In 1991, when Pfizer decided to call it a day in Bangladesh, the late Syed Humayun Kabir was its local chapter CEO. He was one of the most successful CEOs in Pfizer's sprawling business empire. So Pfizer did not hesitate in handing over the stake of their local enterprise to Humayun.
An individual with Humayun's track record could have easily used this opportunity from Pfizer to enhance his own finances. But Humayun's worldview was different.
According to Sajida Foundation's CEO Zahida Fizza Kabir, Humayun instead offered Pfizer to give SAJIDA Foundation a majority of the share, and that is how the foundation, instead of the Kabir family, became the owner of Pfizer's Bangladesh chapter we now know as Renata Limited.
Since Renata's journey began in 1993, the SAJIDA Foundation has continually grown in reputation as a transparent, non-profit organisation. Its activities encompass a range of activities - from community-centric interventions to microfinancing.
The foundation started its journey from the Kabir family's garage school for underprivileged children in 1987. According to Zahida, the foundation was "essentially a gift to his [Humayun Kabir] wife on their 25th marriage anniversary."
As per the agreement with Pfizer, SAJIDA Foundation was supposed to repay its shares over the next six years, beginning from 1993.
The arrangement was that 75 percent of the dividend would go to Pfizer and SAJIDA would take the remaining 25 percent for its operations over the next six years.
However, in the first year, they could not provide a dividend as Pfizer Bangladesh's transition into a local company went through a turbulent period.
Within two years of starting its formal journey, SAJIDA Foundation's activities were evaluated by Pfizer New York.
Pfizer's own foundation, however, has a reputation as a global initiative reaching out to individuals in need.
"They were happy with our accountability and transparency and decided to donate the share to SAJIDA Foundation," the CEO said.
Ever since, both Renata Limited and SAJIDA Foundation have not had to look back.
Renata is now the fourth largest pharma company in the country with a market cap of $1 billion in 2018 while SAJIDA Foundation has grown to an institutional level.
"Founding an institution is tough. A set of family members have to commit full time. To run any professional entity in Bangladesh, the commitment has to be equal from all sides." - Zahida Fizza Kabir, CEO, Sajida Foundation
Besides its activities in WASH, health, mental health and education sector, SAJIDA Foundation pioneered the country's first green-bond to tackle climate change, disaster response and boost its microfinance programmes.
"SAJIDA Foundation works in diverse areas but microfinance remains its largest programme. We always try to diversify microfinance funding. The green-bond was launched for diversification purposes," Zahida explained.
Building of an institution
In its journey over the last 27 years, SAJIDA Foundation has set up a delicate mechanism of collaboration between family members and independent professionals in its governing body, helping the foundation to grow to an institutional level.
From the Ford Foundation, to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to Tata Trust, most large-scale global charity foundations are family initiatives, institutionalising family charities on a global scale.
The picture, however, is different in Bangladesh. Except for building schools, madrasas, mosques and rarely some hospitals, family charity initiatives have not been institutionalised here.
"The concept of family initiative often leads to questions about corruption and misappropriation in Bangladesh. Some say that this is a medium for channelling money or evading taxes. Albeit some of the accusations are true, we couldn't appreciate the good initiatives either, at the same time," Zahida said.
For the Sajida Foundation, walking on a rarely tried path was difficult in the beginning.
Zahida said, "When we went to the NGO Affairs Bureau for registration, it said that two family members cannot remain signatories - which is valid. There were some legal requirements, which we also believed were necessary, and we didn't have a problem abiding by the regulations."
Hence, the CEO, who is also the daughter of SAJIDA Foundation founder Humayun Kabir, said they approached using a combination of family members and professionals in the governing body as a medium of learning. It improved the foundation's accountability.
"Just like we have family members in the governing body, we bring diverse professionals from time to time to expand our expertise and to ensure transparency," Zahida added.
She admits that the struggle to balance the delicate relations between professionals and the family is real in Bangladesh.
"But my family and I believe that if our intentions are transparent, it is doable. With honest intention, we have earned a reputation as a transparent organisation over the three decades of our journey.
"We are an open book as far as our financial transactions are concerned. So, after 27 years of our journey, now, I no longer mind hiring someone related to us if they are competent. We have many other ways to ensure accountability. A large institution of nearly 3,500 people is a combination of family and talent," she stated.
We asked Zahida about what sets SAJIDA Foundation apart from other family initiatives in Bangladesh.
"Founding an institution is tough. A set of family members have to commit full time," Zahida replied, adding, "to run any professional entity in Bangladesh, the commitment has to be equal from all sides."
She was encouraged to build human resources in the charity, like it is in the corporate sector.
Besides, Zahida and her family learned from her late father that limiting greed is essential to develop institutions for a social cause.
"Our founder, a corporate personality, led many corporate platforms. But he always had aspirations to work for social causes," Zahida said.
Reminiscing about her father's lessons, Zahida concluded, "You need to know when you have enough. There should be a limit."