It wasn’t easy narrowing down this list to feature just five superstar women entrepreneurs. With legions of unsung heroes—who happen to be women—in many different sectors in diverse areas of the country, we’ve profiled a handful of change-makers who are impacting Pakistani society through their vision, hard work and grit.
Sarah Belal, Founder of Justice Project Pakistan
Bold idea: Represent the poorest prisoners facing the harshest punishments in the courts of law and the court of public opinion.
Sarah Belal is Director of Justice Project Pakistan, a position she attained after completing her law degree from Oxford University with a focus on human rights law. Having gained her license to practice in Pakistan in 2008, she has been leading the JPP team since 2009. A fierce advocate for the underrepresented and the voiceless, Sarah points to empathy as the driving force behind all her efforts.
Founded in 2009, Lahore-based Justice Project Pakistan is a legal action charity that provides direct legal representation to the country’s most vulnerable inmates in the criminal justice system. The organization supports prisoners on death row, victims of police torture, individuals with mental illness, and those who have been held beyond the rule of law in undisclosed jails. Along with providing pro bono legal aid, the non-profit identifies lapses in the justice system by working to ensure that at-risk prisoners have access to fair trials, and by setting valuable precedents in Pakistan’s legal system.
JPP has been responsible for the release of 39 wrongfully detained prisoners of Pakistani origin at Bagram Prison in Afghanistan, a result of three years of negotiating with the American and Pakistani governments. Despite the uncertainty and inevitable losses of some cases, Belal maintains a resolute resilience, coupled with an optimistic attitude about the future of criminal justice in Pakistan.
“I don’t believe in doomed philosophies. I believe in getting out there and doing something about it. I think we are faced with a lot of challenges, but there are some incredible people doing positive things that demonstrate we are not the country that we were 20 years ago. I plan on doing what I’m doing now for the rest of my life. I won’t give up.”
Shazia Khan, Founder of EcoEnergy
Bold idea: Distribute safe, healthy, environmentally friendly solar energy to Pakistanis living in off-grid areas of the country.
Shazia Khan founded EcoEnergy, a nonprofit that provides people living in rural areas of Pakistan access to alternative energy solutions. Her mission is to provide safer, healthier and more environmentally friendly alternatives to kerosene and wood, which have been shown to cause severe deforestation in the country. Over the past four years, EcoEnergy has participated in three accelerator programs, and has sold 12,000 solar energy products. Shazia, along with co-founder Jeremy Higgs, are widely known as experts in the off-grid energy sector. With offices in Islamabad and Washington DC, the organization leverages policy-level change to impact on-the-ground results.
An environmental lawyer by training, Shazia has worked as a consultant at the World Bank on projects managed by the departments of Global Environment Facility and Africa Energy. Her mission with EcoEnergy is to distribute last-mile energy services in Pakistan to the population of around 70 million people who are living off-grid nationwide. Future plans include expanding their work into rural communities outside of Pakistan in the South Asia and South East Asian regions.
Zehra Ali, Founder of Ghonsla
Bold idea: Warm up and regulate the temperatures of the households of eight million people living in mountainous northern Pakistan.
Due to the poor thermal performance of materials commonly used to build walls and roofs for homes in Pakistan, people living in these houses are exposed to severe fluctuations in temperatures. With limited access to reliable energy or clean insulation products, households spend up to 30 percent of their disposable income on harmful fuels such as wood, which increases indoor pollution levels when burned.
After completing her graduate education from MIT in technology and policy, Zehra Ali used her combined passion for efficient energy solutions and design to found Ghonsla (which means “nest” in Urdu) to provide long-term, affordable insulation solutions to the country’s largely ignored markets in northern Pakistan.
The company’s signature insulation solution consists of a two-foot square and one-inch thick solid panel constructed from recycled paper and board. These panels can easily be installed as insulation under roofs and between walls using a standard metal grid. By installing these panels in their homes, residents can decrease their heating costs by 30 percent. The cost of insulation can be covered in the form of energy savings accumulated over the span of two years. Having sold their products to more than 200 homes, while having installed more than 100,000 square feet of insulation, the company plans to expand their services to an additional 20 households per month. By focusing on the largely remote regions in the north, where electricity and heating solutions are already limited, their work is providing households with energy saving and insulation solutions that are much needed.
Sheba Najmi, Founder of Code For Pakistan
Bold idea: Bring together developers to solve social problems using technology.
Sheba Najmi is the founder of Code For Pakistan, a nonprofit that brings together designers, entrepreneurs and software developers to strategically develop solutions to some of Pakistan’s most pressing social problems. A user experience designer and product strategist by profession, Sheba has previously worked for Yahoo! and she is a former Code For America fellow.
After launching in 2013, Code For Pakistan has hosted civic hackathons in four major Pakistani cities, the outcome of which has been the creation of open source mobile applications, such as Savaree, the country’s first mobile carpooling service.
Current projects for the organization include coordinating with the national government to implement an open data policy, which Sheba hopes will open the doors for social innovation and impact amongst Pakistan’s youth population. The organization’s six month fellowship program, which accepts 20 fellows in each cycle, is sponsored by the World Bank and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa IT Board. This program is designed to engage emerging developers with the aim of launching creative apps that solve civic issues in sectors such as healthcare, transportation and education.
Hira Rizvi, Founder of She’Kab
Bold idea: Provide safe, reliable transportation for professional women in Islamabad.
Hira Rizvi, a Georgia Tech graduate and Fullbright Scholar, did not consider herself an entrepreneur. But during a brainstorming session, she remembered her childhood experience of carpooling to school in Pakistan. Her parents had to coordinate rides with her friends instead of letting her use public transport, which they (and many others) considered unsafe for women. Seeing a business and social impact opportunity, she developed her initial business plan for She’Kab.
Hira’s business, She-Kab is a subscription-based carpooling service that connects professional women to background-checked drivers who are part of Islamabad’s existing taxi infrastructure—at Pakathon’s 2014 workshop in Georgia Tech.
After graduation, she moved into an accelerator program in Pakistan and successfully launched her service. Pakathon continues to offer mentorship and support for her growing company, which now employs three people and has provided more than 800 rides.
Vajiha Sipra lives in Toronto and is part of Pakathon's Global team.
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