“Technology is a great equaliser and an enabler” — Sadaffe Abid Founder and CEO, CIRCLE Pakistan
A fairly new social entrepreneur in Karachi, Sadaffe Abid’s serene, petite demeanour belies a trailblazing career, with significant achievements already under her belt. She studied at Mount Holyoke College of Liberal Arts in Massachusetts, USA, on a scholarship — which she says provided her the education abroad for which her family could not have mustered the financial resources. She began by the traditional route most Pakistani parents hope their children will take: studying business and economics, majoring in economics and international relations. Alongside, she availed the opportunity to examine interesting disciplines, like the arts, philosophy and religion.
With a deep interest in the development sector since her college years, on her return to Pakistan, Abid joined a consulting firm that worked for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which belongs to Shahid Kardar, economist and former governor of the State Bank. The job gave her the chance to travel to Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Bahawalpur, the slums of Rawalpindi, and other places people have very little exposure to. Abid observed up close the day-to-day lives, aspirations and challenges of the Pakistani family. She also discovered, to her disappointment, that the large projects in place in these areas had created no visible impact.
After a few years, on the recommendation of Shahid Kardar himself, she delved into a new set-up called Kashf Foundation. Despite doubts voiced by others about the new firm, it was the vision and mission behind Kashf — microfinance for women — that inspired her to not only join, but also to take a major pay cut. From earning a monthly stipend of Rs 30,000 as a consultant, her salary dropped to a paltry Rs 7,500 — even as she acquired additional responsibilities such as handling operations, research and creating a networking portfolio. However, as one of the founders and a core-team member, Abid grew with the organisation for 12 years, going from Operations Manager, to Chief Operating Officer, and then for two years as Kashf’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
By that time Kashf had become Pakistan’s first microfinance organisation to become financially viable, with 300,000 female clients and had been ranked by Forbes as one of the top 50 microfinance institutions in the world 2007. And it was at this juncture that Abid chose to leave Kashf in order to pursue a Masters degree and explore new avenues. She did all of the above and then moved on to establish a new social enterprise focused on women called CIRCLE. Here Sadaffe Abid speaks of her journey and CIRCLE.
Why did you leave Kashf?
Being single at that time, my entire focus had been my work, which was like my baby.
My grounding with Shahid Kardar taught me a systems-based approach and to analyse numbers which is so important in this field and often gets neglected. And since Kashf was a startup, it was the passion and idea that excited me, and the fact that I could see that the work I was doing was making a difference. That really anchored me and gave me a sense of gratitude.
Prior to leaving Kashf, I got a Chevening scholarship to do my Masters, but I became the Chief Operating Officer around the same time. I was in a quagmire. Kashf was at its growth phase and I was enjoying leading it, but on the other hand there was this great scholarship. Since I wanted to be part of the growth at Kashf and take the organisation further, I ended up declining the scholarship in a very nice letter. Being unaccustomed to having a scholarship refused, they called me up to reconfirm if I had actually written the letter.
Two years later when I again applied for the Chevening scholarship, I got the interview call, and just at this time, coincidentally, I became the CEO of Kashf, so I declined the interview process because my heart was still in the organisation and I wanted to take it further. It was only after 12 years with Kashf that I felt maybe it was time to challenge myself differently. I also felt that in order for organisations to grow and have resilience, a change of leadership was important — and of course, Kashf founder, Roshaneh Zaffar, was there.
I was blessed when I got scholarships from both, the Harvard Kennedy School (of Public Affairs and Global Policy) and MIT Sloan School of Management Masters programme. I opted for the former.
I was away for a year at the Kennedy School, where I ended up meeting my husband. He had worked in London and was keen to work in the Middle East. I had an opportunity to work in New York, but since I wanted to start a life together with a partner, we ended up moving to Dubai. It was during our stay there for almost three years that I explored the idea of a new initiative.
Is that where the idea of CIRCLE emerged?
At the Kennedy School I studied Adaptive Leadership, which is one of the most influential courses on leadership in the entire Harvard community. This course was basically very influential in shaping my thinking.
Adaptive leadership gives you a basis to examine the challenges that are preventing people from making progress and how to move forward and mobilise people towards it.
