Thinking big: Nitasha Syed

By: Anam Khan

Pakistani-Canadian entrepreneur, Nitasha Syed, has a software engineering background. She is currently a Senior Product Manager at Rally Health. She started her career on the FIFA14 team, and moved to California’s Bay Area five years ago. Syed is also an advisor to early-stage startups (pre-seed/seed) out of the US, Pakistan, and India. She helps startups figure out product-market fit, user acquisition, retention, and growth.

On top of her long list of accomplishments, Syed recently launched a digital talk show on YouTube called Shaam Ki Chai, where she highlights the Pakistani diaspora all over the world. According to Syed, the stories told in Pakistani media haven’t changed for decades:

“Between dramas that depict cruelty to women (that she has to bear), morning shows that fight for eyeballs over controversial topics (that don’t move the country forward), and news channels that just sound like your grandmother’s living room where everyone is shouting over each other, the stories of Pakistanis and their accomplishments are getting lost,” said Syed.

She launched Sham Ki Chai to break through the traditional scope of Pakistani media, and shed more light on the stories of Pakistani expats “making waves all over the world.”

Even though Shaam Ki Chai is a very young venture that launched a couple of months ago, Syed has already interviewed some trailblazing and talented expats. From Kalsoom Lakhani (Founder and CEO of I2I Ventures, the first women-run venture fund in Pakistan), to Ali Ahsan (Co-Founder of MangoBaaz), to Safwat Saleem (a TED speaker, graphic designer and filmmaker). When asked what kind of stories she wants to tell, Syed said:

“I know this sounds broad, but I want to interview Pakistanis all over the world who are doing interesting things. I want to tell stories of how they (or their families) migrated out of Pakistan, and the impact they are making in their communities and the world. I want to use Shaam Ki Chai as a means to connect the diaspora to those back home, while simultaneously shedding a positive light on Pakistanis in the world.” 

It turns out Syed already has experience making shows. The first one was called Humans of STEM. The second one was called Unboxd, which originally focused on storytelling through photos. Unboxd transitioned from photoshoots to videos, and became an online series called “Hanging with Unboxd.” Syed created Unboxd to challenge stereotypes about women – she shared stories of women in STEM fields and showcased their multi-dimensionality. However, Humans of STEM ran out of money in the editing phase, and Unboxd “didn’t survive COVID.” Then, Syed hunkered down and came up with Shaam Ki Chai:

“This time I had three years of failures in my pocket. I knew how to create engaging original content in a scalable, cost-effective way. I could grow content viewership. I had a grasp on which engagement metrics to focus on. I knew how to create an outreach channel. I knew which distribution platforms to utilize based on the audience I am trying to target. I had experience setting up studios, working with cameras, lighting and sound. Most importantly, I knew what to spend money on, what I could get done for free (or close to free), what to outsource, and what to learn,” said Syed. 

Syed thought of the Shaam Ki Chai concept in September 2020, and started filming in October:

“Thanks to a team of extremely talented folks I had been working with for the past few years, I was able to launch it in January 2021,” said Syed.

Shaam Ki Chai set, outdoor patio

As we mentioned earlier, Syed has a full time job as a product manager at a health tech startup. Now, she is working on Shaam Ki Chai as well. It must take a superhuman level of multitasking to juggle a full time job and a digital show. We asked Syed how she manages her time and stays organized:

“I work a lot. That’s not a joke. I stick to a really rigid schedule of getting up early before my meetings at work start. I try to get in about an hour of Shaam Ki Chai work and then put my product manager hat on until about 5pm. After a few hours of a break, I am back at work until late. I have a distributed team, with most folks in Pakistan and one person in London. Missing a deadline, or a late response, tends to mean almost a day’s worth of delay in work. Productivity tools, emails, and of course WhatsApp is our friend.”

Since Syed actively follows content and entertainment coming out of Pakistan, we asked her what kind of content she wants to see more of in Pakistani media.

