Women in South Asia face societal constraints and discrimination based on deeply entrenched values and perceptions about women’s role in the society which in turn significantly impacts their entry into businesses. Women still own less than 10 percent of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in South Asia. Unfortunately, Pakistan is no exception in this regard.
Study conducted by the United Nations indicates that one third of the over 30 million working aged women in Pakistan are deemed economically active. Out of them, almost 80 percent of working women in the region are in vulnerable employment. Owing to deep-rooted gender disparities pertaining to availability of opportunities and resources, only a small number of women in Pakistan are able to start and sustain an entrepreneurial venture.
The alarming state of affairs definitely calls for a strong and vibrant entrepreneurship ecosystem in the country.
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Over the past few years, a significant increase in the entrepreneurial activity has been observed. The entrepreneurship ecosystem is thriving in Pakistan relatively, which could have been next to impossible without the contribution of women who comprise of a larger chunk of the country’s population. Gender inclusiveness, without doubt, influences the entrepreneurial landscape positively.
On this Women’s Day, we celebrate some of the most extraordinary, successful and inspiring women tech-entrepreneurs who, despite all odds, proved their mettle and continue to contribute to flourishing entrepreneurial ecosystem in Pakistan. They stand as inspiration and strong role models for every aspiring entrepreneur and constitute a healthy and innovative business community in Pakistan.
It is undeniably true that, without successful women entrepreneurs, vibrant ecosystems cannot exist and flourish. Here is a list of some of the most dynamic women entrepreneurs who are rocking the tech and entrepreneurship scene of Pakistan.
Nighat Daad – Founder, Digital Rights Foundation
Nighat Daad was always sensitive and heedful to the vulnerability of young girls and women in the online space. This is why Nighat founded the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) in Pakistan realizing the need to prevent the increasing instances of cyber violence against women.
Through her non-profit platform, she conducts awareness sessions for women to educate and train them about privacy and online security. Her endeavors to raise awareness about global rights and online privacy and thereby protecting women from online harassment have been widely appreciated and acknowledged.
For her remarkable work, she also received global recognition and thus was deservingly added to the list of Time’s Next Generation Leaders. Nighat Daad has won the 2016 Human Rights Tulip award, Atlantic Council Digital Freedom Award and launched Pakistan’s first cyber harrasment helpline on 1st December, 2016.
She is also very vocal against the laws that allow government to check the right to freedom of expression and privacy of an ordinary internet surfer. Not just that, she is simultaneously been partaking in extensive campaigns against the internet surveillance of intrusive nature and dissemination of personal information to state agencies and businesses without individual prior approval. She believes, “As a leader, you have to envision a future you believe in, and that is what I am doing.”
Kulsoom Lakhani – Founder/CEO, Invest2Innovate
Kulsoom Lakhani has become a force to be reckoned within Pakistan’s entrepreneurial landscape. She is the Founder and CEO of Invest2Innovate – one of Pakistan’s leading startup accelerators. i2i’s accelerated startups have gone on to raise $1 million in funding and have created over 1000 jobs. Apart from offering her services in her native Pakistan, Kulsoom has also trained young entrepreneurs and leaders in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ireland, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
Following a Masters in International Relations from George Washington Universty, Kulsoom has gone on to become a Washington, D.C. co-ambassador for Sandbox – a global network of innovators under 30, and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers. She has also been featured in Diplomatic Courier’s Top 99 Foreign Policy Leaders under 33 in 2012, and was named an Ashoka Changemakers/American Express Emerging Innovator for 2013.
Momina Rajput – Head of Digital Accelerator, Telenor Velocity
Early last year, Telenor launched their very own Digital Accelerator called Velocity and spearheading it is the ambitious Momina Rajput. After a stint as the Assistant Manager of Business Transformation, Momina has now been tasked with helping budding startups go to market using Telenor’s wide array of resources like digital distribution and API Platform, online payment solutions, and data analytics.
In over a year since its launch, Momina has been at the forefront of Velocity mentoring startups like Fori Mazdoori, Interacta, doctHERs, and Edjunction.
Maria Umer – Founder/President, Women’s Digital League
Maria Umer is a woman with a futuristic vision. After her observation that a majority of Pakistani women are not part of our workforce due to various reasons, Maria founded Women’s Digital League – an organization which works to empower women by connecting them with digital work. With WDL, Maria’s aim is to first and foremost create educational opportunities for girls in under-privileged areas, then form training and work centers to equip them with the right skills, and lastly to provide them with a platform where they can work and become an earning member of their family.
