Throughout history, the central role of a woman in society has been defined as a caregiver. However, this is an understatement when it comes to her capabilities. Her true potential isn’t just in homemaking, but she is also capable of bringing greater change socially and economically. While there still persist obstacles to women’s full and equal participation in the economy, studies show that women-led companies tend to perform better than those led by men. A survey conducted by ‘Hearbeat by Peakon’ has revealed that women-led organisations are more likely to have better purpose and vision for their companies along with better profits, engaged, inspired and satisfied employees than male-led firms. Yet, women remain severely underrepresented as they face issues when they are looking for investment in earlier stages.
Fortunately, some companies and investors realise this gap and work towards empowering such women. Earlier this year, Standard Chartered launched a programme ‘Women in Tech’ in Pakistan which aimed to promote the economic and social development of women through innovation or technology led entrepreneurship. Out of 80 applicants from across the country, 18 were shortlisted and mentored in business management for two months. After that, five companies were awarded with a cash prize to seed funding for their businesses. This week You! highlights some exceptional women-led businesses that are inspiring change in the society...
Mental health awareness has gotten better in recent years as it is being talked about on conventional and social mediums. However, it is still not enough. People with mental illnesses often don’t seek help from a health professional due to lack of access to therapy along with stigma, discrimination and neglect. Amna Asif, Founder & CEO of Relive Now, is working towards mental health advocacy. Relive Now provides accessible and affordable online counselling and therapy. In their directory, a number of psychologists and counsellors are listed with their qualifications, expertise and charges of therapy session which one can register for.
Amna herself struggled with anxiety for almost a decade. When she graduated with an MBA in 2016, she was diagnosed with clinical depression. While on a lookout for a good psychologist, Amna had a hard time, “It’s mind-boggling to see the lack of professionals in the field and the information regarding their work. I’d look up for psychologists but wouldn’t find their qualifications and experience. And if I found a good one, they’d be operating so far off that it would be difficult to commute there every week,” tells Amna. “There are platforms available internationally but nothing locally. Mental health is one of the most neglected sectors, with no check and balance since there is no authority looking after it. This inspired me to do something about it as I didn’t want anyone else to go through the same ordeal,” she shares.
Starting Relive Now in January 2018 came with its own set of challenges. “The last data I found about the number of psychiatrists in Pakistan (which was around 400) was by WHO, that too in 2009. We only have estimations and no current data. One of the biggest challenges was to collect all the primary data by myself. I am the sole founder and not having a team to support the cause was very difficult. A mental health project is not something that was going to make a lot of money, so people didn’t want to finance it; hence I am still self-financing it. I didn’t have a chunk of money that I could put into it, so I earned revenues from what I was doing and then I put it back to make the company,” she informs.
In terms of entrepreneurship, Amna believes that one always asks questions and do capacity building sessions in the beginning. However, a year into it, one might forget the basics. “This programme really helped me re-evaluate what I’m doing, refresh my basics and see what we can improve to have an edge over competitors - though we don’t have any as of yet. It really helped us step up our game,” she explains.
For the future of her venture, she elucidates, “We want to make sure our app and website are functioning properly, not just in Pakistan but worldwide. We plan to continue advocating for mental health and start providing therapy in multiple languages since not everyone speaks English or Urdu. We want to reach the remote areas of Pakistan, especially Balochistan and KPK, as they do not have access to professionals, mostly due to languages barriers.”
Another one of the most neglected issues in Pakistan is environmental pollution. It is one of the most serious global challenges, yet we find our cities littered and polluted with waste. One social enterprise that is working to combat the environmental challenges in Pakistan is TrashIt. It works towards organic waste disposal by making nutrient rich compost. They recover organic waste from its source (food vendors, restaurants, industry and households), recycle it to make compost using their own research-driven method, and sell it to home gardeners, retailers and farmers. They are also empowering the citizens to adopt sustainable lifestyle by providing an eco-friendly product line. The product line includes two designs of bamboo toothbrushes, three types of stainless-steel straws with its cleaners and Bees Knees wraps amongst other items.
