In conversation with Sonia Bashir Kabir -- the woman behind making technology available for the citizens of Bangladesh at the grassroots level
Sonia Bashir Kabir is someone who needs no introduction. A former chief of US computer maker Dell in Bangladesh, Sonia was also in charge of Microsoft’s Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and Laos offices and her illustrious career can certainly be an example to follow for both men and women in the tech business or any other profession. She is also the founder of Tech Hubs -- empowering rural communities with technology, Vice Chairman and Governing Council Board Member of the United Nations Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries. She is the Board member of UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education and Peace, Vice Chairman, and Co-Founder of Fintech startup D Money and health startup Syntec.
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Sonia talked about a number of issues including democratizing technology, reducing the digital divide, encouraging startups in Bangladesh to embrace technology and empowering our rural communities with technology.
Educated and trained in Silicon Valley, Sonia lived in Northern California for 20 years. Discussing the new technologies that were introduced at that time, she said, “The 80s was an era for tech lovers. From personal computing to entertainment, tech had a major role to play with inventions like CD player, camcorder, DNA fingerprinting, Apple Macintosh, Microsoft Windows Operating System, Nintendo Gameboy, etc. The two most notable invention of the 90s were the World Wide Web and text messages followed by the dot com boom. I also witnessed the dot com boom. I feel the most noteworthy experience was the realization that technology is an enabler and is not restricted to any discipline. It is this realization that propelled me to move back to Bangladesh and it was this realization that inspired me to do what I am passionate about doing today -- encouraging our startups to embrace technology and empowering our rural communities with technology.”
During her stay at Silicon Valley, Sonia successfully managed to get into the hi tech profession. When asked about the experience from the perspective of a female from a developing country, she replied, “It was a great feeling. Needless to say I got a lot of attention as I was from a part of the world from where there was hardly any woman representation. It was that ‘pull’ which encouraged me to stay the course and build my career around technology. Courage is an important trait for all women who choose to go where no woman has gone before.”
You recently parted ways with Microsoft. Please tell us about your experience working there, and what new ventures are you currently working on?
Working at Microsoft was a truly rewarding experience. And it was because I worked there that I was able to identify my deeper interest/my calling was not going to be around serving the four billion people in the world who have connectivity and are privileged - I became passionate about impact and serving the 3 billion global population with no connectivity.
Recently you have established Tech Hubs through SBK Foundation, with the aim of empowering rural people through technology. Please share SBK Foundation’s mission. What strategies do you think are needed for the youth to embrace technology?
SBK Foundation aims to be the springboard for reaching the under served. SBK Foundation is trying to crack the problem of inclusion by leveraging the demographic dividend (50% of the population is under the age of 35), density dividend (160 million people live in 55,000 square miles) and homogeneity dividend (Bangla is the only native language) Bangladesh offers. I truly believe in ‘tech for good’ and am not only passionate about empowering our youth in rural areas, but am equally, passionate about continually exposing our youth to a whole new evolving digital world. In order to encourage the youth to embrace technology, we need to ensure our youth is exposed to technology. Affordability is a factor but ‘reach’ cannot be ignored. How we prioritize the needs of our youth and cater to their needs will be a key factor in youth tech empowerment.
Please tell us about SBK Tech Ventures and D Money. What innovations are you seeing in this space?
I formed SBK Tech Ventures after I quit Microsoft. I have been an angel investor for a few years and decided to bring my investing arm under one platform - thus the birth of SBK Tech Ventures. With this venture wing I plan to focus on startups in South Asia with emphasis on three areas: providing access to funding, honing in on CXO management skills and exposing them to deep tech solutions to morph/leap frog and create impact -- change the world and make a difference.
D Money is a fintech startup. We began our journey with the challenge of financial inclusion and realized that inclusion is a myopic view of the world. Either you are included or excluded. The real problem to solve is the challenge of building an ‘ecosystem’ around homes or small and medium businesses and offer them all the products and services they need to operate effectively with productivity and succeed in their endeavours. So this idea is expanding from just financial inclusion to a digital ecosystem of financial well being. The innovation we see around this ecosystem is what we are building in D Money. Watch out for D Money’s launch in September as I am unable to disclose more today.
What’s your take on women in tech in Bangladesh in general? Do you think Bangladesh has the proper infrastructure in place for women empowerment in tech?
I am a stubborn optimist and I will say yes, the Bangladesh government is definitely encouraging women in the tech field. However, I also firmly believe women need to first ‘show up’ in significant numbers in the tech fields and the infrastructure to serve and their needs will then follow.
Any future plans or exclusives that you’d like to share with our readers?
My plan is not restricted to the 160 million people of Bangladesh. With my work experience, I have been exposed to our neighbouring countries in Asia and I aspire to operate as a regional player catering to the needs of 500 million people by leveraging technology.
What is your favorite destination for travelling, other than work?
Having lived in the US for 20 years I still love travelling to New York City. It’s my favourite destination. The city that never sleeps gives me a sense of energy that is unparalleled. I find it invigorating.
Your mantra for productivity?
“The word problem coexists with the word solution: find it”.