network, information sources and the readiness but we are not preparing the girls in this regard. Just see, several boys can have tea in a tea-stall while completing a business deal, but can girls have tea in those tea-stall even today? No, they cannot.

Even though we have become more liberal, opened our culture and enjoy internet in the palm of our hands, we are still holding back girls in the same place by our mindset. It is true that a girl can come out of the house if she wishes because internet has made her life a lot easier than before. Some families put obstacles in the path of those wishes from the beginning. These are reasons why women are lagging behind. It is not that women don’t want to come in this sector; it is because they don’t know the path or not allowed to know it.

In terms of networking, how can you come into this sector if you cannot interact with five people? Women are unfortunately not being taught to develop their networking skills. Creating a network, use it to your benefit and even to speak, these abilities are special skills. This is why there aren’t many women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. Foreigners have taken many initiatives to develop women entrepreneurship by giving free training and setting up free workshops but the number of women participating is still very low. They cannot come because their families cannot accept the fact that they will go out, and learn work.

FINTECH: What is motto of BASIS’s committee on ‘Women Empowerment’?

F.A. Rahman: There is a Women Forum as well as a Women Standing Committee in the BASIS. The previous committees also had these two groups. We still see that women find it difficult to approach a gentleman and thus are lagging behind, so this is why we created the women forum where women can talk exclusively with women and know what opportunities are there, get informed on the latest global trends.

A girl might be studying in a university and she will need information if she wants to work in the IT sector or open up a business in a few years. She can avail the training for this purpose at the Women Forum, and also have access to information like where to obtain a trade license, how to open a bank account etc.

Women standing committee is mainly constituted with our core members. One of the responsibilities of the standing committee is to bring more women into the industry and create the right environment to generate women employment. Then there are many types of discriminations in an office, and if they exist they do not permit a women friendly environment which exacerbates the problem even more. Women in IT Standing Committee are working with these issues so women can overcome these problems.

FINTECH: Two sister companies of BASIS were shut down because they were set up in non-commercial areas. What is your decision in this regard?

F.A. Rahman: We have around 800 companies in residential areas. Let me tell you about my own company. If we couldn’t begin work in our homes in the residential places, there wouldn’t be four offices in four locations in Dhaka city that we have now. Ultimately, those offices had to shift to commercial locations.

Besides, there is the question of affordability. During the conference, I spoke about the ordeal I faced during Eid since the ground floor of our training center is a market. Although the offices were opened, they would not open their shops for seven days. They shut down all the utility services including the lift. It becomes a huge problem when electricity is interrupted and the lifts are closed after the market hours as many offices still run their operations during those hours. Many building are not suitable since our offices must have electricity for 24 hours and dedicated internet connection.

To meet the target for digital Bangladesh set by the government, we have to export 5 billion by the year 2021. If we keep shutting down companies at this moment, the target cannot be reached. These companies are barely surviving with so many problems hanging over their heads – access to finance, access to market, human resource development, new technology adoption and what more! Now on top of that if I have to worry about where I am working the focus is lost quite easily.

How will I complete the work? How will my company go to the next level? Where will I earn the income? All these issues are related. Rent has an important side, with high rates, electricity bills and service charge. These problems may be fixed with rising income. But even if you have money, how can you fix those problems? A company that operates from 1 am at night to 7 am in the morning, how will the lift remain open for them? How will they confirm the electricity supply? By the time we fix these issues, 2021 will be at the door. If we could confirm the high-tech parks, they are still under our control.

If the government’s projects are delayed by 3 to 4 years, which will happen because the way they are progressing, 3 to 4 years will be required. We can shift some companies by declaring STP in private buildings. 2021 is not that far when you consider the problems that will arise with the cost of shifting to a new location, shutting down for a period and renovation matters. If we talk about office shifting in 2018, it will be really difficult to reach the targets set for 2021.

FINTECH:  You had an aim of exploring the field for software exportation. What initiatives have you taken in this regard after setting up the new committee?

F.A. Rahman: I have had the good fortune to work for the last 12 years in the international wing of BASIS. I always strived so that our members can make contacts with the outside world. Our ex-president became the minister—Mustafa Jabbar Bhai—but he accepted the post knowing all the problems of this sector. After the new committee came into being we went to Japan where we saw a terrific market for Bangladesh. They see Bangladesh in a different light although the language barrier still persists. The respect we felt from Japan, we didn’t get that from Europe. Still we are doing business with Europe by adopting their culture as well.

A group at BASIS called “Japan Book” was already in operation two terms before the new committee launched, and after the arrival of the new committee, we have decided to open an office in Japan that will promote our companies in that country. We have already sent a proposal to the government in this regard. There will be a Japan desk at BASIS where a Japanese company can contact directly. If they come to ask us what companies we have, then we can select one after visiting. They will get lost if they come here. That is why we want to provide them with a desk where they can contact directly.

If a Bangladeshi company wants to export to Japan, information like—how will it be prepared, which certificates are needed and how to enter the Japanese market—will be available at the desk. We have already submitted a proposal and currently working with the ministry on a proposal. We hope to complete the work soon.

I can add that we are giving more importance to African countries in our priority sector in comparison with Europe and America. There is demand for the software that runs in our local market in countries like Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Malaysia and Thailand. We have started promotional activities in those countries. There is a program in Thailand in the coming month. Several local companies are interested to attend and we have made contact with many companies and working to ensure an ethical matchmaking for all.

FINTECH: If you want to speak on your behalf about the IT sector or business, you can share your views…with our readers…

F.A Rahman: I want to say that the IT sector is becoming quite massive. While we are talking about exports, our local market is also booming. In fact we have a huge local market. New job opportunities are created since public companies are working side by side with private companies. Since the government organizations are becoming digitized, each and every public organization is in touch with some private company or the other. For example VAT can be paid online. Taxation is being automated since the companies are registering VAT online. Soon submission of taxes will be made digital.

As the industry is expanding, it is media’s responsibility to increase visibility of those private companies to the industry. It is hard to locate such companies because they are established in residential areas. Media needs to take a step so these companies can be recognized. The demand in IT is increasing and as far I can see, the demand will become massive within one year. If the media works with the IT sector to make such firms visible, either through BASIS or any other manner, it will turn a new page in the IT sector of Bangladesh.

FINTECH: Thank you so much for giving us the time.

F.A Rahman: Thank you too Fintech.

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