An advocate for social reform and women empowerment, Esrat Karim Eve is the director and founder of Amal Foundation, who has made it to the list of 2020’s FORBES 30 under 30. She spoke to Colors Lamyaa Yushra about her areas of interest including gender equality, children rights, refugee rights, social business and youth leadership.
Amal Foundation started with the vision to bring changes in people’s lives as stated by the soft-spoken founder. “I always wanted to do something impactful; at the same time, it’s been a matter of conscience because if you are doing something impactful, it means you have to be dependent on donors and funds, which might dry out. So I wanted to make it self-sustainable,” said Esrat Karim. She tried what could be the best possible way like doing a social business to make her organization alive and at the same time helping others. “So keeping that in mind I wanted to have a hybrid model rather than a non-profit plus social business model.”
While doing her undergraduate studies Esrat Karim developed a passion for nonprofit organizations in the development sector. Esrat Karim Eve founder and director of Amal Foundation began her journey as a social entrepreneur after she returned to Bangladesh completing her Master’s in Social Business from the University of Colorado, USA, in 2015.
Born and raised in Bogra district, her schooling and college life was spent there and later she moved to Dhaka for her undergrad studies majoring in Finance from Dhaka University. She worked in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on small projects in Seattle. It was during that time that she wanted her own organization to put forth her ethics and ideologies in it.
“I just found this amazing arena where you could not only deliver something but also you could see the changes in someone’s life. So, it just drove me that rather than having a corporate career, I would pursue a career in the development sector,” she said. Esrat Karim established Amal Foundation in 2015, Amal meaning hope in Arabic. The organization mainly focuses on four sectors: education, health, empowerment and emergency crisis. “I started with volunteers and people who were willing to work and eventually we started attracting projects, partners, donors, and now we have around 21 full time and part-time employees as well as 5,000 volunteers, all over the country.”
Esrat Karim reflects on her journey with Amal although her initial days were not smooth and the road leading up to her dreams were a little bumpy; nevertheless she triumphed over those obstacles and stands where she is.
“When I came back after my Master’s, I was like, lost. Because I was very young, I did not know where to go and what to do and I just had this fire inside me like I wanted to do something. I had to face people including my family, relatives, and everybody and they were pretty upset like why I did choose to come back whereas I could have had a pretty comfortable life over there. I was looking for support; I was looking for people from the development sector. Then when I started I was looking for some mentors in Bangladesh, and finding the right mentors for my work had been really challenging for me,” she narrated her story.
Gradually Amal Foundation created a niche within the next couple of years as projects came along and helped Amal to be a recognized organization, thanks to all the woman who worked day and night to make Amal what it is today. Eventually, her hard work paid off as her contributions led her to numerous accolades.
However, she had another hurdle yet to face which was the pandemic. But again she took it upon herself and utilized the lockdown period for the betterment of the people. “It’s something we are not prepared for. As a person it’s been a great shock to my mental health as well as to my organization because we had projects coming up, we had a lot of plans, yearly plans and things to do. A lot of our projects were withheld because of the pandemic and all that. Nevertheless because one of our major sectors is working for emergency crisis and what could be better than serving people during a situation like the pandemic itself? So keeping all this in mind we delivered food items to 20,000 people all over the country in different districts and this wouldn’t have been possible without the local youth representatives and supporters.”
A resilient woman, Esrat Karim travelled during the lockdown to make sure that all the people who are distributing in the field are having proper safety measures, like wearing PPE. “Maybe, we are not getting affected by the villagers but we might affect them because they don’t travel much to the cities. We are going to their place so we should be responsible for their health and wellbeing.”
She is also an animal lover and her compassionate nature became apparent when she took up the project to feed stray dogs throughout the city. “I felt really bad seeing them since all the hotels were closed. I thought, maybe, I could do something very small and it might help them. I wish I could continue it forever but I couldn’t because I was doing it from my own savings; later we got some money from our donors. But this is something really close to my heart and if I get any chance I will continue it.”
Soon her humble personality helped her to add another feather to her cap as she was featured in the Forbes 30 under 30 Asia, making her renowned worldwide for her work. “Yeah, it’s been really special but it’s been really different because due to pandemic we are supposed to have this summit every year for Forbes and it’s been postponed and I was really looking forward to it. But other than that, it’s been really special.”
Contrary to her workaholic lifestyle, Esrat Karim likes to spend time with her family and friends, as well as her two dogs. She likes to spend her free time baking and reading books. “I also love cooking, So, I started baking a lot during the pandemic now. So I make my own bread because I enjoy making things from scratch.”
When asked about whether a dedicated institute for young entrepreneurs would have been helpful, Esrat Karim said candidly: “Absolutely. I felt if there was a Bangladesh-based organization which might help the entrepreneurs to guide, to train to understand what they are into. Eventually, I got into some national and international entrepreneur program like the Entrepreneur Acceleration Program. But all of that was being branded by white mentors or some renowned people from different countries. Being a Bangladeshi entrepreneur I need to know the Bangladeshi context, I need to know Bangladesh’s market, its target people, customers and maybe beneficiaries; for that, they are good to some extent, maybe to build the foundation, the base and developing confidence in me, but to take it to the next extent I need an organization based on Bangladeshi context. So this is what I always felt and that’s why sometimes I actually give a one-on-one mentorship to young girls, who want to do things by their own hands.”
Lastly, she said, “my recommendation for aspiring entrepreneurs would be: they first have to know what their values are like, what is the exact thing that makes them excited like their passion. Like my passion has always been helping people and travelling. So I incorporated both into my career. So they actually have to do that. They have to incorporate their passion and their profession together. They need it to start testing the pilot projects to start from somewhere. And be resilient, like no matter what you have to keep going.”