Innovation Spotlight: A Conversation with Masrura Oishi (MALD '21)

Masrura Oishi

Founder and CEO of Baak

In a recent interview with Masrura Oishi, Founder and CEO of Baak, she discusses the experience of starting up a new company dedicated to improving the lives of women in Bangladesh through the creation of a virtual mentoring network. Learn more about Baak here.

When did you begin building Baak, and what inspired you?
We started working on Baak in January 2021. This was just a few weeks after my father’s death. And while I was still grieving, I realized how short and unpredictable life can be, and I rediscovered his role in my life as a mentor. I’d been meaning to launch a mentorship network for years, and at that point, I decided I did not want to delay it any further.

I started talking to friends about this problem of the “confidence and opportunity gap” that women face at all stages of their lives and careers. We wanted to work with the girls and women who were at that age when my friends and I felt the most vulnerable. Schools were closed for 18 months in Bangladesh during the pandemic, and this meant young adolescent women were confined to their homes. We started looking at literature and talking to my ex-colleagues from the development sector. But still, we did not have any set date or structure in mind.

Then, in August 2021, an18-year-old Bangladesh girl took her own life because her parents, despite having the means, refused to enroll her at a private university in Dhaka. Instead, they forced her to go to a local college. She thought she had no future. At that time, we had been talking about our work with an incredible woman who went to the same local college as this 18-year-old and who had worked in reputable non-profits and startups. And I thought to myself, “If we could have connected the two of these women, could we have prevented this?” I feel like we could have.

That night I wrote the first concept note for the business, gave it a name, and that was the birth of Baak. We went with mentorship because it was something we could readily offer. Mentorship is not our solution, but a pedagogy to test our assumptions about this problem.

What has the start-up journey been like?
It has been quite a challenge to manage a team remotely. But every single door we knocked on, we heard back from. We always had more people willing to help than we could organize, or more partnership offers than what we could manage. This was a problem that resonated with every professional woman I spoke to. They wanted to be a part of it. I invited a former colleague of mine who is also an international celebrity and very famous in Bangladesh. She agreed to be our keynote speaker for the orientation, despite having COVID at the time. We could tell we were doing something that is needed, just by that response alone.

When we launched, we wanted to focus on what is important and absolutely essential. We did not have any funds, so we did not spend a lot of time on marketing. Rather, we focused on targeted messaging that would take us closer to our target audience through recommendations. We included young adolescent women on our advisory committee who actively worked with us in setting up the initial conversations, designing the entire experience, keeping in mind different personalities and also testing a few quick prototypes with friends.

And many of my former colleagues took on an active role in “getting things done,” which can be more valuable than advice for start-ups.

What have been some of the most difficult challenges and rewarding moments?
I think the most difficult challenge has been finding funds that would enable us during the problem-framing phase. Most want to fund a solution. If you are honest about your assumptions of the problems, and especially if you are a woman, people generally find you less convincing in your work. Also, managing a group of mentors across different time zones (five continents) has been another challenge, all while managing a remote team based in multiple countries. Our fundraising team is split between the U.S. and Australia, while our operations team is based in Bangladesh.

In addition to that, deciding between scale and quality has been a huge challenge. We could only take 30% of our applicants. We wanted to cater to more, but we also didn’t want to stretch ourselves too thin.

I think one particularly rewarding moment was when one of our mentees first shared that she actually grew up in a slum, where her family still lives, a fact that she always hid from her classmates. She felt safe to share it, and she realized her experience would be valuable to her fellow mentees as well. The fact that the Baak experience made her confident in her skin, and so early in the process, was an incredibly rewarding moment. Similarly, seeing Baak mentees changing their majors, deciding to take on bolder goals, including restarting their undergrad degrees, has been immensely inspiring for us.

What is the status of your business today?
We completed our first cohort of mentees in July 2022. 87% of our mentees reported they feel more confident because of their Baak experience, and 100% mentioned recommending Baak to a friend. In our current cohort, we have 26 mentees and 20 mentors. We received $10,000 USD from The Derby Entrepreneurship Center at Tufts University. We also secured partnerships with The Edward M. Kennedy Center, Bangladesh, as well as nine local organizations. In June, we also launched a Baak mental health fund to enable Baak mentees to access quality mental health care, as well as to normalize their attitude towards it.

What’s your long-term goal for Baak?
We are Bangladesh’s first end-to-end mentoring platform. We want to build a global network of Bangladeshi women who support each other and take a collaborative approach while doing so. In 2023, we are launching a new platform that will serve both our mentee and mentor demographics.

How did your time at Fletcher shape or impact your efforts to create this new company?
I think my Fletcher experience shaped key design components of Baak. It also developed my ability to prototype a virtual mentoring model as part of my coursework. Conversations with my Fletcher friends as well as professors were crucial to deciding our methodology and policy for Baak operations. Courses and classroom experiences helped me rediscover the gender power dynamic as well as learn new frameworks for inclusive design and measurable impact. Fletcher also provides an excellent environment for existing as well as aspiring social entrepreneurs to think in a more cross-disciplinary manner.

How are you feeling about Demo Day?
I am super excited and nervous to present in front of so many people on Demo Day. But I also feel confident because of the immense training and mentorship we received as part of this cohort. I was genuinely pushed out of my comfort zone several times, and I think this training will stay with me for life.