Startup Coffee Circle, held fortnightly at Daftarkhwan, offers a community space for networking and important conversations on opportunities for entrepreneurship, in a cordial atmosphere. Of course, coffee is on the house
Startup culture saw a global boom amid the pandemic. This wasn’t because people had the time to watch one too many Ted talks during lockdown. Rather, this aspect of beginning one’s own business is being viewed as a modern form of rebellion against a social quo that no longer holds enough public trust. When it comes to Pakistan, it seems to lack the guilds that create proper support systems.
This is where events like the Startup Coffee Circle come in. Held fortnightly at Daftarkhwan, on MM Alam Road, the event is about “having conversations on startups, over a cup of coffee,” as its host Fouad Bajwa puts it. The conversations are meant to yield fruitful results, he adds.
A leading public policy entrepreneur and founder of the agriculture startup, called Digital Dera, Bajwa launched Coffee Circle early last year. “We’ve had 8 to 9 events already,” he tells TNS.
The event is open for all, and no fee is charged from the participants.
While it may be easy to call this a space for networking without having to pay for coffee, the personalities and ambitions of its rotating roster of participants lend an air of camaraderie that doesn’t usually fall in line with the connotations of a startup. After all, when shows like Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den carry the torch, one tends to imagine a more cutthroat culture where the successful are hoarding the secret to how the sausage gets made and the new entrepreneurs are trying to inch their way in. So, where did this appearance of friendliness come from?
In a way, it came from the same place that many of these businessmen’s ideas came from: a point of necessity. At one of their recent events, Bajwa discussed his efforts to introduce connectivity and technology to Pakpattan farmers through Digital Dera.
With the tone of a jolly uncle and the words of a motivational speaker, Bajwa talked about how the space where these shortcomings arise is where he finds opportunity. It was like seeing a series of cars running over potholed roads, driving, raging about the bumps, while one man stepped out with a bucket of cement and an invoice sheet. It’s clever perhaps only because it becomes so obvious when you think about it.
Of course, Bajwa did not organise this gathering simply to allow himself and others to talk about their past successes, but to find ways to attain new ones. Soon enough, a circle gathered, made up of groups of people of all ages and industries, where one CEO worked on making phantnay wali (hand-beaten) coffee while the lot discussed possible means of advertisement.
To a layman like myself, there was a certain material comfort in watching these ideas fly about. Even within the post-capitalistic society the world is trying to move towards, startups are a key source of job growth, innovation and economic resiliency. Each person walking into the room, hoping to make something happen, might be needed to right this country’s fiscal sclerosis.
If this position of cultural and economic development is placed on spaces like this, then it does seem to resemble the French salons of yore, does it not? As the hopeful leaders of industry sit in good humour and exchange ideas, would the same dissemination of manner, thought and progress occur? While in the midst of those conversations, one would be wooed to say yes. It certainly seems like the intention of these circles is not only to allow people to become the lords of their own manor, and that is a sentiment that has been on the rise across the country.
Of course, the reach of this room is a bit contingent on the people’s awareness of it. Syed Abu Turab — a person who has recently launched his own startup — is somebody who could have benefited from the experience and connections this coffee circle would have provided him, had he been more aware of the event.
Speaking to TNS about the media departments within different corporations, Abu Turab says that most brands and companies have poor “knowledge of what that specific skillset is worthy of.”
Citing his experience, he remarks that he had seen job listings for a video editor — one who should know how to operate a camera and act as a colourist as well — all within Rs 40,000. “[Meanwhile,] a standard freelance videographer, shooting a 10-minute video demands between Rs 20-25,000” which would be payable after a week at the most, he says.
Lamenting the lack of change in the industry, he says it left him with little choice but to start his own venture in order to create fair working conditions. “All this, to maintain my sanity, prevent my creativity to be [sic] compromised and keep my wings attached to fly without any boundaries.”
Model and dance instructor Hafsah Haq speaks of the poor treatment and lack of efficiency in the corporate sector. She describes how a regular workday would often include hours of doing nothing due to limitations of other departments or the failure of senior members of the team being present at the time, and how that time could have been easily used in pursuing another gig or for improvement of one’s personal health had the working hours been more flexible.
Indeed, there has been a study, titled Going Public: Iceland’s Journey to a Shorter Working Week that found that fewer working hours could improve employee energy without compromising productivity. Instead of being given flexible work hours, Haq found herself feeling drained, overworked and burdened by her employer. To her, it was better to work on a project-to-project basis.
Citing her earnings, the model stated that while her corporate job did not include having to do in-house modelling for the company, there was an occasion when she was obliged to do so without compensation.
She says her monthly salary at the time was the same as the payout she had received from a hosting gig, for which she only needed to spare a few days of her schedule.
The shift in the dynamic of the working and middle classes of the country has harkened a desire to reinvent the means of earning. This isn’t the golden era of the American Dream and its work ethic, that mythical idea of spending 40 years at the same company. The circumstances seem to more readily call upon those who can take their skills, their courage, and their sense of humour, and use these to pave their own paths. To that end, networking is essential, and one would really want to be in the room where it happens.
The writer is a storyteller and a journalist. Having published a short story collection, titled Encounters, he is now working on a second book