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‘TO BE AN ENTREPRENEUR, PRIORITY MUST BE GIVEN TO NEEDS, NOT JUST TO DREAMS’

Solaiman Shukhon | Photo: Arif Mahmud Riad

Solaiman Shukhon is a Bangladeshi motivational speaker, corporate leader, vlogger and communication strategist. Speeches by Shukhon are popular on YouTube. Shukhon inspired millions of youth in Bangladesh by appearing in more than 500 sessions at different universities and seminars. During his diverse career tenure, he learned how to deal with life and thus he started speaking to the young people about the dos and don’ts of life. He is currently holding the position of Head of Corporate & Regulatory Affairs at Nagad, the digital financial service of Bangladesh Post Office.


Solaiman Shukhon is a name that needs no introduction. Brimming with youthful exuberance he is an inspiration, an icon to the young generation. His father’s occupation did not allow Solaiman to settle at a place for too long. Solaiman’s formal education began at the Jalalabad Cantonment High School. He sat for his SSC examination in 1995 from Muslim Modern Academy and passed HSC from Chittagong Cantonment College in 1997. Solaiman completed his MBA in marketing from the Institute of Business Administration of the University of Dhaka in 2005.

Solaiman began his career even before completing his graduation. His career took off as an officer cadre in the Bangladesh Navy. After leaving the Navy, he completed his post-graduation from IBA and joined British American Tobacco. Gradually he gained experience by working in different sectors, which included a 5-year stint at Banglalink, various tech companies as well as in IoT.

A man of multiple talents, Solaiman’s Facebook followers exceed 4.5 lakh. In a candid conversation with Fintech, Solaiman talks about his career, the corporate world and the opportunities that lay ahead for Bangladesh in the IT sector. Here is the excerpt of the conversation.

Fintech: You were in the Navy. From the Navy you came to the corporate world. This change that you experienced how was it?

The experience is pleasant. One thing I say is that I spent five and a half years at the Navy. In a country like the USA, it is quite common that a lieutenant who led his platoon during the Iraq war will get preference over a topnotch business graduate from a university for a project. It is because of real life experience. I consider myself lucky because I could patrol the Myanmar border as well as study in a business school. I find similarities in many things. While working in the corporate sector, I saw things like delivering on time, taking feedback, leading a group or following up; they are common in military too. So my experience was quite pleasing. Since I was young, at the age of 23 it was not difficult for me to adapt. It was a ‘smooth transition’ from the military life to the corporate life.

Fintech: BASIS is working in the technology sector. Do you think BASIS has been able to demonstrate strong leadership?

I will definite say yes. BASIS is playing a significant role in promoting the tech sector. The thing is our IT sector is about to boom, but hasn’t boomed yet. There are many startups trying to launch themselves, they have the idea but haven’t done it yet. Many have really high expectations, if you notice. Another thing is that we haven’t gathered that much of experience. From the engagement I have here, I can say from experience that BASIS is showcasing the tech sector in many ways. Even a few days ago BASIS held a press conference where they brought up the issue of IT companies being evicted from non-commercial areas, and then they tried to stop it by talking with RAJUK – so BASIS is doing a lot work and contributing too. I think it is quite optimistic. And one thing from the financial point of view is, may be many are trying to be a part of a big project or participate in the many buildups of IT – for that there are many things like capital, experience and they may need support in those areas. Slowly it will happen. In my opinion I can see a positive change taking place.

Fintech: Several days ago there was this news that said Bangladesh is the least innovative country. What is the reason behind this?

In the entire world, there is a budget set aside for research. States, universities, organizations or companies, they all do it. Few days ago at Nilkhet, I saw you can buy a research paper for 200 Taka. About research, I can tell you when I was at marketing research, people used to make fun about the usefulness of numbers, method, research etc. Our education system is responsible for Bangladesh being the least innovative country. Memorization is really severe in our country. Whether students understand or not, they excel at memorizing. The ability to write something on your own or being creative, it’s just not there. On the other hand we are a country that produces food grains. The main economic activity at one time was fishing. Then RMG came into the scene.

