Navigating the ecosystem: stories of Pakistani women in tech

Posted April 26, 2022

© UNDP Pakistan / Shuja Hakim

More and more women need to occupy tech-spaces so they can be part of designing an inclusive future. To achieve this, it is essential that women are equipped with skills and knowledge to leverage the start-up and tech space. This not only gives equal opportunities for women and girls--hence achieving SDG 5--but will also have a ripple effect in achieving Agenda 2030.

Inability to do so can lead to discrimination and distrust of technology. For instance, there can be Algorithmic biases in the Artificial Intelligence system. An AI system learns to make decisions based on the training data provided. And if this data is fed by a homogenous group of people, it can carry forward their biases. This can stem gender biases, age discrimination, and racial prejudice.

Since 2019, UNDP Pakistan has been partnering with CIRCLE to support the annual She-Loves-Tech competition in Pakistan. She-Loves-Tech is the world’s largest start-up competition for women and technology. The platform seeks out and accelerates the best entrepreneurs and technology and provides them with an ecosystem of support--through funding and a network of global community. Over the last three years, UNDP has supported over 130 women-led tech-startups.

Last year we reached out to few of these entrepreneurs. We wanted to hear their stories, to learn how their start-ups were coping or improvising in the pandemic, and to gather insights what women in tech need in Pakistan. To this end, we travelled and met women entrepreneurs in Islamabad, Lahore, Faisalabad, Karachi, and Quetta. Here’s what we learned. 

Being an entrepreneur is a lonely journey

A common feeling shared by all women entrepreneurs was that being an entrepreneur is a lonely journey. Fortunately, spaces like She-Loves-Tech provide women in tech an ecosystem of support, where they meet similar start-ups, have access to mentors, refine their ideas, develop a business case, and address gaps in their knowledge. The ecosystem support increases confidence levels of the entrepreneurs and helps them position their start-up with the relevant audience.

“The ecosystem support was a stepping-stone in becoming confident, and learning how to phrase and share my pitch,” shared Areeba Zehra from Live Natural.

Areeba also emphasized the importance of long-term mentorship, especially with mentors who are willing to work on the idea into the expansion phase. Her start-up Live Natural is an e-commerce marketplace for anyone looking for all natural and organic products.

Technical know-how is important

For a start-up to be successful, it is essential that the entrepreneur should have technical knowledge of raising investments, legal systems and copyrights issues.

Maria Ata, who leads Love for Data, a data science consultancy company, shared that it was difficult for their clients to understand the technology behind their start-up (data science and Artificial Intelligence) and to trust that their data was safe with her start-up. She added that as they were scaling, they felt it was important to have strong legal knowledge and structures in place to build credibility with their clients.

Aruj Khaliq, who leads Alif, a digital learning platform, shared that it’s important to hire a team that understand how the legal system works and implications of certain actions. For example, plagiarism is very common, and its crucial to understand how copy-rights work—your rights and your clients’ rights.

Zartaj Ahmed, who leads Pakistan Space Science Education Center (PSSEC) a tech-start-up that offers hands-on and project-based learning experiences around Space Science, emphasized the importance of having an accounting background. This includes knowing mindset of the investors and defending the numbers. She also shared her experience of facing discrimination, as tech has been a space mostly dominated by men. And as most investors are also men, they trust their men counterparts more. This needs to change, and a starting step can be acquiring financial training and skills to negotiate a deal.

Policy support can make the ecosystem conducive

Waste is an issue that is ignored by everyone. Trash It is a social enterprise that is working on minimizing waste, recycling organic waste in Karachi. Since 2019 they have made compost from 300,000 kgs of organic waste. Close to 500 Kgs of waste is composted at their facility daily.

Anusha Fatima, who leads the start-up shares that they are only working in their capacity to manage waste, and there need to be more enterprises out there working on this issue. For that to happen, the waste management ecosystem needs a proper infrastructure where waste is collected in segregated form. A policy shift can also lead to a behavior shift and encourage citizens to participate and segregate waste at the source.

Social-enterprises pivoted their approach in COVID-19

As the pandemic started, many social enterprises digitized their work and shifted operations on the Cloud. But for few, the pandemic presented an opportunity to start new enterprises. Zartaj Ahmed, who originally participated in She-Loves-Tech from PSSEC’s platform, segued it into another start-up QriosityNet.

“Ed-tech was not the focus of investors. It had to make business sense. And the pandemic made it easy,” said Zartaj

During the pandemic, their team surveyed and learnt two things—education was being impacted, especially for students who were planning to start their undergraduate degree, and that GENZ is comfortable with technology. The new start-up is focusing on STEM education with a blended learning model and a self-paced approach.

Believe in your ideas

It was inspiring that all the women entrepreneur we met exuberated passion and perseverance.

“Let the world tell you that you can’t do it. If you feel it’s right, you might be the first one doing it”, said Aruj Khaliq.

One start-up lead Eesha tur Razia Babar highlighted that women entrepreneur have great ideas, but they often don’t participate in tech conferences and competitions.

“You need to put your ideas out there, and take part in conferences and events, to get that exposure,” urged Eesha.

Eesha’s start-up Shama-e-Zindagi (literally means light of life) is working on automating the process of monitoring patients in Intensive Care Units and Critical Care Units of government hospitals to reduce burden on nurses and other medical staff. Their prototype is at a testing stage.

“If you’re starting a business, it will take time and you must be strong. You’re going to face a lot of challenges. People will stay it can’t be done. If you believe in your idea, you’ll learn and grow. Take your failure as a learning journey”, Areeba advised aspiring women entrepreneurs.

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Story by: Tabindah Anwar, Communication Associate, Communications Unit, UNDP Pakistan.

Edited by: Ayesha Babar, Communications Analyst & Head of Communications Unit, UNDP Pakistan.