#meet the Co-founder of Alif - Abdullo Kurbanov
— And our roots are here, in Central Asian mountains with the young and modest and hardworking people of this region. — Family of doctors. — Yeah. So, I'm also married a doctor. — Two gangs in our class. So, I was a leader of one gang and there was a guy who was a leader of another gang and you know... — And you had fights.
— Yeah, and we had fights. — I think, not all of people know that. — Came and said, "Akai Abdullo trust us we can ride this system on our own''. — I thought you would say - flying. So, the third guest or the first one is Abdullo.
Abdullo as all of you know, he is the visionary and the leader behind Alif. He's also a good friend of mine, we met actually in London. I was quite inspired by him because, in my mind, I remember that Abdullo graduated the best University in Turkey - Bosphorus, Bogazici University, then he graduated the best University in, one of the best ones in the UK - London School of Economics, then he started his career working in investment banking, and then the bold move started, in my mind, because someone who would start, have this path basically, having good University education, working in investment banking it's a typical path everyone would have coming to London, and but at the same time Abdullo decided to move to Mongolia, I remember, and we started joking about him, about his bold moves, then he decided to come to Tajikistan, he worked for Orienbank, then he started his own business with Maskan, right? It was the first experience. — It was the second. — Yes second, the first one was somon.tj and then Maskan, then Alif
and now you are where you are now. So, I would like to start with the, like the story of your childhood, you don't need to tell me the whole story, maybe the things which you think are significant or which were the life-changing events, in your childhood, which you think made who you are now, for example: Firdavs told us that he went into a lot of fights, back in school and that probably made him who he is and the qualities he has now come from that. — The life-changing events? — In your childhood, I don't know, first fight? —The first fight? Oh, man the first fight... Good, well I was lucky, my mother took me to wrestling classes, when I very early on, and that gave me a lot of boldness, I guess. So, I would, when if someone dared me to a fight, I would, regardless of their age I would take the fight, and the fights I remember are the fights where I was knocked down and so on because, and but that was the the times, right? The early 90s.
— You were the leader in the class? — I wasn't the... The funny thing is that I wasn't any kind of educations, no leader or moral leader, but I was more like there were two gangs in our class, so it was a leader of one gang, and there was a guy who was a leader of another gang and, you know... — You had fights.
— Yeah, and we had fights, yeah that's I think something common for a lot of us for our early days. Important things, life-changing things, I guess that whole experience was. I moved to Khujand with my sister, and... — When the war started? — Yeah, when the war started, and I didn't study really well, so I remember my grandmother, was the school's principal, and I, and one of the images in my memory is - being there being scolded by her for not studying well. Another image I have is - from again from the time I was telling you earlier, time I used to spend in the summers with my uncle. —Yeah.
— So, my uncle and my grandmother they lived together — In the farm — Yes, we had this extended family and the summers were usually when I had to do some work in the field, you know plow the field and you know do harvest, and that taught me a lot in general that experience. I remember, very little things made us very happy, just having a dried piece of bread with green tea and sugar and those things. And he had a very nice library a very, very nice library, where in the heat of the day, just in the middle of the day, when people just resting, it was cool in that room and we would go and pick-up books and read, and that was very helpful because later, in the evening, my uncle would ask things, random things from nature, from poets, from history, he liked history a lot. Obviously, my parents, they... I remember a lot of things from my childhood with my parents. — How many siblings you have? — We are three of us, I'm the eldest, and then I have a sister, and a younger brother, they all went to medicine as well.
— Okay, family of doctors. — Yes. — It's good convenient. — Yes, tell me about it. So, I'm also married a doctor. So, everyone
is a doctor around. — And your father, I guess, he had quite a career as far as I know, he led the University, at some point, and he's really well-known doctor, well regarded. What role he played in your life? He was, a very interesting question because I rarely thought about it, but, he was, he wouldn't scold us as often as my mother would, but very rarely, but where rarely he would take me to a corner and have this long discussion about life and philosophy and principles, he's a very patriotic person, he loves Tajikistan, I think more than anything and he's very devoted to his work, to his profession, to surgery and right now teaching as well like as a in leading the University. And I think that impacted us a lot, he was back in the early 2000s, he made a very difficult but successful surgery to one representative of Germany, I think it was either an ambassador or someone and that opened the way for medical exchange between Tajikistan and Germany, and he went there, was there for several months and he could have sort of, I remember some discussions where he was telling me I could have stayed, but it didn't even occur to me, you know Tajikistan is the place I want to be and, I think that later on for me it was obvious that wherever I go I have to come back and have that love for our country, so. — Yes. — You mentioned your grandmother she's from Khujand? — Yes, my mother is from Khujand, and my grandparents from that side, my, from Khujand as well, my father is from the southern part, close to Dangara, but they lived in Kurgontepa region for the most of time, and now it called Bokhtar.
