A Conversation with Hafsa Shorish, Program Manager of PlanX

By Zain Peracha on
October 14, 2014
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Two years ago, hardly anybody in Pakistan knew about Lean Startups, entrepreneurship, pitches, investment, investors, angel funding etc but now even high school students are aware of that, all thanks to Plan9, Pakistan’s largest tech incubator.
Plan9 has changed mindset of the young lot of the country and when we talk about the brains behind Plan9, we can’t miss a name that is Hafsa Shorish.

Hafsa emerged as a super star leading the marketing and public relations of the incubator. It was due to her unconventional skills and strategies, Plan9 became a phenomenon in the country. People started linking the two words entrepreneurship and Plan9. Even today whenever there is a successful startups that comes to spotlight, it’s somehow wired in our sub conscious that it was associated with Plan9 in the past.

When the news reached to us that Plan9 is working on an offshoot accelerator program PlanX and Hafsa Shohrish is going to lead it. We knew we wanted to talk to her, not because it’s a new role but because Hafsa is an outsider in the tech industry and she has come a long way.

We wanted to know more about her journey, her struggles, how she achieved what she has so far and most importantly what it feels like taking the responsibility of success of so many startups.

1. Well, why don’t you begin by introducing yourself?

I’ve studied from Kinnaird College where I did my Undergraduate B.Hons in Media Studies (Journalism). I have always taken life as it comes, I am not the kind of person who will sit down and plan for next 5 years.
I did a few jobs related to my field, after studies, and then Plan9 happened. Initially, I thought I am at the wrong place but in retrospect I can honestly tell that it was the best decision I ever made. Now I’m heading PlanX, as a move from Plan9 where I was one of founding team members. Here at PlanX, I’ve taken more of a Managerial position and I am presently handling a team of 7-8 people.

2. So, as a woman working in the tech industry, have you faced any problems or issues?

Surprisingly, I haven’t faced any challenges, I actually believe everybody irrespective of their gender welcomes women. At least that’s what I’ve seen. There is no entry barrier for women in tech and I believe if you’re a girl and aspiring to become a part of this sector you shouldn’t think twice. Since I was never from this field (in terms of education), I had a perception of the field somewhat similar to that of a closed box. I would like to add that I worked very hard to facilitate the change. I read blogs, researched and read articles, books and journals in order to gather the necessary knowledge and build my skill set.

I’ve been all over Punjab speaking about our mission, vision and creating awareness. In most of the institutions I visited, the audience would be all boys and they’d be incredibly surprised to see me. But when I spoke, everybody fell silent with the occasional applause.

3. Would you categorize technology as a more advanced sector in terms of fields between feminism and humanism?

I would like to bring in my friends from Kinnaird here who are completing their M.Phil and are completely challenged for options to move forward. It’s the typical: academia, fashion. Even if you get in to academia, it takes a very long time to progress. As a sector, I would say that IT has a lot of opportunities for everyone. Even I, personally, went from being a Marketing and PR Manager to being a Program Manager. Hard-work is an implied part of the mixture towards success though, the field has never failed to challenge me and I’ve always been able to deliver, thankfully.

4. You told us you didn’t have any experience regarding start-ups until you joined Plan9. How do you justify your ability to fulfill the duties of Program Manager?

Personally, I think I have made a lot of effort. I didn’t take this job to fit in to something, I had always been very strong with my communications – I’d held the Head Girl position back in college and even back in High School I was running the school magazine. It was always about leadership and even when I was the Marketing and PR Manager, it was all very comfortable for me. It was a small project and it taught me a lot. On top of that, I have intensively studied the concepts of acceleration and incubation and it’s all of that combined which is what makes me perfect for this job. I believe every good team needs diversity and there’s so much I’ve learned from my fellow team-members. I never thought after college I would come and work in this industry.

5. How would you categorize the benefits (ease) and the difficulties of developing a start-up?

With the advent of all of these incubation and acceleration programs, things have become a lot easier but there still exist numerous challenges in the field. The largest of which is the fact that what determines the success or failure of the start-up from the very first day is “the right team”. Most people don’t manage to find the right team and this issue extends not only to single-founder start-ups but even to the co-founded ventures we’ve seen. Even though the programs developing around us have given a boost to the industry; I would say that hardly 10% of the population actually knows about it. I believe a great thing we’ve done is create awareness and the importance of that cannot be underestimated. That was always the mission of Plan9, to create awareness; and that is what we hope to do on a more advanced scale with PlanX.

6. You have been associated with Plan9 from the very first day, do you agree that the success ratio of startups in Pakistan is very low (at present)? If so, why?

