Nashra Balagamwala’s Experimental Show of Peace and Solidarity

Op-ed writer: Ushah Kazi is a Pakistani culture buff and writer based in Canada. She has written for a number of Pakistani and Canadian publications. She has also published a book about Pakistani cinema titled, The Pop-Culture Junkie’s Guide to Pakistani Cinema, which is available on Amazon.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Nashra has found her creative niche by designing experimental and playfully political board games. No stranger to controversy, Nashra has in the past turned both Pakistan’s panache for arranged marriages, and the country’s political landscape into entertaining spectacles. In the wake of rising tensions, Nashra once again wanted to use her craft, while at the same time appreciating the sensitivity of the situation.

In a bid to represent this struggle, Nashra paired up with an Indian volunteer named Akansha Gupta, and staged a demonstration outside the consulates. Titled ‘disconnected’, it offered a creative expression for anyone on either side, who longs for peace. Both women wore red, showing their solidarity with Kashmir, and were connected in some way, for the duration of the process. They held hands, had their backs against each other, or were linked by a string. In their hands, they held flags of both India and Pakistan, fashioned into peace signs, to encourage, “an end to the brutality, and future conversations of reasonable peace.”

Despite her artistic vision, Nashra, like most young Pakistani’s witnessing the worsening situation, is not oblivious to its severity. She is particularly frustrated about the political circles that have turned their backs on discourse and diplomacy. “On the governmental level,” she says, “…I think there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. I think Imran Khan has made great moves towards this, but with the current Indian government, it seems unlikely in the near future.” A sentiment that, sadly, has been echoed by many. Regardless of the grim reality, which we all have to accept, an artist also has the capacity to encourage hope. And, Nashra hopes to continue doing this.

She is currently working on a game that will take inspiration from shared Pakistani and Indian pop-culture, and encourage camaraderie. As the young designer explains it, “this board game will allow players from both countries to come together, play, and laugh at the things they hold nearest and dearest to their hearts.” Apart from this, she is also planning to launch a non-profit organization called, ‘Make Chai Not War’, the proceeds for which will go towards relief efforts in Kashmir. In her own way, this vibrant young talent wants to encourage peaceful dialogue, as a means to move forward. And, if all of us take just one thing from her, it has to be the resolution to push forward.

When times are as grim as this, it is tempting to forsake hope itself. But, we owe it to those worst impacted by the tensions, and to our own humanity, to hold on to the promise of better days.

Thinking Big: Be The Change

In today’s Thinking Big Interview Series, The NewsRun talks to the founders of Be The Change to learn more about the organization’s mission, services, impact, and future plans. The founders also walk us through the steps they took to launch their charity. As an added bonus, the interview includes some helpful advice for aspiring nonprofit founders.

Launched in May 2018, Be The Change is a nonprofit organization that raises funds for low-income families and marginalized groups in Pakistan. The organization is based in Lahore. It was Ramzan when both founders decided to do some charity work. They started distributing bags of grocery rations to roadside labourers every Friday, and quickly realized these men are amongst the most needy – and most overlooked – part of society:

“…They have to work in the scorching heat, hazardous smog and freezing cold to earn a daily wage, and the days they don’t work, they can’t provide for their families. We were very moved by their stories and decided we wanted to continue this work even after Ramzan was over,” they said.

The founders started fundraising to buy and distribute a week’s worth of grocery rations for 50 families every week. They received a great response from family members and close friends. From there, they pursued small scale projects and drives while continuing to distribute rations. They eventually decided to formalize their work under an umbrella initiative called, Be The Change, which could give people outside their immediate circles a chance to donate and get involved.

The nonprofit aims to help labourers and alleviate their plight in whatever way it can, because:

“It’s their broken backs and calloused hands that have built the walls and roads of urban Lahore…they have no paid leave, no environmental protection, no health benefits or insurance, no retirement packages. They catch dengue, pneumonia, malaria, hepatitis, typhoid and a host of other diseases. So many of the labourers we have come across have lost an eye or a limb due to the nature of their work. They have no steady income or job stability, and have to take on whatever work comes their way, being paid a mere Rs. 700 for a 12 hour shift. Now, with inflation skyrocketing, it’s almost impossible for them to make ends meet,” they said.

