Zara Jabeen Mahbub: Country Director, Kazi IT

A daughter, wife, mother of three and corporate woman, Zara Mahbub epitomizes the juggle between personal and professional life. Her life has taken her across countries and business sectors, but she excelled through her job performance and the addition of university degrees. Ms. Mahbub is considered as one of the finest women business leaders in the country. MBR had the opportunity to catch up with her to share her story to inspire all the female young professionals out there. Read on to know more about her amazing journey and her views on working women.

The Formative Years

Zara Mahbub grew up in an unusual joint family with both sides of her family (maternal and paternal) in one family compound called Rajshahi House in Moghbazar. She was so interested in playing cricket, football and climbing trees that it became a little worrying for all the seniors in the family about where she was headed. She was a good swimmer and loved to cycle all over Moghbazar and Kakrail. “Zaru is a classic tomboy” was the explanation everyone gave to each other. They loved her. She was a rebel right from the start and questioned everything and everyone around her starting from religion, politics and family traditions. She liked tradition but she would only do something as long as she liked it and which made sense to her. She never followed anything blindly. Her maternal grandmother gave her tons of books to read and encouraged this curiosity and always tried to explain things to the best of her abilities. Her extended family worried about her naughtiness but since her grades were good she tended to get away with a lot. She was the favorite of the strictest elders in the family. The most beautiful thing she learnt growing up in her family was unconditional love and positivity. Nothing was impossible and insurmountable.
Her parents wanted their children to be themselves... they did not want them to grow up in a mould. And this philosophy allowed her to explore new things to the extent that she even modeled for TV commercials when she was 15. She did her O’levels, went to university and during her 3rd year in university her father had his first heart attack. Thus began her first career.... she enrolled and transferred 69 out of 97 credits to North South University and began working full time at her father’s buying house.

 

 

In 1998 after her father completely recovered and went back to work, she got married to her childhood crush and moved to the US where she again changed courses and became a software specialist doing HTML, JavaScript coding and learned to develop software GUIs. It is with Mr Naveed’s unwavering support that she dabbled in different IT & Marketing careers in Michigan and California and then enrolled into UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business for her MBA in 2005.
In 2008 having completed her MBA, her husband Naveed Mahbub and she moved back to Bangladesh with their 3-year-old daughter to be close to their families and open Dhaka’s first comedy club. Incidentally Naveed’s Comedy Club turns 9 on the day MBR took this interview.
The most amazing thing was that while the rest of the world was scrambling with recession, bank/FI failures and stock market crashes, Bangladesh was on the uptrend. What a great time to be back!!
And now, having lived 10 years in Dhaka and 3 kids later, they have never looked back. With a few hiccups here and there the overall experience has been phenomenal for them.

Exposure across different industries

The RMG sector was her biggest challenge... people in the garment industry weren’t used to 20-year-old women negotiating and doing quality control at factories. But they prevailed. This is an industry that is run by women so why would the other gender drive it? Looking at the industry today... among the amazing leaps, we now have a woman running for the BGMEA president. Kudos to that!
The US was a great experience as she was smack in the middle of the dotcom boom and mitigating the millennium bug. It was something like the IT industry in Bangladesh today but less globally connected.
The BRAC Bank experience over the past 10 years is essentially the crux of her work experience in Bangladesh. She worked in different capacities as the head of premium banking, service quality, retail marketing, call center, brand, marketing and CSR. It was a fascinating experience.... to have worked in a values based performance driven organization. It has been just stellar.

She also sits on the board of TORU Institute which is a center for inclusive innovation and she is the CIO at Naveed’s Comedy Club.

Observations & improvement points on Banking Industry in Bangladesh

So many banks and FIs in such a small country is what she believes to be the biggest risk in the banking industry. Banks need to put customers first and operate with the customers’ interest and benefit in mind. As a team member of a values based bank they tried out best to put people first and that turned around numbers, improved business and made the bank more prosperous every year.
Last year’s liquidity crisis and interest rate challenges left the banks grappling to stay afloat. Instead of focusing on its individual businesses and products, the banks faced challenges to shift gears in order to conform to the sudden guidelines that was sent forth. This impacted borrowing, investments, savings and the industry was affected as a whole. Innovation was put on hold.
The entire industry has to become nimble and digital. As we approach cashless generations, products and services have to become available on our finger tips.... banks have no alternatives to going completely digital.

 

Thoughts on working women in the Financial Sector

Even though we have come leaps and bounds, there are miles to go before we sleep. She worked in an organization that epitomizes empowerment and facilitation of women in the workplace. It provides crèche, transport facilities, career counselling, helplines and many opportunities for women. These have to become standard in all industries and with the current societal and safety situation in Bangladesh, organizations have to become much more aware and conscious to the needs of its employees. Not just women... towards all employees in general.
A few quick suggestions which may seem a little silly to us but is really important are treating female colleagues with respect, maintaining a physical personal distance, refraining from making comments regarding their clothing and appearance, refraining from making insensitive comments like, “She is a mother so of course she will be late”. In reality they are not late because they are mothers but they are late because they are parents and have certain responsibilities as parents.
Women have to buck up and do our parts too. Since we seem to be more under the radar, we need to work diligently with respect towards work and colleagues.
Organizations should not give lesser targets to women... it makes them feel inadequate. They are nearing 2020 and Bangladeshi women stitch clothes for the rest of the world to wear. Giving them less targets doesn’t make them feel good about themselves. So instead of lowering their targets, help them manage the other challenges that they face on a daily basis so that they can do equally well or better at the jobs they are hired to do.
An inherent change in attitude has to be made towards females... as a colleague and as an organization.
The reasons are twofold - organizations have not recognized the merit of having women employees at leadership roles & women themselves have not pushed hard enough to reach those leadership positions.
Women and organizations have to both work together to get women in the top roles that we want them to be in.

Roadblocks of the Career

Career-wise she did not face too many challenges but she has had people attempt to slander and say a lot of things about her character.
My loud, in your face, fun loving and involved nature make it overwhelming for many... people are not used to “my type of people”. So I don’t blame them. I’m happy to change their opinions about me.
But it is a pity when in male-dominated organizations, such rumors negatively impact a woman’s career growth and professional development. History has shown us that similar stories about men have invoked the opposite results for them! All this certainly makes her thankful for the #MeToo movement.