Jahrat Adib Chowdhury is Chief Legal Officer at Banglalink, a Vimpelcom Group company. She is a Barrister-at-Law of Lincoln’s Inn, UK and an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. Jahrat speaks with us today about her formative experiences, what it means to be a senior leader in one of the country’s leading telecommunications and digital companies, and how she fulfills her personal and professional duties.
What made you decide to become a barrister and corporate lawyer?
I grew up in a small town called Moulvibazar where my father used to run his law chamber in the front room of our house. He had several junior lawyers in his chamber, including two of my male cousins. My father inspired all of his four daughters to follow his legal career and eventually take over the chamber. However, we grew up listening to jokes from my cousins that we would never be practicing law as we were girls, so they expected to inherit the chamber along with my father’s huge collection of law books. Without really understanding of the depth of their jokes, I became angry.
While my two elder sisters chose different career paths, I decided to be a lawyer. Bangladesh, once part of the Indian sub-continent, has always recognized and respected British Barristers as their superiors. When I started studying law, out of thousands of lawyers, only a few hundreds were Barristers in Bangladesh. So, I took the challenge and decided to achieve the title of Barrister. I eventually became the first Barrister in my family and social circle.
As I started practicing law, I saw a good demand for corporate lawyers and decided to try the less-travelled route, especially considering that corporate lawyers enjoy financial benefits and perks such as manageable working hours. At that time, it was a risky move as our society did not consider corporate lawyers to be real lawyers. Here, only lawyers who practice in Court are considered real. Regardless, I took the corporate law path to become financially solvent and to learn from my own experience. Now, I feel encouraged when many junior lawyers tell me that they aspire to follow in my footsteps.
You studied overseas to secure your law degree. How did this experience change your views on life and leadership?
Given my small-town background, I never dreamt to be where I am now. None of the movies and TV dramas I watched while growing up featured working women, more so in high-ranking positions.
I am grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to study abroad. The experience definitely helped me to see the bigger world by connecting with people from different countries and cultures. I had academic achievements that I once thought were unattainable. I learned what it meant to be independent, responsible, and owning the freedom to steer my own life. I am satisfied that I steered my life toward the right direction. My study period overseas was truly enjoyable. I cherished it, knowing that life as I knew it had changed.
Apart from using my overseas experiences, I was able to achieve successes by being in the right environment and having the right level of empowerment. As a leader, I ensure these two things for my team. In return, my team has never failed me, and I am proud to see members of my team moving on to head legal departments in multinational companies.
At this time when Bangladesh is just emerging from being patriarchal, what does it mean to be a woman in a senior leadership role?
Women in Bangladesh are progressing rapidly. I see that everyone now aspires to become independent. Besides joining traditional professions, women are also becoming entrepreneurs and opening up their own ventures. This is really inspiring. However, patriarchy still shadows us. I often say that from our society’s perspective, I have three disadvantages: being a woman, being young, and being a Hijabi.
I am lucky that my superiors always saw my experience rather than the supposed disadvantages that the society at large sees. As women leaders, we have the responsibility to keep the road clear and to keep motivating the next generation of women professionals. Only very few women are as fortunate as we have been, so it is our responsibility to show them that, indeed, their big dreams can be a reality.
Were there any persons who inspired you to get to where you are today? If so, please share in what way they inspired you.
There are many persons who inspired me to be here, including my parents, sisters, husband, in-laws and friends who all encouraged me to keep dreaming big. I have recently started attending a Master’s program, and now even my three-year-old son inspires me by saying, “Mom, go to school then you will become big”. To be candid, I have also found inspiration in the negative words spoken about me, as these pushed me to be better than I was.
You are quite prominent in the corporate world in that you actively share your legal expertise to various groups, through workshops and even on national television. Tell us – why do you do it and what do you hope for women to learn from it?
I like to interact with people and try to help them with my knowledge, which in turn also helps me be exposed to more diverse networks and be recognized. With my limited time, I prefer to have energetic interactions with young entrepreneurs who have so much passion and dedication to their crafts. In my home village, I also support a few educational institutions with my personal resources.
I try not to see myself as a woman professional; I would rather not have gender issues impact my activities. By sharing my knowledge and helping education thrive, I hope that both men and women learn something that they can use to progress themselves.
In your own words, how do you define success – both professionally and personally?
To me, success is about self-satisfaction. I do not have any specific goal that I want to achieve.
In my personal life, if I can be useful to my family and friends in any way, I will deem myself successful. In my professional life, as long as I am learning and contributing to my organisation, I am succeeding. If I can influence people in a positive way, surely that is the cherry on top.
I do not yet see myself setting altruistic goals as I am still working on becoming a better person.
It is very endearing to see you and your son having a very tight bond. How do you tackle your numerous professional duties while making sure that your son’s welfare is a top priority?
I tried to delay pregnancy as I was initially afraid of child rearing responsibilities. I did not want to compromise my career progression. When I finally became pregnant, I decided that I would not ever blame my child for any of my compromises. I promised to be a good manager of my own life. I worked until 2am or 3am when I was in my third trimester to finish all my pending work projects.
I am blessed to have a very good child who easily got accustomed to my lifestyle. My husband goes against the social norms as he almost equally bears responsibility for parenting activities.
I have to admit that it is not at all an easy job and I have to rely on my support system. The Almighty God has given me an angel in the form of my mother-in-law who takes care of my son. I am grateful to my mother and sisters for agreeing to baby sit whenever needed. Without all these support, I cannot imagine how I would have managed to ensure my son’s welfare at the same time that I attend to my professional responsibilities.
If you can give your son one piece of advice that would guide him through life, what would it be?
Learn to be independent — emotionally and financially. If you cannot help yourself, how can you be of help to others? Life is not easy; the world may not be heading anywhere better than where it is today.
I want to prepare him to face the world with his chin up, and I hope that he will have the confidence to make juice out of every lemon that life throws at him.
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