Pakistan Yet to Start Its Journey from Livelihood to Entrepreneurial Culture

My dear Always-Quiet-Never-Commenting-But-Very-Loyal-Readers, I’ve started a new segment where I am going to have guest bloggers talk about entrepreneurship in Pakistan with a focus on – you guessed it right – women entrepreneurship. Below is the first blog in the series. Tell me what you think. Who would you like to see featured here? Leave a comment. Top 100 comments get a free iPod 3 – IN THEIR DREAMS! But still. Happy reading!

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For many years there have been talks about developing women entrepreneurs in Pakistan. Donors such as USAID and others are spending money on women entrepreneurship development, I believe in millions of US dollars. The recent USAID program (which is almost rolled back) had a major component focusing on this subject. SMEDA started women incubation centers, and many NGOs are busy in running training programs for women entrepreneurs.

But why despite all these efforts, we do not see many women entrepreneurs in the country – why do people fail to understand that a shop owner is not an entrepreneur, she is only an owner manager? Having worked with women entrepreneurs and women chambers in Pakistan and in South Asia, I wonder what keeps Pakistani women away from making money by entering into entrepreneurial career.

The country is considered as a male dominated society and being a male, generally I am not accepted as someone who would be professional enough to talk about women entrepreneurship development. In one of the major focus group meeting held in Islamabad last year, when I tried to help women participants from NGO groups to focus on policy issues and what enabling policies are needed in Pakistan for the development of women entrepreneurs – I was accused of being biased. I told them that enough of complaints! We can move in the right direction only if these groups stop complaining and start talking about policy reforms.

Astonishingly, they did not know that in Pakistan’s SME policy, there is no special provision for women! So shall they not be talking about including women in this policy? Alas, those who can do it do not understand it!

Now in my view, if we really want to move forward and encourage more women to contribute in the economy, the focus needs to be shifted from livelihood to working with progressive women. The concept is simple – It is easier to train educated individuals with a bit of experience then complete newbies. The current donor and NGO focus on livelihood will never create a culture for women entrepreneurship in Pakistan. Moreover this group is large and scattered, needs more efforts and yields feeble results.

How about working with girls studying in business schools, engineering colleges and universities? Are they not the right target group for creating the entrepreneurial culture?

Educated youth is technology savvy, they are better communicator, they can move in the society. Those who argue that women are a marginalized segment in Pakistan (and I do not disagree with them), the great news for them is that educated youth has almost overcome these issues, so let’s work with them!

If funds are re-directed to help the educated youth, I am sure we will see a significant improvement in the number of women entrepreneurs entering in the mainstream economic activities in Pakistan – But perhaps, NGOs and donor agencies have some other focus or due to some unknown reasons they are not interested in exploring this route!

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Hammad Siddiqui is a passionate blogger and an expert in the field of institutional capacity building. He is the Deputy Country Director at Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). Hammad has written over 300 articles on entrepreneurship, social media and policy reforms. You can follow him on Twitter @HammadS. 

Challenges Facing Pakistani Businesswomen

OK -  I know all 5 of you missed me – I see the love … about 10 hits while I was gone. But hey, I am back, if only for a lil while. ;)

Been filling out forms left, right and center for the Project Artemis course I am leaving for soon. Did I tell you guys about it? It’s AWESOME! I have been selected for a 2 week (is it 2 week or 2 weeks??) course on business leadership at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, AZ. Being sponsored by the US State Department and Goldman Sachs under their 10,000 Women program. The program is for 20-35 years old women with small businesses and no formal business training looking for a little push in the right direction and some mentoring.

Anyhoo … the one question that keeps cropping up as I fill forms upon forms is the challenges facing Pakistani businesswomen. Got me thinking … yeah I am crazy enough not to have ever given that much thought before despite being obviously relevant to what I am doing … but that’s how I am … stop judging me … you don’t know me … I AM STRESSED! I was saying … ?

Yeah, so challenges I face as an entrepreneur.

Here are a few I could think of …

1 – Obtaining Financial Support – HUGE challenge. I have support, people love and are fascinated by the idea of what I am doing. But when it comes to actually coughing up that $10k they become wary – same argument everywhere  … it’s a service and not a product so it’s difficult to put a value on it.

Plus, I have looked at the process of obtaining bank loans in Pakistan and it’s a very cumbersome and discouraging process. Firstly, banks have little experience in supporting innovative startups. Secondly, red-tapism and high interest rates make it a very hard endeavor.

