Published in May-Jun 2021
You walk into a doctor’s consulting room and you are told you have cancer and require surgery. Would you think “Let’s do the surgery ASAP!” or “Oh gosh! The PASHA ICT Awards are in two weeks; I can’t miss those!” (even when the doctor reminds you it is a life and death situation). If you think the latter, you are most likely Jehan Ara, Founder, Nest I/O and former President, PASHA (Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT and ITES). Although this is her “stupid side” (Jehan Ara’s words – she had her surgery after the awards), it says a lot about her approach to work.
As I walk into The Nest’s empty office (everyone is working from home), I am guided towards the corner-end glass office, which is where the only signs of activity are. Jehan Ara is at her desk (packed with funky decoration pieces – I later learn she is a shopaholic, and has travelled so much and bought so much that there is “nothing left to buy”), laptop and mobile in front, feet up on a tiny ottoman and clad in a dark blue shirt and black pants.
She apologises for the mess (I do not see one) as her office is being packed up for her move out of The Nest. I had assumed she would be intimidating and difficult to have a casual chat with; she is, after all, one of the most well-known names in the IT industry, but she is the exact opposite. She is humble, patient and has a calm way of aptly putting a point across.
I ask if she always knew she wanted to be an entrepreneur and I am given a most refreshing response. “People say ‘Oh I knew I was going to be XYZ when I was four years old.’ Me? All I knew was I wanted to play games, play with my siblings and read comics. Growing up, I wanted to be a chemical engineer but only because my chacha was one and I thought it was cool.”
As it turned out, she found her passion in writing and communications (and advanced mathematics!). She inclined towards this direction when she was planning on pursuing an MBA from IBA, but was offered a job in Hong Kong (she was on vacation there) by a shipping company that wanted her to publish a monthly magazine for their internal staff.
“I knew nothing about shipping, so it was quite a challenge, besides which, I was one of the only female managers in the company. Yet, it turned out to be one of the best jobs I had and I learnt much more there than had I joined an MBA programme.”
Jehan Ara was born in Karachi and her family moved to Hong Kong when she was eight. When they moved back to Karachi, she did as well; her siblings were scattered around the globe and she thought someone ought to be with her parents. She has not regretted her move back once.
“My mother had lupus and was ill for 20 years and I was able to be there for her – technology allowed me to do that. She would be hospitalised for 10 to 12 days at a stretch and I would be with her. I always had my laptop, so clients never knew where I was. Had I stopped working, she would not have been happy because she would have felt she was depriving me of doing what I enjoyed.”
She adds that people often ask her if she misses having a companion because she never married, to which she says she does not. She cherishes the fact that she was able to spend time with her family and build a strong work community that has been there for her time and again. “After my surgery, which no one knew about until after it happened, people were calling to ask if I was okay and did I need money for medical expenses – who does that anymore? I was beyond grateful.”
Throughout our conversation, she reiterates the need for a supportive community, not just in the IT industry, but in every field, especially for youngsters. At The Nest, she says “we have built a community of about 1,000 founders who celebrate each other’s successes, support failures, are there for deaths of loved ones; it is a great community to be part of. There is a lack of trust in Pakistan, but these young people know they can trust each other and me. They can walk in here and ask for my time. These kids will take the ecosystem far and I live to see what they will do next.”
Before founding The Nest, Jehan Ara partnered with Zaheer Kidwai to start Enabling Technologies, which developed products like “the first-ever interactive CD ROM for Jafferjees.” When they started off, she suggested joining PASHA, where she found herself the only female company head, but she did not let this undermine her confidence. “I always made it a point to disagree where necessary.”
After she became President of PASHA, she put into place ideas she felt were needed. “There were not enough regular events for member companies and few people knew each other in the industry – there was little collaboration. We needed to grow and the only way to do so was either to grow the existing companies or form new ones.”
With this in mind, she started the PASHA Launchpad event, where young people could pitch business ideas to a panel of entrepreneurs. She also started the PASHA Career Expo as well as the PASHA ICT Awards.
In 2015, she decided to focus on the start-up ecosystem and founded The Nest, a groundbreaking and incredibly successful incubation centre aimed at encouraging young people to set up their own companies. “To date, 217 start-ups have gone through The Nest; some have succeeded, some not – but they have learnt so much.”
As she prepares to leave PASHA and The Nest, her next project is to raise funds and invest in a new start-up, Katalyst Labs – an accelerator program.
In her opinion, this is an important new direction. She says when The Nest started, incubation was the need of the hour, now what is required is acceleration. Her objective is to engineer a “deep-dive focus on moving to the next level and toward specific areas, such as agritech, education technology, fintech and healthcare, – areas that are solving business as well as social problems at the same time.” The other focus will be on running a women’s fellowship programme aimed at developing women leaders in business.
Speaking about her own experiences as a woman in the industry, she says that in Pakistan, although people treated her with respect, “when you are the only woman in a room full of 100 men, you feel out of place… whether they were smoking cigars or talking about golf, I was excluded from those conversations and had to try extra hard to initiate conversations that included me. As I grew into my position, it was easier because I would aggressively tell them that ‘Hey! This does not include me. So let’s talk about something else,” she says while laughing. She adds that the industry is now more welcoming to women with flexible timings, day-care centres and better transport options.
When it comes to other interests, she enjoys musicals, science-fiction and detective films and anything lawyer-related (“I love trying to figure out what is going to happen”) and medical shows like House. Frank Sinatra, The Bee Gees and The Beatles are her go-to music. She also loves to cook, especially coconut barfi, which her mother taught her how to make and is her signature dish with family and friends.
Whether it is getting to work before anyone else (even if she has flown in on a five a.m. flight) or striving to do the best for the industry, Jehan Ara describes her passion for what she is doing as a “labour of love” and would not have it any other way.
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