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She has been instrumental in building Telenor subsidiary Grameephone as number one brand and market leader but even then, the true gravity of Rubaba Dowla’s achievement probably remains understated. Because while being an important part of making a billion-dollar company is impressive, to say the least, it says little about how that also simultaneously ushered in an era of advancement in mobile technology for the country and therefore, an infinitely more connected Bangladesh.

Although she has recently moved on from her 19-year long telecom career, she hasn’t really gone away. Her new venture is as closely linked to telecom as she has been, as anyone would expect. Fintech sat down with this business leader and prolific market strategist to talk about her career, telecom industry, Big Data, among a host of other related topics.

FINTECH: Even though you are probably one of the most interviewed persons, and certainly very present in the public sphere, could you start by giving us an overview of your career?

R Dowla: I’ve had almost 19 years of telecom career. My start was in the telecom sector. After finishing my MBA, in 1998 my first interview was with Grameenphone, where I joined as a marketing executive. Grameen had just started its operation in 1997 and telecom was relatively unknown then. No one really knew the future of where telecom. It was seen as a luxury item, not a necessity. If you remember, only one company was providing the mobile telephony service those days, tariff was almost Tk20-30 per minute and handset prices were exorbitant!

It was my father who encouraged me to join telecom. My main purpose was to learn about the technology, It’s usage, how to design products and services and take it to the target market through various marketing campaigns and so on. I thought telecom was a good place to start because of its enormous potential to connect people, businesses and most of all to connect rural and urban Bangladesh.

At that time, people were used to calling landline T&T (currently BTTB) numbers, it would either be an office or a home number. With the introduction of mobile to mobile concept, we needed to change people’s behavior, rather than calling a place, we communicated how one can connect to the person instead, hence call anywhere, anytime at an affordable rate became a very successful campaign!

One of the things that really helped me grow was that I wasn’t merely confined in carrying out marketing and branding activities, I focused a lot on customer insight and how to use technology to meet market demand. And for that I must thank my team, supervisors and colleagues who helped me by sharing their knowledge. Gradually, mobile became a tool for not just communication, but also a tool for empowerment and entertainment. With the introduction of GPRS, 3G, one of the major changes that has happened is our people, particularly the young generation, have gotten access to information. Today, mobile penetration is almost 89 percent, approximately 40 percent have smartphones and around 70 million people have access to the Internet and majority use mobile to access Internet.

As head of marketing and chief communication officer I thoroughly enjoyed 12 years in GP. Later I joined Airtel as the chief service officer and head of M-commerce and PR. I looked after three portfolios. It opened up a whole new area of expertise and that was how to enhance customer experience through every touch point, be it in the physical, virtual or digital space. Bharti Airtel being the third largest telecom company in the world, had a lot to offer in terms of diversity and knowledge. In Bangladesh it launched as a youth centric brand, which helped in creating differentiation and acquire specific target segments as customers. Another six and half years at Airtel and being an integral part of the merger process was an excellent journey!

Fintech: You were an integral part during the period Grameenphone went from the startup stage to a Billion-dollar company. Tell us about what was the vision at the initial stage. Did you actually grasp or envisioned how enormously big the potential was?

R Dowla: I remember in 1999 we launched pre-paid as it gave the flexibility to pay smaller amounts based upon usage hence enabling people to control their expenses. The market was post-paid driven before that. The post-paid market was limited and dependent on the T&T connections, hence couldn’t expand due to scarcity of landline channels. All the telecom companies’ growth had slowed down. That’s when Grameenphone introduced a revolutionary concept of mobile to mobile connection.

Since then, the company experienced double and triple digit growth and so did the entire industry. The vision wasn’t really strictly about numbers. The vision was how to connect the rural and urban Bangladesh, and Bangladesh with the rest of the world. We used to put pressure on our device vendors, to lower the prices and make the phone sets durable so that one set lasts for a long time. And then, of course, we focused on expanding coverage. When we connected the general public, businesses and we started to see more and more convergence, we realized mobile telephony’s real potential!

Fintech: When you researched and discussed the factors that will determine penetration, you must have thought about and looked into how manufacturing cost will change. And as we know now it has dramatically changed, with China emerging as a manufacturing powerhouse for mass production. What were your findings or insight from that aspect, ie how much manufacturing cost will drop for electronic devices and impact pricing?

R Dowla: We focused on reducing entry barrier for the general citizen, at the same time we worked on reducing our acquisition cost. From importing sims to manufacturing locally, from printing scratch cards to introducing ‘Flexiload’ (electronic recharge system), from high end phones to mid and low end durable phones (mainly Chinese made) – we initiated many such changes. Worked closely with the government, policy makers and regulators to reduce taxes and fees imposed upon operators and customers, hence reducing entry barrier. The telecom Industry not only created jobs but also helped in growing many businesses related to telecom. As a result, a number of other industries grew out of this.

The main asset of our country is our people, where majority is also youth. And even though a large segment of the population falls under the middle and lower income bracket, they are willing to spend good portion on communication because this is generating income for them and empowering them.

Fintech: You studied in many prestigious institutions. Could you talk about how much of the academic knowledge translate into real world work and skills?

R Dowla: I have done various executive management courses in those institutions. My real learning happened on the job while working for GP and Airtel. These executive courses help in working with the leaders, CXO’s of other companies, solving various case studies and discussing real market challenges and exchanging views etc. You learn a lot from each other and get an opportunity to network. And another aspect of it is that when you go to a multicultural and multi-national environment, where the participants represent different markets, some mature, some developing markets, you really get a true perspective of how much you actually know and what are your limitations. One of the things I realised working with these diverse groups of people is that you always have scope to learn, to contribute through your own experience which helps in growing your confidence.

