A writer, entrepreneur and the face of Pakistan’s IT and start-up ecosystem, Jehan Ara, President of Pakistan Software Houses Association ([email protected]) for IT and IT-enabled services, recently led a delegation of 41 people to Taipei for APICTA Awards where Team Pakistan won nine awards – highest in the 16-year history of the regional awards. Known as ‘The Big Bird’ at The Nest i/o – [email protected]’s tech incubator, Ara shares her views on the IT industry and the tech start-up culture in a conversation with Profit.
Profit: Tell us about your professional journey so far that eventually led you to become the face of tech-entrepreneurship in Pakistan?
Jehan Ara: Well, I never started off being a techie. I still am not one. I started my journey as a journalist and wrote for a newspaper in Hong Kong for a year. Journalism in Hong Kong meant going out at night and all sorts of things which my parents thought were not suitable for me. So I agreed to quit.
Then I went into advertising and marketing. These kinds of things open up opportunities for you. I started a [monthly] magazine for a shipping company and worked on it for about three years, later moved to UAE and worked for Gulf News in the advertising marketing department. I even sold life insurance for a year. I still continue to do freelance writing.
Then, we moved back to Hong Kong where I became managing director of a media company. I was running the company for whole of the Asia Pacific for nine years. [Then] my dad, who was a banker, retired and my parents were moving back to Pakistan. I thought that one of us should move back with them and we came here in 1993-1994.
Profit: How did you finally enter the field of IT?
Jehan Ara: I started a multimedia company called Enabling Technologies with a partner Zaheer Kidwai after I came to Pakistan; that’s where everything came together. Multimedia was an amalgamation of text, video and advertising. Communications was basically where it was at. Fortunately, that became a part of IT. That’s how I entered the field of IT, sort of through the back door.
Profit: How were you selected to represent Pakistan at Global Entrepreneurship Summit? What did you speak on during the summit?
Jehan Ara: I have been speaking at some events domestically and earlier this year, I was invited to Columbia University to speak at an event about the technology sector and what’s going on here in the entrepreneurship space. Before that, I went to a summit in Milan where we talked about the impact of entrepreneurship on the local economy.
But, this [GES] came as a total surprise because it’s a major conference, [and] this was the 7th year it was being held. [Every year] there are a thousand delegates who attend it, and it is hosted by the US President. When you receive an invitation out of the blue, the first thing you do is check whether it’s actually legit or somebody is just pulling your leg. I checked. It was a legitimate request.
I felt it’s a great opportunity for me to go and talk about Pakistan and what we’re doing here. It was an awesome experience meeting delegates from across the world comprising of entrepreneurs, investors, founders and professionals. I was a speaker at the summit where I spoke about “Investing in South Asia”.
Profit: How long have you been participating in the APICTA Awards? And how was this year in terms of Team Pakistan’s performance?
Jehan Ara: We have been participating in the APICTA Awards since 2003. This year is indeed the best year in terms of the number of awards that we have ever won, with the team bagging three gold and six silver awards. I led the delegation of 41 people that included 5 judges and mentors, an Economy Coordinator and participants from across 4 cities of Pakistan, including established IT companies, start-ups, university students and school students.
Profit: What role is Pakistan Software Houses Association ([email protected]) playing in the IT sector? And how did you become its full-time president?
Jehan Ara: At [email protected], we have several jobs and one of them is to engage with the government to make sure that the right policies are in place for the growth of the IT sector. We also help companies scale up so we create networking opportunities, we talk about the work they do, and we provide access to capacity building workshops.
I joined [email protected] as a member because I felt that if you’re a part of any industry, you should also be a part of the association. I used to go to all the monthly meetings, listen to what everyone had to say and be very vocal about what I thought. Since I was so vocal, they asked me to run for the elections and I became Vice President of [email protected] Eventually, I became its president in 2001.
In 2008, they asked me to join full time. I was a volunteer until then. I was fed up of Enabling Technologies. It was also doing well but it was same all the time and [email protected] was what I was spending most of my time on. So I decided to accept their offer and on January 1st in 2008, I officially took over as the CEO.
I initiated some new projects at [email protected], like the ICT Awards, the Launch Pad program and The Nest i/o, which is the latest. I thought they needed visibility, not just domestically but also internationally. Recently, [email protected] held its 13th Annual ICT Awards in which we recognised innovation in the IT sector. We have also published our annual IT Salary Survey and are about to publish our Women in IT Survey
Profit: Tell us about your latest venture – The Nest i/o?
