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Lokvani Talks To Afsana Akhter

Ranjani Saigal

Afsana Akhter is the Director of Business Development at Medullan, Inc. – a rapid-growth IT services firm that provides innovative technology solutions to the U.S. Healthcare Industry. Medullan has organically grown a globally distributed software presence, while leveraging key business and technology partnerships. Afsana leads Medullan’s direct and channel sales efforts.  

Prior to Medullan, Afsana was the Director of Sales Engineering at Mazu Networks, where she grew and led a technical sales team as the company achieved its first $10 million in revenue. Previously, Afsana was at Cisco Systems where she worked on first generation VoIP and Data over Cable technologies. Afsana holds B.S. and M.Eng degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

Afsana serves on the Board of Indus Women Leaders and Health Promotion Limited and is actively involved with TIE-Boston. In her free time, Afsana enjoys outdoor activities, catching up with friends, and traveling to new places. Afsana is originally from Bangladesh and now lives with her husband in Somerville, MA.

Congratulations on being chosen as one of the top 10 “Women to Watch” by Mass HighTech? What does the recognition mean to you?

It is an honor to get this recognition. It seems like a validation of my efforts. I feel that my hard work is beginning to pay off.  It acknowledges my contribution to the profession and gives me the opportunity to be a representative of the high ambition of South Asians.

You were born in Bangladesh and spent much of growing years there. What motivated you to come to the United States?

While I was born in Bangladesh I came to the United States when I was only four. My parents moved to Maryland to do their PhD. While my father continued to live and work in the United States, my mother felt passionately about using her knowledge in public health to make a difference in Bangladesh. Her work has brought her the United Nations Population award. My parents are happily married and yet live on different continents, each pursuing their own ambition. It is a life style that non-south Asians find hard to comprehend.  I returned to Bangladesh  with my mother when I was nine years old.. We travelled often to the US to be with my father. After completing my O’ Levels and A’ Levels in Bangladesh I applied to colleges in the US. MIT gave me admission and a nice financial package, an offer I could not refuse. I came to MA in 1994 to attend MIT and have been in the Boston area since then.

I feel very privileged to have been able to spend much of my childhood in my homeland, immersed in my culture and religion and among close relatives. It has given me a very strong sense of belonging and a clear understanding of my heritage.

Could you describe your MIT experience for us?

I loved my time at MIT. MIT is a very diverse community and hence I felt no culture shock coming in from Bangladesh. At MIT there is diversity not only in terms of ethnicity and race but also in terms of personality and talent. It taught me to set a very high bar for myself while also giving me a dose in humility.  The depth and breadth of education I received was tremendous. Through my extracurricular endeavors with various student groups, I had an opportunity to develop skills in teamwork, communication, leadership, and time management.

You first job out of college was at Cisco. How did that experience help shape you professionally?

I was hired as an engineer to do system level design, integration and testing of emerging internet technologies such as Voice and Video over IP. I was fortunate to land this job for two reasons – first it gave me a holistic view of technology and secondly I worked under a great mentor who has provided guidance and support to me in all professional aspects of my life. I owe my success in a large measure to his support.

Despite being a success you quit Cisco and joined a startup. What prompted the move and how would you describe the experience?

I always wanted to work for a startup and when my mentor moved to a startup he recommended that I join. Working for a startup is a phenomenal experience. When you are at a startup you have the opportunity to stretch and grow in unexpected ways.  This start up was an exhilarating experience and I learned various aspects of sales, marketing, and product development through my hands on role in technical sales.  It was also a time I learned some of the hard lessons of life. I learned that  in order  to achieve goals and gain responsibility, demonstrating excellence is essential but not sufficient. One needs to build advocates and champions, make one’s goals known and then lobby for them and persevere..  I rose to the position of Director of sales engineering   had  and then had the chance to build and lead a team of engineers. My team and I helped the company achieve its first $10 million in revenue.

Could you describe your efforts at your current company?

I currently work for Medullan Inc. – a rapid growth IT services firm focused on the US Healthcare sector.This is a very exciting time in Healthcare. We are at the cusp of some momentous changes; there are a number of disruptive forces in play -- Consumerism, Personalized Medicine, and Globalization – to name just a few.

In my role as Director of business development at Medullan, I have the opportunity to work closely with healthcare providers, insurers, and emerging companies -- helping them apply technology to adapt their processes and information systems to be more efficient, scalable, and consumer oriented. Medullan’s solutions help patients communicate more effectively with their providers and their peers, in the areas of diabetes, behavioral health, wellness, and more. We have worked with companies like WebMD as well as the state of MA to provide healthcare quality and cost information to consumers – enabling them to make better health care decisions. What makes it even more exciting is that even at such an early stage, Medullan is already a global company and we have been tripling in size every year so far.

In addition to your professional accomplishments you have also contributed a lot to the Indus Women Leaders (IWL). Could you describe what you like about this organization and what you have done for the organization?

IWL is an organization that is very close to my heart --  I serve on its Board of Advisors. IWL is a non-profit organization that helps promote leadership among  South Asian women professionals.  At the work place one does not always find fellow South Asian women professionals.. IWL provides a friendly forum to discuss some of the unique challenges we face. It is also a great environment for finding mentors and mentees  and for developing  leadership skills.  I focus on sponsorship activities and am delighted that I was able to bring $40k worth of sponsorship  to help support IWL’s activities and growth.

Islam is often seen in the west as not being very supportive of women and yet your mother, grandmother and many others do not seem to see it in the same way and have accomplished so much.  Can you describe the situation for Muslim women in Bangladesh?

It is true that Bangladesh is over 90% Muslim and our religion is very much a part of our lives. However, among the educated population and in the professional and urban communities of Bangladesh, our religion does not pose an obstacle to women’s participation in the work place and to women’s advancement. My mother and grandmother are both devout Muslims as are many of my aunts, cousins and friends. Yet all of them are free to pursue any level of education and profession within Bangladesh. This definitely requires the support of one’s family and society. In more poverty struck environments, the challenge is to provide adequate education and health care for women. I hope Bangladesh will continue to provide an environment that allows women to succeed and will invest in uniformly supporting the health and education of all girls and women in the country.

What advice do you have for South Asians that may help them succeed in the world of technology and business?

It is important to understand our strengths and weaknesses. Once we know our weaknesses we can work on improving. I remember realizing at one point that my communications skills were not excellent and I worked towards improving it. That investment has paid off handsomely. In addition to developing critical skills and strengths, we have to partner with others who will complement our capabilities.

Set your sights high and remember, even if we work very hard and prove our competence and strengths, we cannot expect people to give us all we deserve on a gold platter. We have to speak up, make our goals and desires known, find advocates, and persevere until we get there.  We need to surround ourselves with great people that we can learn from and  establish mentors. Organizations like IWL and TIE are excellent places for us to seek support. These are also good organizations for us to gain leadership skills.
People with excellent understanding of technology and good business skills are rare to find. Gaining both skills will certainly put people on a fast track to success.

What are your goals for the future?

I would love to apply my technology and business skills to help develop the technology Industry in Bangladesh. In my current work with Medullan, we have already brought on Bangladeshi technical talent. That is just the beginning. With knowledge, training, and support, I’m sure Bangladesh’s technology sector can grow rapidly.
On the personal front, I always look for opportunities to spend more quality time with family and close friends. My husband and I hope to start a family one day.

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