In the 8 years since Women’s Digital League has been operational, it has been featured by popular websites like Forbes and Mashable, and has received certifications from Thunderbird School’s Project Artemis and Goldman Sachs’ 10k Women Program. She has recently been associated with WomenX program of World Bank to train women in business, digital and entrepreneurship skills.
Samar Hasan – Head of Communications, Karandaaz Pakistan
As Pakistan gears up for the Fintech revolution, Samar Hasan is one of the women at it’s forefront. In her role as the Head of Communications at Karandaaz Pakistan, she is striving to promote fintech and financial inclusion in the country.
In her over 12 years of work experience, Samar has been a part of several funded projects under USAID, DFID, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Moreover, she has also been a part of the Aga Khan Foundation, Basil Fuleihan Foundation, International Organization for Migration, and Geneva Center for Security Policy to name a few. She was also one of the core members who established the liberal arts and sciences university in Karachi, called Habib University.
Samar is also very passionate about entrepreneurship and women empowerment and has worked on various funded entrepreneurial initiatives.
Hafsa Shorish – Director, PlanX
When it comes to entrepreneurship in Pakistan, the nation’s largest technology incubator Plan9 can never be overlooked since it has been contributing immensely to fostering the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the country.
Plan9’s offshoot accelerator program PlanX that was established to support the mid-stage startups is another landmark in flourishing the entrepreneurial culture. When we talk about the Plan9 and/or PlanX, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the brains behind its success. When Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) launched the Plan9, Hafsa Shorish was one of its first hire and thus one of its founding members. Since then, she has been playing a crucial role in grooming job creators instead of job seekers initially at Plan9 in capacity of Marketing and PR Manager and afterwards by leading the PlanX as Program Manager.
Coming from a background in media studies, the multi-talented Hafsa Shorish is changing the lives of thousands of techies despite being a non-techie herself. With her exceptional communication skills, she has visited all over Punjab speaking about the mission of her accelerator and incubator while also creating awareness about the importance of entrepreneurship. She believes, “It takes the right mindset and the right team to lead a startup to matchless success.”
Meenah Tariq – Accelerator lead at Invest2Innovate
A Fullbright scholar boasting a degree in strategy and entrepreneurship from Babson College, Meenah Tariq is contributing to building a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem in Pakistan as Accelerator Lead at Pakistan’s business startups accelerator Invest2Innovate.
Starting her first entrepreneurial venture, at the tender age of eight, of selling hand-made bracelets door-to-door, the young women knew no bounds and went on to claim a diverse portfolio of multiple startups to her name. Meenah Tariq has a vast experience of businesses and startups as a serial entrepreneur. In addition to that, she has also engaged in consultancy, financial analysis and project management.
At invest2innovate, Meenah Tariq has been leading the accelerator and consulting entrepreneurs and not-for-profit startups. With her impressive expertise in the areas of business plan development, she renders consultancy on managerial and strategic skills to young entrepreneurs. Her past experience includes design and execution of the marketing research campaigns for various products and services. Through her work, she has been successfully partaking in the social and economic uplift of the country with special focus on youth empowerment and capacity-building. In addition to that, she is also teaching Entrepreneurship at NUST, Islamabad.
Maryam Mohiuddin – Director, Social Innovation Lab
The strong headed and comfortably selfless, Maryam Mohiyuddin is the founder and director of Social Innovation Lab (SIL) which is a social enterprise incubator housed at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
A lawyer with as prestigious alma mater as University of Berkeley, she is of the opinion that she finds more fun and meaning in contributing to social justice and prosperity through working at SIL than she would at a 9 to 5 job that she had to forgo in order to come back to serve Pakistan. The SIL, that houses the social enterprise incubator called ‘The Hatchery’, is a centre for social innovation in Pakistan which has different wings including the Community Engagement Wing in addition to the Consultancy and Research Wing.
Maryam was also the co-founder of a magazine called ‘Literaty Pakistan’ which had a whole section devoted to social entrepreneurship that explored redress of social dilemmas through innovative solutions. Through SIL, Maryam Mohiyuddin provides the socially driven entrepreneurial startups not only mentorship and investment opportunities but also ideas with a testing platform, building connections and a nurturing environment.
Farieha Aziz – Director, BoloBhi
One of the most staunch advocates and highly vocal about the right to freedom of expression, Farieha Aziz is Co-Founder and Director of Bolo Bhi (Speak up) and a Karachi-based journalist who writes for one of the leading daily newspapers of Pakistan.
Bolo Bhi is a not-for-profit organization engaging in advocacy, policy and research in the areas of gender rights, government transparency, internet access, digital security and privacy. Before working with Bolo Bhi, she worked at the Newsline as the Assistant Editor from 2007 to 2012. During that period, she also received the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008.
