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Photo: Arif Mahmud Riad

Ms. Farzana Chowdhury, ACII (UK) is the Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer of Green Delta Insurance Company Limited (GDIC) – the only non-life insurance company with IFC World Bank equity investment in the country which has been awarded with the prestigious AAA rating for the 4th year running.

Being the first female Managing Director and CEO in the financial sector of the country, her guiding philosophy has always been driven by the intent of adding value not just in business but in every sphere that touches her life.

Having the most prestigious ACII after completing Masters from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia under AUS Aid scholarship, she introduced numerous successful integrated insurance models involving SME sector; micro health for the RMG workers and poor people through ‘Shudin’ and ‘Niramoy’; major remittance earners – migrant labors with ‘Probashi’; majority of the population – the female segment

As one of the 17 participants from across the globe, she was selected by the US State Department, for the International Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership program sponsored by US State Department and Fortune 500 companies in 2006.

She has been key speakers in many national and international events including recently held International Conference on ‘Transformation Challenges and Opportunities for Bangladesh Garment Industry’ at Harvard University.

She was a key speaker in Bangladesh Roadshow UK 2015 organized by Board of Investments (BOI) in London. She also was a guest speaker at Global Index Insurance Conference 2015 organized by World Bank group’s Global Index Insurance facility (GIIF) in Paris.

Ms. Chowdhury is a member of the advisory council of Talent Nomics India. Talent Nomics is a not for profit organization focused on the issues of ender party in leadership and pay. It aims to strengthen the pipeline of women leaders across sectors and regions.

She was awarded with the prestigious Chartered Insurer Status by the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) UK. According to CII, this is the gold standard for insurance professionals and a very few professionals in Bangladesh have this distinction.

Considered as a role model for the Bangladeshi females, Farzana, the first female CEO of Bangladesh’s insurance and banking sector leads the leading local non-life insurance company-Green Delta Insurance-with grace and panache.

Under her able leadership, Green Delta has been working in bringing a paradigm shift in the whole insurance sector. Fintech team recently went to her office in Green Delta AIMS Tower and discussed about her visions and unearthed the recipe behind Green Delta’s success.

Here is an excerpt of that interview for our readers of Fintech.

FINTECH: Can you please tell us something about your career? How do you end up in a leading position at the financial sector of the country?

F. Chowdhury: Before talking about my career, I am telling you one thing which I believe would help you in understanding my nature: I love taking challenges. This is inherent in me I thinkit prompted me to become what I have become today.

Though I was what you say “very weak” in mathematics during my school years, but I opted for studying Finance and Accounting because I wanted to challenge myself and my capacity. Upon completing my graduation in 1993, I initially joined Scholastica as a teacher in 1994 but after a certain period, I eventually got bored there because though teaching is a hard job, but it failed to quench my thirst for taking up new challenges.

In 1997, I joined Brac. Obviously, it was very new to me as prior joining there I had no experience of working with a development organization so to speak. After moving from departments after departments, I finally settled on micro-finance as I was finance major and I wanted to understand the very core and essence of microfinance.

I delved into the depth of it and tried getting the perspective of microfinance from the grassroots. It was a very enlightening learning experience for me. After working for a few years at BRAC, I was thinking of pursuing higher studies. I got an opportunity to get enrolled in a MBA program with AusAID scholarship in Australia. Brac granted me a two year leave.

photo: Arif Mahmud riadUpon completing MBA and returning back from Australia, I joined BRAC again. When BRAC Bank started, I joined at the SME Banking division there. SME banking was still in its infancy in Bangladesh and it was hard for us to explain to people what are the essences of SME banking. Hardcore business minded people thought it to be too noble for the financial sector whereas the common people had problem perceiving its core concept. But with a very able and industrious team, I worked hard to flourish the SME division. I eventually became the Head of SME there in due time.

I was the head of SME for seven years. During that time, the SME sector had grown exponentially. When I left the bank nine years after working there, the bank had a portfolio of over Tk 7,000 crore, a large part of it being generated from the SME division. About 60 percent of the asset portfolio was concentrated in the SME there. I think my stint at Brac and Brac bank molded me to become what I am today.

FINTECH: So when did you enter into the insurance sector? Was it a bit unusual for you to move into insurance sector after working in the banking arena?

F. Chowdhury: My entrance into the insurance sector happened quite strangely but I would say it was pretty obvious because my father is a very renowned face in the insurance sector. My journey into the insurance industry was not smooth. People here had the first problem of accepting I would say a “female in leading position”, then of course “a person from banking background,” which they have a natural tendency of not accepting easily.

But I tried hard to learn. I passed the Chartered Insurance exam from the UK. After I became Chartered Insurer (ACII), I got acceptance in the industry as still there aren’t more than seven-eight ACIIs in the country.

Before eventually becoming the CEO of Green Delta Insurance, I tried to grasp the ins and outs of the industry. I identified that there were serious lacking of quality training on insurance. So right upon becoming the CEO, I opened up few subsidiary companies-one of whichwas Professional Advancement Bangladesh Limited (PABL) in association with Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) of UK.

The prime objective of this training institute was to extend demand based trainings to the employees of Green Delta Insurance as well as external stakeholders. But later we expanded our views and programs and we had become more like a financial training institute.

FINTECH: Did you long exposure in SME helped you in re-shaping the Green Delta Insurance company?

F. Chowdhury: Of course. If you look at Green Delta, you will see it’s not just another insurance company.We have gone beyond insurance and established our motto to create a one stop financial service platform for the country’s people. But obviously my expertise on SME helped me to think of products which would not only do business but would indulge in doing what I call socio-commercial activities.