Fintech: Bangladesh has seen a surge in business studies at the university level in the last decade. What kind of collaborations are needed between the academia and the industries? Does a meaningful relation between them actually exist currently?

R Dowla: It did not exist much ten years ago. We even thought about the necessity of starting a department only on telecom in the universities, whether it’s engineering or in other fields – the idea was that there should be academic courses or degrees that will equip students for working in this sector. But now we have come a long way, students in the universities are demanding such collaboration. Educational institutions and the corporate sector should collaborate and ensure the course curriculum covers subjects that are in demand not only to cater to present need but also future needs. For example, with the increased use of data, smart phones and convergence of ICT, we need more content developers, digital marketing experts, big data analysts to name a few. In many companies you will now find Chief Digital Officers, which was never heard of before! If we can collaborate more closely and convey the industry requirements, then we will be able to make better use of the resources.

Another important thing is quality and method of learning, we have to move away from theory based learning to more application and experiential learning.

Fintech: You were in the telecom sector for 19 years…

R Dowla: I haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that I’m not in the telecom sector. Although what I do now is not very far away from it. It’s all connected now.

Fintech: We want to talk about that, but just a quick question before that – what has changed in the telecom sector compared to 19 or 10 years ago. Particularly on the regulatory side, how much has changed?

R Dowla: The regulators are now acting more as a facilitator rather than controller. They are thinking about how to help flourish this even further. We are having discussions and dialogues before a policy is made and enacted.

Fintech: Companies played more of a lobbying role in relation to the policy makers.

R Dowla: Now the environment is more participatory. We are able to discuss pros and cons with relevant authorities and come to a conclusion regarding important policies.

Fintech: Tell us about Pulse. What made you choose the health sector?

R Dowla: My thinking behind this was what I can do for the society. I looked into the ICT sector, education sector, health sector and considered many different areas where there is room for improvement. A common friend introduced me to digital healthcare platform and when I started to collect facts and figures of the health sector, some of the things that really caught my attention were the fact that there are only about 68 thousand doctors for 160 million people.

So, the ratio is one doctor for three thousand people. Ideally, this should be one doctor for every five or eight people. Another important factor is that majority of our health care expenses is borne out of pocket by individuals, not through insurance or govt. subsidies. Those in the rural areas especially, don’t have access to quality health care. 70 percent of our population live in villages, imagine what quality of health care service they have access to. To get access to specialized doctors they spend significant portion of their income in commuting to town or Dhaka city and arrange accommodation, doctor consultations etc.

People in the urban areas are also facing the trouble of commuting, wasting time in heavy traffic and then seeing a doctor for few minutes. They don’t get the value for the time and money they invest. There is definitely a supply demand gap. So, my thought was how can I connect the doctors and patients using ICT and digital technology. That’s what motivated me to start pulse healthcare service.

Our tagline is ‘For your wellness’. We believe that every citizen has the right to quality health care and if we can bring them closer to such facility by use of technology then we can definitely bridge the gap. Through pulse platform we allow doctors and patients to see each other through video conferencing solution. So, when you make an appointment with a doctor through Pulse, you will be able see the doctor, share medical files and get doctor’s diagnosis and prescription, all digitally. With the advent of 3G and 4G such solution will be more and more available across the country.

I have plans to eventually create a digital healthcare ecosystem. But we are really at a preliminary stage. I am spending majority of my time in getting insights. I don’t want to launch without getting a proper understanding of what will create the difference and impact in people’s lives. Technology has to be simple and easy to use for everyone. The platform can be accessed through the web as well as through app on mobile. Hence, enabling rural and urban people to access doctors 24/7 from anywhere anytime!

Fintech: A centralized medical database seems like a necessity for Pulse or other services like this to work to the fullest extent. Can this develop out of your work and/or from any kind of concerted effort?

R Dowla: That’s a good question. Everyone is thinking about it: we need electronic medical record. This will help us to have in depth understanding of healthcare in Bangladesh. Once we have patient and doctor data base, this will not only be useful; it will be the main asset. Government, non-government organizations, health care providers, institutions, all will be benefitted as specific issues can be identified and resolved.

In Bangladesh many organizations, individuals have come forward with similar concept of providing healthcare services, I believe in healthy competition and collaboration wherever possible, to enhance healthcare services for our people.

Fintech: What is the role of Big Data here?

R Dowla: Big Data is not a mere collection of structured, unstructured data. If you want to make it useful you have to know how to draw insight from it. And even then, that’s not enough either. You have to be able to take action from the insight. When the dots are connected then you have a meaningful use of Big Data.

Another important factor is when we have access to such data and reports, I often see that the top tier of the company normally has access to it, hence rest of the organization remains unaware of the insights which causes knowledge gap between top tier and rest of the people in a company. It’s important to make all the relevant people aware of the insights and make them understand why certain actions, changes need to be made to create positive impact. It shouldn’t be confined to the CMO or a strategy head. People in the front line need to know who they are catering to and how their actions impact business. So, dissemination of such insights or information is extremely important.

Fintech: If you were to pick one specific goal toward women empowerment in the social and professional sphere, what would you pick?

R Dowla: That’s tough to ascertain. However, I think if you work on gender equality then that takes care of empowerment, discrimination against women, violence against women and pretty much all the other aspects. Demanding equal opportunity, equal rights for everyone in all spheres should be our focus. ■

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