The brain behind the company, Anusha Fatima, started this venture as a university course project, and then took it a step forward at ‘Start-up Weekend Karachi’ in March 2017 hosted by The Nest i/o. “I couldn’t help but notice the mess in our city. I would see my city streets littered everyday as I commuted around. I wanted to be a part of the solution and so this inspired me to look into how waste is being managed in other countries,” expresses Anusha. “The journey of a start-up is very challenging especially in the early years. Funds, human resources, planning and multiple interactions, it’s not easy. There is stigma within our society. At one point, your family and friends challenge your non-conformity to society’s way of being, to the 9-5 job culture to whether everything that you are doing is even worth it. The Women in Tech programme was a great exposure. It helped me meet other founders, and also female role models. Every competition has helped us jump forward, work with timelines and push ourselves to plan better,” she adds.
TrashIt is a movement that is inspiring change in a society where environmental problems are considered a non-issue. Upholding eco-friendly values, the company also conducts compost workshops, provides compost consultation, and creates eco-spaces on rooftops. Sharing her future plans, Anusha wants to get the community actively involved in waste separation and its recycling, and make citizens become active participants in reversing climate change.
When it comes to weddings in Pakistan, the expenses are through the roof which not a lot of people can afford. Even if one tries to keep it a simple affair, a good chunk of the money will be the cost of a bridal dress. To facilitate people in this regard without spending an arm and a leg, Closet was launched in July 2018 by three university students Laiba Aamir, Sidra Mujahid and Ehtisham Siddiqui. It provides party wear, casual and even bridal clothes on rent at 10 per cent of the price. The rental dresses are freshly dry-cleaned and sent right at the customer’s doorstep a day prior to their event, and picked up the very next day of the event. On the other hand, the clothes in the inventory are taken from people who have their dresses in cupboards as liabilities. This way, it also gives them an opportunity to earn while being at home just by lending their extra clothes.
“We started our venture because we felt that a lot of money was being spent on weddings. A friend of mine had to attend her cousin’s wedding for which she was hesitant to make new dresses. She has three sisters and including her mother, they had to make five new dresses each for three events. Just for the Mehendi function the total cost of the outfits was 25k Rupees. It was too much. Later on, another friend borrowed a party dress from me which was her size. It made me think about why couldn’t we do this on a wider platform. There are so many insurance policies and bank loans taken for weddings, so we thought that that borrowing clothes will help reduce the cost greatly,” says Laiba Aamir.
When the team started this business, they we were just students so needed help with the finance and marketing. “The Women in Tech Programme helped us with streamlining our business, digital marketing, operational strategies, growth hacking and utilise our resources in the best possible way. We recently started trials for rentals which has helped us increase our bucket size and get more business. We learned new strategies and are looking to integrate automation on our app and website like introduce chatbox which will help us run things more smoothly,” enthuses Laiba.
It is not uncommon for women in Pakistan to work office jobs and manage their households. However, most women, especially housewives and mothers, favour flexible working hours which not many organisations provide. Plate 101 is a marketplace in the form of a mobile application (Android, iOS) that enables women to sell home cooked food and become financially independent. It is a viable option for the people in Islamabad - who are away from homes and living in boarding houses, flats and hostels - to get the cheaper hygienic food.
Noor us Sabah, Founder and CEO of the company, narrates, “We started Plate101 in May 2018 with a mission to engage the most latent and inactive group of our economy i.e. the women sitting at home with almost no opportunities to earn. We have given them a platform through which they can sell their home-cooked food with just few clicks. On the other hand, there are many people who are living away from their homes and they are bound to eat substandard meals. Our app connects them with female home chefs so that they can order affordable, healthy and hygienic food from nearby homes.”
Like any other start-up, Noor was faced with many challenges while trying to establish Plate 101. “The most difficult challenge we had was gaining the trust of women in the beginning. That was also because these women had less exposure and are sometimes hesitant to adopt technology. Now, we have largest number of female home chefs who are registered with us, and we conduct capacity building workshops for them to help them scale up and grow. Moreover, the Women in Tech programme has been the best experience in many ways. Training sessions with mentors and industry experts really helped us in refining our plans and business model. It helped us think out of the box and in new horizons. Above all, the whole team built a healthy community among all participants and mentors,” expresses Noor.
Speaking about the future of the business, Noor has big plans on expanding her venture. “Right now we are only operational in Islamabad but we are planning to expand our business and services in other major cities as well. This is not just about ordering food online, it’s about hundreds and thousands of women who face different socio-cultural barriers in our country. We want to give this opportunity to as many women as we can, because we believe that strong and prosperous communities are built upon connected citizens who actively participate in shaping their social and economic future,” concludes Noor.