The founders also pointed out that no real government bodies or civil society organizations take care of these men, it’s just the kindness of everyday Pakistanis they can rely on for a little relief.

So far, Be The Change has managed to fundraise for 50 labourer families every week for the past year and a half. They want to draw attention to labourers and marginalized groups that aren’t on everyone’s radar. Every Christmas and Easter, the organization will make care packages for hundreds of Christian families, which include grocery rations, warm blankets, sweaters and socks, school bags, toys, and even bicycles.

Last summer, Be The Change fundraised for Ganga Ram Hospital’s Pediatric Thalassemia Centre in lahore, a fantastic initiative that provides free care and medication for thalassemic children from low-income families. During Ramzan, the nonprofit also built eleven hand pumps in the drought stricken Thar desert, providing clean water to approximately 350 families. Their next endeavour is to buy ambulances and NICU units for a hospital outside of Karachi.

Even though running a nonprofit is fulfilling work, the founders talk about one sinking realization they constantly grapple with:

“There’s always so much more required. It’s been very humbling and heartbreaking to come across so much poverty and need, but it’s been incredibly overwhelming to see the kindness and generosity with which people donate.”

Fundraising has been their greatest challenge and goal, because all of the work is donation based:

“We are both private people, so it’s been a bit tricky to step out of our comfort zone and ‘market’ our work, but we try and do so anonymously on our social media accounts, more as a means of ensuring we are as transparent as possible with our donors via photographs and informational updates,” they said.

When asked what advice they have for people who want to start their own charity, the founders said:

“If you want to help, just start. Roll up your sleeves and start today. Be consistent and make time. No cause is small enough.”

At this stage, Be The Change needs more people to help spread the word and accumulate funds so they can take on more projects. The nonprofit wants to continue helping as many people as possible. 

Thinking Big: Aatif Awan

As a part of our Thinking Big Interview Series, The NewsRun caught up with the Founder and Managing Director of Indus Valley Capital, Aatif Awan. We spoke with Aatif about Pakistan’s startup ecosystem. He also shared some tips on how to evaluate startup ideas and pitch to investors.

Indus Valley Capital is an early-stage stage VC fund that focuses on Pakistani startups. Aatif is also a Board Director for Atoms and Airlift. Previously, he was VP of Growth & International at LinkedIn, and grew the network by half a billion members. He led product integrations between LinkedIn and Microsoft after the $26 billion acquisition.

Aatif believes that backing Pakistani startups is the best way to realize the true potential of every Pakistani. He pointed out Airlift and Bykea as examples of Pakistani startups that are already increasing mobility for tens of thousands. While discussing the opportunities in Pakistan’s startup ecosystem, Aatif stated that:

“Pakistan, with its 220 million people and $257 billion in consumer spending, is the largest market still untapped by technology startups and investors. The largest companies in the US used to be Oil & Gas companies or banks. Now it’s technology companies that were once startups. Same will happen in Pakistan over the next decade.”

When Aatif started investing in Pakistani startups, he learned that a lot of investors in Pakistan will join a round once a startup has found a strong lead:

“…Very few have the conviction to lead an early-stage round. The investors who do, will set themselves apart, and will win the best opportunities,” he said.

Aatif thinks Pakistan’s market is quite early, so every large industry is waiting to be transformed through technology. He is especially excited about the following sectors: Logistics and transportation, travel and hospitality, and marketplaces. We were curious to know what startups should think about before reaching out to a VC. If you’re a startup founder asking the same question, then keep this advice in mind:

“Startup founders should have a clear vision for where they’re headed next, and what funding they require in order to accomplish that,” said Aatif.

Aatif also summed up the main criteria he considers while investing in startups. The three questions he asks when looking at startups are:

  • How big is their market?
  • Is the founding team strong and positioned well to win a large share of the market?
  • What’s the ‘why’ for the founders?

According to Aatif, here are some important tips to keep in mind while pitching an idea to investors:

  • Nail down a compelling narrative of your startup.
  • Keep the pitch deck crisp.
  • Show the investors how big the opportunity can be.
  • Know your market and competition really well.
  • Be open about things that you haven’t figured out.

