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Braving odds with technology

More women in Pakistan are riding the wave of technological change sweeping the world. Entrepreneurs have come up with apps which allow them to run their businesses independently

Braving odds with technology

With the technological revolution sweeping across the globe, more of the young — and the old — are aiming to become tech savvy. Whether to stay up-to-date or to reduce the generation gap or to save manual effort, the reasons for using technology are aplenty and merely at the flick of a finger.

Smart phone is the invention of the century. One’s personal and professional life is all conveniently categorised in one handy gadget. Reading apps, weather apps, health monitoring apps, cooking apps, there is an application for every facet of your life. This is where the next revolution comes — tech entrepreneurship, for each app is also an extremely lucrative opportunity for the one who runs it.

In 2016, a poll by the Thompson Reuters Foundation ranked Pakistan among the world’s major economies where social entrepreneurship has been gaining momentum. The startup culture in Pakistan is mainly driven by the nation’s young working with private accelerators and incubators. And women have decided not to stay back this time.

Startup Weekend, a concept common around the world, hosted for the first time a women’s edition in Pakistan this March. Selected ideas, which were developed into prototypes and business models, projected high creativity, included an app to educate and connect restaurants with recyclers and another for a one-stop bucket list app allowing people to ‘chase their dreams’.

In the emerging markets, women are using technology ‘to trump culture and then changing culture from within’. This year, a book highlighting inspiring stories of 20 African women entrepreneurs in technology, has been launched. Founding Women, a collection of first-hand accounts of women who are defying odds to build successful businesses in technology, speaks to girls who have dreams but fear the odds might be stacked up too high against them.

DoctHERS, a Pakistani telemedicine company aimed at solving a unique cultural and economic issue, is a case in point. Women in Pakistan graduate from medical schools with better grades than men but many do not practice medicine after marriage. This is where the initiative comes in. Co-founded by Dr Sara Khurram, and modelled on a predicament she herself faced, it is a platform, providing initial retraining and skills for housewives with medical degrees and then an online connection to part-time telework through a video platform. On the other end are (primarily female) patients who live in remote parts of the country and who would otherwise receive little or no medical care at all.

This is an example of a digital bazaar offering technological solutions to cultural and human resource constraints and providing new forms of livelihood and services to women.

In fact, human and cultural constraints are sometimes the very reasons why women, especially in Pakistan, opt for tech entrepreneurship. “I felt a great dearth of opportunities for moms like me who do not have a backup support system,” shares Sadaf Usman, founder of For a Cause, a social enterprise promoting life skills, self-empowerment and positivity through various social media platforms. “I did not see my place in the job market where my needs as a mother were facilitated. This led me to create something organic, something that catered to my needs and needs of moms.”

Aiming to revive values of empathy, tolerance and compassion, For a Cause plans to introduce products “that uphold our spirit and promote our cause” and is also collaborating with different organisations through social media.

Rabab and Shanza shared a similar ideology when they came up with a software Bolo Tech which caters to people facing problems with speech. The software aims to help a large number of people at the cost of next to nothing. Relivenow offers online counselling services to individuals by connecting them to qualified mental health professionals.

But while bringing a change in the society serves nobler purposes, social media — the highlight of today’s technological innovation provides a platform also for thriving businesses of tangible products. Women in Pakistan, now seem ready to grab the opportunity and there are many success stories to share.

GharPar provides at-home beauty services through a web and mobile-based solution. Beauty Hooked is Pakistan’s first women-funded, women-run startup which provides a one-stop destination for females to browse salon and spa services, review prices and book appointments online. The Girl In Pink is an online store providing basic skin care and high quality makeup products.

Pakistan’s first women-only online market place, Sheops is designed to create a space where women can buy and sell beauty, fashion and lifestyle products along with food and other homemade goods. Sheops has a community of over 30,000 women actively buying and selling using the startup’s web portal and mobile apps.

And Review Buddy lets customers review and rate restaurants, websites, universities etc while Secret Stash gives women the opportunity to buy and sell pre-owned original designer items at a discount.

From managing apps women are now proceeding into more sophisticated and intricate business patterns like running digital agencies. Moreover, women in Pakistan now understand the need to train and mentor others like them, while also providing start-up solutions. Many have dedicatedly picked this as a cause and career. Tech entrepreneur Anum Kamran besides launching many technology based projects, helps other women entrepreneurs with their startups, while Noorjehan Arif works as an independent digital transformation and business process reengineering (BPR) consultant, bridging between clients and IT solution partners. Aleena Mashood is a social media strategist for small businesses and not for profits.

Organisations like Digiwrite, Mushawar, Advancing Your Potential are providing corporate training and counselling sessions for techpreneurship and leadership and ELN The e-Learning Network extending UK accredited teacher training are all owned and run by Pakistani women.

So important are the acts of mentoring for women that communities have developed where techpreneurs, both professionals and aspirants, interact with each other, constantly bucking up and promoting each others’ causes. Faiza Yousuf, a technologist running a business consultation company, also runs WomenInTechPK, a Facebook community page with over 4,000 members where women network, discuss and learn about various technology issues. WomenInTechPK is in the process of planning a series of boot-camps and workshops to help women skill up and create cool products and services.

Where women seek an outlet for their creativity to flow, Pakistan Lady Bloggers (PLB) — another Facebook community page — provides an “interactive, highly supportive place where women build each other up.” “Bloggers are a very powerful entity in the cyber world. They are quick learners of technology, ready to adapt new technological trends and are always on top of their game using the social media,” says Mehreen Farhan, founder of PLB. The community plans to hold informal training sessions for women regarding their blogging ventures and writing skills since monetisation is a goal for many bloggers.

In Pakistan, there are many structural, institutional and socio-cultural barriers that restrict the entrepreneurial capabilities of women. These include limited or restricted mobility, low levels of literacy, unfamiliarity with technology, domestic responsibilities and lack of financial resources. For women who possess skill but lack mobility and access to finance, technology based options give them an excellent opportunity to pursue a career which is home-based. A number of outlets now provide advice on business setups, skill management and on access to finance.

Women are increasingly reaching for empowerment, demanding equal pay and equal opportunities at work. STEM education and rising entrepreneurship have created conditions for women, even those in our country, to catch the wave of technological change sweeping the world. Where they are able to independently run their own businesses, issues like those of inequality and lesser pay become things of the past.

“Times have changed and I think nothing like this could have happened without technological advancements,” says Sehrish Azhar, a motivational speaker and blogger. “The networking, connection building and collaboration that is done today, will bear fruit in the years to come.”

Shabana Mahfooz

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