Wednesday, April 1. 30-year-old Esrat Karim's Facebook messenger popped open with a text. It was from a friend and it read something like this:
"Congratulations! I am proud of you. You have to buy me dinner, okay?"
Esrat, a development professional, has been doing her bit to curb the coronavirus crisis. So after getting the message, she thought her friend was being sweet to her for her contribution.
In fact, she was six hours late to knowing why that congratulatory text had come. Soon, such messages began arriving in ones and twos, all of them speaking highly of her.
To her surprise, Esrat found out that she had been inducted into the "Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia" list. While the list boasted youth leaders from Asia, Esrat represented two things in it – her country, Bangladesh, and Amal Foundation, the non-profit she built with her blood and sweat.
"What did you do when you first came to know about your achievement?"
"I broke into tears. I hugged my loved ones tight and cried," she said. "Seeing myself on the 'Forbes 30 Under 30' list was very emotional."
Esrat had heard of the "Forbes 30 Under 30" before. She is friends with Osama Bin Noor and Sajid Iqbal, two other Bangladeshis who had made it to the list earlier. But applying for the title never crossed her mind.
In her own words, Esrat considered this global recognition "way out of her league." Then how did she end up applying for it in the first place?
It was an associate at Amal Foundation who suggested she should apply.
"If you want to apply for Forbes 30 Under 30, someone has to nominate you for the application. So, I had to ask a friend to nominate me for my work in the development sector," Esrat recalled.
"The year 2020 has been kind to me," Esrat said as she mentioned another "jump the couch" moment for her. Earlier this year, she became an "Acumen" fellow. The fellowship is offered to social changemakers from all over the world to hone their leadership prowess.
Amal works in four sectors – education, empowerment, health and emergency response. Esrat has major interest in working for the empowerment of displaced communities.
"The people living in north Bangladesh's char areas are an example of the displaced communities," she said.
"My goal is to build multipurpose facilities in the char areas. The aim is to run a facility where schooling, medical help and skill-building workshops for women can run hand-in-hand."
"If you ask me what Amal wants to execute in the next five years, I would say we want to replicate this model of multipurpose facilities wherever a displaced community lives," she added.
Amal Foundation currently has 18 employees and roughly 200 volunteers under its umbrella. The foundation will expand its workforce and hopes to attract bigger contributions soon.
Esrat has some words of advice for young professionals. From her five-year journey of nurturing the Amal Foundation, she shared her thumb rules for people who want to found their own non-profit organisations.
"The word 'thumb rule' itself comes with a lot of pressure," said Esrat. "Resilience, innovation and belief – these three are the most important things when scaling a non-profit."
"I have had a lot of failures in my journey as an entrepreneur. But giving up was never an option for me," she said.
She firmly believes non-profit organisations can make significant contributions to the country's development.
For an entrepreneur who has to do a lot of talking and fieldwork, Esrat claimed to be a shy and introvert person. At the time of pursuing a BBA degree with major in finance at the University of Dhaka, she was not as outspoken as she is now.
"Even when I was an undergrad student, I could not look people in their eyes while talking to them," said Esrat. "But thankfully, I broke out of my comfort zone when I went to the US to pursue my Master's degree. That was a life-changing experience."
Born and raised in Bogura, Esrat attended Bogura Cantonment Public School and College. Despite her shyness, Esrat was the kind of child who would spontaneously carry out an act of kindness.
She had to shift to a dormitory when she began her freshman year at the University of Dhaka. According to her, living on her own during university life was a tipping point which made her the person she is today.
Esrat completed her Master's degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in the US. She majored in entrepreneurial studies.
While doing her Master's, Esrat was advised by a mentor to pursue a career in the development sector.
Soon after finishing Master's, she started working for a non-profit. During that short time, she learned as much as she could to wholly understand how the development sector worked.
But returning to Bangladesh and founding Amal was not an easy decision to make.
"I took a leap of faith and it was worth it," an all smiles Esrat said recalling her struggling days. "I had to quit well-paying jobs and my family was not happy with what I was after."
Defying peer pressure was tough too. But the very people who were skeptical about her career trajectory are now proud of her Forbes recognition.
As the coronavirus pandemic has swept the nation, Esrat said "we have not faced such a global crisis at least in the last 100 years."
Her foundation is trying to control the crisis in three phases: installing handwashing facilities, food relief for the underprivileged, and feeding stray dogs.
Amal is the acronym for "Authentic Method for Alternative Learning." But in Arabic, Amal means hope. "Even in times of despair, I believe better days are not far away. Hence, I named my non-profit Amal," Esrat said.
When the world goes back to its normal state after the pandemic, Esrat will be happy to take another leap of faith. After all, she has learned that it pays to be brave.