— And your wife is from the east? — Yes, my wife is from the Badakhshan, yes, she is from... — And your kids are the perfect mixture of what you call Tajikistan. — Yes, they can proudly say that indeed. — Interesting. — So, what is the main say lesson that you learned from your father and the one that you want to pass to your kids? — I think just that, just the fact that having that love for something bigger, something, and of course the love for humanity is one thing we all have but at the moment I, you know, I think of no better purpose for my life than being helpful to people who, we keep telling at Alif that no one will come and improve things in Tajikistan, we - the youth, the young generation, we should be proactive we should help as much as we can, we should, we are lucky to have been born here.
If we were born in some other part of the world, I don't know what sort of thing would move us, what would motivate us, what would be the reason for, and the purpose for life. Here it's obvious as far as I'm concerned and I think, that was the lesson my father imparted on me and something I hope I can pass also. — You know, when I wrote an article about Alif, about a year ago, I think, a lot of questions in the comments were received and one of the questions was that apparently, people perceive your success, Zuhursho and Firdavs' success, as success of those who come from a privileged background, not those who are average Joe's, who studied here and started from nothing. How would you comment on that: would you consider yourself as someone from a privileged background? — That's an interesting question.
You know, I'm privileged to have been able to study at some of the best institutions. I'm privileged to have had the parents that were always supportive, to have had the.... and today to have these amazing people to work with at Alif and do these amazing things.
But if the, but if by privilege we mean the monetary privilege, the financial privilege, I'm not, I don't think so because I remember, as you bring up these childhood memories, I remember that the days when my father would argue whether they should buy us a sweater for me, and I remember the times when things like buying a bag of flour was something that would have become a dinner discussion. And my father and my mother they always worked very hard and I'm very proud that even today, my father does like three - four surgeries every morning before he starts his day and then goes to the University and does his administrative work and my mother is a diagnostician who still is helping like, doing 30 - 40 diagnoses a day and I've not, I think, I remember of moments when mostly I was alone at home because my parents were working. I would come back from school and do things on my own back then so, they used to work hard and they still work hard and that's great. And financially I was very lucky, very fortunate to have had a lot of support, but not direct, not from my parents.
— Did they pay for your education? — Actually they didn't pay for my education. No, you know my... If we go backwards, from the last one and the most expensive one my University degree at the London School of Еconomics was paid by the London School of Еconomics, and Lord Dahrendorf Scholarship, which was a scholarship by Deutsche bank, so and it was a very big one, it was, I mean it was hard to comprehend and it was a very, very fortunate thing like sixty thousand dollars for one year as a grant. — And Bosphorus? — And during Bosphorus years I had, I was receiving scholarships from three or four institutions, one of them - The Nippon Foundation, and that JACAFA as The Nippon Foundation is sort of subsidiary there and even today we work with JACAFA, now together with JACAFA we are providing scholarships in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, so every year we choose five to ten people here and there that receive hundred euros scholarships a month.
And those were some good scholarships, I actually used to send money back home instead of receiving money from my parents. — Interesting, I guess this this clarifies and I think, Firdavs also told us his story, so it's quite evident that a lot of people I think, try to find excuses why they're not doing things rather than going and doing it. And in that sense, I really think that your path is first of all of someone who is an achiever, because he just goes and does the things and you did a lot of work with Alif. But would you call yourself an entrepreneur? Because, in my mind when we first met with you and up to the moment when you start, when you moved to Tajikistan you were not an entrepreneur, because you worked in the salaried environment, so where you had the salary, you always studied, you because, I remember, while we were having fun you were always studying and I didn't see you much because of that, but you gave a good example, but when you came back here you got more entrepreneurial I think, can you tell more about that time, what maybe lessons you got here, entrepreneurial lesson, because I know that the lessons you had in London they were not that much...
— Entrepreneurship lessons — Entrepreneurship lessons, yes And I don't know if you agree or not maybe? — Yes, I do agree, I studied finance, not much with entrepreneurship. I think when I came back I started working in the banking sector and that gave me an opportunity to see how much improvement can be made in the sector, it's huge in size but at the same time the service levels were bad, the NPL the Non Performing Loans level were very bad, people didn't trust and didn't want to work with banks. 70 percent of monetary base is outside the banking system, whereas in the UK for example, only five percent of money is outside the banking sector. And seeing this level of economic unlocking that can be made, inevitably though these thoughts came to mind okay we can do something. — There is an opportunity.