When asked about where he sees Pakistan’s startup landscape in 3-5 years, Aatif described a pretty bullish outlook:

“Next 3-5 years are going to be really exciting. The three largest series A rounds have all happened in the last 8 months. We’ll see this trend continue and more capital will pour into Pakistan. We’ll also see a lot more ‘Wapistanis,’ Pakistanis returning from Silicon Valley and other global tech hubs.”

Thinking Big: Zoha Rahman

As a part of our Thinking Big Interview Series, The NewsRun caught up with actress and model, Zoha Rahman, to talk about her Pakistani background, her career journey, and her iconic role as Peter Parker’s Muslim classmate in Spider-Man: Far from HomeShe is known as the first “hijab wearing character” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, who was more than just an extra.

Zoha was born in a small town in Pakistan called Jhelum. She moved to the United Kingdom (UK) with her family when she was a teenager. Even though she has given numerous interviews with other publications, few have delved into her Pakistani origins. That’s why we made it a point to learn more about her life in Pakistan.

During her time in Pakistan, Zoha lived in a new city every two years since her father was in the army. She lived in Karachi the longest, loved Khanewal the most, and misses Islamabad a lot. While reflecting on her childhood in Pakistan, she said some of her favorite memories are:

“Summers spent with my cousins, we would get spicy corn from street vendors on our way up the winding streets to Nathia Gali. Spending chilly winter evenings having ice cream and brownies at Hot Spot. Eid…everyone getting up early for Namaz and Sawayyan, getting dressed up and getting Eidi from the elders. Spending time with my grandparents and listening to their stories.” 

Even though Zoha moved to the UK years ago, she still makes an effort to follow the news coming out of Pakistan. She mostly reads The NewsRun (woohoo!!) and ProperGaanda to keep up with Pakistani news. Zoha tries to visit Pakistan at least once a year for at least two weeks. Her schedule is currently jam packed, to the point where it’s hard for her to find three free days in a row!

It looks like Zoha’s career is keeping her really busy. Her long-time fascination with the arts and performing motivated her to pursue acting and modelling. However, like the beginning of any career, Zoha faced challenges as well. A lack of self assurance was her biggest obstacle. She decided to complete a professional course to remedy that. However, she still sees herself being limited by a lack of opportunities. After working in the West, she believes her external appearance and heritage will always be a primary casting requirement:

“I have spoken out a lot about how the only roles coming my way are basic and stereotypical. Being pigeon holed in the infancy of my career is an excruciating challenge,” she said.

Despite her challenges, Zoha managed to land a role in the Spider Man: Far from Home movie. When asked about her most memorable experience on the set of Spider Man, she said:

“…Every day on set brought on new challenges and new lessons, new games and new friends. I suppose one of the most memorable days was actually the first one. That’s when everyone met for the first time and we shot our first scene together. We gelled so well, we knew this project was more than just a film, and we became close very quickly.”

Zoha also admired her character in the movie:

“Zoha from Spider-Man (yes, they stole my actual name for the character), is a super intelligent teen having a great time with her friends on a school science trip, which was only open to the top students. The best thing about her is that her hijab is never seen as something that is ‘other’ or negative. She’s just a normal high schooler. So for me, her passion for science and hard work is impressive, and I suppose her eye rolls are admirable too,” she said.

Since Zoha starred in a superhero movie, it felt fitting to ask her who she thinks Pakistan’s real-life superheroes are. After reading Pakistan for Women by Maliha Abidi, Zoha realized there is no shortage of Pakistani superheroes. She also pointed out deceased social activist, Parveen Rehman, and described her as:

“…an incredible woman who discovered and subsequently worked tirelessly for the rights of working class communities in Karachi, particularly for access to water and land titles…her martyrdom in the course of justice makes her a true superhero for me.”

Zoha has some exciting projects coming up, like Kabir Khan’s film, ’83, which is based on the 1983 Cricket World Cup. She’s also looking forward to the release of Young Wallander on Netflix. Her episode will likely come out next year. Even though it’s a small role, it’s her first step into Netflix.

When asked about her biggest source of inspiration, Zoha said she tends to pick up specific traits from people she admires:

“Perseverance from my brother who is deaf, but never lets that get in the way of his living a normal live. Unconditional love from my Dadi, who moved to Pakistan from Austria when she was 20 years old in the 1950s for love and never looked back. Strength and confidence from my husband, who always encourages me to keep pushing and to never take no for an answer.”