Jehan Ara: Start-up interest came because we thought let’s go talk to young people and find out why they are not starting companies. And one of the things that kept coming back was that they don’t know how to start a company. They know how to innovate, how to create technology but not how to start a business. So they need mentors, access to a network of people and investments.
We decided to start this place and it has been good. We’ve been able to help a lot of young people and we hope to continue doing that.
The Nest i/o has been represented at Startup Istanbul, the Web Summit in Lisbon and more recently at APICTA. Our start-ups are gaining attention and respect from several quarters both locally and internationally. The fourth cohort of start-ups graduated from The Nest i/o a few weeks ago and we will be starting our new cohort in the last week of December.
Profit: Only 14 per cent of females are in the IT sector according to [email protected] Employment Survey. What is the reason for such a small-scale female representation in the industry?
Jehan Ara: There are fewer women in science, technology and engineering worldwide. Although, we have seen a growth internationally in women starting their own companies, it’s still much smaller than it should be.
In Pakistan, I feel that it is the university and the families that should tell young women that they can do whatever they want. Unfortunately, nobody tells them that these opportunities are also available for them to explore.
When we opened The Nest i/o, only one woman-led start-up joined. I didn’t understand why that was the case. I then went to all the tech and business universities and asked how many women would want to start their own companies. You would see the young men saying they would want to start a company, maybe many of them will not. But the women, they weren’t any who raised their hands. I asked why, and they said they didn’t think this was an option for them.
I think it’s just a question of them not realising. Yes, it’s not easy to start a company, even for young men it’s not. But in the tech sector it’s one of the easiest things to do. You have a laptop, you have an internet connection and you can even start your company from home.
Profit: What can be done to help boost women participation in the IT sector?
Jehan Ara: In the previous cohort (batch) we had 30% women. The new cohort joins in the last week of this month and although we are shortlisting start-ups, it looks as if we will have 40% women-led start-ups, which is a great sign. As women realise that this is an opportunity for them, they can start businesses from home and then scale up to move into offices. I think it still needs to grow a lot and we need to encourage women.
There are tech companies now that are providing day care facilities and flexible hours. They are providing transportation so that more women will enter the workforce. As more of that happens, I think more women will join companies that provide a safe and productive environment for them, and more women will start their own companies with this environment.
Profit: How many women are at managerial positions in the corporate sector, particularly in IT? Do you think more women are moving up the ladder?
Jehan Ara: Now you see more and more women, especially at project management and at human resource managerial level, because they are very good at what they do. It is increasing but still it’s not satisfactory. I think it needs to grow more.
I think some of us have to play that role of convincing young women that they can do it and then they will prove that they are much better than those women who were there before. It’s not going to happen on its own.
Profit: We see a number of women-owned businesses on social media. What is your perception of the phenomenon?
Jehan Ara: It’s just easier to start a business [online]. And it’s not just women. Men are also starting businesses on Facebook or social media.
I think these businesses start at home, but they will not stay at home. It’s just an easier way to start a business. You don’t have to pay rent or utilities, you already have a room that you’re operating out of. You’re not hiring people at that stage, but as you start to hire people you will move into offices, you will raise investments. I think even investors are also beginning to see that women have a lot of passion for whatever they do and they have a lot of drive. In fact, they are investing in women-led businesses.
Profit: Our society is more job-oriented. How do you think incubators like yours can make a difference on that count?
Jehan Ara: One of the reasons I think we don’t see many more companies emerging is that as a country we are risk averse. We think that if we fail it’s the end of the world. Whereas around the world failure is encouraged, unless you try you’ll never start something that takes off. Not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur, not everyone is cut out that way but there are young people who are [capable] and I think they face a lot of resistance from families. They face a lot of resistance from the community.
When they come into incubators we tell them: “Hey, you could fail, right? But fail fast, learn from it and then start something else. Don’t be afraid of failure. If you’re afraid of failure, you will not take the steps you need to take to create a successful business.”
Pakistan has a very large population (approximately 200 million) and we’re never going to have enough jobs. We need to have people to create jobs and now, using technology we can do it much better. We have to change mindsets by convincing parents and faculty to talk about entrepreneurship as an option.