2 – HR Woes – 59% of the total female population in Pakistan between the age of 15 and 24 are educated. 10% of our population of an estimated 18 million uses the Internet. Now you would think women would be falling over each other trying to get a place in WDL. Somewhat true – I put up an ad for a fulltime VA on a local job portal and received over 240 application. Unfortunately, more than half the applicants were men. Goes on to show no one reads the job requirements! The female half were no better. I wrote to all of them asking them to complete a simple demo task which required them to clean-up the data in an excel sheet. Left it to them how they wanted to do it. I SUCK at excel so when I say it was a basic task, I mean it. Right near the end of the email, I put it in nice big, bold, RED HIGHLIGHTED letters that I wanted an update at or before midnight the next day and they had a total of 48 hours to finish the task. Guess how many reported on time? ONE! Yep … only one out of about 120. I thought, OK, so she is the one I have been looking for. I invite her for an interview and after a 45 minutes interview where I explained everything to her and she grilled me with Q&As we finally shook hands on it(virtually of course) and I gave her a warm welcome to WDL. All well, eh? Nope – within 10 minutes she pings me on Skype only to say she had just consulted with her husband and she couldn’t join right now since she had two other day jobs. SCREAMS!!! After this experience and speaking to several other women working in conventional offices doing content writing, SEO and other digital tasks for less than $200 a month working 9 hours daily for 6 days a week I reached one conclusion: we have yet to understand the true potential of online work and that working-from-home can actually be a serious, lucrative full-time job. We need more awareness.

Having said that, I do have some incredibly intelligent, competent and skilled women (OK, girls, don’t take offense – “women” sounds slightly more professional :P ) – they are working form home and doing a brilliant job and I am so blessed to have found them. Ladies, I don’t say it enough so soak it up (soak it in??) .. whatever. Anyway, none of you reads my blog so you won’t know all the nice things I say about you .. duh!

3 – Gender – yep, you heard me right. It all trickles down to the same thing. A 31-year old woman with two kids with a technical startup selling a service rather than a product (cute little teddy bears wearing Sindhi caps or embroidered pashmina shawls would get me more sympathy and probably funds) is the perfect recipe for business harakiri. What does a woman from a small town with a degree in humanities know about running a business? Well, to them I say, I have made it so far without any help form you or anybody else for that matter – with a little push I will soon have you eating a very humble pie with “When I See Your Face, Hope It Gives Your Hell” playing in the background. Yeah, I am juvenile – that’s part of my charm and my stealth attack. :P

4 – Payment Options – How in God’s name are you going to run an online business catering to clients around the world when you don’t have PayPal? Yes, I have talked in great detail about other payment options in a previous post but the simple truth is people just prefer the convenience of PayPal. No one is willing to walk to Western Union 10 blocks away or fill out lengthy forms for wire transfers when they can easily outsource the same work to someone in India or the Philippines and pay them via PayPal. I hate you PayPal and Scott Thompson and whoever else is involved in leaving Pakistan out of its list of partner countries. I have friends in the VA business with PayPal accounts in nearby countries but that does not solve the woes. By the time the money reaches them here in Pakistan they lose about 10% of their total earnings in transaction fees, currency conversion fees, wire transfer fees … you get the picture right? So when you are already getting paid less than minimum wages you just can not afford to lose 10% of it. So what to do??

5 – Lack of Support – This is another one. Lack of support from both family and also from other people already in the business. People either just don’t have the time to help or don’t want to help – I dunno which. We need an advisory board that can help entrepreneurs, female or otherwise, starting a startup or running a small company and wanting to take it to the next level. Some organization do exist that are working towards incubating women-owned businesses and helping with their growth, like SMEDA, but they only operate in big cities like Lahore and Karachi.

6 – Power Failures – This is my favorite … you are working online which obviously requires you to have electricity and we live in a country where unscheduled power failures are a common feature of our day to day life. Spring does not mean beautiful weather and flowers blooming and birds chirping but power-outs every two hours. It’s impossible to work virtually without having a good power back-up and that my friends requires $$$. I don’t blame many of the girls for chickening out of joining me full time because I require them to have not only a reliable and fast Internet connection but also an 8-hourly online presence. Not many can promise me the latter considering we are facing such a gigantic issue wrt power-failures.

These are just some of the challenges put in a very haphazard manner but they are enough to give anyone an idea of what we face. Why is this post relevant to my vow to educate ye all about virtual work? Because you ought to know what you are getting yourself up against.

Another thing I suck at is ending these ramblings … so … yeah … OK …

BYEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee