Cover Story

Driving Change

Tina Jabeen, the founding Managing Director and CEO of Bangladesh Government’s first of its kind Venture Capital platform Startup Bangladesh Limited, is a champion for the cause of startups in Bangladesh. She embodies strength, determination, patriotism and compassion that has made her a well-loved personality and a gallant mentor for the hopeful young entrepreneurs in the growing startup industry of Bangladesh. In an exclusive interview with Rehnuma Karim of Colors, Tina talks about what made her decide to work for the project and shares her vision of a transformative Bangladesh.

Tina Jabeen is leading Startup Bangladesh Limited with passion and commitment. Photographs by: Kazi Mukul.

Forthcoming and down-to-earth, Tina Jabeen feels she is blessed to be able to lead the Startup Bangladesh Limited and having the opportunity to work with young dreamers who are shaping the country’s future through innovative and creative solutions. Her primary concern is to build an ecosystem for startups in the country and within a short span of time since 2016 she has been playing a pivotal role in building a startup ecosystem. She had a successful career in the USA and held senior level positions in globally reputed companies including a senior director for PwC USA and director of finance and Tax for Horsley Bridge Partners and senior positions in prestigious global firms in the Silicon Valley. But it was her unwavering sense of responsibility and love towards her motherland that has brought her back and take up the challenge and devote her time for the cause of startups in Bangladesh.

From a California Girl to Dhaka’s Youth Icon

Tina has been a California girl in most of her academic and professional career. She eventually did her major in Accounting from Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley and got her CPA license under the tenure of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to join Horsley Bridge Partners, a global premier fund-of-fund where she served as Director of Finance and Tax. As a Bangladeshi in heart and soul, she decided bid bye to USA at the prime of her career and return to her roots to focus on spearheading initiatives related to women and youth empowerment. 

She takes huge pride in being a Bangladeshi.  The War of Independence made a profound impact in her life — at the age of only 6, she saw the carnage of the war up close and personal. She feels forever indebted to those who fought for the independence of Bangladesh. Her physician parents treated wounded Muktijodhas in the middle of the night and the liberated victims of the Concentration Camps. These powerful memories intertwined with her sense of responsibility inspired her to contribute her best for the country. While, in USA, she was actively involved in philanthropic and cultural initiatives focused on promoting Bangladesh such as raising funds for when there is crisis, specially abled children, roundtable discussions highlighting Bangladesh economic success and investment opportunities . She knew that she can do more by being on ground. In December 2016, State Minister for ICT Division Zunaid Ahmed Palak, appointed her as the Investment Advisor to lead Startup Bangladesh – a campaign to develop and foster the startup ecosystem envisioned by the Architect of Digital Bangladesh and ICT National Advisor to the Prime Minister Sajeeb Wazed Joy. Under Startup Bangladesh campaign Innovation Design and Entrepreneurship Academy (iDEA) project — a grant platform took shape. She spearheaded the project to craft the initial operational and investment guidelines for iDEA. Under the deft stewardship of Palak, her team comprising of senior officials from ICT Division, PwC USA and key stakeholders of the ecosystem delivered the “Guidelines for Venture Capital Fund under the iDEA Project” in 2017.  She recalls that Palak recruited her as an expat believing in her abilities. He is truly a visionary leader being incredibly open to appoint the right people who can timely execute projects adhering to superior quality. She adds this makes the ICT ministry a dynamic and one of the best performing ministries of the government.

She grew up with the dream of becoming a physician just like her parents. After completing the first professional exam in Rajshahi Medical College, she realized that is not her cup of tea. She eventually did her in Accounting from Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley and got her CPA license under the tenure of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Since childhood she has been a purpose driven person and always set  next 5 years milestones targeting of her life. She thrives on analyzing and solving complex problems and setting benchmarks. Her dedication to deliver the best and excellent interpersonal and management skills landed her with some of the top clients in KPMG and PwC.

Tina at the prime of her career in USA opted for Bangladesh for establishing an ecosystem for startups.

Her Role in the ICT Division

With her appointed as the founding Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Startup Bangladesh Limited, she feels that the government recognizes the opportunity to continue promoting talent and innovation within key sectors that advance Bangladesh’s position in the new global economy.

