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Do you want to sell t-shirts for the rest of your life?

Shahriar Haque

Steve Jobs once approached the president of Pepsi and asked, “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?” John Sculley took the position and grew Apple into an 8-billion-dollar company over the course of 10 years. I am no Steve Jobs, but as a patriotic citizen, I would like to ask all Bangladeshis, “Do you want to sell t-shirts for the rest of your life? Or do you want to invest in the future?”

There are enough garment factories in our country. More than enough retail outlets. And definitely far too many real-estate projects. Don’t get me wrong. I am glad that we have these industries to keep our economy running. But 20 years from now, I don’t want the world to learn about Bangladesh only from a sticker on the back of their t-shirt. I understand that this is easy money. But if you don’t take this money and re-invest in technology and infrastructure, selling t-shirts is the only thing we will ever be good at!

It is important to take baby-steps. But in a world that is advancing at an exponential pace, baby-steps are not good enough. I want to see sweeping change, and I want to see it now. I don’t want more engineers and bankers graduating from college to work in telecom or retail. I want engineers to do engineering, I want scientists to do research, I want software developers to build apps. And in each one of these fields I want to see investors.

We all look at Silicon Valley with starry eyes. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Dropbox, and dozen other companies each valued at more than a billion dollars. Sure they have great software engineers and architects. But great code didn’t launch any of these companies, investment did. They had wealthy individuals who believed in the vision of the valley being the technology capital of the world. They poured their hard-earned cash into this dream. And the outcome? WhatsApp, a chat client started by 2 former employees of Yahoo with their personal savings, was sold for 19 billion dollars. That is more money than the cost of the Hubble Space Telescope!

Let’s shift our attention back to Bangladesh. Computing is my field of interest. This happens to be one of those fields with an extremely low barrier of entry. But still the progress in this field in our country has been glacially slow. A small fraction of people has taken up freelancing as a way earn money while pursuing their interests.  As a nation of people raised in poverty who are constantly reminded to keep their expectations low this might sound like progress. But to me this is not good enough. I don’t want our developers wasting their lives fixing crappy websites and doing pointless data-entry. I don’t want them exploited because some shady company can’t afford to pay minimum wage in their own country. I want our developers to build great products and services to serve the needs of Bangladesh. I want our own version of Uber every time I want a car-ride outside of Dhaka. I want our own OpenTable to book a table at my favorite restaurant in Dhanmondi. I am getting tired of seeing the same Drama Serials and Political Talk shows on TV. I want to see YouTube channels with Bangla tech reviews of the latest gadgets. I want to hear Bangla tech podcasts taking about the intricate details of Android and iOS. I want our own cloud-computing infrastructure to build models for predicting the trajectories of cyclones.

Blame it on my American degree, blame it on my foreign up-bringing, blame it on whatever you want. But I am deeply unsatisfied with the state of science and technology in Bangladesh. My urge to every single Bangladeshi with some amount of disposable income, please invest in our country. If you have a bright idea, let people hear about it, hire a freelancer or two. If you live abroad, a tiny fraction of your monthly salary can support multiple full-time employees back in Bangladesh. Do something. I don’t us to be a nation of garment workers and slave laborers any more!