In RMG, we are working on a dress made by someone else. If you visit a buying house, you will notice how we are copying someone else’s design and just sewing the cloth. You do not have the jurisdiction to ask why this is so or why it should work this way. Since we do not have the jurisdiction, we do not practice. For example, there is a subject called practical for 25 marks in schools and colleges. We actually do not do anything practical but take something from here or there or directly from the source. So from this angle, there is a gap in research due to the education and business systems. There is gap in innovation too. It is because innovation is about trying to do something new by breaking away from the traditional mould.

If someone fails once, we label him as a failure. One can be successful after repeated failure – this culture is absent. If a person makes a mistake, we label him/her very swiftly. Besides lack of research and innovation, the fact that we do so many things when someone makes an error is the reason why we are least innovative. To make mistakes a hundred times is research, and then to become successful is innovation. One thing about research is that you will never know when you will get the results. You have to keep on spending. For this reason corporations or the private sector do not encourage research.

You have to accept the institutional and social aspects, and you have to create the tendency where you continue investing and researching without knowing when you will obtain the results.  Let me give you an example. When Elon Musk started his SpaceX company in 2002/3, everybody was saying that he will use a renewable rocket because it is highly expensive. Elon Musk said he will keep on trying. He is still trying. Countless of booster rockets were destroyed for research in the last12-15 years because the billionaire had the will and he continued investing. He even went to Russia to purchase the outer casing of an intercontinental ballistic missile for his booster rocket. He is getting the results after 10-12 years. Forget 10-12 years, our billionaires and corporations do not have the patience to wait for even 2-3 months. So that is why we will be considered as least innovative. In this matter, I can only express my sorrow.

Fintech: Then what should we do?

It is for those who are capable. By capable, I mean the CIPs in our country, the billionaires and high ranking government officials. They must understand the research you were talking about, a research wing and they ought to know what they are doing. We have to come out of the concept of instant productable market. Money matters because everything needs money to fly. Universities and tech companies need to increase their budget for research. It can happen nationally as well as at the private level.

Fintech: There are many IT entrepreneurs in Bangladesh who are entering or willing to enter the market. Even if they have the wish, somehow they cannot. Many startups are coming while many are dropping out – why do you think this is happening? Is funding the only reason?

No, funding is not the only reason. Idea is above everything. One is a super idea and another is the scalable idea. Many ideas can be generated but if the idea is Banani centric or meant for a particular area, it will not work. One has to understand the macro factors of an idea. Now let’s say I create an app that helps me locate a house. If it doesn’t match with entrepreneurship then it won’t do.

We don’t really make a genuine product, and in the IT sector of our country we imitate what was there earlier or resale it. By looking at the startups in the IT sector, I feel two things are needed. You need an idea with dedication and you need to keep an investor, a manager of sort. Abroad, you will notice that someone who was a project manager and good in projects, and another person who is good in innovation – they are working together. You can hardly see this type of teamwork here. Recently the things we were talking about, they were not really innovative while the startups are copying to some degree. We took something from abroad and started working with it. We didn’t work with any unique idea. Without a good idea or experience you want to launch a startup and be successful – we have to come out of this notion. The word ‘startup’ sounds fancy, very smart and stylish but what is the idea behind it? You have to think about what business you will enter.

Then there is another matter, say a child drowns in a pond beside my house. We go there, talk about how it happened, what should be done and how to keep children more safe. Then we arrive at a decision and set up a structure so this type of accident doesn’t occur in the future. This is one aspect where the problem was solved. The way we are talking about IoT can be another aspect. We are talking about what will happen in future but will I manufacture a phone in our country? We don’t have that culture, we are only processing, and we are not making that chip or GPO. Therefore, you have to enter into hardware or stay in software or venture into services. Suddenly becoming innovative in IT is extremely difficult.

