Ladies first!

By Erum Noor Muzaffar
Tue, 04, 17

Hira Batool Rizvi is not an ordinary woman. She did her undergraduate in Electrical Engineering after which she obtained a Masters in Science and Technology Policy on the Fulbright Scholarship from Georgia Institute of Technology, USA.

Hira Batool Rizvi is not an ordinary woman. She did her undergraduate in Electrical Engineering after which she obtained a Masters in Science and Technology Policy on the Fulbright Scholarship from Georgia Institute of Technology, USA. Since her childhood, Rizvi was inclined towards doing something out of the box. "I am a problem solver by training, and a social entrepreneur by passion, and I believe in the power of leveraging technology to improve lives," says Rizvi. With that idea in mind she started 'She`Kab' - a taxi service for women in Pakistan. Started in December 2015 in Islamabad, this unique service gained popularity in no time and Hira Rizvi was selected as one of the finalists of Shell Tameer Awards 2017. In a candid interview with You! Hira Rizvi talks all about her venture and aspirations...    

Ladies first!

You! How did you come up with the idea of launching 'She`Kab'?

 Hira Rizvi: I worked in Pakistan for two years before heading abroad to pursue higher education. While both my workplaces - a software house, and a K-12 school - were very different overtly, the women in these workplaces were strikingly similar. In the sense, they talked about similar struggles and problems. What stood out for me was that most women without personal cars used to complain about decent transportation options in the twin cities. It was very visible that women were spending way more on commute to the workplace as compared to men - sometimes, even for the same distance. Later in the US, where I was pursuing a Master's Degree in Technology Policy, I was deeply interested in working on the intersection of 'Science' and the 'Public'. In second year of grad school, I participated in a hackathon for Pakistan called Pakathon. This was when sharing economy companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb were being extensively discussed in classrooms. Inspired by their models, we came up with a similar idea and we called it 'Sabki Taxi'- a taxi for all. We thought it would work much the same way as other ridesharing services, but considering the very different cultures, practices and problems of the developing world, we opted for using taxis (owing to higher levels of unemployment in Pakistan) that would be made safer. 

I was soon back in Pakistan, and working on She`Kab full-time - a safe taxi service for women. Once I realised that I was passionate about doing this, I got in touch with the technology incubator at Georgia Tech. I valued spending time with mentors and professors there greatly, particularly because there was so much to learn. I had no background in entrepreneurship, and just the concept of taking a risk. I started doing my market research- conducted surveys and read everything relevant that I could find about ride-sharing.

 I also started reading up on Pakistan's entrepreneurial ecosystem. To my amazement, a lot was happening there. In less than a decade, organizations and networks like Plan 9, Nest I/O, LUMS Center for Entrepreneurship, TiE etc. had transformed the ecosystem. During my meticulous research, I read about the 'WeCreateCenter' that serves as an entrepreneurial community center for women interested in starting or expanding an existing business. The Center provides mentoring, business connections, specialized training, connections to the community, media attention, access to markets and capital along with the technical tools and resources necessary for taking any business to the next level. I decided to give it a shot and took my mandatory training from there.

You! What difficulties did you face while setting it up?

 H.R: Some of the biggest challenges that I faced were overcoming the fear of how people around me would react to this bizarre idea, and personal fears of putting aside my career to step in unchartered territories. Some other challenges were gathering the right team that would share the vision behind She`Kab. I was lucky to find a technical co-founder who was as devoted to women empowerment as I was. Moreover, taking the first step was a challenge in itself. While, I initially thought that we would need a solid investment to kick-start things, I realized that all we needed was a minimum viable product that would help validate our concept. Soon thereafter, we started receiving positive reviews from users, and we kept going.

 You! What is 'She`Kab' all about?

H.R: She`Kab is a subscription based monthly car pooling service for working women that aims to empower women by providing them with safe, affordable and reliable transportation solutions. The service was made operational in December 2015. We are currently operating in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Initially, we started with the idea of hiring women drivers only but then we decided to use both male and female drivers. All our male/female drivers are professionally trained. Around 10 per cent of our drivers are women who drive their own private cars. However, our customers are all females. We have served 600 monthly customers in Islamabad/Rawalpindi and have about 300 customers on our waiting list. Our fleet has grown to 70 cars/cabs.    

You! What is your modus operandi?

