Get Off the Map
The virtues of living and working somewhere you never dreamed of even visiting
“We need to check your visa to Pakistan before you board, sir.”
Although I didn’t think much of the request as I boarded my flight to Dhaka (which is actually in a very different country, 1500 km away), it now reminds me of how obscure Bangladesh is to outsiders.
By any measure, the country warrants a lot more attention — it represents a truly inspiring growth trajectory, cultural hub, untapped travel destination and emerging tech hotbed rolled into one. But I didn’t unearth the virtues of this 165 million strong nation as a connoisseur of hidden stories; my time here has been the result of a career happenstance rather than prescience.
I’m fortunate to work as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, whose open-minded approach to career development is reflected in a program that offers the chance to temporarily work for other organisations while on sabbatical — an “externship.” Having just externed for half a year at a Silicon Valley tech corporate, I wanted my next opportunity to be more rewarding. I started by drawing up an exhaustive, rather schizophrenic list of interests for my next externship: mid-stage ventures, Africa / emerging markets, urban solutions, transportation / logistics, operations, product, and — in case this list was not extensive enough — aerospace. Months of searching for different combinations of these criteria came to nothing, until I stumbled upon a chance email titled “Last Day to Apply for Alter Fellowships” and decided to follow-up. As I would soon learn, Alter connects the world’s best and highest-character tech founders to Silicon Valley, with the mission of transforming emerging markets through high-growth entrepreneurship.
After a few conversations, I was convinced that Alter’s placement at Pathao, a Bangladeshi ride-sharing / delivery platform, nearly perfectly offered the experience I was looking for. My other interests — Africa, aerospace or African aerospace — could wait. It was at this stage that Bangladesh caught my attention as woefully overlooked. While it has lacked the positive news coverage bestowed on its neighbour, Bangladesh has outpaced India’s economic growth for the past 3 years for which economic data is available. As an additional point of strength, its growth is largely powered by a robust and job hungry manufacturing sector (more specifically, textiles, for which Bangladesh is a major global exporter). And, most interestingly, in areas where the country’s traditional industries and public infrastructure have failed to create opportunities, a cast of players from NGOs to (more recently) tech entrepreneurs have stepped up to the plate. This is at least partially why Bangladesh boasts of better performance on social indicators such as life expectancy, female school enrollment and fertility rates than several far wealthier nations.
Key to the unfolding technology transformation, Dhaka has emerged as the centre of a startup ecosystem that is improving the lives of ordinary Bangladeshis and foreshadows a new, sustainable spring of economic growth. To take one example, Alibaba-backed BKash is a payments platform that allows migrant workers who may not even own smartphones to remit earnings back to their home villages. Tonic, run by one of the country’s largest mobile network providers, offers a suite of digital health services spanning insurance, tele-medicine and health awareness. And of course, there’s Pathao, where I was lucky to be part of a team that pioneered motorcycle ride-sharing in the region, creating tens of thousands of jobs and saving millions of hours that would be otherwise be wasted in traffic. Founder and CEO Hussain Elius’ long-run vision is even loftier, targeting not just on-demand services for cars, food and everyday products but a platform for a very wide range of digital offerings that can propel the country’s tech ecosystem to even greater heights.
For all these developments, the international commentary has been rather muted — and perhaps just as well for the thin crowd of investors or entrepreneurs who stand to benefit from this Goldilocks market. It’s one that has been overlooked by global behemoths, yet is ripe for the picking as the ranks of Bangladesh’s urban middle class continue to swell. (Amazon and Walmart are still at least a couple of years away from setting up shop despite the former already having invested $4B across the border.)
While I’ve certainly enjoyed the peek into this less-explored market and tech ecosystem (and one quite different from those in the West, China and perhaps even Tier 1 India), my time at Pathao has offered much more. As a team member assigned to strategic priorities spanning operations and product, I was able to work across a set of projects that rarely exist in a single role at established ventures. And given a lower threshold of specialisation in Dhaka’s nascent tech industry — in contrast to say San Francisco, Berlin or Bangalore — I was able to test skills that have truly expanded my toolkit: coordinating a major change in pricing, revising training and customer support SOPs, guiding development of a chatbot and product managing a new tool to name some prominent examples. Each of these taught me an execution-focused and detail-oriented ethic that is radically different from my prior exposure to strategy work.
Finally, I cherished the simple, but equally meaningful delights of traveling for an extended amount of time — meeting a unique and inspiring group of individuals (from colleagues at Alter and Pathao to photographers and aspiring business founders) and testing new experiences (like drinking 7-layered tea on lush green plantations). Perhaps the broadest learning from my sojourn in Dhaka has been to spend some time “off the map,” whatever that means for you. Go somewhere or do something that few around you have — there can only be hidden gems in store.
Kunal Mehta is a member of the inaugural class of Alter Fellows. Currently based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he is working with Pathao, an on-demand platform for transport and food that is improving the lives of thousands of everyday Bangladeshis. Prior to undertaking his fellowship, Kunal worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco office. He is a graduate of Columbia University and grew up in Mumbai, India.