When my older brother dropped me off at my host family’s home at 2 a.m. on a cold September night in 1997, I had no great plans for my life. I was in a new country, with a new culture and had made no new friends yet. I was scared and excited all at the same time. I was born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh. When I was 11 years old, I left home to go to a Cadet College. This is a boarding school run by the military with very strict rules. After graduating from high school, I decided I wanted to move to the United States to attend college. At the age of 17, I came to UW-Eau Claire to pursue my undergraduate degree in management information systems.
In four years at UWEC, I completed my degree, made many friends from all over the world (some of whom became lifelong friends) and learned a lot about myself. I also met my future wife, Beki, and we have been together now for 17 years.
So, because of UWEC, I have a great family, very good friends, and a broad education, which has helped me build my career.
After graduating in 2001 with a degree in MIS and right after the dot-com bust, no one was hiring in the IT sector, especially foreign students who required a work visa. But I didn’t give up. I found a part-time job at a call center making calls to people out of a phonebook trying to sell mortgages to them. It was a great experience for three months. During that time, I learned how to handle rejection. Out of every 100 calls I made, five would actually talk to me — and maybe one would come over to the office for an appointment. And that one person was a win for me.
“No matter how many rejections we get in life, we can’t stop believing in ourselves.”
And I didn’t. I believed in myself and I was adamant that I would be successful in this new country.
After the mortgage call-center gig, I took a help-desk job with higher pay at another company, which was owned by a large bank. One weekend I developed a software prototype with help from a former roommate of mine who is also a UWEC alum. The following Monday morning I showed the prototype to my boss and he was impressed. Even though we couldn’t use the software, he made a personal recommendation to the IT manager about me. Shortly thereafter I got an interview and an offer to work with visa sponsorship. This was great. I was moving up the chain.
"In order to get noticed, you need to do something different from your peers."
And this one weekend of creating a software prototype accelerated my professional career.
Three years later I was offered a senior software engineer position at the parent company, Wells Fargo. I thought I made it here because I tripled my salary with this new job. But life is about progression, so I continued to work hard and moved up quickly at Wells Fargo.
One night in 2004, I was feeling bored at home. I wanted to do something more besides my day job, so I printed a flier and posted it in our apartment’s laundry room. All the flier said was, “I fix computers." Two days later I got a call. A gentleman was having some issues with his laptop, so he called me and I was able to fix it (with the help of Google). He asked me how much I charged, so I made up a number and he wrote me a check. That $40 started my entrepreneurial journey.
I formed a company and called it NOCHALLENGE Technology. I started to get freelance projects and worked on those during nights and weekends for the next five years. Basically I worked at Wells during the day and did coding at night for NOCHALLENGE. It was exciting.
In 2009 I hired my first employee out of Dhaka, Bangladesh. I was scared. I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay his salary, but it all worked out. By 2014 NOCHALLENGE had grown to 25 employees, including U.S.-based team members. At that time I had to make a very tough decision. Should I continue my career at Wells Fargo or work full time on NOCHALLENGE? Beki and I had our son, Zayan, in early 2013, so now we had the financial responsibility of taking care of him as well. I wasn’t sure what to do: keep the stable job or jump into the unknown.
After consulting with my wife, I made the leap and quit my stable day job. I firmly believed that with the help of my team and support from my friends and family, we could make NOCHALLENGE a success story. It has been a year now since I left Wells and we have doubled our sales.
“Big rewards come with big risks.”
In 2014 I co-founded a nonprofit called TheFutureNow Foundation along with my sister-in-law, Heather Goserud (also a UWEC alumna and math major), to help female students in developing countries with scholarship and mentoring programs. We provide merit-based scholarships to female students pursuing higher education in science, technology, engineering and math. In 2014 we provided 15 scholarships, and in 2015 we are looking to fund 10 additional scholarships.
Do I know where I will be in 10 years? Not for sure, but I have a vague idea and a plan. Nothing is guaranteed in life.
But the key is that every day, at every living moment, we must give our best regardless of the outcome. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
I am very grateful to everyone at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire who has helped me shape my life today, including my advisers, professors, friends and anyone else who has played a big part in my life.
Thank you, UW-Eau Claire.
Zulfikar Ali — Class of 2001