Zoha has some valuable advice for aspiring Muslim actors. Here is what she said:

“We always let people guilt us out of things we are passionate about, whether it is parents or friends or far relations, they will try to tell you things are ‘un-islamic’ or ‘un-pakistani’. Just remind yourself that being a good, kind human being is the most important thing there is. I also wish young actors knew that they have an entire galaxy of talent within themselves and all they need to do is let the creative juices flow, no matter what it is, from the smallest of productions, to Youtube videos you can make at home, to creating something with a friend. If you love to act, then go and ACT. This modern world gives you so much power that can be harnessed into incredible things.”

Thinking Big: Eman Bachani

Eman Bachani is the founder of Meraki Design House, a Canada-based e-commerce platform that sells artisan-made shoes and accessories. After graduating from the University of Toronto, she created a unique brand that combines Pakistani tradition with a contemporary flare. In addition to crafting one-of-a-kind designs, Meraki also works closely with skilled artisans to give them employment opportunities. As an entrepreneur, Eman is striking the perfect balance between building a fashion brand and supporting communities.

The NewsRun interviewed Eman to talk about how she took an idea that was brewing in the back of her mind and turned it into a business. We hope other budding e-commerce entrepreneurs can use this interview as a guiding tool for their own ventures.

Let’s start from the beginning. Eman always loved wearing Khussas, but the ones she grew up wearing had holes at the bottom by the time she broke into them. She had some ideas about potentially working with Khussas, but did not have a plan of action yet. Her idea started to take shape when she went away on a six-week trip, and almost everyone she came across asked about the Khussas she was wearing. She took that as a well-timed sign and booked a flight to Pakistan, where she could closely explore how Khussas are made. She also wanted to make the shoes more comfortable and durable so they could be “a practical staple in your closet, just like TOMS.”

Meraki has evolved into a premier South Asian inspired brand that not only speaks to mainstream consumers, but also a South Asian audience. Unlike their competitors, they also hit all three of these key areas: affordability, functionality, and design.

“There is nowhere else you’d be able to find handcrafted leather flats that you can wear from day to night, for as low as $69 CAD/ $52 USD,” said Eman.

In regards to teaming up with artisans, a couple of vendors Meraki works with are fair trade certified, but that’s not the case with all their vendors. Meraki still takes several steps to ensure certain standards, such as having a clean and safe working space, above market wages, and no returns or deductions for products with discrepancies.

Eman did not have any experience in e-commerce before launching her own business.

“I was naïve enough to think that if you build a great product, consumers just magically go from knowing to buying your product. I learnt along the way that consumers, especially for footwear, need several other touch points to actually convert,” she said.

There are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to running an e-commerce business. Websites and social media pages are apparently not enough.

According to Eman, “you have to find a way to be everywhere your customer is…for starters, Shopify will be your saviour in most things e-commerce, if not all.”

Launching a business is step one. Step two is actually running the business. Eman shared her day-to-day responsibilities as a business owner. She designs three annual footwear collections, and develops products for the rest of Meraki’s categories. In addition, she handles partnerships and organizes events. She also deals with payroll and finances. With all these different tasks to juggle, Eman uses a weekly planner and to-do list to keep herself organized.

Even though being an entrepreneur is hard work, she enjoys meeting and hearing from customers. The best part is getting good reviews. At the same time, she also welcomes constructive criticism, because it reflects on how engaged and invested her customers are. Eman loves what she does, but also faces some challenges as an entrepreneur. She realized that entrepreneurs end up dealing with internal challenges more than anything else.

“Of course things don’t go as planned all the time, but it’s the constant battle in our minds of wanting more, wanting it a certain way, and then just attachment to certain ideas,” she said.

Eman has already reached a major milestone in her entrepreneurial journey. Last year, she was selected as a delegate to represent Canada at the G20 Youth Entrepreneurs Alliance in Argentina. In terms of future growth, Eman plans to expand her business organically.

“Over time, we’ve seen small things make a big difference, so we’re 100% receptive to trying different things even if they don’t always make sense,” she added.