Fareiha Aziz is a petitioner in a case filed in Islamabad High Court on behalf of the Bolo Bhi against what she believes as the Government’s censorship of Internet and Internet regulation. In past, she has also served as amicus curiae in a case filed in the Lahore High Court that challenged the Youtube ban.
Sheba Najmi – Code for Pakistan
Running Pakistan’s chapter of Code for America. A good chunk of startups have come out of Code for Pakistan hackathons in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, and Karachi.
One of the most vibrant strategists and mentors, Sheba Najmi is the founder of Code for Pakistan which is non-profit initiative building a non-partisan civic innovation ecosystem to improve quality of life across Pakistan with a vision to increase civic engagement by encouraging the opening of government data, and supporting innovation in the public domain. Starting off her career as a TV Anchor in Pakistan to her eventful journey to the Silicon Valley, the dynamic Sheba Najmi has worked for Code for America as a 2012 fellow and Yahoo as the Lead Designer. She studied Symbolic Systems while investigating Humans and Computer interaction at the University of Stanford.
Sheba Najmi has also the privilege of being in the Board of Advisors of Go-Fig Solutions and a User Experience Design Instructor. In addition to providing consultancy services to the World Bank, she has remained part of several notable projects like “Honolulu Answers” and “Social Media handbook for Cities”.
Under her leadership, a good number of Startups have come out of the Code for Pakistan. A series of events under its ambit called Civic Hackathons have also been arranged in the capital cities including Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. The Hackathon is a gathering of a cross-functional group of people who come together to brainstorm about city-related problems and try to find tech-based solutions for them.
Jehan Ara – President P@SHA & The NEST I/O
Jehan Ara is President of all Pakistan Software Houses Association and heading NESTiO an incubator in Karachi.
A seasoned information and communication technology expert, motivator, entrepreneur and a social activist, Jehan Ara is one of the most prominent and widely known names in the tech industry of Pakistan. Starting her career as a journalist over 30 years ago, she holds a diverse experience of working in advertising, marketing, PR and communications before becoming involved in multimedia and interactive media. Since 2001, Jahan Ara is the President of the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), the representative trade body of IT and ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services) businesses in Pakistan.
Under her leadership, PASHA’s own technology incubator, The Nest I/O was established with Google and Samsung as its funding partners. The incubator supports in creating a networking, mentorship and investment opportunities for young entrepreneurs by providing an enabling and conducive environment. She is a prominent speaker, writer and a staunch advocate of legislation against cyber crimes, right to privacy and data protection. She is also collaborating with socially cohesive projects like Take Back the Tech and Women’s Virtual Network which are striving to eliminate all forms of violence against women and ensure women empowerment respectively.
Zainab Tariq – Project Manager, Plan9
Plan9 is Pakistan’s leading technology incubator. Ever since its inception Plan9 has incubated over 118 startups and in the process has formed an ecosystem to boost technology and entrepreneurship in the country. At the helm of Plan9 stands Zainab Tariq.
Zainab has a passion for creativity and bringing ideas into the real world. She is driven by innovative solutions and her job at Plan9 let’s her do just that. Zainab is deeply involved in the development and mentoring of the next generation of entrepreneurs and startups.
She has also taken the role of Co-Manager at Herself – a PITB initiative that encourages women to take on freelancing. Herself recently held a graduation ceremony for their second cohort and to-date has trained over 100 women in Pakistan.
Mehak Jamal – Program Manager, TechHub Connect
Mehak Jamal is a FAST graduate with a degree in Electrical Engineering, TechHub Connect probably isn’t the first place you would imagine her to be. But Mehak is breaking stereotypes in her role as the Project Manager of TechHub Connect which is Pakistan’s first ever co-working space designated for freelancers.
Prior to joining TechHub, Mehak has had diverse experience in product development and management, something she is putting to good use now. Tech Hub Connect is a Government of Punjab-supported initiative. The platform is continuation of initiatives for boosting up the entrepreneurial culture and supporting the technology ecosystem developed at the Arfa Software Technology.
Mehak’s aim at TechHub is not just to provide freelancers with an office space but start a positive conversation and initiate a work culture where people are willing to help others. She feels that this not only helps the freelancers individually but also positively contributes to Pakistan’s freelance community. Mehak also guides freelancers personally so that they are able to improve the quality of their work. To date, over 1 million dollars worth of work has been done TechHub Connect. Mehak is also the co-manager of Herself.
Updated and Edited by Maryam Dodhy.