SHAHZEB HASAN: What does FiveRivers Technologies (FRT) do?
MAHE ZEHRA: FRT was founded by my father and his colleagues in 2003 and I joined as manager operations in 2010. Initially, it was a service company that provided IT services, such as systems management technology for enterprises and embedded systems, to US-based clients. Now, we offer AI, machine learning, IoT solutions and VR, among many other software product services, to enterprises and their customers.
SH: What changes did you bring to FRT as manager operations and then as CEO?
MZ: Under my supervision as manager operations, FRT created a product wing called Pepper.pk, which solely worked on mobile apps - during the mobile boom. We created dozens of apps for the iPhone, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. At the time, our most successful app was a photo editor for the BlackBerry, which ranked number one on the BlackBerry App World across the world. Following this, we worked for companies such as Dell, Warid and Samsung. We then brought in AI, machine learning, and created a specific department for UI/UX; it was the new age of mobile phone apps and usability and experience design were essential to crating good products. As CEO, one of my goals was for Pakistan’s software development industry to be more female-inclusive. I helped to shape a culture at FRT aimed at providing more opportunities to women who were qualified for roles at FRT, but hesitated to join, because we had a male-dominated workforce. I made the working environment more modern and colourful in terms of the workspaces and introduced events such as cooking sessions and other fun activities. It is important to keep employees happy because that is when they produce their best work.
SH: What is the best way to attract more women to this field?
MZ: Having more women in upper management is important because there are some things men do not fully understand – whether it is post-marital life or pregnancy, women need the right support. Furthermore, the company environment needs to provide the right comfort level; if anyone as much as looks at a woman in an inappropriate way, I will immediately deal with it. Environments need to be nurtured. We have a wholesome one that gives women confidence because they know their employers have their backs.
SH: How did you end up in this field?
MZ: I am a data scientist by education and profession and I am passionate about math – it comes intuitively to me. I have always loved identifying and working on patterns, which led me to a Master’s in mathematics from the University of Punjab and a second Master’s in operations research from the University of Texas at Austin.
SH: What interests you apart from data sciences?
MZ: I paint regularly, am a published writer and a certified Zentangle teacher. I believe everyone should have creative pursuits in life. Society likes defining people as being either left or right brained, but everyone is inherently born with both and we should nurture both sides. For example, if I am stuck solving a math problem and need to switch off, art helps. Problem solving came to me while painting.
SH: What are some of the biggest roadblocks at FRT so far?
MZ: Talent acquisition because there is a big disconnect between education and industry requirements. There is a gap between the skills required in this day and age and the type of education that is imparted. Our talent is not taught the right approach to problem solving which requires creativity and attention to detail.
SH: What advice would you give to new start-up founders?
MZ: It is not as easy as it looks. I say this from experience and not to be discouraging. No matter how detailed an initial plan is... you will run into problems and think, ‘why did I do this to myself?’ So always know why you are pursuing what you are doing; it is a reason to hold on to when times are tough.
Shahzeb Hasan is a marketing and brand professional from IBA and LUMS and has over seven years of experience working in brand and product management.