Educational Opportunities for All, with Maimuna Ahmad, Teach for Bangladesh

Nearly 60 million children in Bangladesh are denied high-quality education as a result of an inequitable system. Teach for Bangladesh is addressing this problem.

Maimuna Ahmad, Teach for Bangladesh

Maimuna Ahmad, Teach for Bangladesh

 Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, and yet a country of great opportunities. However, those opportunities are not evenly distributed across society.

Many children live on less than $2 per day. They go to school for as little 2-3 hours per day, often in classrooms that can swell to 120 students or more. Of the 17 million children who begin elementary school each year, only around 2 million will graduate from high school.

The teachers themselves are sometimes poorly educated, with most holding a high school diploma or a few years of college at most.

“The education that they’re able to deliver, despite their best intentions, doesn’t really serve the children that they’re trying to help,” says Maimuna Ahmad of Teach for Bangladesh. “This is in stark contrast to high-income schools that are offering a world-class education. We work to bridge this divide.”

Teach for Bangladesh is tackling this challenge through a program modeled after Teach for America. Young professionals are recruited to spend two years at a low-income school in Bangladesh and receive leadership development training along the way.

By taking this approach, Maimuna said Teach for Bangladesh is creating more than just skilled teachers. “They are changing the life trajectory of children in their classrooms while building their own skillsets. They can work as lifelong advocates for equity across Bangladesh,” she explains.

From Student to Teacher

Growing up, Maimuna split her time between Bangladesh and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. While she was in Bangladesh, she was able to attend private schools thanks to her family’s background.

Like many American children, Maimuna’s parents asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up — a question that is not often asked of children in Bangladesh.

“Every day on my way to school, I was passing children in the streets who were begging and selling trinkets,” Maimuna said. “I grew up with an acute understanding that I had been born lucky, and I felt a need to pay it forward.”

Maimuna studied international relations and political science at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She was on the path to law school when Teach for America approached her.

She met with a recruiter not much older than her who talked about the injustice that he witnessed in his classroom and realized the opportunity she had to take a stand against the injustice she had witnessed in the educational system.

“That opportunity to put my money where my mouth was and get involved and not just intellectualize about social justice but get in the trenches was really exciting to me.,” Maimuna said.

Maimuna was placed as a high school algebra teacher in Washington, D.C. She calls those two years in the classroom some of the toughest but most fulfilling that she could ask for. All the while, she couldn’t stop thinking about how the injustice she witnessed in the U.S. was similar to what she had seen growing up in Bangladesh.

She thought that the Teach for America might work in Bangladesh, but she wasn’t sure because she hadn’t lived there since was a child. She took some time off after finishing Teach for America to reconnect to her roots in Bangladesh.

While there, she began working for a legal aid organization, but couldn’t get her mind off of teaching.

“Somehow, I kept finding excuses to get back into schools and back into classrooms,” Maimuna said. “I began to realize that there was this incredible need and there was something that really spoke to me about addressing this issue.”

Becoming an Entrepreneur

Maimuna had the drive to become a social entrepreneur, but as a 20-something with a liberal arts education, she didn’t know if she had the skills to back it up. She began seeking advice from friends, family, and other entrepreneurs.

One of the key pieces of advice she heard was that she was never going to be the perfect leader at any given moment. Instead, she was the person who was showing up and choosing to take on the issue — something that mattered far more than management experience.

She also learned that several other countries had successfully adopted the Teach for America model, which gave her the confidence to know that it could succeed in Bangladesh.

Maimuna went to India at the end of 2011 to observe the Teach for India program, where she slept on couches and observed classrooms in Bombay. She realized that the problems she saw in India also existed in Bangladesh and she could play a role in solving them.

She moved to Bangladesh permanently in 2012 and began building Teach for Bangladesh in cafes that offered free Wi-Fi. One of her first realizations was that she couldn’t just lift the Teach for America (now called Teach for All)  model in its entirety; she needed to mold it to fit the situation in Bangladesh.

“The first few months of work was about emerging myself in the context and understanding what the problem was in Bangladesh,” Maimuna said.

She did that by reading, talking to experts, and gathering insight from teachers, students, and parents from throughout the country’s educational system. She also consulted with Teach for All colleagues from around the world to help provide structure to her thinking.

On the financial side, Maimuna started the business with her savings from her time as a high school teacher in the U.S. Teach for Bangladesh received its first grant from BRAC University, one of the largest NGOs in Bangladesh. It was one of the colleges Maimuna visited early on to gauge interest from students in participating in Teach for Bangladesh.

The university’s founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, asked to meet with Maimuna personally. She later found that he was the person who renamed Teach for America as Teach for All. The rest is what Maimuna describes as a “nice bit of serendipity.”

“He had a love and appreciation for the model already and was looking for someone to do this in Bangladesh,” Maimuna said.

In another bit of serendipity, Maimuna’s roommate from Teach for America (also a Bangladeshi-American) had just moved to Bangladesh. She became the program’s first employee in 2012.

The Takeaway

As she looks across the global social entrepreneur landscape, Maimuna said she sees a competition for who can say they are the most overworked and those struggles being praised on social media.

Her advice to young entrepreneurs is to take of yourself and not lose sight of the fact that life is more than work. Exercise, sleep, and healthy relationships are key to long-term success and avoiding burnout.

“In an entrepreneurial pursuit, you are your biggest asset,” Maimuna said. “If you don’t take care of that asset, you are actually shortchanging yourself and those you are trying to serve.”

Even if you never go to Bangladesh, you can still support the work that Maimuna and her colleagues are doing. Teach for Bangladesh is a registered 501c3 in the U.S. and accepts donations through its website at teachforbangladesh.org.

Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Maimuna Ahmad

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I grew up with an acute understanding that I had been born lucky.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“To really bring about a long-term sustainable change, we need to change the way leadership works.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“99% of students enter school in Bangladesh, but the education they receive is subpar.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I realized the opportunities I took for granted were not there for children all around me.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh“]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“It was that theme of injustice that really spoke to me.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“Children are children no matter where in the world you are.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I began to realize that there was this incredible need.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I had never fundraised before. I had never managed a team before.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“I was adapting this model in a way that felt really authentic to me as a leader.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“For decades, Bangladesh has been a hotbed of social entrepreneurship.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“We’re all competing to see who can be the most overworked among us.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

[spp-tweet tweet=”“In an entrepreneurial pursuit, you are your biggest asset.” Maimuna Ahmad, @TFBangladesh”]

Social Entrepreneurship Resources

About the Author
Tony Loyd is a TEDx speaker, podcast host and the author of Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs. He is a former Fortune 500 executive with extensive experience in strategic planning, talent management, and leadership development. Tony is the host of the podcast Social Entrepreneur where you can hear the stories of changemakers who are making an impact on the world.

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