Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The man who would reimagine Pakistan

Published in Nov-Dec 2016
Muhammad Azfar Ahsan, CEO, Nutshell Forum, in profile.

If you attend corporate or HR conferences on a regular basis, the chances are that you will recognise Muhammad Azfar Ahsan. That is because Ahsan is CEO and Founder of Nutshell Forum, one of Pakistan’s prominent conference management companies.

When I first spoke to Ahsan to schedule an interview, I asked him for a short profile. Going through it, I noted that it was replete with buzzwords such as ‘change activist’, ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘thought leader’. This led me to think I was going to meet someone who would be rather hyperactive and effusive in nature and more than a little full of himself.

However, when I met him at the Aurora offices, I was more than a little surprised. Wearing a crisp navy blue shalwar kameez and waistcoat, with Peshawari chappals (a uniform of sorts that he has set for himself I am told by those in the know, not to mention his photos on Facebook with the who’s who of the corporate world, HR specialists and politicians), Ahsan wasn’t particularly hyper, although he professed to be several times during the interview; in fact, one could even term him as rather sedate. He apologised for being late, saying that his tardiness was due to a traffic jam, and is not his “style”.

As for being full of himself, he was, in fact, less than a little forthcoming when it came to answering questions about himself, but more than happy to talk about his work – or as he calls it, his “passion.” As it turned out, Ahsan has quite a few “passions.”


“I had very little capital,” he remembers, “but the economy was improving, and there was growth in the industry. We delivered some outstanding events that have become brands in their own right, and we have been trendsetters in many ways.”


The first, of course, is his major area of work – Nutshell Forum, an event management company which he says is the market leader in the field. His journey into event management seems to be a fairly simple one. After graduating from the University of Karachi, he held a total of three jobs; the first was at a subsidiary of Blazon Advertising as Marketing Manager; the second, as Assistant Vice President Marketing at Pathfinder Group (“I worked with Ikram Sehgal who is like a father to me”), followed by a stint at Jubilee General Insurance (“it was a big company, but they weren’t very aggressive at the time”).

Each of these jobs lasted approximately a year, after which Ahsan formed Nutshell – to pursue his “passion”. He began the organisation with a single desk, which was broken, a computer, a printer and a fax machine.

“I had very little capital,” he remembers, “but the economy was improving, and there was growth in the industry. We delivered some outstanding events that have become brands in their own right, and we have been trendsetters in many ways.”

The journey was not easy, especially given the fact that during the mid-2000s, there were countless strikes that brought Karachi to a halt at the last minute and led to the cancellation of many of Nutshell’s events.

Despite this, Ahsan persevered. “This was a learning experience and despite huge cash flow issues we maintained continuity.”

Since then, Nutshell Forum has organised more than 400 national and international conferences, seminars and training workshops in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Dubai, Singapore and Bahrain since its inception in 2003. Many of these are now annual events, including the Asia Management Conclave, “Pakistan’s biggest corporate conference,” held in Lahore; The Leaders Summit, “the biggest leaders’ conference in Pakistan” in Islamabad, and the annual Women Leadership Summit which began last year.

Ahsan says that people refer to him as the “guru of conferences in Pakistan” although he is quick to add that “I am still a student of conference management” and points out that compared to conferences that are held overseas, Pakistan has a long way to go.


For Ahsan, this book is a vehicle that will highlight the positive aspects of Pakistan – he is very patriotic (“we are nothing without Pakistan... and my tagline is ‘Prosperous Pakistan’”) and believes that Pakistan has loads of untapped potential, and the book will highlight this and in the process, help “change the narrative of Pakistan abroad."


While conferences and events are Ahsan’s bread and butter, he has recently embarked on the publishing of a book about Pakistan on the lines of Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works and Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia’s Next Superpower.

“A friend gave me Reimagining India in 2014, which highlighted the true potential of India; I thought it was a lovely book. I was in India at the time, and the next day, I met one of my dear friends Adil Zainulbhai, Chairman of Mckinsey India, whom I consider my older brother; he mentioned the book and autographed my copy and we discussed it at length. I spoke with another friend at Harvard, and slowly the book began to take shape.”

The book is now underway, and will include 15 essays from Pakistani writers, 40 essays by “Global CEOs of MNCs, world leaders, writers, cultural luminaries, foreign policy experts and members of the academia”; there are chances that Prince Charles may also write for the book.

For Ahsan, this book is a vehicle that will highlight the positive aspects of Pakistan – he is very patriotic (“we are nothing without Pakistan... and my tagline is ‘Prosperous Pakistan’”) and believes that Pakistan has loads of untapped potential, and the book will highlight this and in the process, help “change the narrative of Pakistan abroad.”

In Ahsan’s opinion “people lobby for their countries but no one lobbies for Pakistan – a country that is everything for us.”

Such is his passion for Pakistan that he points out that he has travelled the world extensively, including a “state visit to Washington” and that although he has had offers to work abroad he will not consider them. This is mainly due to his love for Pakistan as well as the fact that he believes that he will always be treated as a second rate citizen elsewhere.

“Our mountains and beaches are comparable to the best in the world, we have flavour in our fruit – and although their export rates are low, the potential, like everything else in our country is very high,” he says.

Given Ahsan’s line of work, and the fact that he frequently refers to many prominent industry people as “close friends”, it is clear that he has exceptional people skills. He does, to an extent, admit to having these, albeit a little hesitantly, but mentions that he loves meeting people (“I used to go to three dinners in one night”), but has become less sociable of late (“Someone told me that ‘you don’t go anywhere but people come to you’”). He traces this zest for socialising to his days as a student at St Patrick’s, which had a diverse student body, and led him to meet and interact with people from different neighbourhoods of Karachi.

Although he is not very forthcoming when it comes to talking about personal facets of his life, he does admit to having a “passion for music”, and is a fan of Lata Mangeshkar (“I spoke to her once and we ended up in tears”), Mohammed Rafi, Abida Parveen, Nayyara Noor and Habib Wali Mohammed.

Given his patriotism and zest for improving the country, not to mention the fact that he rubs shoulders with people from the political arena regularly, as is apparent from his Facebook feed, I ask Ahsan whether or not he will venture into politics as our conversation comes to a close.

“Yes and no,” he replies with a smile. I am not surprised by this, given that Ahsan clearly likes to be a bit of an enigma, and keeps his cards close to his chest.

Mamun M. Adil is Manager, Business Development and Research, DAWN. mamun.adil@gmail.com