— Yes, there is an opportunity and of course, I was discussing this internally within that bank initially, but at that point of time there wasn't any interest to significantly change things, so that probably helped us to start something on our own rather than with the support of some big institution behind. And similarly with the with the classifieds with somon.tj I made a lot of use of gumtree, back in the year, to find a place for rent and so on and when I came back here, I didn't see anything like that so, we started a project which you don't know, it's called shaftolu.tj.
— Shaftolu? — Yes. That was the first one, and it failed completely, so but then I was very, very lucky to have found and got to know Jahongir and Dilovar. Dilovar Amonov, Jahongir Zabirov are very entrepreneurial, very driven, very hard-working people who are today with Alif and together we started fara.tj and somon.tj and those things moved on. So, it's the combination of that. It's having seen something... — That experience basically taught to you more about entrepreneurship because there was the first.
— Oh no, I have many failed experiences like that. Have you ever read Metropole newspaper? — No. — We didn't issue a single one, but remember I think, I was actually even asking you that question: "Azamat what do you think about newspapers though?" — Probably, yes — Maybe yes, because at one point I thought we should do a newspaper and... — How did you make your first money? — By working, I was, I used to work for construction, yes, it was 2004. I was 19.
I had a gap here, at my studies I had to take a gap here for financial reasons and when I came back I started working at a construction here as an interpreter, a translator, and a supervisor of kind of small team. — Turkish construction project it was? — It was construction the construction of US Embassy. — Interesting.
I think not a lot of people know that. — I used to work at the construction facility it was interesting times. — Interesting. So, what do you think is the main quality of your character that made you successful? — First of all, I don't think the word successful applies yet, we have a lot of work ahead of us but... — Big achiever says, because you achieved something great.
— But whatever we have today, Alhamdulillah I think , first of all, it's about the people around us, people... I'm so lucky to be with today and it's both elements of fortune but also an element of maybe being proactive about find, finding and being with such people Firdavs, Zuhursho, Dilovar, Jahongir, Siyovush, Nuriddin a lot of people and I can just, you know, to count on and on today we have 560 people and every single one of them is just amazing and unique and so inspiring for me there are some amazing stories I can if we had time I would have told you about those people. — But there should be one quality which says you think that this changed the game here, for example, speaking to Firdavs I realized that he is the one who stands for confidence in this company because his main quality is his strength and confidence and hence he was the first investor who sold his flat and invested in this business. With Zuhursho, I think it's more of talent because, in my head, he in his way represents what talent is because Alif is about talent. What do you think, what puzzle you present by yourself? — It's probably a question that's better answered by maybe Firdavs, Zuhursho or others, I think of myself as maybe someone who's balanced, it's hard to get me upset or angry at something, I think there are just like three occasions in my life I have bumped my fist on a table and done something. Other than that it's hard for me to lose my balance. I don't know how that adds to our thing with Alif.
I can't say it's ideas because I personally think ideas are not that important. If you give a good idea to, as I was telling the other day to a mediocre team it goes nowhere, a good everybody, but a mediocre idea with a good team can can go for miles, I was good with finance and I had the background of the sector, that may have helped. But more, to be honest, what I'm really proud of is the thing I mentioned the first. — Team? — The team, the people, and maybe to some extent having known Zuhursho, having known Firdavs and other people, who were backing us from day one and today, I just feel privileged to have been able to maybe persuade some of them to join Alif, maybe that. — What is the weakness that you know of yours? — There are many. — But what is the main? — Too many to count, but one thing, is I'm not very talkative, so..
— Introverted? — To a certain extent, I enjoy talking to people at Alif, I enjoy talking at home as well, but I also enjoy silence and I was back at home on Thursday and we just shared almost an hour of silence with my father, he's also not very talkative but we're comfortable and enjoy that as well with just each other's company at silence and we're both not very talkative. But many, many, to just to count. — What do you think is the purpose of the life, overall? You see, I'm dropping random questions to catch you. — The purpose of life? — Yes.
