Miles away from the mecca of startups, deep in the bustling alleys of Pakistani cities, a new breed of young, innovative entrepreneurs is emerging through a myriad of obstacles. From creative mobile apps, trendy fashion e-shops to ingenious technical and engineering solutions, startups in Pakistan have their eyes set on the future and are changing the local economic landscape, albeit gradually. These innovative entrepreneurs from all over the country — and other unlikely places like India, Turkey and China — are the subject of American writer Elmira Bayrasli’s new book, From The Other Side of the World, which stems from her belief that the next Silicon Valley or Steve Jobs could most likely come from these eastern countries. The book — which hit stores on September 8 — mentions seven recurring problems faced by startups in the developing world and narrates inspiring stories of seven entrepreneurs who overcame them and acquired success.
Elmira first visited Pakistan back in 2010 to assess the entrepreneurial potential of the country. She has profiled Monis Rahman of Rozee.pk fame in her book. Monis left his cushy job in Silicon Valley to start an internet-based business in Lahore. “He was brought up abroad and had a dream job at Intel, working alongside the creators of the microchip,” says the author. “But he decided to move to Pakistan with his parents to use his education and skills in his home country.” Rahman arrived in Lahore in 2004, established Naseeb Network and went on to start Rozee.pk — Pakistan’s leading online job portal. Bayrasli admits she mentions Monis in her book for he exemplifies the type of entrepreneurs present in Pakistan today. “Monis is rewriting Pakistan’s narrative for the West as well as for fellow Pakistanis who are stuck in the belief that things are difficult here,” Elmira states, explaining Rahman’s success is in contrast with the negative images of Pakistan in the Western media which fuel the impression that being an entrepreneur would be impossible in the country. Elmira recalls how Rahman once told her that there is so much more to life in Pakistan than terrorism. “He said 5% of Pakistan’s life gets 95% of media coverage in the West,” she says.
Five years ago, Elmira also co-authored a report entitled Creating a Place for the Future upon the request of Dr Nadeem-ul-Haque, then director of the Planning Commission of Pakistan. For this, she visited Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and immersed herself in the startup ecosystem of Pakistan. The American author, who saw firsthand the numerous challenges an entrepreneur has to overcome in order to succeed, believes the trying conditions in Pakistan make the person ‘scrappy and innovative’.
“Scarcity is the mother of invention,” Elmira explains. “Because of all the challenges, businesses in Pakistan are creating unique solutions to their problems.” According to her, entrepreneurs in the West are ‘victims of convenience’. “They are certainly far ahead but because of all the comforts of the developed world, they are not forced to think creatively to reach their consumers. Entrepreneurs in Pakistan, however, have to work through their numerous limitations and come up with unusual ways of problem solving,” she says. Knowing innovation doesn’t happen in isolation, Elmira sights a lack of creative and collaborative spaces one of the biggest problems faced by entreprenuers in Pakistan — a point made abundantly clear in the report from 2010.
With her new book, Elmira wants to change mindsets of the West and ‘the other side’. “In West, when we talk about entrepreneurship, we think of Silicon Valley, of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and of technology. But when we talk about startups in other parts of the world, we think of small-scale, handcraft businesses when that is not the case,” she says. “Entrepreneurs in non-Western countries are thinking big; they are global-minded with a global influence.” Elmira further wants Pakistanis who are discouraged by the dismal conditions in their country to take inspiration from the change makers and follow suit. “I want them to feel ‘if they can do it, I can do it’,” she hopes. As inspiring startup stories continue to surface across, Elmira advises entrepreneurs to remember that entrepreneurship is not about technology but progress. “It is not about creating a cool gadget but solving problems and adding value,” she says, adding that inventions should take societies forward and improve the standard of living. “Look at the creations of our time — from computers to smartphones or even Facebook. They have made our lives better and added value.”
Elmira calls on business giants from the West to not dismiss what’s brewing on the other side of the world and see how people are solving problems here. “The West needs to understand entrepreneurship is not the same everywhere and that every place is unique with a different geography and culture. The West should see how others are creating unique solutions for their unique challenges.”
Ferya Ilyas is a senior subeditor at The Express Tribune. She tweets @ferya_ilyas
Published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, January 10th, 2016.