The Meraki team already sets up events and pop-up exhibitions. Now, they’re shifting focus back to digital and growing their international audience.

When we asked Eman to share one piece of advice she has for an entrepreneur starting out, here is what she said: “Just start!!! If you wait too long to know all the things you should know, you would probably find a million things that may dissuade you from actually going through with it.” Eman also has her own definition of success, which just goes to show that success can be defined by what your personal goals are, and what you aspire to be. There isn’t a standard measure of success:

“I think one-part success is finding what fulfills you, and then having the freedom to pursue it, and the other is being able to have a meaningful relationship with yourself, and others.”

Thinking Big: Super Savari Express

In the last few days of December 2014, Pakistan’s first guided city bus tour service was born. Back then, a few friends in Karachi simply felt like going out and exploring their own city. What started off as a mere impulse evolved into a local tourism initiative called Super Savari Express. These bus tours give people a chance to explore Karachi’s architecture, history and hidden spaces. Passengers also have a unique opportunity to reconnect with each other and their country. So far, the city bus tours have served nearly 60,000 people!

Since its inception, Super Savari Express has expanded its services to Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The bus tour service also organizes school field trips, food tours, art gallery tours, and other customized experiences. Now, they’re kicking off complimentary Interfaith Diversity Tours for students in Karachi between the ages of 13 and 24.

The NewsRun interviewed members of the Super Savari Express team to learn more about their latest initiative! The Diversity Tours help students interact with community leaders from the three largest religious groups in Karachi: Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. According to Co-founder, Atif Bin Arif, students should see that “we are all human, and equal citizens of the city and state.” Overall, the Diversity Tour program aims to celebrate and embrace religious diversity.

This year, approximately 2,000 students from various backgrounds participated in Diversity Tours. Karachi has an abundance of sites with historical and religious value. Some of the sites covered in the tours include Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the New Memon Masjid, and the Shri Laxmi Narayan Mandir. Tour activities feature background overviews, where passengers learn about the different faiths and communities in Karachi. Each stop includes a briefing, which explains where they are and why they chose that space. Tour guides reiterate guidelines on how to be respectful of the sites they are visiting. Participants also get a chance to ask questions while interacting with religious community leaders.

Since religion is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, Associate Director, Jehanzeb Salim, made it clear that the Diversity Tours are supposed to encourage respect for religious differences, not impose certain views or beliefs on participants:

“…the idea is to make the ‘other’ relevant, to humanize them, learn about them, and develop a brotherhood beyond misconceptions…we’ve seen apprehensions turn into amazement, and a pre-conceived dislike turn into respect in the span of a 30-minute interaction. Such is the power of open communication as opposed to separation and segregation…” said Jehanzeb.

In order to measure the impact of these tours, students have to complete pre-and-post tour forms. Questions are designed to evaluate each student’s thoughts and feelings towards other communities.

When asked if they’ve gotten any questions about safety and security, Jehanzeb said “we ensure that all precautions are taken for each trip with regards to the health and safety of our participants…” These safety measures include logistical staff support on the road and keeping in touch with local authorities during tours.

If you don’t live in Karachi, or are visiting Pakistan but won’t make it to Karachi, don’t worry! Super Savari Express plans to expand the Diversity Tours to other cities as well:

“…We do very much intend to explore diversity in other parts of Pakistan…the strength in that diversity is what holds us together and makes us stronger…” said Atif.

Thinking Big: Anaya & Ayana

We are especially excited about this interview with Pakistan’s youngest home bakers, Anaya and Ayana. Both sisters started their own baking business this year! They are based out of Karachi. Anaya is nine-years-old and Ayana is four-years-old. They already know how to make various desserts, including Sugar Cookies, Belgian Waffles, Nutella Mousse, and different flavors of Tres Leches cakes (e.g. Cardamom Rose, Jasmine Coconut, Lotus Biscoff). Oh, and it gets better. They recently launched a Baking Camp where they teach other kids how to bake! You also need to check out their cute bakeshop swag.

It’s awesome to see these girls developing an enterprising spirit at such a young age! The NewsRun spoke with the talented girls themselves (with some help from their mom) to learn more about their up-and-coming bakeshop.