As my Professor Heifetz says, by the time you are in your 30s, everyone has been burnt in some way and is carrying some scars. The adaptive leadership framework equips you to work on those challenges, so you can imagine how powerful it is. In my class of 100 there were people from very diverse backgrounds, countries and cultures. There would be a finance minister of a country, an entrepreneur, a journalist, an activist, a military person, etc. And along the way, I also became a teaching fellow.
While in Dubai, I thought this course has been so powerful for me, why not apply it in that region with women. And so, just as an experiment, I got women together from PricewaterhouseCoopers, DELL, the Sharjah Business Women Council and some women’s startups and ran a workshop with a colleague who joined me. What I discovered from this workshop came as quite a surprise. The attendees were capable European, American, Emarati women — and all underestimated themselves. It occurred to be that this was not a trend restricted to Pakistani women who are at the bottom of the pyramid. It was a shared feeling among all capable women. I researched, read and realised that this is a global phenomenon called the confidence gap.
Women in influential positions often attribute success to luck and other factors rather than giving themselves the credit or saying ‘I did it.’ Of course socialisation has a strong influence. For example, a female Pepsi Co Human Resources head had once shared that the men in the organisation would approach her to ask where their careers were headed, and when was the next promotion. Women would not ask, and when company promotions came she said, invariably capable women in the office did not apply for them — only because they thought they were not ready.
This really interested me. With two women I met at the Harvard Leadership course, Oriane Kets de Vries and Kelly Rappuchi, we discussed our lives, challenges and continued our discussions post-programme on Skype. It occurred to us that if we collaborated on something together, it could be very unique and interesting, and so we created the space in our busy lives to do that something. We are all from very different backgrounds — one is American, the other French and I’m Pakistani.
We did a retreat in London, where our Professor, Marty Linsky, very kindly joined us for some brainstorming sessions, and that is how the idea of CIRCLE emerged. To kick-start CIRCLE, Kelly came to Karachi in 2015 for our first programme — a panel-cum-workshop that we hosted on conversation around women in leadership at the Standard Chartered learning centre. We had the heads of corporations on the panel and the attendees were women from the workforce — Unilever, Engro, Standard Chartered and some startups.
Over two years ago, I moved to Karachi with my husband and it was exciting, because I have never lived in Karachi before. I didn’t miss Dubai at all because I found Karachi very invigorating, forward-looking, diverse, and entrepreneurial. Also, Karachiites were very welcoming, professional, open to ideas, and were taking an interest in the leadership programmes I had started running. I expanded CIRCLE and created CIRCLE Pakistan as a step forward, as I felt there were numerous ways one could make a difference.
What are the initiatives that CIRCLE is currently involved in?
Basically CIRCLE now has three big buckets. One is grooming more women leaders under the leadership programmes that we run. Our goal is getting more of them on boards in the leadership and supply chains of companies. We launched this under our flagship campaign called ‘#Elevate’ — which is bringing women’s voices to the table and increasing their visibility on panels and forums. We conduct workshops to hone their leadership skills, build their voice, and help them get access to mentors by networking.
While I was attending numerous business conferences where I was usually invited to speak, I started noticing to my surprise that there were hardly any other women speakers. I started compiling the data, and found that out of the top business conferences in 2015, less than 15 per cent of the speakers were women. Last year a private equity conference did not have a single woman speaker. Then there was a technology conference which only had a single woman speaker, who was a minister.
I was invited this year as part of civil society to the World Bank and International Finance Corporation to come and represent our work. There I got the opportunity to ask Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of IMF, the question: “We all know that having more women in leadership boosts the bottom line, yet we don’t have enough women leaders. What worked for you to rise to the top and thrive?” She replied, “It is very difficult to do it alone. You must have allies, amongst women and men,” and added, “You know men can get threatened. So I make sure that I don’t come across as too aggressive — and I use humour.” She also said that she had noticed that when a woman starts speaking in meetings, the men zone out and start getting on their phones. “I make sure I point out that women need to be heard also.”
That is how we started the #Elevate campaign, asking people to pledge the inclusion of more women because diversity is a must for more robust solutions, innovations and interesting new ideas.