Formed in March 2020, Startup Bangladesh Ltd., a Company which is a natural progression of iDEA grant platform, makes equity investments in startups. She is a perfect example of the government’s focus on “brain gain” and promoting the cause of women leadership. As the person in charge of Startup Bangladesh platform, she plans to take on projects which are aligned with National Perspective Plan. Some of the initiatives she would focus on in the short term are to establish the National Startup Policy and Act,  promote  Bangladeshi startups to global investment platforms and  real result driven partnerships with foreign, local academia, developmental agencies, corporations, accelerators to promote “Made in Bangladesh” campaign in respective areas.

Startup Bangladesh Limited makes equity funding of $120,000 to $600,000 to seed thru growth stage startups. The company projects to invest $65 million over the next 5 years. To celebrate  the birth centennial of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh, Startup Bangladesh launched  “Shotoborshe Shoto Asha” to invest  BDT 100 crore in 50 Startups in 2021. The first series of investments to 7 startups have already been made in March 2021 and more are expected as the year progresses.

When asked how she thinks ICT division can play a role to prepare Bangladesh for the fourth  Industrial revolution she says , “We need to ensure infrastructure, digital literacy, affordable bandwidth and financial inclusion so that we can build the human resources and export market to face the challenges successfully.”

As more than half of our population is female, she feels true development cannot happen without bringing the women to embrace technology. She informs that ICT ministry has taken a number of impact initiatives for a digital revolution in the country.   There is an initiative to train thousands of women and girls in basic IT knowledge so they can be IT freelancers, ecommerce entrepreneurs, telemed workers, BPO providers. Through thousands of Sheikh Russel Digital Labs, thirty-five thousand girls all over the country will be introduced to IT and computer related knowledge base. Programming and coding will become part of the national curriculum for primary schoolers.  Through Learning and Earning Initiative,ICT ministry will empower specially abled individual to become financially independent as they can work as software coders and programmers.  Through these visionary initiatives by ICT ministry, she hopes the dream of Digital Bangladesh will be materialized.

Tina sees a bright future ahead for the startup industry in Bangladesh.

Challenges and Opportunities for Startups in Bangladesh

While talking about opportunities for Startups in Bangladesh, she showed her enthusiasm and optimism for a bright future ahead for the Startup industry here that are reflected through Sheba.xyz, Pathao, ShopUp, Shohoj, Loops, Gaze, Truck Lagbe, Dhaka Cast  and the list goes on.   Bangladesh has the 8th largest population in the world. It is one of the youngest countries where there is language and cultural homogeneity. The middles class is growing at 10% annually and should account for 35 million people by 2025.  Over 100 million people have internet connectivity with 94 million mobile internet connections. Supplementing the

population size and density and the high levels of internet and mobile penetration are at least three other strong reasons why the startup ecosystem is poised for growth in Bangladesh. And according to her, already the momentum is growing as many of the local startups are attracting foreign investors who are ready to invest in Bangladesh.

“As Bangladeshis, we have responsibilities to represent our culture, our traditions to our fellow citizens and to others globally. And I think that is what startups are doing. When they are pitching for their projects they are actually pitching for Bangladesh”

More than $338 million from international investors has poured into the country in the past 6 years and the trend is upward and encouraging. Being the country’s pioneering venture capital fund- Startup Bangladesh Limited also has an initial allocated capital of $65 million for investment. This fund will provide investment in equity, convertible debt and grants in pre-seed, seed money to locally registered startups and impact enterprises. With this stage being set to support the entrepreneurs, when asked to identify the key reasons behind foreign investors being interested on Bangladesh, Tina commented that investors  look into the commercial viability and scalability of the  product or the service. Foreign investors also consider if the model can be replicated globally so that it can bring disproportionate ROI.  In venture capital risk is high which is mitigated by disproportionate amount of return from a few investment from each vintage. Of course, the overriding factor above all is the “management team”. We all know without skillful execution even the most brilliant idea is just an “idea”. In that aspect, Bangladesh’s English speaking, tech-savvy and “hungry to do something new”  young population can be the driving force to take Bangladesh to the next frontier.  She says, “it’s not easy to pitch to a Silicon Valley VC  and tell them Believe in me!” But some of our flag bearing   like Chaldal did exactly that and secured foreign funding.  With pride, while sharing some of the unique success stories of Bangladeshi Startups, she shares, “These startups are not only pitching their business to the investors. They are actually pitching for Bangladesh to the rest of the world with dedication, confidence and pride.” She commends the local startups, but reflects on the challenges by saying, “While the startups in Silicon Valley can pitch seemingly the weirdest business plan to a VC because the place live and breathe startups – the culture is to think out of the box – in Bangladesh that is not the case—a Bangladeshi young entrepreneur on the other hand must work extra hard to break the barriers of stereotypes as we still have a very nascent ecosystem.”  

