Shazeeb M Khairul Islam grew up in a small village of Chandpur district that did not have electricity or running water at home. To make the best use of daylight, he had to get up really early in the morning for studies.
Many of us may find the arrangement challenging. But to him, life was colourful and simpler as he went to school, came home to his mother, and played cricket in the field as much as he wanted.
However, the scarcity of drinking water due to arsenic problem and his mother's struggle to fetch water from other households is the only issue that left a permanent mark in his heart.
He left his village for Dhaka after primary education. He completed his studies at the International Business department of the University of Dhaka with the highest CGPA in his batch.
He could have bagged the post of a faculty in the same department. He even taught at universities like Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB) and United International University (UIU). Though teaching gave him honour and security, he realized it did not offer him contentment.
Having experienced a life devoid of certain privileges, an ardent sense of responsibility drove him to opt for something else. He wanted to solve some of the crucial social issues of our times but felt that charity is not sustainable.
Shazeeb was deeply motivated and inspired by the work of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Professor Muhammad Yunus and committed himself to social business that on one hand would address the burning social issues and would have financial outcomes on the other. As a result, he founded the organisation YY Ventures in 2016 and started backing early stage social entrepreneurs.
Though he started working from a sense of responsibility, his actions have had a global impact, which is one of the reasons why he was selected to participate in the prestigious Obama Foundation Scholars program at Columbia University in New York City.
In a brief conversation with The Business Standard, Shazeeb opened up about his work, and the Obama Foundation Scholars Program and how it works.
What is Obama Foundation Scholars Program?
The Obama Foundation's Scholars program at Columbia University in New York City, which launched in 2018, is designed to inspire, empower, and connect emerging young leaders around the world to accelerate transformational change in their communities.
The program enables rising leaders, who have consistently demonstrated their commitment to uplifting their communities and addressing society's most pressing issues, to take their activities to an advanced level. This year, 11 leaders from around the world were chosen to participate in the third cohort of Scholars.
This year, Shazeeb from Bangladesh qualified for the program.
"I never imagined I would become an Obama Scholar."
Shazeeb's organisation YY Ventures promises to work on three zeroes – zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero carbon emission.
They introduced the tradition of an "incubation period" for entrepreneurs where they back socially and environmentally conscious entrepreneurs with training, mentoring, office space, community and access to capital to prepare them for the real marketplace.
Social business incubator 'YY Goshti,' under YY Ventures, has supported 50+ social entrepreneurs who have created 1,108 employments and impacted the lives of 80,819 people.
A few years ago, YY Goshti, in collaboration with Grameen Telecom Trust, brought Shishir, a safe drinking water solution, to market. The project uses the UV LED water cleaning technology, developed by Swedish company Watersprint to purify water, and provides clean water to underprivileged people at a cheaper rate.
Shazeeb and his team have even started to take similar initiatives in countries like Thailand, Philippines and Central African Republic focusing in industries like agriculture, water and technology. As both his work and interest revolve around social issues at home and abroad, one of his friends advised him to apply to the Obama Scholars Program.
Primarily, he did not take it seriously as he thought of himself as too young and naive compared to the programme's alumni. Later on, he thought about giving it a try.
He applied for the program, collected recommendations, and made a video pitch as per the requirements of the application process.
He reminisced about his old university days when Barack Obama first became the President of the United States of America. He explained how he used to follow President Obama's activities and how a chance to meet the former President of USA had an everlasting impact on him.
"It was in 2015 when I got a chance to participate in the Global Entrepreneurship Summit held in Nairobi as I had been involved in entrepreneurship since my student life. President Obama was a speaker there. His eloquence convinced me he was talking directly to me, though I was sitting there with more than a thousand participants," Shazeeb said.
He admired President Obama a lot as a leader but never thought that he would participate in one of the Obama Foundation's leadership programs one day.
Not long after he submitted his application, Columbia University contacted him and he was interviewed several times before he was finally selected to be an Obama Scholar.
When he received the news, he was speechless.
Participation in programme during pandemic
An elated Shazeeb suddenly became clueless about how his Scholars program would work out during the worldwide lockdown in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the organisers found ways to move the programme online.
"Attending courses and workshops online can never be equal to the experience we would have had if we all were physically present in New York. But we are still carrying out our activities and making the most of this virtual opportunity," he said.
As it is a program of world leaders, the members also are from different countries who live in different time zones.
Shazeeb explained how everyone makes compromises to fit into others' time zone to participate in the program. Even the trainers are also making sacrifices to carry out the courses and sessions.
But he is happy as he gets to learn at least two new things in every session. His plan is to acquire as much knowledge as possible.
"Though I am not much of a future planner, I have a vision of what I want to do with the knowledge I am acquiring. I hope to serve two million people in my country through my business in the next decade," he said.
His only advice for those interested in the Obama Scholars program is to be genuine in their work and be focused on having a long-term impact with their activities.