Published in Jan-Feb 2022
Over the years, I have often heard people talk about the non-feasibility of investing in women entrepreneurs. The perception is that entrepreneurship is only a hobby for women; they are not serious about scaling and they don’t have the grit or capability to move the needle and make these businesses viable and successful. I, on the other hand, have always believed in the tenacity of Pakistani women entrepreneurs and seen for myself how many of them have started with a very basic idea and turned it into a roaring business. Maybe the problem is that they are not out there blowing their own trumpets.
I therefore decided that it would be interesting to speak to a few of the young women I know who are founders of tech-enabled start-ups and find out about their journey. The three women I spoke to were Azima Dhanjee co-Founder of ConnectHear, Halima Iqbal, co-Founder of Oraan and Iman Jamall co-Founder of Credit Book – all dynamic young women who have identified key problems and taken a crack at solving them.
“When Farwah and I moved back to Pakistan, we both struggled to open our personal bank accounts and access formal financial services,” says Halima. “This made us question how millions of Pakistani women bank, given the lack of documentation, mistrust towards formal institutions and mobility restrictions. We spent eight months conducting research on the relationship women have with money and how they borrow and save. We delved into the informal banking space and learnt that 55% of Pakistanis save, and 41% of the population saves through Rotating Savings and Credit Associations [ROSCAs] – locally known as committees or beesees, regardless of income, age and gender. This led us to recognise that through digital intervention, committees can be a gateway for a sizeable proportion of the population on the fringes of the formal economy to come under the umbrella of the financial sector – and hence, Oraan came into being.”
“ConnectHear works towards communication and information accessibility for the deaf community,” says Azima. She identified this gap while being raised by deaf parents. “I was always surprised to see how my talented parents were dependent on my brother and myself for the simplest of communication, just because they used a different language and had hearing limitations.” She believed that using technology to connect the hearing impaired with the rest of the world would improve their quality of life.
As women entrepreneurs, all three acknowledge the challenges. According to Halima, “the primary struggle is fighting off pre-existing notions of what an entrepreneur or a founder looks like. In Pakistan, we have not had many examples of female-founded tech start-ups and even less so of such start-ups raising funding.”
When Azima started ConnectHear, she faced multiple challenges – being a woman, young, and in the social space. People believed that she was doing this as a cause and it would fizzle out, or that she would not be able to convert her passion into a sustainable business.
Iman is of the opinion that to overcome the challenges women face it is important “to surround yourself with people and teams that share your vision and are committed to parity. Be conscious of your own imposter syndrome. At some level we all have it and it starts to impact the confidence of women early in life and is then carried forward.”
Halima adds that one of the greatest assets Farwah and herself have are strong support systems at home, which have helped them beat stereotypes and overcome challenges. They also found allies within the community – mentors and investors who demonstrated a great passion for their vision as well as for the role that women can play in innovation and tech.
Start-ups are hard – for both men and women. It is important to recognise the turning points and whether you are on track.
For Azima and ConnectHear, the turning point came when, four months into the business, they received a grant from Silicon Valley. “It proved to us that someone other than ourselves believed in what we were doing. That is when I took a gap year from university and put all my energies into the business. We held a concert for the deaf, increased other activities, travelled to other cities to showcase our technology and soon it started paying off. We were getting contracts from established businesses and banks, and increased interest from government organisations as well. That was when we knew that our technology, our mission and our business were on their way.”
In three years, Oraan has grown from a team of four to almost 60. “Our strength lies in the culture we maintain at the company and we are fortunate to have found talent that believes in our vision,” says Halima. “And we recognise how pivotal this has been in helping us grow. It has helped us secure the largest seed round raised by a female-led start-up in Pakistan and foster a community of 10,000+ savers using our flagship product, Oraan Committees. We are on track to expand our suite of products aimed at offering investment and credit solutions.”
Iman believes it is important to be optimistic while growing a business. “There is uncertainty, abstraction and struggle when it comes to building systems from the ground up. However, with optimism, you can kindle your determination to persevere. I think determination (with a dose of objectivity) is what leads teams to clear solutions.”
Growth for ConnectHear has been consistent. They have worked with 80 companies, trained thousands of interpreters, produced video content that has been used by multiple corporations and their app (which is only six months old) has had thousands of downloads, with users appreciating the ease of one-click interpretation.
Azima has learnt that grit and persistence are absolutely essential. There will be ups and downs, she says, “but as long as you stay strong and keep reminding yourself why you got into this in the first place, and keep innovating and adapting, you can survive the tough times and continue to grow.”
“What is essential,” she adds “are the people working with you. It is key to have as many of the founding team with you through your journey – but be prepared for people to leave because the reality is that some will.”
When asked what kind of innovations they would like to see in the Pakistan start-up space, Iman said she would like to see innovations motivated by intergenerational fairness, both in terms of sustainable business models and technology. Areas like sustainable farming, efficiency in food supply chains, low carbon transportation, water and sanitation, waste disposal, and recycling are a few examples she believes can push our communities forward without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Halima would like to continue to see more innovation in financial products designed from a gender perspective. “There is a critical need to adopt a female-centric approach to design because the way women engage with and use money is very different from the way men do. In order to create a more financially inclusive world, we need to understand women’s use cases and their demands for financial services.”
Azima, Halima and Iman were all confident that with the increased focus on support for women entrepreneurs, from both the private sector as well as government, we should see more women entering the space and building products and services in varying verticals. What they didn’t say – and I think this is extremely important – is that it is young women like them, who have chosen this difficult path and are succeeding, will be role models for many more in Pakistan. Way to go ladies. You will always have me as a cheerleader.
Jehan Ara is Founder & CEO, Katalyst Labs. firstname.lastname@example.org