Kamal Quadir, a Bangladeshi American entrepreneur and artist, is the CEO of bKash. He is best known for introducing E-commerce in Bangladesh by founding CellBazaar which was later rebranded as ekhanei.com.
Kamal Quadir is currently heading the company bKash, world’s second largest and fastest growing mobile financial services company, which provides financial services through a network of community-based agents and existing technology.
Quadir is a founding member of Open World Initiatives, a Switzerland-based organization of young thinkers. He is a First Mover Fellow of the Aspen Institute. He is also a TED Fellow and a Young Global Leader recognized by the World Economic Forum.
Quadir has a BA from Oberlin College and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.
He is also recognized as an artist whose art works are in the permanent collection of the Bangladesh National Museum and the Liberation War Museum.
Quadir was one of the panel discussants of Bangladesh Innovation Dialogue which was held earlier in October. On that occasion, he sat with Bangladesh Brand Forum to share his thoughts on innovation and the mobile financial service sector.
Bangladesh Brand Forum: How would you define innovation?
Kamal Quadir: Well, you know innovation is happening in the world for thousands of years otherwise society would remain in a static position. Bangladesh particularly, is doing fantastic in the field of innovation. In 1971, we got our own nation, our name on the map and our own identity which intensified the scope of innovation. I think after 47 years of independence; innovation has been at the center stage of the digital space particularly and also in social development. If you look at the metrics and the numbers, we have done splendid in terms of literacy rate, in terms of child mortality, in terms of women empowerment and in the element of other social progress. Even in my discipline of work, tremendous innovation is ongoing. Without such innovation, we wouldn’t have been able to come to this level.
In your opinion, how can companies drive innovation?
Certainly the need to be innovative is a driving force. But, there are companies who are well positioned and possess a solid reputation, that constantly innovate because they can solve problems from a multitude of angles. Of course, besides survival, innovation can give them the necessary competitive advantage to thrive over others. In some situations, there are people who are just passionate about innovation that keeps them sustained. There are people who, if they do not find their jobs innovative, they would cease to pursue that career. So, sometimes to keep some of the best minds hooked, you need to keep the work environment innovative. I think innovation is not only a way to do well to just stay ahead of the competition but it is also the essential raw ingredient to keep your colleagues motivated.
You are known for introducing e-commerce to Bangladesh with CellBazar and now for heading bKash, both at the forefront of innovation. CellBazar was innovative for its time and bKash is the world’s second largest and fastest growing mobile financial services company. Share a few words about the journey.
You know, none of this happened instantly, there was no eureka moment. It is a series of events; when you combine them, you see some result generating. CellBazar was a five-year long journey; at bKash, this is my 10th year working with this customer centric, problem-solving initiative. But, it also didn’t happen automatically. Government provided tremendous support with policies. With government’s encouragement, the regulator provided the right kind of regulatory infrastructure to avail a service such as bKash. A partner like BRAC provided the platform so bKash could be developed and of course an entrepreneur has his drive and focus to bring something that he is excited about. At this point, we have approximately 30 million customers whose participation has also been a motivating factor. We also have the support of IFC, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Alibaba Group. So, all of the forces have come together to help create something like bKash. I am just the fortunate hardworking guy who has been spearheading this initiative. But, it is a collective effort of a lot of brilliant minds.
Is innovation a one-man show or is it about collaboration – working with like-minded individuals that allow you bring your ideas to fruition?
I think you have given a very good clue to articulate this thought. On one hand you are absolutely right, it depends on the complexity of the initiative. So, if it is something as complex as bKash, it cannot be a one-man show. I mentioned about the stakeholders, but I did not mention about the 1400 colleagues who work with me, day-in, day-out to make this happen. The 180,000 agents who are part of bKash, are also worthy of mention. So, it is not a one-man show at all, it can’t be. But at the same time, there are examples where very singularly focused results have been brought about by an individual, so it can be done as well. If we talk about creative artwork, there is innovation in that as well and that could be done by one person.
You had the early movers advantage in the mobile financial service sector, but with many more launched and still launching since then, competition is getting stiffer. What will make bKash stand out and stay at the forefront?
We are the lead player in the market and what gave us this lead position, despite not being the first in the sector, is constantly being consumer-centric, constantly identifying the pain points of customer that we can solve and remaining very focused in addressing these issues. This is a continuous process that we need to keep under scrutiny. We are always on the lookout for areas where problem still exists that we can solve with our process and our technology. So, persistently monitoring those areas and remaining designed focus. When we come up with an idea, we try to understand how well it would work in a real life scenario because an idea represents only 1% and 99% is implementing it correctly.
Whenever we think innovation, we think digitalization has a big role to play, do you think this reasoning is correct?
No. We may be living in a digital area. Our surrounding is focused on digitalizing our processes and activities. But, that doesn’t mean any innovation in the world has to be digital. An artistic work can be innovative as said before, a teacher’s teaching method can be innovative and does not necessarily need to be digital.
Any parting advice for the younger generation who would want to pursue their career in the financial sector.
I think it is very important to be mindful of the regulation, but within the regulatory space, there are numerous opportunities to bring about innovation. I do not see finance in terms of merely capital, to me it is resource. When you are working in the financial industry, you are empowered to make decisions that allows people to have resources.