Ryad Yousuf reminisces about his childhood in Dhaka in the late 1980s and how those experiences helped build his character. He shares lessons from his career that provide insights into how things can be done better in Bangladesh.
It was the late 1980s and HM Ershad was still in power. From political squabbles between campus-based student wings to the pro-democracy movement, it was quite a troublesome period at the University of Dhaka (DU) campus. Ryad was merely a high school student back then at the University Laboratory School, situated next to the Hazi Mohsin Hall within campus premises. And as Ryad shared, his childhood would often get caught in the literal crossfire of quarreling parties.
“We often had to hide under the desks as stray bullets would fly in from outside through the window into our classrooms. It was quite a colourful (!) experience,” chuckled Ryad, reminiscing his time at high school.
Ryad came from relatively humble beginnings, at least by Western standards. He grew up in a middle-class academic household, studied in a modest Bangla medium school and never spoke in English before turning 16. “I grew up in a tightly middle-class academic household. My school fee was Tk14 per month. My school was not by any means famous. Moreover, I studied in the Bangla medium and I didn’t learn how to speak English until I was 16,” said Ryad.
But time changes everything. Ershad’s rule would soon come to an end. Democracy would return to Bangladesh. And little Ryad would also grow up and pursue higher studies in the United States and eventually become a Managing Director and then a Partner at Goldman Sachs.
For the uninitiated, Ryad Yousuf, a Bangladeshi-born London-based banker, became a Partner at Goldman Sachs, one of the most elite multinational investment banks in the world, just last year. Yousuf first joined Goldman in 2011 as a Managing Director, following a successful seven-year stint serving as a Director at the Deutsche Bank. He is currently the co-head of sales for emerging markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“Emerging markets like Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, South Korea, and Vietnam have been a large driver of growth worldwide and had been classified as the Next 11 fastest-growing economies by Goldman Sachs.
I look after financing, derivative hedging and other financial markets business in these countries,” said Ryad.
Goldman Sachs realises that confining its market to developed economies will result in them missing out on a large population in emerging markets, like those in the Next 11. However, emerging markets remain underdeveloped, as hedging or derivative financial products are still a novel concept in many of these countries. Ryad, as a Partner, deals with the financial institutions in these emerging economies to ease them into using these new products.
Ryad completed his SSC from University Laboratory School in 1993. Before he could appear for his HSC exam, he flew to the US to pursue his undergraduate degree in Physics and Mathematics at Bates College. Afterwards, he completed his MBA from Stanford University in 2004.
Both of Ryad’s parents were academics. His father was a teacher at the Chemistry Department of the University of Dhaka. And his mother was an economist at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.
“Growing up in an academic household, education was the utmost priority. As the eldest son, I had some privileges. No one would disturb me during my studies. But that also meant high expectations. You had to get a 100 in math, if you got 99, it was a disaster. You would get ‘beter bari’ if that happened,” said Ryad. Despite Ryad’s academic prowess, the journey had not always been easy for him. Ryad wanted to pursue higher studies abroad and applied to 22 different US universities.
But he needed a fully-funded scholarship as his middle-class joint family was unlikely to be able to afford education in the US otherwise.
“At this point, my parents were responsible for supporting a large joint family of around 20 members with their limited income. Most of the time, we didn’t have meat at home and had to rely on fish [which was relatively cheaper at the time] for protein. So, I needed a fully-funded scholarship,” said Ryad.
“Of the 22 schools I applied to, I got 21 rejection letters and only one accepted me, that too under the diversity criteria,” said Ryad.
Even after getting accepted at Bates, Ryad had to struggle a lot. Besides continuing his studies, he used to work 20 hours a week to finance the costs of living abroad.
“That period of my life taught me to be organised and be driven about managing where I wanted to be. I couldn’t go to Bangladesh for many years because the airfare cost too much. I couldn’t speak to my parents over the phone as each phone call cost about $100, which was 15 hours’ worth of work. So, I didn’t meet my parents or even speak to them regularly during that period,” he recalled.
But Ryad made the best of this opportunity. He gave it his all and soon he would get the results. He graduated college with flying colours and was even the captain of the college rowing team.
But how did he end up becoming a financial sector executive even though he majored in physics and mathematics?
“In my junior year, I was looking for a high-paying job. Then I came to know about a job in Merrill Lynch in New York. That was my first foray into the banking sector in the US which eventually led me to where I am now.”
Ryad attributed a lot of his success to his time in Bangladesh. He believed that the exposure to hardship and conflict gave him character. He also believed that being part of a joint family is a uniquely South Asian experience, making it easier to mingle with clients from different cultures.
“My time in Bangladesh made me get used to conflict and hardship and helped me keep a level head in times of crises. It also helped me in my current role looking at growth [emerging] market franchises,” he added.
“Having worked at different banks, I can say that the culture at Goldman is astonishingly unique. At Goldman, we really care about shared idea generation and decision-making. Regardless of what decision is being taken, we take ideas from everyone involved instead of it being a top-down approach,”
“In my opinion, part of the reason why things move so slowly, in both the private and public sectors in Bangladesh [and many other emerging countries] is the centralisation of power. You cannot decide without consulting the CEO/MD at a bank or in the public sector, at the Ministerial level,” he added.
Ryad also added that Goldman prioritised training and mentoring to maintain a solid pipeline of future leaders within the Firm.
“A big part of my day and my thinking focuses on how I develop the next generation. A large section of my planner is blocked off for mentoring the next generation which not only includes young analysts but also MDs, VPs and other mid-level employees. This culture of mentorship and coaching, unfortunately, does not happen enough in Bangladesh,” said Ryad.
Given his years of experience working in the global financial market, Ryad also had some recommendations for Bangladesh’s financial sector.
“If you are investing in a company, you need to know that your interests as a shareholder are being represented. In the West, when the idea of independent directors was introduced, the game changed entirely, especially in terms of holding the CEO accountable. So, ensuring good governance in corporate and financial institutions is extremely crucial,” said Ryad.
“Another issue is attracting foreign capital. One thing Bangladesh can do is issue sovereign bonds and basically, open the floodgates of investment. This is particularly relevant given the country will have to compete toe-to-toe with other fast-growing nations after it inevitably graduates from the LDC category,” he added.