 H.R: Our monthly subscription model uses an online web-based platform that connects riders to partner drivers. The fleet is consisted of thoroughly vetted male and female drivers and we are currently working on financing models for women drivers to enable them to own cars. Our solution is the first of its kind in addressing issues of mobility by recognizing and confronting social/cultural norms-like a woman's ability to lease a car or the cultural/religious pressure of not travelling alone. From the pre-existing taxi infrastructure, as well as female drivers who own cars. We are now working on car financing models designed for women drivers; that would allow them to own cars. Our solution is the first of its kind in addressing issues of mobility to foster women empowerment; recognizing elements like prevalent social/cultural norms, women's inability to lease cars and pressures of travelling alone. In 2016, more than 50% women who used public transportation reported cases of harassment in Pakistan, which is primarily why 96% women in South Asia prefer to sit next to other women during travel. Women spend more than 40% of their monthly salaries to travel to work, compared to men who spend 7%.  She`Kab aims to tackle these problems and empower women commuters in Pakistan by providing them with a safe, affordable and reliable transportation solutions. 

  You! How have other women received your work?

 H.R: We are overwhelmed by the response that She`Kab has received just in the twin cities. We have not spent a dollar on marketing but it's great to know that we have more customers than we can serve at the moment. Hence, one of our biggest challenges is growing our team by injecting capital and resources to be able to serve the ever increasing demand. 

You! In your opinion what are the challenges that Pakistani women face today?

H.R:  The idea behind She`Kab is that a safe and affordable transportation service is crucial if we want our women to excel. However, our research suggested that mobility is a multi-faceted phenomenon and bears significant impact on the overarching aim of women empowerment. Prevalent social/cultural norms, transport infrastructure, physical/area planning, women's presence and participation in informal sector and car financing schemes as well as access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) are some of the major problems facing the women of Pakistan. It is unfortunate that our services and products are designed with no regard for women. Some other challenges that worry me include the fact that 17 million girls struggle with transportation problems every day. In 2016, 50% of girls who used public transportation reported harassment and the few who continue to work, end up spending up to 40% of their monthly salaries on safer travel alternatives. Moreover, one out of every four young women in Pakistan never gets the chance to complete primary school education. These are some of the many challenges facing our women and we believe there is a strong urgency to address these. Empowering women and girls to lead is crucial for a society to progress and we will continue to work on innovative ways of doing that.

You! What is the most important advice you can give to women?

H.R: Believe in the power of the individual, yourself and let no one dictate you. Never stop dreaming, imagining, growing and contributing.  

You! What’s your biggest accomplishment to-date?

H.R: I feel I still have a long way to go and my greatest achievement is yet to come, but looking back, I am proud of myself for standing up for things that matter, even when I am the only one doing so. At the age of 17, I made a Senior Superintendent of Police apologize to a wagon driver after a 'Letter to the Editor' that I wrote in one of the leading newspapers of Pakistan. That incident taught me the power of the individual which has been my greatest learning and achievement so far.

You! Do you think that the general mindset of our society is changing?

H.R: It is heartening to see that Pakistan is gradually opening up to new ideas. Our people are adopting progressive ways of thinking and shunning a lot of pseudo-cultural values. Similarly, it is great to see how our people and society are becoming more aware of the need and importance of education. 

You! What are the positive points of being economically independent?

H.R: By empowering women and making them economically independent, we are giving them the power of choice and ability to take their destiny in their hands and improve their lives and the lives of their families.

You! Do you think a professional can be a good wife and mother?

H.R: People who are ambitious and are driven to excel are often more likely to over-invest in their careers and under-invest in their families. This unfortunately affects women more than men who often struggle to strike a balance between the two. While it is very much possible, it requires consistent planning and a serious effort. I have seen many women doing a remarkable job balancing their work and life including my very own grandmother who got her PhD after her marriage, worked for the government and raised seven highly competent children. 

You! What are your future plans with regard to your latest venture?

H.R: Currently, we are working to perfect the model in the twin cities, as there are around 300,000 women here that are in need of such services and around 50, 000 cabs that can fill the market need. We want to continue expanding our fleet and our rider base in the twin cities. We have till date served 700 women and want to increase this number to serve twice as much by moving towards partnerships with organizations that need our services. We are also working to address the disparity of car ownership for women in Pakistan. Even with a rising number of female drivers in the country, the ownership of cars for women has been dismal. This is one of the major reasons for a small number of women driving for She`Kab. We are working on car financing models to pilot a programme without collateral and upfront payments for women that would make them car owners and be independent. We are working actively to expand our team. We have received a substantial demand from many other cities, and we definitely have plans to expand our service beyond the twin cities.