Even our 5 billion dollar target will be achieved through services. It may happen by outsourcing or by data entry – we are thinking a lot like this. It is like the RMG sector where we are sewing someone else’s dress. I haven’t yet seen a big game created in our country. Some people are trying to develop games but you will notice that we ourselves don’t even play them. Maybe it is due to the graphics or they are not as interesting as the games developed abroad. One thing I will tell startups is that your idea should be big enough. There is something in America, I do the same thing in another name – this is not innovation. I would say one should have some experience before launching a startup; to work with a partner. What do you mean by office, process, HR, management – one should know about these and gather experience. And the biggest thing is, why would you work, you have a good idea but why will you work – you have to know it, understand it. So I feel that instead of following western models, if one can come up with something new then we can go very far.

Fintech: You have considerable experience in the corporate sector and have worked in many places. Why do you think the venture capital culture has yet to develop in our country?

For those who have the capacity to provide capital or finance, the matter of mutual trust will remain in Bangladesh and those who can invest would like to do so themselves. Thus the venture capital culture has yet to develop in our country. But I wouldn’t say that the capitalism is not happening. This partner or that partner is giving money; the affluent person in the neighborhood is providing cash for some project – in fact it is happening in small places.

Venture capital is not happening on a massive scale because our market scenario or the startup size is not that large. Someone will arrive from venture capital, will talk about it and then go for expansion, say if I mention Alibaba, someone like Jack Ma saw that many people were prepared to invest 2-3 years after he opened the business. However we didn’t have startups emerging in that way so the culture didn’t develop. But many are working in this matter like ICT Ministry is putting in a lot effort; Ms Tina Jabeen from IDEA is working so I feel it is gradually beginning. I am hopeful that the culture will develop within a short period of time.

Fintech: You mentioned about the 5 billion dollar target earlier. Do you think it is possible to achieve it?

Of course, everything is possible. 20 years back we didn’t know that we could export 30 billion dollar worth of garments. You may ask me about the pace. You have been hearing about it for a long time but still it is not happening. Yes, it is not happening at the speed we want it to happen. Actually we want to bring in revenue by giving service. It’s not like we have earned a lot of money by selling software. As an example I am saying that although a company from Japan obtained IoT related work, I feel the target should have been bigger. 5 billion dollars – it is interesting that we have a target in front of us. Whether the speed is fast or slow – that will be seen later. The target is definitely achievable and I expect Bangladesh to achieve even more.

Fintech: At the beginning you talked about Digital Finance Service (DFS). Can you tell us something about DFS in the context of our country?

66 percent of the population is unbanked. Maybe he is dealing in cash or using some sort of a barter system. For example he is exchanging four items for five – this happens in villages. You cannot give the example of Dhaka or any metro city. At this moment Hilsa fish is being sold at a ghat where the moneylender is using cash for all his transactions. Another thing that works is that they have cash so why would they require this digital system. But the rest has moved into the ecosystem. Starting from ticketing system everything will be digitized. So the technology is there to save people’s time. It will take less time to do it digitally that manually.

Let’s take the matter of toll payment; I have my card, there is a QR code where the cash transaction takes place. I don’t have to stop my car while the others don’t have to wait. Time is being saved. That is why I talked about digital finance service or DFS or automation. It is really important for Bangladesh since so many people are unbanked. If there is an unbanked transaction, the management and record of the process are not maintained. That is why I feel DFS, fintech are really major issues and essential. If everything becomes digitized and becomes integrated with Blockchain, the aspects of safety, security, quality and transparency will become apparent. So DFS or MFS are quite significant.

Fintech: What advice would you give to entrepreneurs or those who want to become entrepreneurs?

Before you dream or before implementation, you must learn to judge demand. You should justify the demand of what you are thinking or dreaming about. ‘Dream’ and ‘necessity’ should be close together. I am not saying you have to dream like this. You have to understand the macro aspects of the country we are living in; market reality, consumer reality or service reality. And do not blindly follow the western world.

Fintech: Thank you very much

Thanks to you too. I am also happy to be a part of a magazine like Fintech.

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