When Rupali Haque Chowdhury could not qualify in the medical admission test in 1977 little did she know where life would take her in the end. But the young woman had an unbending resolve – not looking back at failure and not giving up.
Starting as an entry level executive in 1984, Rupali rose through the ranks over the years and ended up becoming the first managing director of a leading multinational company in Bangladesh in 2008. She also led major trade bodies including the Foreign Investors' Chamber Of Commerce & Industry.
Rupali Haque Chowdhury enrolled into the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) of Dhaka University in the early 1980s when girls would rarely take interest in studying business administration. After finishing her studies, she chose to join a corporate company, in contrast to the aspirations of most of her classmates, who were trying to land a government job.
Rupali Chowdhury was born in Chattogram's Patiya. Her father Priyo Darshan Chowdhury was a physician who practised in Kolkata.
In 1957 he returned to Patiya and started seeing patients at home after Rupali's grandmother told her son, ""People are dying of diseases here and you are treating patients in another country!"
He used to take a fee of Tk2 per patient at the time, says Rupali.
"In my eyes, my father was an unsung hero. It was not easy to leave Kolkata, where the business was extremely good, and return home," she added.
Rupali Chowdhury was the fourth of her parent's five children. Eldest sister Shyamoli Chowdhury is a housewife. After Shyamoli, the eldest brother Shyamol Bikash Chowdhury is settled in the United States. Second eldest sister Anjali Chowdhury has passed away and the youngest brother Kamol Jyoti Chowdhury is a businessman.
"Our family was cultural minded. We had a happy childhood in Patiya. We had lots of Muslim and Hindu friends and never felt any communal discord. After college, I took the medical admission test as my father wanted me to be a doctor," she said.
"Not getting the chance into medical college was heart-breaking. Then I took admission into the chemistry department of Chattogram University. Later, at the inspiration of a very close friend at the time Abdul Haque, who is now my husband, I completed my MBA from Dhaka University's IBA department," said Rupali.
She added that her family discouraged in the beginning, but it was Abdul Haque's support that helped her relocate to Dhaka.
"Many say I have done my MBA for love," Rupali says, smiling.
"Inspired by him, I joined Ciba-Geigy in 1984. I started as the Planning Information and Control Officer in the company and my job was to help the department head with sales and management data. I managed to develop a good reputation and after a while I was shifted to the product management department. After six years in Ciba-Geigy I switched to Berger, where I am still working – for 32 years," said Rupali.
Switching to Berger for family
Ciba-Geigy was an established company in the '90s. Her position in the company was also pretty solid because of her skills and performance. However she had to switch her job when her family relocated to Chattogram.
"After knowing each other for years, Abdul Haque and I tied the knot in 1989. The next year, my husband was transferred to Chattogram and I had no choice but to shift there," she explains.
"I was looking for a job in Chattogram and found a job circular of Berger in the newspaper. They interviewed me in a number of phases. They were unsure if a woman was ready to take on the task as the planning manager," says Rupali.
"It was a hard-fought job. The position required collaboration with C&F representatives, engage with Customs officials and liaise with port authorities. At the time, it was hard for them to rely on a woman to do the job," she adds.
Rupali Chowdhury eventually gained the management's confidence and excelled at her job to the extent that she rose to the upper echelons of the hierarchy to the post of MD.
"I never held myself back thinking I was a woman," Rupali says.
She added that she used to assist the department head with his job after finishing the tasks assigned to her and played a significant role in the company's transformation from manual to computerised working procedure.
Becoming the managing director
According to Rupali Chowdhury, her sense of responsibility and innovative mindset helped her climb the ladder to become the MD of a company like Berger.
"The task of transformation from manual to computerised way of working was vital. When I was planning manager, I also did important tasks at the sales department. A few years later, when the marketing manager left the company, the management sort of forced the responsibility on me. I was scared in the beginning as both my children were very little. It was difficult to manage the workload and give time to the family at the same time," she says.
Rupali elaborates that as she was based in Chattogram at the time, coordinating with the marketing people, most of them centred in Dhaka, was a big challenge.
"The managing director assured me and I managed to handle the job well. After a while I was made the general manager, operations. In 2004 I was promoted as the director, operations and in 2008 appointed as the managing director," she describes her rise to the ranks.
"Many say I came this far because I am talented but I beg to differ. I think honesty, integrity, commitment and hard work are the most important, and these were my focus" adds Rupali.
Speaking about leadership qualities, she says, "First and foremost, it is important to have an in-depth understanding of the work I am doing. Then you must have a vision and a mission. Another key point is the ability to assess potential demand for products in 5-10 years time. We also need to think ahead of time to determine the business policy after 10 years "
Mindset about hiring women should change
Rupali Chowdhury thinks mindset about working women should change as a whole – both in families and the corporate world.
She says many business owners think women provide less time in the office because they have to give time to their families.
"But I have seen that even if they spend less time in the office, they provide more fruitful time and work sincerely," she adds.
"This idea needs to change," she says, stressing that the security for women should be improved.
Advice for new generation
Girls need to learn to make their own life decisions, says Rupali. "I have to raise my hand and say I can do it" is the attitude she advises women to develop.
"I see a lot of girls who do not go to university after internship. There are also some who do not dare join a job after finishing university. You must come out of the shell," Rupali stresses.
A simple Bangalee woman
Rupali Chowdhury wears saari all the time. Occasionally, she wears teep on the forehead. Rice, fishes and daal top the list of her favourite foods. She loves to give time to family. All in all, she is a solid Bengali woman.
"I like almost all fishes," says Rupali, who can also sing very well.
I nurture my Bengali culture within me while I am keen to learn about other cultures, she adds.
Rupali Chowdhury has two children. Her son Rahul Haque returned to the country after his studies in Canada and started a restaurant business. Her daughter Purna Haque is pursuing a master's degree in environmental science in Canada. Her husband Abdul Haque is currently the MD of Social Marketing Company.
"I try to give as much time as I can to my family. I go out with them whenever I get a scope," says Rupali.
Asked if there is any other engagement outside of her professional and family life, Rupali replies with a smile, "Where is the time? But I read books in my spare time, mostly biographies."
Louis Berger, a German citizen, founded Berger in 1760 in the United Kingdom. In 1970 the multinational established its factory in Bangladesh, where it dominates the paint industry with an estimated 50 % market share according to a survey.
In the fiscal year 2020-21, the total sales of Berger Paints Bangladesh stood around Tk1,669 crore. When Rupali Chowdhury took over as MD of Berger, the company's sales hovered around Tk350 crore.