Profit: Major start-ups of Pakistan including Pakwheels, Rozee.pk, Zameen.com were not produced by incubators. Do you think incubators really matter?
Jehan Ara: There are start-ups coming up. Yes, many of the companies that started in the tech sector like Systems Limited, NetSol, and TRG, all those came out on their own. There were people who decided to start their own businesses and that’s fine. That’s always been the case around the world, but because we don’t see enough of them.
Young people have so much [talent] that they are already doing well without us. If we just offer little bit assistance, we’ll see that they are the ones who’re going to kick start this economy. All we do is facilitate and provide them the knowledge that they need, and give access to mentors. We have the support of organizations like Google and Samsung. The US State Department has also given us a grant which allows us to do this without charging young people anything.
Technology is easy, the hard part is business. We connect you to a mentor who has done [business] and he tells you about logistics, distributions, returns, and what kind of people to hire. Incubators are playing that role. When you’re at a university you cannot have access to people who, in addition to being mentors, can be your potential investors or customers. That’s the role incubators are playing. There will still be lots of successful entrepreneurs who will come on their own.
Profit: How many start-ups have gone through The Nest i/o?
Jehan Ara: We have had about 60 start-ups and most of them are still surviving. Maybe, one or two people have decided to go and do their masters after they have gone through the incubation cycle while others are generating revenues and some have raised investments through mentors who came to this space. Even after they leave, they know this place is available for them.
I think we are creating a community of people who are not only successful themselves but will help each other. It feels good that you’re creating a community of people who are there for each other.
Profit: What challenges women entrepreneurs face in particular?
Jehan Ara: I think that women everywhere have multiple roles, like women do. Women have roles and family expectations. So anything that they do requires a lot more effort. Starting up a business is like you have to be at it 18 hours a day if you want to make it successful. Women who goal for it actually put in a lot of time and are very driven, but I think they can do it because multitasking is the strength of women.
There are other challenges in a country like Pakistan, security challenges, networking challenges. Also, when they go looking for money, a lot of banks here don’t give them the loans that are required. So I think the support structure needs to be a little better.
Profit: What are the main challenges facing the IT sector?
Jehan Ara: A lot of tech-companies work for customers around the world and all they get to see about Pakistan is negative. They are a little nervous to give business to Pakistan which has been a challenge. Yet, we are growing at 30% to 40% every year. With the infrastructure, quality of human resource, and with now some capital being available, we’ve seen that IT companies have been able to draw investments from not only within Pakistan but also abroad. I think things can only look up.
I would request our government that the only way the tech sector can grow is if they are facilitated and no extra taxes are imposed. Right now, we are one of the sectors that pay heavy income tax because we pay heavy salaries, whether it be general sales tax, provincial taxes, federal taxes, or withholding taxes, it keeps the companies from growing. Start-up companies need first three years of their journey to grow, and they don’t have that kind of revenues that result in paying several taxes.
We are talking to the government and have received positive feedback from both Federal Board of Revenue and Ministry of IT. And also, we have been talking to the local government. This sector needs a little more nurturing. Other thing is to promote these companies and make sure that unnecessary regulation is not put in the way.
Profit: With the growth of 3G and 4G, how do you see the future of IT-based entrepreneurship in Pakistan?
Jehan Ara: Up until now the market was limited to those with laptops, but with the emergence and use of 3G and 4G, growth in Pakistan is very high. The kinds of products some of our companies are producing are for smart phones. There are a lot more companies developing their games and products for either smart phones or tablets. When the infrastructure in terms of internet improves, it gives us an opportunity to both develop and test our products to sell them internationally.
Profit: You have been lobbying for Pakistan’s tech industry for quite some time now and recently, it seems we are getting international attention. What impact do you think it will have on the industry?
Jehan Ara: No amount of lobbying is enough. Several of us have been doing this for years. And every little effort makes a difference. Increasingly, the perception of Pakistan as an IT destination has increased. Our innovations are being recognised and we are seeing increased interest in terms of business and investment.
Profit: What would you advise those who are looking towards becoming entrepreneurs?
Jehan Ara: They owe it to themselves to try it at least once, to give it a shot if that’s what they want to do. If they don’t succeed, what have they lost? They have learnt something from the exercise. And if they don’t want to start their own companies, they can go into companies and try to be entrepreneurial there.
If you haven’t tried it then you’ll always wonder what would have happened if you had. You don’t want to grow old and say, “Oh, I wish I had!”