Part I: What Makes America Great
It’s the year 1780 and Eliza Schuyler is at New York’s Winter’s Ball. She is single, in her early 20s and is one of the most sought after women in New York. Everybody’s dancing and the band is playing when a handsome young officer from the American Revolutionary Army walks in, and takes her breath away. This is the story of one of the founding fathers of the US, Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler, that’s been popularized in the recent Broadway musical Hamilton.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this story, especially in the context of the elections when many of our volunteers and donors felt anxious about their future in this country. I’ve also been thinking about what it means for immigrants in this country, and for us as an immigrant organization.
Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean and at a very young age loses both his parents. He raises enough money to get on a ship to New York. Determined to rise above his station he enlists in George Washington’s revolutionary army to fight for American independence against the British.
He is invited to a ball where he meets Eliza. Together they start an unlikely romance. Hamilton is broke and she is the daughter of one of America’s wealthiest businessmen. He is an orphan and a Creole immigrant and so he has no social status. She is part of New York’s elite. But Hamilton is persistent. He writes Eliza letters every day and soon wins her heart. Eventually he goes to meet her wealthy father and asks, “Can I marry your daughter?”
In many other places of the world, this love story would not be possible, because it is impossible for outsiders to integrate into their host countries. But in America, Eliza’s father, impressed by his intelligence, accepts Hamilton’s rishta proposal.
It shows America, even at its earliest days was an accepting country where family status and your past did not matter. Hamilton’s story reminds us that despite ugly rhetoric, this is a country that has embraced immigrants since its founding. And it has also in turn been shaped by immigrants. After the election, I also wanted to understand what we represent to those who were not Pakistani.
I reached out to one of our volunteers who is non-Pakistani. His name is Eitan Zohar and he is one of our most amazing designers. He has been volunteering for us for three years now. I called him up and I asked him. Why do you as a Jewish-Canadian guy from Morocco volunteer for Pakathon?
Eitan didn’t really know much about Pakistan and didn’t really have any Pakistani friends before joining. One of the projects Eitan has worked on is helping us create our brand personality. So figuring out, if our brand was a person, how would they talk and feel? During the project brainstorming session, someone brought up the word jugaar. And then someone had to explain that word to Eitan.
For those of you who don’t know, this word means a quick fix, or innovate, and it captures our work and our culture as an organization and as a country. We work hard and during our complexity things break and we improvise. When Pakistan was founded in 1947 it had very little resources and its leadership had to do the same and improvise. We make things work when there is no reason for them to work.
This same spirit was evident at the founding of this country. After the US constitution was drafted, all the thirteen former colonies had to ratify it. Some of them had reservations. Hamilton writes a series of essays explaining the US constitution to the rest of the country and why they should adopt it. I think it is very poetic that the outsider immigrant explains America’s most cherished values to itself.
Similarly, although our focus is on uplifting Pakistan, half of our operations are carried out in the US and Canada. Because of this unique position of being situated in two hemispheres, we have an unexpected opportunity. Through the example of our jugaar and service we too can remind America and Pakistan of its values. I am proud that our brand personality is a mix of our Pakistani heritage and the artistic input of a Moroccan-Canadian Jewish guy. I believe we have the opportunity to remind America that it is a diverse melting pot. I believe we have the opportunity to remind Pakistan that it must live up to its potential. Through our work we can start conversations that bring together people from different backgrounds.
Part II: The Story of Lafayette
There is another hero in the story of Hamilton that is very close to Pakathon’s work. This is Hamilton’s colleague, Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette is a French immigrant who leads America’s revolutionary war. He gets command under George Washington and leads the American forces to victory against the British. His story is especially heroic because after winning the American revolution in the new world he goes back to his native France. He then goes on to take part in the French revolution and helps transition his country away from the monarchy.
Like Lafayette, many expat Pakistanis have answered the call of duty to go back to Pakistan as Returners. While the heroes of the eighteenth century used politics as a way to reform their countries, today’s leaders are using the power of business and commerce. We have been blessed to work with some really amazing people who have made this journey. People like Hira Rizvi, an engineer at Georgia Tech.
When she was growing up in Pakistan, her father would coordinate with her friend’s parents to drop her to school because he didn’t trust public transport. Hira never considered herself an entrepreneur but when she came to our hackathon she was so inspired that she ended up staying till midnight on the first night. Her experience growing up became the basis for She’Kab which is a carpooling service for professional women in Lahore. She moved back to Pakistan and has launched the company which is on track to do $40K in revenue this year.
Pakathon’s mission is to reverse the brain drain by helping these Returners succeed. We have launched a Returner’s program which provides one on one mentoring for these expats who are moving back from North America to Pakistan, to help them with this move. For those teams that did not win, we will have an application process on our website. I want to tell all our finalists that if Hira can do it, so can you. And Pakathon is here to help you on your mission.
This text has been transcribed from the closing remarks given at Pakathon's Global Finals that took place at Washington DC's Impact Hub in November, 2016. The full version of this speech is available in audio format below.
Asad Badruddin is the co-founder of Pakathon and he lives in San Francisco.