Anaya, the eldest of the dynamic duo, said she was two years old when her family moved to Colombo, Sri Lanka for her dad’s project. Anaya and her mom would often bake together.  Anaya remembers wanting to buy a fairy tree house that was very expensive. Since her mother wanted to teach her the value of money, she advised Anaya to bake cupcakes and sell them to their neighbors. Even though Anaya didn’t make enough to cover the entire amount, her mother appreciated her effort and paid the rest. Since then, Anaya has continued to appreciate the concept of earning money on her own.

The family moved back from Colombo a few years later. Anaya and Ayana’s uncle flew in from Dubai to help look after them since their mother fell ill. He also brought them cartons full of ingredients. Having all these ingredients in hand led to a lot of baking experiments. The girls started baking cakes for visitors who came to see their mother. One day, they called several bakeries because they wanted to order Rose Milk Cake, but none of the shops offered it. The girls decided to bake the cake on their own, and it turned out amazing! 

“Everyone who tried our cakes encouraged us to have our own business, so here we are with our very own bake shop…the first ones to introduce exotic flavors of Tres Leches…we have over 16 flavors to choose from,” said Anaya.

Right now, the girls are working hard to promote their bake shop:

“We are using all platforms of social media to spread awareness of our brand. We have pop-up events in different places. We recently had a station for six days at a mall here in Karachi called Dolmen Mall…We also participated in Pre-Eid/Chaand Raat Festivals at the Owls Nest and Spark Play Center…We have worked with a transgender community called G.I.A. and baked cakes for their annual gala…Certain brands like Blue Brand have also helped promote us on social media. Recently, we have been approached by a very prestigious school to host a one-day baking master class for their students…” said Anaya.

As much as they enjoy baking, we know it can also be very time consuming. Luckily, the girls are on summer break right now and have time to take on orders. Once school opens, they will probably need to take limited orders. When asked if they imagine opening an actual store or restaurant some day, the girls said they dream of opening a boutique patisserie similar to the one they saw in Paris a few years back.

Anaya has some special advice for people who don’t know how to bake yet, but want to learn:

“Like Guy Fieri would say, if you don’t make mistakes you are not outside your safety zone. In baking/cooking, it’s all about trial and error. We feel we are still learning as well and have only mastered some of our recipes. Keep trying and be open to positive criticism as it helps you better your recipe,” she said.

That is such a mature outlook on life. We are super impressed.

Thinking Big: Omar Gilani

The NewsRun recently interviewed Pakistani concept artist and illustrator, Omar Gilani! Originally from Peshawar, Gilani was trained as a Robotics Engineer before transitioning into digital arts. He now lives in Vancouver and works in the animation industry. In his spare time, he likes to imagine alternative versions of South-Asian culture.

You’re probably wondering how someone with a background in engineering found himself working as an artist. Gilani said he’s been trained to “break problems down” and “systemize the process of finding solutions.” At the same time, he has always been interested in “visual world-building” and “the intersection of technology and art.” The technical skills he acquired as an engineer gave him the aptitude to learn other digital tools as well. Now, he applies these digital tools to his art.

Some of Gilani’s work appears to combine traditional and futuristic themes. Gilani mentioned that Star Wars, Star Trek, and classic Sci-Fi writing have had a “huge influence” on his art work. As an artist, Gilani has explored various themes. However, when asked about the theme he enjoys working with most, Gilani expressed his keen interest in depicting the future:

“Trying to figure out how life may appear in the future, what aspects of it will remain untouched and what will change, is a theme I enjoy a lot,” he said.

Even though Gilani’s art business has grown with the help of social media, he also faced some challenges:

“Lack of a local infrastructure was a challenge, and still is, in Pakistan. I think learning is enhanced in groups, and I didn’t have that luxury while learning, but the internet mitigated much of that,” he said.

As a part of doing business as an artist, he also makes it a point to request payments upfront. According to Gilani, “…the amount of people and companies that ask for free work, or don’t like paying, is nuts.”

