Knowing where you are going

Shammi Quddus, an MIT graduate from Chittagong has quit her engineering job in US and is currently pursuing two master’s degrees at Harvard and Stanford to fulfill her dream of bringing social change in Bangladesh…writes Farhat Afzal 

Fear of uncertainty, change and the possibility of impending failure often stops us from taking big steps in life. Along with that fear, what others may think also might influence our decision to make changes. Few people can look that fear in the eye and turn a blind eye to outsiders’ reaction to their actions. Shammi Quddus is one such person.
It was this courage and determination that pushed Shammi to find passion in several public development activities, one of which resulted in the founding of Bangladesh Youth Leadership Center (BYLC). It was this drive in her that made her pursue higher education in top notch US universities like MIT, Harvard and Stanford.
Shammi is a native of the port city of Chittagong. Born to academic parents, both of whom are professors at University of Chittagong, Shammi always strived to be different from her peers.
‘While my friends went to coaching classes after school, I took karate lessons. I participated in training camps at national level, which had rigorous schedules. Sometimes I would show up to class with a black eye but I did not mind that because I loved learning karate,’ she says.
Eventually, she won a black belt in karate in 2006, while she was in Chittagong, but however, her fighting spirit is not limited just within the karate arena. It was around that time that she decided to pursue her higher studies in the United States. ‘After my A-levels, my brother, who was in graduate school at Brandeis University at that time, influenced me a lot in choosing the right school. He encouraged me to apply to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), because of its environment and the fact that it pushes the boundaries in every way,’ she elaborates. Her brother assured her it was a cool place with unconventional students. ‘I never wanted to be a traditional student,’ she says.
She definitely followed through that resolve. During the summer of 2008, after completing her second year at MIT, she came across the Kathryn Davis Projects for Peace Prize, which awards US $10,000 to 100 proposed ideas about bringing peace to a community anywhere in the world.
She sat down with a friend and together they wrote a proposal for increasing tolerance level in Bangladesh. ‘We wanted to bring an idea that helped us be more understanding and empathetic towards people, in order to fight all kinds of prejudices and social stigma that lies in our community,’ she adds. Eventually, they won the award and that was the beginning of what is known as BYLC today; her friend being the founder, Ejaj Ahmed. ‘That experience helped me grow a lot and be a leader. All of a sudden, I found myself managing a team of 30-35 year olds. I was the youngest person in the team and had a hard time asserting the fact that it was indeed my project,’ she explains.
It was at MIT where she realised that college was not just about academics. Working for the pilot programme for BYLC helped her grow and become a leader. Additionally, her love for martial arts followed her all the way to MIT, where she won the black belt in taekwondo in 2010.
After graduating in 2010, Shammi understood how exciting it was to work with one’s own ideas, rather than working for someone else. She was firm about doing some kind of development work on her own, back home in Bangladesh. So, after working as an engineer for a few months in the US, she quit when she realised that she was not learning anything substantial that would fulfill her long term goals of working in Bangladesh. It was at that time that she got an opportunity to work with a project by Water Health Organization, which aimed to provide clean drinking water to rural people in Bangladesh. ‘After two years, I left the job because part of the company that focused on rural development was not advancing fast enough. I realised I wanted to do development work and also learn about business, but lacked the technical knowledge for it. So I decided to go back to school,’ she says. Also, she came to understand what big influences government policies had on the lives of rural people. As a result, she decided to go for two masters’ programmes at the same time! On one hand, Shammi is studying Master of Public Administration in International Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and on the other hand, Master of Business Administration at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
When asked about how she even manages time for doing two different programmes, that too at such prestigious schools, she laughs and says, ‘It is not that complicated. You just do what you need to do.’
She has completed the first year at Harvard and is all set for her second year at Stanford. The third and final year will be split between two places, with a semester in each school. Shammi is also a Dubin Fellow at the Centre for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Prior to starting graduate school, Shammi worked for a year as the Head of Business Development for the initiative ‘Amader Daktar’, which helps connect rural patients to doctors in the city. ‘I loved working there because it brought together my interests of development work and business,’ Shammi says.
After finishing graduate school, Shammi wishes to come back to Bangladesh and work at the intersection of development policy and social enterprise. She is particularly interested in technology and women’s issues. Shammi just finished her year-long break from school which she took because of the birth of her daughter. She says managing studies and her health was not that challenging. ‘I would call up my professor and say I had not submitted my homework because I felt unwell due to my pregnancy. And grad school is pretty laid back. So it was not that difficult to manage,’ she elaborates.
‘My life had always been different from my peers. I have traveled to places with no electricity, no proper sanitation facilities or prayer spaces. I am usually the only woman in the team. Among all this, I told myself not to overthink. We anticipate a lot more bad things than what actually happen. If you just show up, you will be surprised how far that gets you. Especially for women, there are more restrictions. All I will say is shut out those negative voices and get going,’ Shammi says.
For aspiring youths, her word of advice is to pay no attention to the naysayers. ‘People will say there are ten million things that might go wrong. Just ignore all that and take one step at a time,’ she asserts. True to her word, Shammi did manage to take a different path and stand out. Fearlessness and strong willpower has taken her far beyond than what any of her peers could ever imagine.

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