Poverty, natural disasters, and cheap labor may be what you would normally associate with Bangladesh, but India's neighbor could be Asia's next major startup hub. "Bangladesh is becoming a land of opportunity," says Samad Miraly, a Canadian-Bangladeshi angel investor based in Dhaka. "It's a place where extraordinary people are doing extraordinary things, and no one really knows about it."
And that's precisely what a group of Bangladeshi millennials are changing by planting the seeds of a movement that could completely transform how Bangladesh is perceived around the world. To get things moving, the organizers of StartupBashBd produced a documentary that the film's director, Mustafiz Khan wants to use as an introductory gateway to encourage the global community to tap into what he labels as the world's most exciting emerging digital ecosystem.
"Bangladesh is not just about the readymade garment (RMG) sector, Grameen bank and corruption," stipulates Khan, an angel investor and startup community organizer who shuttles between Singapore and Bangladesh. "With a 160 million hard working people, and over 100 million mobile subscribers, Bangladesh is at the forefront of the next wave that will accelerate the global economy for faster growth."
NewsCred, a Bangladeshi startup with Bangladeshi founders, is a leading model of how businesses that begin in Bangladesh can capture the global market. The company just closed another $25 million investment round, and is transforming Dhaka's startup scene by inspiring the community with their success.
Bangladesh's entrepreneurial environment may also be the perfect tool for women to take the country's business world by storm. "Entrepreneurship is gender-blind," says Miraly. "Passion and hard work are asexual, and thankfully, Bangladesh is already a place that enables women. This path definitely gives women an empowering edge. A plethora of successful women have built businesses in Bangladesh, and we have an excellent track record for empowering women in business and finance."
As Managing Director and Co-Founder of GradConnect, a career information and advisory service for young professionals, Farzana Chowdhury is a living example of how women in a Muslim democracy like Bangladesh are taking the reigns of their lives by becoming their own bosses. While the country has long been a poster child for micro-finance, entrepreneurship allows women access to a much larger salary bracket.
"Being a woman entrepreneur brings a lot of flexibility to life," Chowdhury points out. "It gives us the chance to work on our own terms, and female business leaders also enjoy the prospect of financial independence. This enables them to be part of a world that is so much more than their homes. In Dhaka, the core problem lies in age-old traditions that view women only as mothers and sisters, not leaders. But the nature of Dhaka's private sector is changing with support from initiatives like StartupDhaka."
This buzz about Bangladesh is even being felt all the way across the Atlantic, and several US startups, are also trying to get a piece of the Dhaka action. "Given the exponential fast growth rate of smartphone adoption, we see Bangladesh as a great niche market in getting mass-users in a country of 160 million people," Jenny Abramson, President and CEO of LiveSafe, a mobile safety and security company, states. "There are few places in the world where there is such a massive population in a such a concentrated geographic area which makes marketing user centric products much easier."
When I was growing up in Bangladesh, the only thing I knew about getting business deals made was you had to have contacts. Our society is created with such stubborn walls that it really becomes about who you are, and who you know to get anything done, let alone begin a business.
That is precisely why what StartupDhaka is cultivating is truly revolutionary. It is one thing to tell people to follow their passion, but it is entirely different to embolden an entire generation to change the system so that large numbers of people can take part in transforming their society.
So, will Bangladesh take over her neighbors as the next hot place to invest your money? There is only one way to find out.