If you’re an artist looking to turn your passion into a business, Gilani has some advice for you: 

“Be strategic about learning, develop/follow your own vision, work on your craft, and share your work everywhere. The rest will fall into place.”  This advice coincides with Gilani’s life motto: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

Thinking Big: Sadaf Naz

In honor of Women’s Health Month, The NewsRun interviewed Pakistani healthcare entrepreneur, Sadaf Naz. Sadaf has a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy studies and three years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry. She is the Founder and CEO of Her Ground, an online women’s health platform that delivers feminine hygiene products to people’s doorsteps.

In Pakistani society, where talking about menstruation is a deeply rooted taboo, Her Ground is making it easier for women to shop for hygiene products. The platform aims to remove the stigma associated with female menstruation. Her Ground also conducts sessions in Pakistan’s rural areas in order to educate young girls about health, hygiene, and nutrition. Her Ground has already been featured in various publications, including Dawn and Crunchbase.

Interview

1) What inspired you to launch Her Ground?

Growing up in a middle-class family in Okara, it was taboo to discuss menstruation. When I got my first period, my mother gave me a piece of cloth and told me not to wash it in front of others because it was kind of a ‘sin.’ Buying sanitary napkins directly from a shop was the worst experience, because it felt like I was buying illegal drugs. Many women in Pakistan go through a similar or worse experience when it comes to their period, even though it is a natural part of a woman’s life. This inequality really shook me. My biggest motivator is the size of the problem. I want to help women live a healthier and more confident life so they can go on to do amazing things.

2) What steps did you take to set up the foundation of your business? 

Launching the startup was the easier part. Building it turned out to be harder. I left my job at a pharmaceutical company. Without a background in technology or online commerce, I set out to launch our website. When I could not find a good developer, I learned how to build the website, add products, and write content to promote it myself. I reached out to a few online communities, watched a YouTube tutorial, and learned how to use Adobe Photoshop as well.

3) What milestones has the company achieved so far?

In 2018, we won Third Place in the GIST Tech-I Competition, along with the Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur Award. Currently, we have launched our services in all metropolitan cities in Pakistan. We have also expanded our product offering to include vitamins, birth control pills, and other feminine care items.

4) Have you faced any challenges while trying to grow your business? 

Growing up I was the brightest student among my siblings. I was always praised for getting good grades and doing what was expected of me. I didn’t know what it was like to do something that other people around me might not be comfortable with. I had a decent amount of friends and colleagues while working at my previous job. When they learned about my decision to leave and start a menstrual pads company, some of them tried to talk me out of it. I felt a different kind of threat to my identity and got disheartened at times.

Secondly, I was sustaining myself in Lahore and supporting my two siblings in our rented apartment. Thankfully, help came in more than one form. My mother and older sister supported my idea and plan. I also invested time in reading origin stories about successful founders and watched documentaries. I began preparing myself for a new life as a female startup founder in Pakistan. I still have this fear of failure inside me, but I have learned to dance with it and live with it. I use it as a source of motivation and don’t let it pull me down.

5) What makes Her Ground unique?

Her Ground focuses on experience, which is a huge factor when it comes to building trust with our customers. We ship ‘Her box’ on their desired time and date. We are also cutting down costs and selling feminine hygiene products at a better price by directly buying from manufacturers. We have made the ordering process very simple as well. Women can order through mobile text messages, our website, and WhatsApp.

6) In your opinion, what are some taboos associated with female health and hygiene products in Pakistan?

There are many taboos associated with female health, especially female reproductive health. Some people claim that women are at risk of becoming infertile if they take a bath during menstruation. There is also a common belief that women cannot participate in normal activities during menstruation because they are impure and weak. 7) If you had one piece of advice for an entrepreneur just starting out, what would it be? Nothing can stop you from flying high. Just focus on your dreams and work hard. You can indeed achieve everything.

8) Life motto?

To build a platform where every woman can easily discuss her health-related problems rather than feel ashamed.  

Thinking Big: Alex Reynolds

We recently interviewed U.S. born travel blogger Alex Reynolds of Lost with Purpose. Alex is a solo backpacker who has traveled to over 60 countries since quitting her desk job. She is currently in Pakistan. In a recent video, she called Pakistan “an incredible country.” While praising Pakistan’s hospitality, history, and scenery, she also pointed out that Pakistan is “not an easy country to travel in.” In this exclusive interview, we ask Alex about her travel experience in Pakistan, and get her point of view on what Pakistan can do better to promote tourism.