— I mentioned this earlier about trying to be helpful to others. I've read this book last year which was very interesting by Viktor Frankl, it's just about that the purpose of life because this whole "The man in search of meaning", right, and he was someone who had this hardest probably what a person can suffer because he was taken to the Auschwitz camp during the second world war and these were obviously you know camps where people had to endure where is kind of, because he was imagining in his mind that "Okay, one day I'll be a teacher of philosophy and psychology and I'll be telling this story of how I survived" and every moment of suffering starts to make sense for him. It was, it became a reason for him to endure and then tell the story, right, so then he established the third Viennen school of psychotherapy, which is focused on therapy by finding purpose in life for people. And that is a question that a lot of people face - why am I'm living, what's the purpose of my life? And the answer is probably different for every person.
I've come to believe that the purpose of life for us here in Tajikistan is trying to be helpful here, because creating 100 jobs in the in the UK, in I don't know, in Mongolia wouldn't give as much, maybe in Mongolia they would, but in the developed world they wouldn't create as much impact, but creating 100 jobs here is so much more meaningful, so much more exciting. I remember a discussion I had with myself deep at night when I was working at UBS many years ago, and I thought, in the last moments of my life, looking backwards, what do I want to see? If I stay and there was a discussion I was having from time to time whether to stay in the UK or eventually to come back to Tajikistan and I was thinking, if I stay and have a nice apartment, nice flat that Knightsbridge or what are those fancy streets, and I don't know, having financial wealth, which you cannot take with yourself or having come here and having been helpful with whichever way one can. Of course, the latter made more sense to me, so, that I think is a purpose.
As far as you know from my angle, — To serve people — To serve people, and that's really thing that is, that can give you that sustainable happiness. None of other things that, or worldly things that, we run after or typically consider as being success gives that sustainable happiness and satisfaction with life. Of course you have to have safety and roof over your over your head and some basic needs to be covered. — As you know, this year we will be celebrating 10th anniversary of Peshraft officially, we are co-founders in Peshraft but each interview I'm asking every speaker to give some guidance or vision or tips to those who are about to choose their career or early on, maybe you can just give few tips or advices you think shortcuts in life — Shortcuts, the tips, right? — Yes — There are no shortcuts. — No shortcuts.
— I get asked that question quite often and I have this convenient four Ps that I usually talk about it's the purpose, it's the people, it's the principles, it's the persistance. Each one of them can can be opened - up with an hour-long sort of training or a discussion but definitely surround yourself with good people, that's that's something you can do and you're the average of the people who surround you. So, to make sure you're surrounded by people who are better than you, who are, but we have the same idea who have the same principles as you do and the principles are very important, and the finding and working and being loyal and very strong on your principles, always following them is important, so at Alif we have these seven principles that we talk about, the values, integrity and being, not being indifferent to each other helping each other, giving feedback, challenging, challenging your leader, challenging every one of us, challenging each other in a good way. A number of things, so principles very important. And purpose is about finding, you know, there are very few things as we were talking about earlier, that can sustainably and motivate you over the long run, and finding the purpose in your life is very important, and the last one is persistence, because there's nothing in this world that can replace persistence as that quote that you and I had read the other day. At every major point we have failed many times. I was telling you about a number of startups and projects
that failed, actually there are like 10 of them that failed. We've been failing at every instance at Alif when, for example, at the beginning of the road we decided that we would buy our core banking system — Yeah — And that was my failure, and I made the same mistake even twice, not once until Zarrina and Mustafo and Shokhruh came and said, "Akai Abdullo trust us we can ride this system on our own'', and gladly we all did trust them and they wrote an amazing core banking system and today we're a fintech company because after that we wrote our own client relationship management software, processing and payment systems and so on. So, it's being about, it's about being persistent because failures will happen and how you look at those failures is important, if and with all the mistakes that have happened in my life, with all the failures when I look back I actually see that they serve the purpose.
— So you don't regret any of them? — No. Actually, no. I mean, at that time I had those sad feelings, feelings of regret I shouldn't have made this decision or I should have made this or that, but now I look that actually turned out for the best. — If there was a quality you could have acquired, what it would be? Character.
— Maybe, love for exercise and supports, I do exercise a bit but it's not like it's not something I really enjoy I have to force myself to do, I wish I liked it, I wish I enjoyed it and you know did a whole... — I thought, you would say flying. — Flying? Flying is good, flying is... I wish I did. — Given your character, I mean.
— I would think it's flying — What do you think is the most valuable quality in people? — Integrity for sure, and don't even have to think about it, yes, integrity is the most important thing, it's it's the one thing at Alif we don't compromise on. You can make mistakes - we will discuss, we'll give you feedback, you will give us feedback. — Can you translate integrity to Tajiki? "Rostqavli, rostfikri, rostgui, rost budan, misli Alif rost budan" - integrity.