It is, it is very low. But the good thing is that at least it’s happening at the pace it is which I would say is very good for now. Things are moving ahead, an ecosystem is developing and I’m very happy to see the step that universities have taken into this field. There are so many expatriates showing interest and they call us to ask how they can help. I would say that although the success isn’t that high – maybe 3 to 4 prominent startups every year – but there are so many who avoid the press or ignore these programs altogether and they always get left out of the limelight: for better or for worse.

7. With relevance to the people coming from fields such as Marketing, Management and Finance; how would you describe the industry potential?

Oh, they shouldn’t ever consider it a handicap. You don’t have to major in Computer Sciences to get an idea. Some of the largest names in the field with the most successful startups don’t have any CS background whatsoever. With entrepreneurship, it’s the “idea” that forms the basis for your venture and that idea isn’t bound by the limitations of your university major or your age. Anyone with an Economics, Psychology or Literature major who would like to solve an issue we face each and every day will find nothing but co-operation in this industry. A good startup, as I’ve said should be a good mix.

“The right mindset and the right team”

8. What’s keeping Pakistani investors from investing in local startups?

I know this is a very cliche answer; but political instability, security and the lack of a legal infrastructure. These things do take time irrespective of how hard-working or devoted you are and it’s an issue everyone is fighting; doctors, teachers, scientists. What I believe, however, is that it does have the potential. People are slowly showing interest and despite the fact that the fruit of our labor might go to someone else five years from now, we’ll always know that we helped lay the foundation for what the industry is developing in to.

9. How is PlanX different from the other accelerators in Pakistan and how do you intend to further differentiate yourself?

This sounds very corny but it’s the fact that we’re working on a zero-equity model. We’re charging absolutely nothing; so right now, if you register for PlanX, you have nothing to lose. I don’t believe anyone can beat that unless they’re filthy rich and incredibly benevolent.

10. We’d love to hear more about what PlanX has in store for applicants. How would you describe your own accelerator program, with particular stress on what makes your program different to all the others?

We’ve been working and researching on the program for several months and it’s catered to serve individually to each venture. We’ve made reports on individual startups, we’ve had meetings with them where we’ve discussed the different acceleration programs all over the world to understand how they work and how they perform. It is for that reason that we’ve also separated our induction process which has now turned in to more of an interview process.

We’re only targeting the serious ones. The ones committed to perform up to their maximum ability. We’ve tried to filter out the ones competing just for the sake of competition and the ones that are uninterested in the program and we’ve tried to help them form a team where they lack the abilities themselves by signing them up with people that possess the required background. Above and beyond the conventional laptops and spaces offered, we’ve strongly tried to understand the nature of these ventures, what makes them tick and what gives them a push when they need it. This is why we’re focusing on the program itself.

The two essentials for us are customer acquisition and investment. These are the ways we have identified to give any start-up the value they require. And another thing we’re focusing on is hiring a number of Business Development Associates and Business Strategists who are in turn focusing on developing the market leads and helping our ventures focus in that direction.

Even if we do associate ourselves with academia, it’ll be towards the research department and the development side of the process.

In one word, customisability.

11. Internationally successful institutions like The Founder Institute are beginning to identify Pakistan as a potential market. How does it impact local programs? Does it threaten or promote competition?

I believe that competition is always good. It will not only improve the grade of performance for the local industry but will also bring more awareness to the field locally and to Pakistan’s IT Sector globally. The technological industry is just like all of the other everyday industries we come across, we see new brand names come in on a daily basis and we see them move the industry forward.

12. Personally speaking, how do you see yourself growing further into the industry from your present position as Program Manager? What are your own plans?

Honestly, I never really saw myself here and I can’t honestly narrow down where and when I’ll go. As of now, I’m very happy with what I’m doing and I love the space I have. Family is very important to me and it will always be a priority.

13. Any particular message you would like to voice to our readers? Advice, motivations?

“Those of you who don’t read, start reading. Learn to differentiate between good and bad content”

It’s important to maintain a complete understanding over the concept of entrepreneurship. It is very very challenging and the truth is it’s emotionally taxing; it takes away so much from you. It rejuvenates you. Before you become an entrepreneur, it is important to do your own due diligence.

One of my own favorite quotes is: “The greater the artist, the deeper the humility.” And it’s a principle to believe in if you ever want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Our signature question is prepared to throw these composed individuals off their balance, let’s see how Hafsa fared…

14. Why did the chicken cross the road?

“Hahaha, because it wanted to cross the road? It should be able to do what it wants without being questioned”

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