Interview

1) When did you decide that you wanted to visit Pakistan, and why?

When I began my life of full-time travel in 2016, I was traveling strictly overland. Iran was a certainty, but after Iran I wasn’t sure where to go next. Turkmenistan? Difficult to travel independently. Afghanistan? Uh. Pakistan? Maybe. The internet wasn’t very positive about the possibility, but I found a few forum posts from people who said Pakistan was amazing to travel in. That was all the motivation I needed; I figured I’d find out for myself!

2) What’s your funniest travel story in Pakistan?

Well there’s the time I jumped into Swaik Lake in salwar kameez (because, you know, modesty), but then my very cheap salwar ripped all the way down from crotch to ankle! All the men selling snacks and chai by the lake were already staring at the weird swimming girl, and then I had to take my salwar off…Luckily the water was very muddy and opaque that day, and a male friend of mine had swimming shorts he wasn’t using. I had to pull on the shorts while treading water. The men were still very delighted to see me climb out in shorts, but better that than emerging pants-less!

3) What’s your most unnerving travel experience in Pakistan?

There have been a few contenders, but most would take too long to explain. An easy one: a friend and I were left at a “bus station” by our novice escort in Chilas, a notable area of unrest along the Karakoram Highway. After waiting for an hour or two for a bus we weren’t sure was coming, a group of men come into the room where we’re waiting and demand that we give them our IDs and get into their unmarked pickup truck. They refused to tell us who they were, and were very forceful.

Forgive me for stereotyping, but when a bunch of aggressive bearded men try to force you into a truck in a dangerous part of Pakistan, you get a little nervous, ya know? I was stubborn and forceful in return, and refused to put more than one leg in the truck until they gave me THEIR ID cards. After a while, they coughed them up: turns out they were plainclothes policemen. Why wouldn’t they just say so from the start? Sigh.

4) You’ve travelled through numerous countries by now. What keeps bringing you back to Pakistan?

Every time I come to Pakistan, I learn of more places, people, events I’d never heard of but would love to see, meet, visit. It’s a country that never ceases to amaze, and at this point I feel very at home here, I have friends here. There’s always more reasons to come back… so I do!

5) While exploring Pakistan, did you come across any underdeveloped locations or landmarks that have the potential to become huge tourist attractions?

Of course. The Sufi shrines of interior Sindh. Jain temples in Tharparkar. Buddhist monuments throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I haven’t been to the mountains of what was once FATA or the beaches and canyons of Balochistan, but from what I’ve seen of them in photos ,they absolutely have potential. But I must say, I’m hesitant to talk about specific places as huge tourist attractions in Pakistan are usually depressing and to be avoided because they’re poorly managed, overcrowded, and always filthy with trash.

6) As a solo female backpacker, what advice do you have for other females exploring Pakistan on their own?

Be bold, but trust your instincts. Not all men are evil, but many of them do want something more than just a friendly chat. Don’t be afraid to walk away if someone is making you uncomfortable—you owe them nothing, especially if they’re harassing you—and don’t be afraid to hit people who touch you. They deserve it. For more advice, you can check out my post on female travel in Pakistan.

7) What are your thoughts on Pakistan’s current tourism strategy? Please give us two examples of what Pakistan is doing right, and where it’s falling short.

Pakistan’s current strategy is to attract more tourists to Pakistan from overseas and build up new tourist locations, but the issue I have is that they’re not fixing existing locations and infrastructure. The tourism industry is already overtaxed by the vast number of local tourists in the country, and more tourists will only exacerbate things. The country needs to figure out where these tourists will sleep, how they will reach their destinations. These future tourists need to be better educated about both culture and the sights they’re visiting, about the hard and soft requirements of traveling to Pakistan. Most importantly, someone has to figure out what the heck will be done with all the waste tourists generate.

On the up side, I do think the country is doing well in regards to relaxing visa policies and making efforts to reduce travel restrictions within the country. eVisas and visas on arrival exist now (at least, you can now apply for a visa on arrival, though I’m not sure if the system actually works), and NOC requirements have been relaxed in Gilgit Baltistan I know. Times, they are a-changin’, and at least the government has shown it’s willing to get something done.