— Because, even it's difficult to translate it into Russian, I know. — "Chestnost, poryadochnost". — Аnd another question I have regarding the way you see Аlif, is it a Tajiki company here in Tajikistan, is it a global business, where do you want to concentrate yourself? — We definitely are growing internationally, we have now a very strong president Uzbekistan, amazing team there, about 50 people, we're going to grow to other countries, hopefully we will work on that, and we do see ourselves as a global company, we do see ourselves as a company that will try to contribute to the global fintech ecosystem. And our roots are here in the Central Asian mountains with the young and modest and hardworking people of this region.
— Who would you choose as a role model if you analyze the history, or it can be not history, maybe someone you know? — There are many. For example, from the personal side for every Muslim, prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) - is a role model, we all want to be like him to have those values and principles. From the economy side of things, from how countries can get better. People like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.
Deng Xiaoping of China are very, very inspiring how the the economic decisions, the institutions that they built and foresaw have made such a great improvement in people's lives. From business perspective, I really admire Warren Buffett for his, first of all, for his long-term view and his modesty and humility, and despite being one of the smartest investors in the world he has always is this modest demeanor, he's lived and he's been driving the same car for like 20 years or something so, very, very inspiring for me. I like people like Tony Hsieh, who passed away last year. He was head of Zappos, a shoe company. — Yes.
— And what I like about it is that he built a culture which is client, customer focused, I mean, people like calling Zappos and asking for pizza, whereas Zappos being a shoe company they would still try to help that person, right? And we're trying to implement the same here. You know many people, I can, you know, Howard Schultz the CEO of Starbucks for his focus on the people at Starbucks the employees and then being the first thing you focus, and if you do your best for the people, they do their best for the clients, and when you know you take care of the clients they take over the company which then can take care again of the people. And that principle is also, I found parallels with what we're trying to do at Alif. So, I have huge respect for a lot of people, even in our region, I mean people like um Lomtadze at Kaspi, and Herman Gref at Sberbank, you know, building these very successful ecosystems in finance is very inspiring. — Last question, is my favorite one, I ask imagine yourself fishing and you caught a goldfish, she says that you can have three wishes for Tajikistan as a country, what wishes would you ask? — Nice, three wishes for Tajikistan as a country. I think, first of all it's education. I think,
if we concentrated and, I think, that there are many efforts but if we do even further and concentrate on making education a primary focus, is something we invest in most that would be long-term very, very productive. And the education-scape is changing so much, there's so many new technologies, new techniques that can be used. And at Alif we're trying to do our little contribution through Alif Academy. We have this education platform, an educational technology platform, people can study online, they're like at the same time 500 people or thousands of people can study. At the moment, roughly 300 to 500 people are doing that. We teach programming. So that. Second it's about having a strategic economic priority on technology, on software and software development. I think,
given where we a landlocked country, exporting something from here, something hard hardware is very expensive. One of the, probably one of the most expensive places to export something from or to import something to. But the software is something that you can, you know, to sell anywhere in the world without any major costs associated with that, and you know if we focus on technology, and do a lot of changes that can help us be successful in that we can gain that competitive advantage if we focus on one thing and do that well.
And the third one, for some reason I'm thinking of tax system. The tax system being one of the those things which is constantly, a something every entrepreneur thinks about. But and this one is something in the short run. One thing, I was thinking recently is if we can put a short-term goal, it's not a like very 50 years goal, but like a five-year goal to eliminate cash completely, and have everything electronic all the payments... — Cashless economy.
— Cashless economy, so if the economic block of our country, would say, banks, the Central bank and everyone are now required to make that happen in five years we get rid of all cash and we become a cashless economy and it will mobilize so many things of course it's easy to understand it's like it's like Kennedy's we will put a man on the moon by the end of this decade kind of kind of aspiration where it's easy to understand but but it mobilizes so many parts of the economy that you can get a lot of economic improvement it will mobilize technology, mobilize finance, it will mobilize security and it will reduce significantly corruption and as everything becomes transparent taxation can become less of an issue because you actually don't have to tax everything out of a small pie you can tax a little bit of out of a huge pie because that huge pie is now transparent — I agree. — So, maybe the third one is a bit of shorter termish one with getting rid of cash. — It really makes sense. Because it's a little thing which may have a big impact in the long run.
Thank you Abdullo. — Thank you Azamat — Always pleasure.