PART ONE of THREE
When Moushumi “Mou” Khan, 46, was growing up in Ann Arbor, her father Abdul Majid Khan, a nuclear engineer and graduate of University of Michigan, often spoke of wanting to share his many blessings with the people of his native village of Bagdumur in Bangladesh. He even asked to be buried there.
“My father loved Bangladesh. Even though my paternal grandfather was a landowner, they didn’t have modern sanitation or electricity. My father came to the United States in the 1970’s to study at the University of Michigan and really lived the American Dream. He was ramping up his lifelong vision of creating a way for Bangladeshi-Americans to philanthropically invest talent and treasure when he suffered a fatal winter-weather related automobile accident just down the road from our family home,” said Khan.
Mou Khan, a civil rights lawyer, took charge of her father’s Foundation for Charitable Activities in Bangladesh (FCAB) in 2014. The idea was to create an effective channel through which non-resident Bangladeshis could work with the rural poor. Initially, FCAB’s goal was to focus on lifting the living standards and economic opportunities of Bagdumur and then use the lessons learned to scale the success. Khan now sees FCAB’s mission growing much wider, quickly.
The Khan family, plus their wide network of friends, shared a charitable dream driven to provide novel forms of aid in order to rapidly advance quality of life and economic opportunity. It’s a prestigious philanthropic calling, very much under the world’s lens. Bangladeshi social entrepreneur Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank who is credited with pioneering the concepts of microcredit and microfinance, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Yunus earned his doctorate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, but returned to Bangladesh to help his countrymen.
The Khan family, as well as the Bangladeshi - American community in which they circulate, knows Yunus well. However, the FCAB contingent aims to build a major non-governmental organization which isn’t a bank. Once FCAB figures out how to effectively improve water quality, sanitation, electricity access and other infrastructure issues, alongside healthcare delivery, plus ways to stimulate commerce, they’ll scale. One goal is to create the first solar-powered “smart village” in Bangladesh.
Steve Mariotti: What was it like growing up as a Bangladeshi-American Muslim in Ann Arbor? Did you wear hijab (a headscarf), date like high school girls from other faiths, and have friends outside your mosque community?
Mou Khan: Hah! Frankly, I find it quite strange all most people ever want to know about is whether I wear a veil and how strict my parents were when me and my three brothers were in high school. I love and respect my culture and faith. In fact my father was one of the founders of the local mosque. I did not wear hijab, and I didn’t really date in high school, because I was really into academics. I had close female friends who were Mormon and Jewish, and I sometimes went with them to church or synagogue for the experience. What we did do as a family was pay close attention to Bangladesh in the news.
SM: Tell me about your life and career before establishing the Foundation for Charitable Activities in Bangladesh.
MK: I graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1993 with a liberal arts degree.Then I went to law school at the University of Michigan. Next I worked in the government relations practice group of a Washington firm. I also helped found the Muslim Bar Association of New York and was its first president. Always active in interfaith dialogue and public diplomacy, I won a full merit scholarship as a Zuckerman Fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government where I studied public administration. Political commentator and four-time presidential advisor David Gergen was my fellowship advisor. I married a businessman whose family owns an energy and grocery store chain conglomerate in Bangladesh; we have a daughter. I like to say that my father’s career took our family out of the country but my husband’s career, and later the FCAB, took us back.
SM: I understand you have three brothers who are successful and well-educated, too. Can you tell me about them and what they do to help with FCAB.
MK: One brother is a United States Air Force colonel who works for the Pentagon. My middle brother used to be a vice-president at J.P. Morgan but recently moved to Austin. My youngest brother is completing a neurology residency at Baylor in Texas. We all had very normal childhoods. I was on the debate team. We were never told we couldn’t do things. After my father’s accident, we pulled together as a family and pushed forward with FCAB in part to honor his memory. My mother and I are the only family members directly involved, however. From the beginning, it’s been a community effort, rooted in Ann Arbor. I don’t want to sound as if FCAB is so much about me, or even my dad, as many people have donated, partnered, and advised. Our support base keeps growing.
SM: Where did the initial funding for FCAB come from?
MK: After my father died, at the initiation by his friends at the Ann Arbor Rotary Club, Rotary International gave FCAB a global grant to get started. That went initially towards establishing a primary and maternal health clinic.
SM: What’s the first big lesson you learned while navigating the non-governmental organization in the world’s NGO capital? Are you planning to get involved with the Rohingya refugees who have fled persecution in Myanmar but are currently without adequate support in Bangladesh?
MK: I would say, first of all, be very careful what you wish for, because it may well happen. Secondly, be prepared to handle the answer to your prayers, which may happen when you least expect. Finally, use your resources wisely. While it is mostly true that the universe rewards sincerity and hard work, there is no magic wand to set everything straight. And as for the Rohingya situation, not yet, it’s quite complicated. But we are now engaged in projects which benefit the five villages which surround Bagdumur, too.