In 2013, Smith College and Harvard Business School-educated Maliha M Quadir rang her father to tell him she was leaving a good job in Singapore and returning to work in her native -Bangladesh. He was astounded.

“He asked me: ‘What are you coming back here to do?’” Quadir laughs. “I told him: ‘I’m going to sell bus tickets!’” He almost dropped the phone.

In truth, Quadir’s idea was a bit more involved than that. In 2014, with the help of six others sitting around the table in her Dhaka apartment, she developed an e-commerce travel platform called Shohoz (meaning “easy”) for booking bus and ferry tickets. “I always wanted to do something for a mass market,” she explains, “and I thought travel was interesting.” So it was a natural progression when, last year, the company branched out into the ride-sharing market, and, shortly afterward, raised $15 million from a number of investors. These days, as founder and managing director of Shohoz, Quadir is in charge of a rapidly growing business that employs 300 people. She was also named one of 100 Young Global Leaders of 2017 by the World Economic Forum.

If Quadir hadn’t returned to Bangladesh, her life could have been very different but, she believes, not as fulfilling. After working for Morgan Stanley and attaining an MBA at Harvard, she worked for an array of blue-chip firms including Standard Chartered Bank, Nokia and Vistaprint. “Going to Harvard to study for an MBA was life-changing and I was so grateful for the work experience I had,” she says. “But how much of an impression would I have been able to make in the U.S. or Singapore? There was already so much happening in those countries; whereas if I came back to Bangladesh, I knew there would be immense opportunities to add value in every sector. I could lead a more impactful life. I wanted to build something big for Bangladesh.”

Initially, her bus ticketing strategy was firmly web-based; but, in 2016, she launched the Shohoz ticketing app. The ride-sharing side of the business is also app-based. “Apps are where the world is heading, after all,” notes Quadir. Now her dream is “to build a super-app for Bangladesh” – a platform that allows users to access a number of features normally only available through individual apps.

But with ticketing, ride-sharing and – more recently – food delivery as part of the expanding Shohoz portfolio, she’s also cautious about growing too big, too fast. Married to an entrepreneur husband and with two children, Quadir lives an extremely full life. Sometimes too full. “Running a business is a 24/7 job and very stressful,” she admits. “But that’s what makes life exciting!”

 

Why has ride-sharing taken off in Bangladesh?

In local transport terms, the road infrastructure is OK – but there is an inadequate supply of local buses or other public transport means. The government is looking into it; but you’d be amazed that in a city like Dhaka with 20 million people there is no professionally run local bus service. That creates tremendous opportunities for ride-sharing companies.


How easy was it to set up your business?

Fundraising is difficult in Bangladesh. Things have changed a lot in the last few years, but it’s still not the first location people think of when they are looking to invest. That’s because, traditionally, Bangladesh has been known for poverty, floods and other negative things. And, of course, corruption occurs in all emerging markets and Bangladesh is no different. But the middle class is growing, GDP has risen year on year for the last 20 years, and the regulatory environment is very simple and speedy. That story is not so well known to the investment community – yet. But it’s changing.


Were there other challenges you faced?

Finding good people is tough. Bangladesh’s educational standards are not as strong as those of other countries, which is the root cause of the problem; plus attracting new recruits to a startup is difficult because the people here tend to want job security with a tested company. What helped was making a fundraising announcement last year, which I’d never done before. Afterward, it became tremendously easy to attract good people, and in the last six months I’ve recruited quite a few very experienced people with stellar records to my team.


Have you faced any personal challenges in business?

It’s got better I think; but working in a male-dominated industry does have its challenges. Back in the day, I had people ask me: “Are you serious about this business? Your husband can make money so you don’t have to!” So yes, I have faced those kinds of questions and attitudes, and the only way to handle them is to show how serious you are in your performance and prove that you are in it for the long haul. Women in business always have to go two miles extra, I find. But that’s not unique to Bangladesh! There’s a glass ceiling everywhere.


Where would you like to see Shohoz in five to 10 years?

I would like to see us be the most-used app in the country and also becoming more of a player in the logistics space. We have launched food delivery, which is showing excellent traction in a short period of time, but have plans to get into courier services and the trucking segment as well. Logistics is a massive market with a tremendous opportunity for us to increase efficiency with digitization – but it’s also an extremely complex sector. So, it will take time. — Tony Greenway

Published: June 2019

Images: Shohoz; Nina Tiefenbach; DHL