We asked one of our Returners to divulge details about her experiences starting her company in Islamabad. Hira Rizvi attended our workshop in 2014 while a student at Georgia Tech, where she developed the idea for She’Kab, a ride-sharing platform for professional women in Islamabad. After hearing friends and co-workers complain about limited options for safe commuting, Hira wanted to use her technical background to come up with an innovative solution. Here’s what she has to say.
What was the turning point in your decision to establish She’Kab in Islamabad and work on the company full-time?
I worked in Pakistan for two years before heading abroad to pursue higher education. While both of my workplaces: a software house, and a K-12 school were very different overtly, the women in these workplaces were strikingly similar. In the sense, they talked about similar struggles and problems. What stood out for me was that most women without personal cars used to complain about decent transportation options in the twin cities. It was very visible that women were spending many times more on commute to the workplace compared to men- sometimes, even for the same distance. Later in the US, where I was pursuing a master’s degree in Public Policy, I was deeply interested in working on the intersection of ‘Science’ and the ‘Public’. In second year of grad school, I participated in a hackathon for Pakistan called Pakathon. This was when sharing economy companies like Uber, Lyft, Airbnb were being extensively discussed in classrooms. Inspired by their models, we came up with a similar idea and we called it ‘Sabki Taxi’- a taxi for all. We thought it would work much the same way as other ridesharing services, but considering the very different cultures, practices and problems of the developing world, we opted for using taxis(owing to higher levels of unemployment in Pakistan) that would be made many times safer. As much potential as it had, we didn’t pursue the idea later. It was not until April when I read an article in the Express Tribune on Mrs. Zahida Kazmi, that I started rethinking about this. However, by now, I was sure of what I wanted- ‘A safe taxi service for women, by women’. I was soon back in Pakistan, and working on She`Kab full-time.
How did you transition from being a student in America to working as an entrepreneur in Pakistan?
Once I realized that I was passionate about doing this, I got in touch with the technology incubator at Georgia Tech. I valued spending time with mentors and professors there greatly, particularly because there was so much to learn there. I had no background in entrepreneurship, and just the concept of taking a risk and failing seemed incredible to me. I started doing my market research- conducted surveys and read up everything relevant that I could find about ride-sharing.
I also started reading up on Pakistan's entrepreneurial ecosystem. To my amazement, a lot was happening there. In less than a decade, organizations and networks like Plan 9, Nest I/O, LUMS Center for Entrepreneurship, TiE etc. had transformed the ecosystem. During my meticulous research, I read about the WeCreate Center, which had recently launched in my hometown in February 2015. I read about a program that was accepting application, and decided to give it a shot; even though it was coinciding with my final exams. I passed all the interviews, took my last exam on the 1st of May 2015 and booked my ticket to Islamabad for the 10th of May. I started working on She`Kab from the 13th of May and the service was made operational on 15th of August 2015.
What role did mentors play in your decision to establish She’Kab?
Mentors and connectors have played a critical role in my decision to establish She’Kab. The first few were professors/serial entrepreneurs at the Technology Incubator at GT who sat down with us weekly, listened to our model, and asked us to refine it bit by bit. Their feedback and insights were very valuable, and were the prime reason we thought we could start She'Kab. Moving back to Pakistan, I was particularly impressed by TiE's Network and their desire to see bigger and better companies here. A good number of middle aged men and women, all wanting to give back to Pakistan, would spend hours with aspiring entrepreneurs, sometimes more excited about our ideas than us. They wanted us to tweak the name, conduct more rigorous market research, introduced us to their connections and provided us constant counselling. However, what an entrepreneur needs the most is a network of like minded individuals, they can associate with, learn from and grow with. This is why incubators, accelerators, and networks are extremely important today. For me, this was the Acumen Network, which has helped me learn from a bunch of pretty cool change makers, instilled a clarity of vision and a deeper sense of purpose which has helped me and She`Kab immensely.
What advice would you give to expats who are contemplating making a similar journey?
Secondly, there is so much to be done in today's Pakistan that whatever you aspire to do, or can do for the country- no matter how big or small, can be a success here- sometimes even with very little hard-work.
What’s next for you and She’Kab?
Currently, we are working to perfect the model in the twin cities. Next we want to scale to other cities of Pakistan. We are also working to join hands with a company in the middle east that is working along the same lines. There are around 70,000-100,000 women in the twin cities alone, that are in need of such services and around 50, 000 cabs that can fill the market need. We have a lot else planned but in all that is planned, the good news is that She'Kab would continue to be a service for women. At She'Kab, we believe that empowering women and girls to lead is crucial for a society to progress and we will continue to work on innovative ways of doing that.
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