Initially it entailed a lot of work, but since last year, the #Elevate campaign has taken off on social media and now I get tagged on Facebook whenever an event takes place without enough women on the panel. People also comment about CIRCLE’s Elevate campaign, and point to the database we have built of 200 women experts identified in different fields. That’s where we drew attention, but it is actually a global movement given the hashtag ‘#Manel’ (all male panel) and ‘#wherearethewomen’ for all male panels. We started using these hashtags to tie in with the global movement. We have had twitter chats and created a lot of buzz around it. Currently we have 1000 plus pledges to be more inclusive of women.
I learnt that one-off workshops don’t work, no matter how inspiring. People return to the same system in an unchanged environment. From encouraging women’s voices on panels, in leadership in boards, in supply chains, we have broadened the Elevate campaign to encourage a greater number of women in the formal workforce. Four companies, Engro, National Foods, Standard Chartered and K-Electric are working through Elevate to train their female employees.
The United Bank Ltd CEO, Sima Kamil, came to the launch of the leadership programme and she shared with the audience her journey as a young woman manager when she was asked to transfer to Lahore for two years, and she accepted without consent from her parents. I found her talk inspiring because no CEO talks like that. Women leaders bring a certain humility and a different perspective.
Pakistan only has under 25 per cent of the women in the formal workforce. They are the most underutilised potential of our country. So we are trying to get more companies to join our current Elevate cohort, mobilising CEOs to commit and be the champions of our three goals: getting more women on board, getting more women in supply chains and women’s employment.
Our second bucket is tech — women in STEM (Science, Technology, and Math). It is a very new and exciting initiative, in which we are starting to build a skilled women labour force, teaching coding and programming skills to our target group of underserved women. Pakistan has a young population, with over 60 per cent under the age of 30, not enough jobs, and women very under-utilised.
Have you spoken to students in universities or done a survey?
I have visited Jinnah Women’s University, NED, and several other universities in Karachi and found that a considerable number of women who graduate from there are not joining the workforce. The Jinnah Women’s University — an all-women’s college in Nazimabad — has calculated that roughly less than 15 per cent of their women graduates are joining the workforce. In NED, 50 per cent of the graduating engineering class were women, but less than 20 per cent are joining the workforce. People talk about issues in the rural areas, but this problem needs to be addressed in a city like Karachi first.
Speaking to these women, we found they face multiple issues like the mindsets of parents who don’t necessarily see careers as an option for their daughters. Other genuine concerns are mobility, workforce security, well-being and most of all, transportation. Parents need to have that sense of security for their daughters’ safety, which isn’t there. That’s where our policy-makers can really play a role. More affordable transport options are needed for women. Careem has made a difference, but several young women I spoke to say they only use it when absolutely necessary, otherwise it is unaffordable.
As a young analyst I had to work long hours, and I tried using rickshaws, but they consumed 40 per cent of my salary. Another option in Punjab is the mini-van, but it reserves only two seats for women. So often you have to wait long to get a seat, and then the journey is time-consuming. What would take me 30 minutes by car, took me an hour by van, and the last 15 minutes I had to walk, facing street harassment. And this is what millions of women have to experience all the time on the roads.
So we are trying to bring the power of technology to women. Technology is a great equaliser and an enabler. Millions of jobs will be opening up in technology and we have started with basic programming, coding and web development, which we will keep upgrading. We have started mobilisation in underserved communities, talking to women who are homebound. We want to reach out to them and also to those who are fresh out of second and third tier colleges.
Does this initiative give women the opportunity to work from home, provided they have access to a laptop and internet?
Yes, it opens that door and gives them that option once they complete the programme, and with some hand-holding, they can actually do freelance work. We are currently working on building partners for internships. The best graduates will be able to work for, and be mentored in, companies for eight weeks. We will have meet-ups with industry experts because we want to ensure the training is very relevant to the market — otherwise it won’t work. Industry linkage has to be very strong and robust. We are also aiming for entry level jobs as well as developing freelancers bringing project work to them that we would facilitate. Hence we are looking for small tech projects that we can bring to the cohort.