When many people hear this term—socio-commercial viable project— they often ask what it is and whether we are an NGO rather than a financial organization. We say we are not an NGO; we are a financial organization who likes to do thing in a different manner. Our policy is different. We try to dovetail social activities with commercial ones and in doing so we want be the change-maker in the society.

FINTECH: People in Bangladesh still have a lot of misconception and to some extent negative attitude about insurance industry. Why is that?

F. Chowdhury : Insurance industry from the very beginning has been suffering from misunderstanding of both the common people and the policymakers. Our predecessors have struggled to establish the industry at the first place and now we are still in a struggling phase to expand it into the next level where the word insurance would evoke trust rather than mistrust.Insurance was once under the Ministry of Commerce, later it was brought under the Ministry of Finance because we demanded and we fought for it.

I would say the reason lies in the mindset of the population. Most of the people here in Bangladesh consider products developed by the insurer as something that’s good to have rather than a necessity. Besides, here in the country, the number of insurance companies is more than the necessity, meaning that companies indulge in unethical business practices, which has triggered a negative perception in consumers’ minds.

FINTECH: You were recognized as a Local SDG Pioneer 2016 by The UN Global Compact in the Global Leaders’ Summit. This is obviously a great achievement of your career and you have earned it through your innovative insurance scheme. Can you tell us more about that?

F. Chowdhury: Yes, I was recognized as a local SDG pioneer because of our product Nibedita. I have to tell you one thing that prior getting that recognition; I didn’t have a clear notion of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). SDG is obviously a buzzword but I can tell you that most people here in Bangladesh don’t have a clear idea about what it is.

Nibedita is of course a very unique product. It is the first such product in the non-life insurance industry of Bangladesh that solely focused on providing comprehensive coverage exclusively to women. Bundled with the product, we also provide counselling and therapy sessions for their holistic well-being. Nibedita is also not just a standalone comprehensive insurance product but an assurance that women can cope with the crisis at hand and are able to restore their confidence.

Any woman aged between 14 and 65 years old can avail this product now through Nibedita app. They can get coverage of BDT 100,000 to BDT 1,000,000 for a minimum annual premium of BDT 580 only. What makes Nibedita comprehensive is that beside other insurance benefits, it provides trauma allowances for the victims of rape, road bully, acid attacks and other discriminatory acts.

One unique feature of Nibedita App is the Panic Button. Any women, when in danger, can press the panic button and it will create a loud siren like sound and also simultaneously send distress SMS with geo location to her relatives/nearest ones (provided during app registration), to Green Delta Head office and to the security service provider, who will mobilize its rescue team to the spot within 15-30 minutes for help.

FINTECH: Green Delta Insurance has launched GD Assist to facilitate healthcare facilities. Do you think you have attained success there?

F. Chowdhury: GD Assist is another of our innovative subsidiaries. We are the first insurance company that ventured in this untapped area. With GD Assist, we provide value added services in the healthcare sectors by means of setting doctor appointments at the best hospitals and, Logistics support.

We have already made some exclusive partnerships with some Malaysian hospitals. Malaysia has one of the best healthcare facilities. In Singapore or Bangkok, where most Bangladeshi people go, private hospitals can charge whatever they want but in Malaysia, the hospital still has to charge fees as per the government regulation. The fee is same for local and foreign people there.

So I believe there is a huge business scope there. Through GD Assist, we have also started facilitating world class second opinion from doctor. In Bangladesh, there is no provision of endorsing second medical opinion whereas in the developed country it is unthinkable of going through any medical treatment without a second opinion. In Now we are facilitating second medical opinion from the doctors of USA.

FINTECH: Can you tell us something about your Shudin health insurance program?

F. Chowdhury: Shudin is a health insurance program exclusively covering workers in the ready-made garments (RMG) sector. This product is clearly in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013 where over 1,100 workers were killed and several others injured when the building, largely comprising RMG factories, collapsed.

We are also actively working with the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers Association and the International LabourOrganization to co-develop a policy that is truly effective for the target segment and help them realize the underlying value of insurance.

FINTECH: What are the main traits that make Green Delta a successful company? Where do you see Green Delta in the next few years?

F. Chowdhury:Insurance for everyone was our motto but as I said earlier that we have gone beyond insurance. We have merchant bank which provides low cost foreign financing to our clients. We are also entering into the asset management. We have a stock brokerage, we have a financial training institute and we have a separate health care company.

Women empowerment is embedded in our strategic thinking. We are the only company who has signed in women empowerment principle. We have flexible working hour. But we ensure equal opportunity here in Green Delta for both women and men.

We have also worked in areas where no one else had worked. No one wants to do an MBA in insurance and that’s why we have started an MBA program in insurance with East West University. We are giving scholarships to the students there.

We also made partnership with Jaago Foundation. We are financing a class of 40 underprivileged students who will be known as Green Delta kids. Green Delta will support them financially up to their graduation. We will give them leadership training and if possible, jobs.

I think the next few years will be very exciting for Green Delta. Bangladeshi economy has consistently reported an average of six-seven percent growth over the past few years, making it among the fastest growing economies in the world. Given the high growth and increasing income levels, the household income flowing into insurance is expected to continue to increase in the future. One demographic advantage in Bangladesh is that the working population is expected to rise in the coming years, translating into an increasing customer base for the industry.

We are determined to play a vital role in helping this industry reach the desired growth. The market penetration of insurance is currently less than one percent. With our flagship project ‘insurance for everyone’ and the government’s recent praiseworthy initiatives related to safety net insurance to give coverage to the bottom of the pyramid group, we are hopeful regarding the possibilities of a five percent market penetration within five to 10 years’ timeframe. ■

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