We had a discussion with Shaila about her career and expert insights. Below are edited excerpts from our conversation.
What was your first paid job?
I’d just finished my master’s exams, and on that same day, I started my first job with a women’s organization called Women for Women. I was a coordinator and researcher for this organization of professional women, many of whom were in many ways first-generation gender proponents.
What has been your greatest professional achievement?
Creating job opportunities for some half a million destitute women construction workers. My colleagues and I did this by transforming a $250 million dollar rural infrastructure programme. And we convinced the Asian Development Bank and the government of Bangladesh to pay these women the same rate as men.
In 20 years’ time what single important change would you like to see in Bangladesh?
There are two things: First, is something that Quay Asia is working on, which is social security and social pensions for working people. A lot of people are doing well and bringing themselves up, but the moment disaster strikes, they fall back into poverty. Second, improved skills training and standardization of skills training are important. For example, if Bangladesh trains migrant workers and sends them to Hong Kong, that training should be culturally tailored and we want Hong Kong to recognize the training or certificate.
What has been Bangladesh’s greatest achievement in terms of social or economic development in the last five years?
Progress in human capital development, especially in access to education and women’s access to education: Bangladesh is leading in South Asia in that regard. Having said that, I must also say: while we’ve given access to education, in quality of education, we are lagging behind.
Bangladesh is a development puzzle, but despite the dysfunction, we’re on path to become a middle-income country soon. We did this amazing achievement together — the politicians, the business community and more than anyone, the hard workers, like those in the garment sector, did this together.
What remarkable innovations have there been in your profession or area of expertise?
Communications technology makes the world smaller and my job easier. A lot of my work is managing and coordinating with people, and now I can easily consult with someone in, say, London. I probably spend about 60 percent of my time each day talking to people. I might make 15 to 20 calls in an average day: some days back to back for hours.
What are two of your strengths that have made you effective in your work?
I’m a big proponent of open communication, having a dialogue and trying to understand people. So number one, I listen and I try to understand.
When I was working in an UNDP job in the Hill Tracts about 15 years ago, I went into communities that mistrusted Bengalis. As a Bengali, going into these small communities and into people’s houses, I had to understand their lives and values and maintain the trust between UNDP and the community members.
I was also an outsider when I did infrastructure work in Afghanistan. There I met with so many different types of people — rural people, city people, poppy farmers, engineers and government officials. The engineers would ask, ‘Why are you here? You’re not an engineer.” And I had to give people confidence that I wasn’t there to replace them.
Who do you look to for career inspiration?
Obama? Those speeches he made in his first term election made me genuinely believe we could change the world. He’s not perfect, and it doesn’t happen that easily, so rather than one person, I really like people who have conviction and are passionate about their jobs: so passionate, that it’s infectious and energizes the team.
What advice would give a young professional looking to start a career in your profession or area of work?
You need to know yourself. What do you believe in? Because if you’re happy with yourself, then you’re most productive.
Do you have any other interests?
I like to start my days earlier so I can feel ahead, and if I can, run before 7 a.m. I love reading if I have the time. Most recently, I read “The Anarchy” by William Dalrymple, which is about the East India Company and how this single company changed the world. It is still valid in the today’s world — business and politics rules our world. So what do we do about it?
Also the novel Shesher Kabita, or Farewell Song, by Tagore is a favorite. I love the play of words, and it taught me that nothing is a zero-sum game: you can lose and still win.
Connect with Shaila on Linkedin.
About Phillip Choudhury.