Another obstacle is our poor education system, and the English language that is taught. The women will need to learn it along with writing skills to communicate, so we have to work on these matters as well. What is exciting is that we are combining tech skills with life skills, problem solving, collaboration, teamwork and self-defense.
And my third bucket is entrepreneurship — that is supporting women startups and connecting them with mentors — successful women who are running businesses locally or internationally.
Where do you find women startups?
Women reach out to us and we have partnered with Nest i/o — a technology incubator and a community hub in Pakistan for budding entrepreneurs which provides space, infrastructure and facilities and a project of P@SHA’s (Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT & ITES). We have held sessions and gatherings in Nest i/o and Jehan Ara, the President of P@SHA whom I admire is, in fact, an advisor on our tech project.
I brought the She Loves Tech Global Startup Competition to Pakistan for which Jehan Ara was our global champion and we held it in collaboration with Lakson Investments, Sybrid, Express, TPL and PIA this summer. She Loves Tech was the first global tech competition coming to Pakistan focused on women. It started when I met the She Loves Tech Founder at a conference in Malaysia where I was a keynote speaker, and she asked if I was interested. It fit in perfectly with our key objective of the advancement of women. We sent out an announcement to all the incubators in the country, and partnered with several, such as Nest i/o, Plan9, TechValley, Peshawer 2.0 (or P2), Momentum, WECREATE, etc, and together marketed heavily on social media. As a result an amazing number — over 80 women startups applied. It was so invigorating to watch these women pitch their ideas at the IBA JS Auditorium on a Saturday, with a turnout of 350 plus, of which 70 per cent of them were young women.
The global team had narrowed down the top 10 startups and we had them mentored by executives from Google, IBM and Open Karachi (a network of entrepreneurs who made mentors available to us as a partner). Currently out of the top 10, the top four startups, trashIt, doctHERs, Sehat Kahani and meraPaisa are getting mentorship on their business ideas from CIRCLE sponsors — Lakson Investments and Sybrid — for six months to a year.
The winning team, trashIt, went to compete in China in September after a weeklong bootcamp, for further exposure and mentorship labs, and participated in a global conference. They got a special mention by two of the judges, who felt their idea had tremendous potential. They are now piloting their idea for scale and social impact.
This initiative increased the visibility of women startups. Next year we plan to be among countries like Canada, China, Hong Kong, Germany, Indonesia, and Singapore to host the She Loves Tech again. We have had requests from other countries and we may become the South Asia hub next year. I am also on the advisory board of Dell Women Entrepreneurship Network and bring ideas from there to Pakistan.
Isn’t CIRCLE a startup as well?
Yes, our social enterprise has the startup flavour. It has been over two years since we began, and since then, I have been bootstrapping it. I have a team managing different projects of CIRCLE. As an entrepreneurial person, I try to be agile. The CIRCLE staff work on a flexible mode, many volunteers working from home, but we connect at weekly meetings and they often check in. The She Loves Tech event was held with the help of a bunch of summer volunteers with a lot of passion for the project and two/three permanent staff and myself — that’s it. As we are growing with the tech project, we will start hiring for full time positions.
And how do you see CIRCLE growing?
Certain corporates had funded our initial campaign on increasing women’s visibility. But now for the first time we are getting funding from Engro Vopak Terminal Ltd for our tech project, in which we will train 90 young people, 60 per cent of them women. I conduct leadership workshops and that’s how I self-financed some of these initiatives. My husband’s support has also meant a lot. Similarly, our revenue stream will be running leadership programmes and through our tech initiatives we expect to bring in projects, which will generate revenue.
We envision CIRCLE as the leading platform bringing women together, whether it’s nurturing more women leaders, entrepreneurs or increasing the number of women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths). In the next few years the plan is to train thousands of young women in technology so that they can become self-sufficient and start contributing to the economy and to their families. We also hope to bring projects to Pakistan and facilitate tech entrepreneurs, creating new mobile apps and innovations and such. I think CIRCLE’s goal is really about inclusivity and economically furthering women in Pakistan.
The writer is working with the Newsline as Assistant Editor, she is a documentary filmmaker and activist.