Shahir Chowdhury co-founded Bangladeshi edtech startup, Shikho with Zeeshan Zakaria in 2019. The online learning platform is focused on grades 9 through 12 and university preparation, offering a mix of livestream classes and learn-at-your-own-pace animated videos. Taught in the local language, Bangla, the pedagogy is based on the Bangladeshi national curriculum, and has opened up the opportunity for any student with a smartphone to learn from the country’s top educators.

What’s the Bangladesh edtech opportunity?

Bangladesh didn’t really have an education technology industry until 2018. We had a few YouTube channels that were free, but no proper, structured tech product-focused company. 

When I saw the models in India in 2018, you had Byju’s, Unacademy, and Vedantu coming up. Nothing similar existed in Bangladesh — there was no reason why it shouldn’t. We have 45 million students from primary to tertiary formal education, and only 80,000 of them study in English. The rest of them study in Bangla. But because they study in Bangla, nobody is actually catering to them. Everyone wants that small segment of English-language students who have a lot of disposable income. 

Our question was, how do you democratize access to high-quality education for the masses? So, what we wanted to do was teach the Bangladeshi national curriculum in the Bangla language, and do it at a price point that was affordable. But because we could do it at scale, it would make commercial sense in the longer term.

What kind of traction have you witnessed so far?

In terms of traction, we’ve got 500,000 downloads, and our monthly active users at the moment are close to 170,000. Our revenues are growing 40% month-on-month. We’ve got the demand. What we’re now about to do from our last fundraiser is start marketing. Our main monetization — or go-to-market focus at the moment — is board exams and university entrance exams. The purchases we are getting come from self-motivated students who are seeking out Shikho for solutions before their exams. 

“I am dealing with 90 million people who have no access to education, and I’ve raised $5.6 million busting a gut for the last three years, and a dog walking app in Silicon Valley has raised $200 million.”

As a Bangladeshi founder, what are the unique challenges you’re facing right now?

There is one challenge, and one challenge only: funding. It’s risk capital. When we raised $100,000 in June 2020, we were the first edtech to cut a check in Bangladesh. We’ve then gone on to raise $5.6 million. But if you think about the broader scheme of things in terms of educating a market, $5.6 million is nothing, right? A lot of people don’t know Bangladesh, and don’t know that we’ve got 180 million people and 90 million people below the age of 25. 

For most of my Western investors, Learn Capital, WaveMaker partners, I was the first bet they took in Bangladesh. DST Partners, I was the second bet they took in Bangladesh. What we are doing is almost laying the groundwork to say, hey, not only does edtech exist, but Bangladesh exists. Please fund us.

In that case, what does the VC pitching process for a first-time Bangladeshi founder look like? What’s your first slide? Do you start by locating Bangladesh on a map?

My first three slides are about Bangladesh! I have a Bangladeshi map; I tell them about the 180 million population, the demographics, the macro story, the stable GDP growth, the stable effects rate, the internet penetration, the smartphone penetration. Then, I move into the student population — of the 180 million people, 50% are below the age of 25, and I’ve got a 90 million learning population. Then they’re like, ‘Oh, really. That’s huge.’ Then I say, of that, 50 million is in formal education. It’s breaking it down slowly to say that this — the total addressable market that we’re dealing with and the problem that we’re dealing with — is fundamental.

So, in Silicon Valley, there was a dog walking app, Wag!, that raised $200 million. I am dealing with 90 million people who have no access to education, and I’ve raised $5.6 million, busting a gut for the last three years, and a dog walking app in Silicon Valley has raised $200 million. That’s the fundamental problem with our world that we’re trying to solve. That really puts things in perspective. Then, people sort of understand what we’re actually building.