To answer the question on whether Startups can be initiated by everyone. Tina said, “Startup is not for everyone! There is a difference between being a startup and selling products in a ecommerce platform.  A startup comes up with an innovative solution to a problem which can be scalable, commercially viable, agile and transformational. Airbnb is a perfect example which solved the age old problem of “commercial lodging: by using an innovative way using technology and available to millions of consumers all over the world. You must be ready to sacrifice, take risks, accept failures and give your blood, sweat and tears build your dream and no matter not to give up.”

She mentioned that there is lack of women founders in the startup ecosystem. Globally approximately 8% of the VC industry has women partners. Women founders in Bangladesh as well as in other countries needs to be coached, mentored and trained so that they can gather the business and technical acumen for running their businesses.  She is currently a member in the Women Empowerment Recovery Fund initiative hosted by UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (ESCAP) representing Bangladesh.

Tina is focused on maintaining a delicate balance between life and work.

Practicing Mindfulness

Tina undoubtedly falls among those high-performance leaders who design their lives with mindfulness and discipline. She lives by the rule of “prioritizing”, recalibrates priorities as needed at work and personal matters and tries to maintain a delicate balance.  She is very much focused about work-life balance: “When one strives for excellence in whatever one does, and there is often imbalance. We need to remember is to take a pause and realign ourselves”. She allocates time for workouts, swimming, and reading and to enjoy and admire nature.

She is an early riser which helps her to wrap up the international calls before breakfast. She consciously avoids checking her phone when she wakes up in the morning. It is a disease that plagues many amongst us.  She plans the day listening to chirping of the birds and PBS news hour. She is extremely mindful of what she eats, reads and spends her time on. Tagore, Neruda and Michelangelo are her three love.  Her morning ritual starts with a glass of Bitter Gourd Juice, Tulsi and Basil Leaves and a spoon of Turmeric. She commits to practice kindness and gratitude and to better manage her frustrations. Sometimes, she admits, failing terribly or fail a little, but every day she mindfully works to become a better person. Her mindfulness spills over to her work, as she consciously commits to give her best in everything she does. Just like a true leader, she accepts her team’s failure as her own responsibility. Although, she does not hesitate to be direct with team members in communicating the failures, learnings from the failures and put in guards and rails to avoid future mistakes.  When she retires for the day— she takes an inventory – what did she accomplished, was she kind and how did she serve others.

Her Inspiration

Tina draws her inspiration from Sir Fazle Hasan Abed for his effort to elevate millions of people all over the world out of poverty. Her maternal grandmother Muhiba Khatun and mother Dr. Najma Khatun played a pivotal role in shaping her philosophical and ethical views. As a graduate from Lady Brabourne College, her grandmother was a century ahead of her time. She was first introduced to astronomy and Renaissance arts through her nani’s library.

For Tina responsibility comes from purpose in life and reflection helps us to amend our mistakes. 

Her Philosophy of Life

Purpose. Responsibility. Reflection.  These are the three core values that act as her driving force. Talking about ‘purpose’, she says, “As a human being we all should have a purpose. When I am in Bangladesh, my purpose is to develop and foster the startup ecosystem here and in that regards, I believe, I was given this platform to transform millions of lives and I must give my best to achieve that.”

She believes that we all have our ‘responsibility’ to make this world a better place and each and every one of us can do it in our own way—small or big. She says, “For example, when you are a woman leader, you inspire the aspiring women around you.”  And finally, she says, “To err is human. At the end of the day, I reflect on things that did not go the way I intended to. It may be due to mine or someone else mistake. Instead of harping on it, I try to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.” One mantra she follows is, “be excellent in whatever you do. Let Excellence be your brand.”

Tina Jabeen on the cover of COLORS June 2021 issue cover. Photographer: Kazi Mukul.

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