Quick Synopsis

Haven’t blogged in a while. Hot the worse ever writer’s block. So a quick round up to let you know what I have been up to.

Got a mention on Mashable. You can read it here:  http://mashable.com/2013/06/29/pakistan-woman-entrepreneur-2/ For a few hours, it was the HOTTEST story.

Whats Hot
Was invited to speak at Plan 9 for their Startup Series. That was fun. Speaking to a room full of techies about running a biz. I tried to do the potato trick I learned from Sharon Lechter during Project Artemis. Didn’t work too well. Will take industrial strength Mickey D straws next time.

The Potato Trick

Don’t you just love my editing skills!

With the incubatees ... and my kids.

With the incubatees … and my kids.

 

Was interviewed by a team of researchers from The Fletcher School at Tufts University and Harvard Kennedy School about “the constraints as well as opportunities women entrepreneurs face both culturally and systemically in Pakistan.” That was an interesting experience.

Got tons of CVs in my inbox for our internship program. That’s exciting but at the same time intimidating. I BADLY need an assistant. Anyone interested?

Ooh I almost forgot. Pulled off the first Google Business Group (GBG) Islamabad event in Peshawar, Pakistan. It was meant for women entrepreneurs but a bunch of guys showed up too.

GBG Islamabad
Am I enjoying all of this? Yeah. Sort of. Now when I tweet something a lot of times I actually get a response from other tweeples. Dunno really. Mixed feelings. Am grateful for sure – no doubt about that. I hope I am able to deliver now. Need tons of work for those tons of CVs. And I NEED CrowdFlower / MTurk. And what am I gonna do if the Paypal account I use gets blocked for whatever reason (it’s my friend’s)? What if all I am is a mere celebrity and nothing more?

At the Plan 9 Incubator I kept debating whether to go with a semi-formal presentation or just speak about my own experience – from the start. I went with the former. I mean what was I supposed to say – business just happens? One day you wake up and someone tells you you are a tech-preneur? You apply on the last day of a competition and you actually win it and are sent on the most inspiring, encouraging 3 weeks of your life? That every few months you decide to give up on your biz and just as you announce it to the world something huge comes along your way out of the blue? That if you are sincere and passionate things will just fall into place? That Mashable happened coz you don’t say no to free lunch and also out of curiosity to meet a guy you had no inkling about and just turned out he was buddies with Reid Hoffman and loved the way you used LinkedIn – so much so he mentioned you in his TedTalk? And of course who should be in attendance but a journalist from Mashable.

All of this is true but it’s too much of a fairy tale. Truth is I don’t know anything. I am not a techie person. I am not a business person either. But somehow here I am. How do you make that sound real and not utterly corny? Just that I have never cared enough about the fame or the success or the money although I can’t say I don’t enjoy it when it comes along.

OK now I am getting all confused again.

I leave you with this extract from Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem, The Invitation:

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

 

OK Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

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. 

Wish I Had Known This Before – *Sulk and *Tear

I am angry. I AM SO VERY MAD AT MYSELF! I spend a bloody 2 years working on Women’s Digital League only to find out very recently that in order to apply fro any business plan competition I MUST present a paper-trail for my financial transactions. Western Union receipts kept in shoebox would work. I of course didn’t know this. Just jumped right into the action. HOW DUMB CAN A PERSON GET??? UGH!

To be fair to myself, I never thought my stint at content writing would become a business. I have never claimed to be a business expert. I am not! I am a simple woman with a third class master’s degree in English Literature and a morbid fear of numbers. All I have is the drive to try new things. Shying away from challenges is unknown to me. Elvis may cry himself hoarse saying Only Fools Rush In but it won’t work on me. BUT WHAT THE HELL! Have lost out on 2 WONDERFUL opportunities in less than a month. First was the Arabia Fast Growth 500 and now it’s the Women In Business challenge. Then there is the All Asia Business Plan Competition that I don’t even want to look at. I am heartbroken and so disappointed.

Learn from my experience, Dudettes. If you are working on a business, please keep a record of your financial transactions. Also, TRUST ME and work on a business plan. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to write one. There are so many templates available online that you can use. If you still have a problem finding one drop me a note and I’ll send you a couple. You don’t want to miss out on these great opportunities to highlight your business and gain investors as well as clients. I am gonna go and sulk and hope this horrible period of stagnation will be over soon. Ever since the stress-induced shingles and chest infection and ulcer episodes soon after I came back from the US and jumped right into my work without taking any break, I have hot a complete wall. Annoying thing is it’s not for a lack of energy but a lack of interest. I need to get out of this phase soon or else I won’t be able to live with myself.

Byeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

P.S. Also try for the Women 2.0 Startup Pitch Competition – deadline is 7th December but their application form is quite easy to fill out.

Men and Women in the Business World

I felt this was worthy of putting on my blog:

In the business world . . .
a successful man is aggressive a successful woman is pushy
he’s good on details she’s picky
he loses his temper because he’s so involved with his job she’s bitchy
when he’s depressed (or hangover) everyone tiptoes past his office she’s moody, so it must be her “Time of the month”
he follows through she doesn’t know when to quit
he stands firm she’s hard
he drinks because of the excessive job pressure she’s a lush
he isn’t afraid to say what he thinks she’s mouthy
he exercises authority diligently she’s power-crazy
he’s close-mouthed she’s secretive
he climbed the ladder of success she slept her way to the top
he’s a stern taskmaster she’s hard to work for

Social Enterprise as a Business Differentiator

So, I been thinking (I do that on certain rare occasions). Back in the US, during our presentation at the State Dept, Catherine Muther happened to be one of the panelists. Trust me, she intimidated me more than the idea of being inside the State Dept. I am a horrid public speaker. I get nervous, I twitch, worse of all, I GIGGLE, and I run away. So when I breezed through the presentation (thank you, Thunderbird) I was beaming with pride and was confident of receiving a “slow clap”. Of course, that wasn’t to be. All I saw on the faces of the panelists was mild amusement. Uh-oh! Q & A starts and Muther asks, “There are so many similar service providers available, especially in India and Philippines. Why would I invest in your company?” My heart in mouth, I blanked out for a moment. But only for a moment. Until that time I believed it was the fact that we were affordable, cost-effective, and all those boring words every business throws at you. But right at that moment I knew why Women’s Digital League was different. More or less, this is what I told them …

If you are looking for the most affordable service, you can find many that beat WDL on rates hands down. If you are looking for a service with a clear niche like writing or concierge solutions, there are many others doing wonderful work at much lower rates. Born out of frustration with the lack of choices available for a “respectable” job for women and an innate abhorrence of accepting “fate” as a reason for not doing anything to make things better, WDL had no choice but to turn out the way it has. It’s a social enterprise endeavor. Simple as that! We only employ educated, skilled women to work from home on digital tasks. I strongly believe that if women are empowered they can be a strong catalyst in bringing a positive change in society. I was inside the State Dept and it wasn’t the best of times with the guy on their most wanted list killed only 2 weeks ago in Pakistan but I couldn’t help saying that if the mothers are strong, both emotionally and financially, they will raise more stable families instead of the tide of “crazy fanatics” we see now.

The world needs ventures like WDL despite there being some very negative connotations around the word “Outsourcing”. We have to be able to see the bigger picture. Is outsourcing only meant to make the rich richer and take work away from people who deserve it more and pass it on to someone less skilled? I am not going to argue the case of stolen employment opportunities for those in the developed countries; very frankly, I also don’t know what effect it is having the world over. But in my own small world, it’s changing lives. Small changes with big impacts. I am not going to share the stories of these women and sound like I was cashing on their hardships. That’s not my intention and I won’t say more, but for those living in Pakistan – you know what it means to be able to work from home doing tasks that challenge you and give you a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, making you realize your education was not in vain. I speak from the heart … that’s how it made me feel.

If you need someone to do your digital tasks and do them well, and paying $3/hr is a steal then WDL is what you might want to look at. For most financiers, this whole speech is not impressive enough to make them want to throw their money at you. But I also won’t even DREAM of taking money from someone who only wants to see how we are going to double the returns on that investment. It will have to be someone who is as passionate about the idea behind WDL as I am. If I never find her, no worries. I’ll do what someone said to me: “You can do business the rich (wo)man’s way and gamble a $100k on your idea, or you can do business the poor (wo)man’s way and make it a success with sheer belief, energy and talent.”

WDL, for me, is already a success because it’s not an idea any more. It’s a reality! I took the initiative and said “I’ll never know if it’ll work unless I try”. Some day, if not me, someone else will pick the idea, find my notes useful, learn from my experience, the mistakes I made, the things that worked and that didn’t, and reach more lives with it – and I assure you I am happy being the nameless, faceless person who conceived it. Maybe this self-depreciating attitude won’t take me far … and then maybe it would … will find out. Until then … I chug away …

BYEeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

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