They say it’s a man’s world but not any longer. In recent times, we have observed a paradigm shift in this ideology where more and more women have been entering the workforce and rising to leadership positions. While this is a positive sign, it also leads to a question that are there enough women entrepreneurs? We are afraid, not yet.
According to International Labour Organization (ILO), the percentage of women in the workforce in Pakistan is 22 per cent. While, the percentage of women entrepreneurs in Pakistan is merely 1 per cent. The reasons could be as diverse as legal barriers; lack of knowledge of loans and financial management; absence of family support or even inaccessibility of female mentors who can guide them to own businesses. What we tend to ignore is the fact that we are not utilising the country’s economic potential at the maximum. A country where the female population is 49.2 per cent, our workforce stands merely at 22 per cent, with even a staggering lower percentage of women entrepreneurs.
This is where Visa, a world leader in digital payments, and HBL comes into the forefront with the ‘She’s Next’ programme to support female entrepreneurs across the world. She’s Next is a global advocacy programme that aims to support women-owned small businesses through funding, training and mentorship. Though She’s Next has been successfully running across the globe for the past three years, it was announced couple of months ago, for the first time in Pakistan. As part of the programme, women entrepreneurs from all industries and sectors applied for a chance to win a grant of US $10,000. The organisers received 2500+ entries from women entrepreneurs in Pakistan, out of which they selected top 10 based on their ideas. These budding entrepreneurs were then invited to the She’s Next event in mid-January, 2024, to pitch their business model, their work and plans for the future in front of a panel of judges who then selected five winners for the grant of US $10,000 each.
“We had a tough job selecting our finalists from almost 2,500 exemplary Pakistani women, and our judges had an even harder job picking the winners. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and our hope is that we continue working with our partners to empower this inspiring community of women entrepreneurs,” says Leila Serhan, Senior Vice President and Group Country Manager for North Africa, Levant and Pakistan at Visa.
The participants were from a range of sectors including textiles, education, food and beverage, professional services, beauty and wellness within Pakistan. The five-winning woman-owned small businesses received a US $10,000 grant each, along with a tailored training programme by Katalyst Labs, and access to the She’s Next Club where they will have access to multiple resources including a workshop library and a community of entrepreneurs for mentorship. The winners included Ziana Sakhia, CEO & Cofounder of Bechlo; Sadaf Rehman, Cofounder of Code School; Rida Zainab, Cofounder of Porter Pakistan; and Ayesha Awan, Cofounder of SocialBlu. The programme also included a People’s Favourite award, where members of the public voted online for their favourite finalist, Hira Javaid, CEO of Foster Learning.
“The winners were chosen based on the problem their businesses are focusing on and the solutions they have to offer that would transform the society,” shares Carl Manlan, Vice President, Inclusive Impact & Sustainability, Europe, Middle East and Africa at Visa. “Listening to these aspiring entrepreneurs and taking a look at their businesses, we realise that we have a responsibility to bring change in the business ecosystem and help them evolve it,” he adds.
Solutions, not just businesses
Some of the winning ideas originated during the pandemic when people encountered various problems and the solutions were nowhere to be found. Sadaf Rehman realised that there is a gap in STEM education in Pakistan as none of the schools offer it. In order to engage her own kids, she introduced them to the world of coding. Her kids along with their friends started developing games and sharing it with their friends. Within two months, they had around 150 kids learning to code. Realising its potential, Code School hired trainers to teach the young children challenging skills but in a fun way so that they are engaged and interested in learning. Now, they have over 1200 kids in 15 countries enrolled in Code School, developing and honing their programming skills.
On similar lines but for adults, Hira Javaid came up with the idea of Foster Learning. Foster Learning is a blended learning EdTech platform, promoting entrepreneurship and skills-based training to improve employability. An idea that originated in Layyah has seeped into other cities of the country - training people across various fields and connecting them with the industry. “During the pandemic, everyone wanted to learn various skills. So, we got various leading organisations and multi-nationals on board to design courses and train the enrolled students. Since the courses were designed by the industry, the students got the opportunity to find work placements within the industry after completing their respective courses,” explains Hira Javaid, CEO of Foster Learning.
To counter the issues travellers might face while planning tours of Pakistan, Rida Zainab founded Porter Pakistan, along with her partner Aurangzeb. Porter Pakistan is an online platform to plan and book leisure travel experiences in the country. With over 600 service providers from across Pakistan on their platform, this tours and travel website is the go-to place for planning your trips to different site-seeing places in Pakistan.
Another winning venture was Bechlo.pk, which is an online social marketplace created for women to buy and sell brand new and preloved products from their mobile devices without any technical expertise. This enables them to digitise their business and earn a sustained income from home, empowering them to enter the booming e-commerce economy in Pakistan. “Our mission is to digitise 100,000 female sellers by 2025, positively impacting over half a million lives,” exclaims Ziana.
The final winning idea was Ayesha Awan’s SocialBlu, which is an AI-powered social media management and automation tool offered to social media managers, small business owners, influencers, and freelancers so that they can manage all their social media accounts from one place. “I started working as a freelancer and used similar tools yet they were not enough to meet all my needs. That’s when I decided to create a tool on my own to cater the needs of freelancers facing similar issues. “It has been about three years now and we have more than 15,000 users across the globe who use SocialBlu to manage all their social media accounts through one platform,” expresses Ayesha.
Challenges and opportunities
For Ziana Sakhia, the biggest challenge came from women who wanted to become sellers at Bechlo.pk. “When we started off, we received a lot of queries from women who wanted to sell their products but wanted us to do it on their behalf. So, the initial eight months, we were in constant touch with them to teach them to be independent of running their own stores on the platform,” elucidates Ziana. “We could have done it for them but we wanted them to be independent. So, we help them set-up their shops on the website but they have the access where they can upload their products and interact with their customers themselves. We initially train all our sellers but we encourage them to become capable of managing their own businesses themselves,” she elaborates.
Currently, they have more than 18,000 sellers on their platform who are successfully selling their businesses and earning from home. With the winning amount, Ziana plans to scale up her marketing so that more women are aware about the platform and opportunities for them to become small business owners from the comfort of their homes. Moreover, she will inject some investments in her employees so that they have more equipped trainers to train further women who can come on board.
After successfully training young individuals in various fields, the focus of Foster Learning is towards the madrassahs in Pakistan. The students enrolled in these places have limited job opportunities and the only feasible option seems to be a Quran teacher. Hira Javaid participated in She’s Next with the idea to start IT labs in madrassahs to bridge the gap by teaching them computer skills, work on their personality development and help them with key job skills so they can become a part of mainstream education system and can be connected to the industry for diversified job opportunities in the market. The grant amount will be invested in this idea, helping the community at large.
The principal challenge for Code School was the teachers. There are schools where you graduate with a degree in coding for kids. “We needed to find a balance of right skills who could train kids in coding so after a lot of iterations we developed courses that could benefit children, specifically. Our instructors are the lynchpin and we have figured out a very good way of screening and training our instructors. The winning grant will further help us grow and put together a team all over the world and not just Pakistan, as we cater to children from more than 15 countries,” describes Sadaf.
SocialBlu and Portar Pakistan plan to work on their marketing with the grant they have won. “The grant will help us in upscaling our technology and secondly, but primarily, boost our marketing. The product is ready and we have developed a solution to people’s problems, now we just want to reach our audiences and inform them about the available platform that could help them with their travel needs,” points out Rida from Portar Pakistan.
The other ideas who did not win but made it to the top 10 including FastMove Packages, a one-stop digital shop to graphic designing, offset printing, packages that include corrugated and cardboard boxes and logistics with delivery to customers’ doorstep; Upstream, a boutique ad agency that operates as an extended arm for small and medium-sized businesses; Her Sahulat, a platform offering personalised video bootcamps for women, equipping them with the skills needed to access digital employment opportunities and remote careers; The Loaf, a campaign for real bread in Pakistan with the view that all people should have access to food that helps and protects the gut; and Primal, a sustainable, eco-friendly and plastic free alternative to every day wellness and beauty products.
Selecting just five ideas as winners was an uphill task as there were businesses across fields but the judges studied the insights and criteria for selection very thoroughly. “The programme was open to all women led businesses but kept in mind a lot of factors before choosing the winners. We took into account the passion of the founders, the ability to grow their business, the kinds of problems they are trying to solve and also that the ideas are from diverse industries like education, travel, sustainable fashion, culinary, tech and most importantly, the social impact these ideas will have on the community,” explains Leila Serhan.
Coming together for change
Leila also highlighted that there is a drive by the government of Pakistan to include more women in business by providing them financial access so they can be independent as well. Also, there is an economic advantage to including women in the workforce and in business. We all know that when a woman succeeds, she benefits not just her home but in general the whole community and the society.
“HBL is committed to increasing women participation in the economy by supporting financial inclusion. HBL and Visa have collaborated in She’s Next to develop women entrepreneurs and through this partnership, we aim to provide women the skill set and training, so they have greater opportunities to improve their lives,” states Aamir Kureshi, Head Consumer, Agriculture and SME banking, HBL.
Since 2020, Visa has invested around US $4 million in over 380 grants and coaching for women small and medium business owners through the She’s Next grant programme globally including US, Canada, India, Ireland, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Morocco. From this year onwards, the plan is to upskill women entrepreneurs in Pakistan with the help of similar trainings and mentorship programmes so our women can lead businesses and be an inspiration for other women all around the world.
Fatima Zakir is a communication and marketing professional who started her career with You! magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com