Azra Salim, the founder, and CEO of online pharmacy and healthcare startup Shombhob Health. After completing her A level in Bangladesh she went to the US to study business administration at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Did her undergrad there, majoring in Finance. After graduation, she worked in the US for several years as a consultant to Fortune 500 Companies. After coming back to Bangladesh she joined the family business. The family business, Jayson Pharmaceuticals, was founded by her father in the 1960s. She worked there for about three years and took a break of about four years. In 2012, she rejoined Jayson. From 2012 to 2020, she worked full-time in a pharmaceutical company and helped the company grow and raise capital to go for an IPO. In 2021, Ms. Azra founded Shombhob Health with an ambition to take healthcare close to people.
Ms. Azra Salim shared her lessons on entrepreneurship, work, and life. In this interview, we bring a compilation of her lessons in her own words.
01. On achieving growth
Learning quickly is very important in the life of a startup. You need to learn super quick and get to work. When something isn’t working, pivot. Don’t wait, and don’t waste money.
For instance, the software we’re using has many limitations. So we’re switching to a new software later this month. And I was thinking of foreign software, more tried and tested software. But then the response time to my questions, even at the proposal level was so long that I realized that my customization would take a long time, which would be time-consuming and costly. Instead, we went for something local. I also decided that I’m not a software company. So I’m not building anything in-house. Instead, we’ll work with partners for tech. My expertise is in operations. My expertise is in the market. So I’d rather focus on that. So it’s essential to learn and adapt quickly.
02. On dealing with stress
To combat stress, spending time with my family helps. They are a huge support for me. When things get too stressful, I take some time and spend time with my family, my husband, my kids, my mom and sister, and our dog. It grounds and calms me.
To keep me organized so I don’t go crazy, I live by to-do lists. I could not get from point A to point B without a to-do list. Of course, many different things come at you during the day but I try to choose my battle. Every night, I make a list of things that I must do the following day and then live by that. That keeps me organized.
03. On-work approach
I do work a lot. Of course, I try to find a balance. But work is a priority at this point in my life. Previously I was working in a well-oiled machine. I was doing my best, but I was also growing something that was already well-established. With Shombhob, it’s like creating order from chaos every day.
We’re still a small team. I believe in leading by example. So I’m hands-on with a lot of the things. I entered products into our database. I’ve done the bills and also answered customer calls. I’ve also packed products and still pack the bags when they need a hand. So I’m quite hands-on so that my team knows I’m here when they need me.
My door is always open. I’m always approachable. In my past life, my door wasn’t open. I was there. But you know, it was more of a formal structure. But here, I believe in a culture where everyone should be able to walk up to everyone and get help. So yeah, I believe in leading by example.
I’m still creating the values of this company. I have monthly updates with the team so that they know. I asked them last month why anybody should shop with Shombhob, what Shombhob stands for and what Shombhob cares about, and so on and I was happy to see my team say the same things that I’m trying to instill in the company.
I believe that if you take care of the culture, how we treat each other, and how we interact with each other, the rest will fall into place. Those who don’t fit, eventually leave, and those who fit, fit very well.
04. On seeking depth
People should get to the depth of the things that they’re doing. My advice would be to go to the depth of knowledge in whatever you’re doing by giving it your 100%. There is no shortcut. If you don’t work hard, and if you don’t spend a lot of time doing what you do, you will never do it that well.
These days people switch from one thing to another so easily. If you don’t face the storm, how will you know how to weather a storm? Even in my family business, I’ve seen the ups and I’ve seen the downs. I’ve seen the turnaround. In fact, I had been actively involved in the turnaround. I think young people should pursue resilience and willpower to do something that they care about.
05. On the importance of consistent progress
One thing I have realized fairly recently is the importance of consistent progress. Consistently showing up, and consistently making progress will make something big happen eventually. Making consistent progress is how you make magic. Showing up every day is more important than you know. Consistency and resilience are of supreme importance. We need to pay more attention to consistency.
So nothing great, no deep lesson from life, just doing the small things well and consistently. If you’re doing what you love, it’s fun, it doesn’t feel like work. I work till late at night because this is my baby and I love my work.
06. On taking action
We should do what needs to be done. If you make a mistake, you learn from it. And if it’s the right thing to do, then you’ve done something better than indecision. I think that’s been something I’ve seen and learned. I find it helpful to think about the issue at hand deeply and talk about it one on one with whoever is concerned. And then I reach a decision.
07. On the management
My management philosophy is openness and free and frank sharing. I mean, yes, we have to be professional. But I also think you can cut through a lot of layers if you’re able to have frank conversations with your team. So I’m always approachable. Anybody can come and share their thoughts with me.
I try to be collaborative. I work together with my team. I get my hands dirty. No job is too small. You shouldn’t look down upon any job that’s needed to make the wheels of your company turn.
08. On leadership
A good leader will have a high level of EQ. When you are emotionally intelligent, you’re empathetic, you are perceptive, and you are patient. You know who to treat how and how to treat who, and you know how to get the job done. You know when to let loose, you know when to tighten the grip. Emotional intelligence I think is the most important quality in a leader.
09. On staying productive
I orient myself. When things get too crazy, I orient myself. If I’m at home, I will shut the door, close my eyes, take deep breaths, and just orient myself. It’s sort of like meditation. Just closing my eyes and taking deep breaths calms me down. Even in the office, when I’m anxious, I just take a few minutes and breathe. Prayer also helps to orient me. There has not been a single instance of getting up from prayer and feeling restless or feeling stressed, it just doesn’t happen.
10. On making a difference
I think doing your work well is important. If you play music, be good at it. If you practice law, make a difference in your practice. If you’re in business, make a difference in people’s lives. I live by wanting to make a difference every day.
At Shombhob, we have so many nice stories of how we have impacted our customers and made a difference in their lives. And that’s what keeps me going. We remind ourselves of the success stories, you know, when an ICU patient can’t find a medicine and calls us to find the medicine for them and it’s a life-saving drug, that’s a huge blessing. There are so many of these stories. It is a blessing. So making a difference is important. Most of the time, if you do good work, the rest will take care of itself.
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