“Diverse stories of Pakistanis. The narratives of both men and women have not changed in Pakistani media for a long time.  A lot of these narratives are regressive towards women and paint men in a cruel light. I think it’s so unfortunate because that’s far from reality. Pakistanis are making waves all over the world,” said Syed.

As a follow up question, we asked how Shaam Ki Chai can fill that gap.

“I hope the stories told on Shaam Ki Chai can help bring new stories to Pakistani media. I’d love to see a drama about a Pakistani girl that goes abroad to study, starts a game development camp for young girls, and then ends up getting awarded by Variety (e.g. Laila Shabir, Founder of Girls Make Games); or a Pakistani born in Zambia whose PhD thesis is now being used to launch rockets into space (e.g. Ibaad Rahman),” said Syed 

What can we expect from Shaam Ki Chai in the next 3-5 years? Syed said she sees Shaam Ki Chai becoming a late-night talk show that brings together Pakistanis from all over the world for a conversation over a cup of chai.

On the set of Shaam Ki Chai

Speaking of chai…here is Syed’s favorite chai recipe (we had to ask)

Syed uses a Masala chai tea bag (which she thinks is cheating). She also dropped another disclaimer, saying she shares recipes like an aunty – very few measurements and a lot of ‘andazey sey karo’ (i.e. eyeballing it). 

  • Fill up a saucer with some water and wait for it to boil 
  • Add 2 teabags of Masala chai tea bags
  • Wait for the water to get darkish 
  • Add some milk 
  • Add some sugar
  • Wait for chai to boil to the top and turn down the heat
  • Let the chai simmer for about 5 minutes and voila!

Anam Khan is a content strategist and founder of The NewsRun.

Thinking big: Hamza Choudery

Two Pakistani brothers, Hamza and Haroon Choudery, immigrated to Brooklyn, New York from rural Pakistan in 1998. Years later, all grown up and excelling in their respective careers, they co-founded a nonprofit called A.I. for Anyone, an Artificial Intelligence education resource that aims to make AI easy to understand. Their organization has grown exponentially since launching in 2017, and was recently featured in CNBC as well. The NewsRun interviewed A.I. for Anyone co-founder, Hamza Choudery, to learn more about this unique initiative that simplifies AI, even for people who don’t have a background in computer science!

According to Hamza, AI will have a disproportionate impact on underserved communities, the same communities that lack access to proper education materials. Haroon, Hamza, and their friend, Mac McMahon, set out to increase the accessibility of effective AI education resources.

“At the end of the day, our mission isn’t to create more data scientists (although, that may be a byproduct of our work). Our mission is to democratize AI education, so everyone, irrespective of background, has a voice in guiding when, where, and how the technology is deployed,” said Hamza.

Like most nonprofits and startups, turning an idea into action can be challenging. Hamza said establishing credibility early on was difficult.

“We exerted a lot of energy into cold calling principals and getting them to agree to bring us in for a workshop. After we delivered a few workshops, we were able to build on our momentum and scale more quickly,” he said.

24-year-old Hamza works at WeWork, and 26-year-old Haroon works at a healthcare company. Hamza himself doesn’t have a technical background in AI, but he helps spearhead the business development function, and finds creative ways to scale their impact. However, Executive Director, Haroon, and Director of Programs, Junaid, have technical roles in the AI space. As a result, they are able to offer subject-matter expertise and thought leadership on the AI front.

A.I. for Anyone is based in New York City. We were curious to know how much of the Pakistani diaspora has applied to the AI for Anyone workshop. Hamza said he doesn’t have exact figures, but they have definitely seen a large amount of Pakistani support. When asked if they plan to expand A.I. for Anyone workshops in Pakistan, Hamza said yes! A few academics from Pakistan have already reached out to collaborate.

“Haroon and I always look for ways to give back to our homeland. Developing a strategy around how to most effectively bring this content to Pakistan is on the roadmap for 2020,” he said.

Hamza and Haroon are still juggling their full-time jobs while running their nonprofit. Since we are total nerds when it comes to schedules and to-do lists, we asked Hamza how he manages to stay organized:

  • Remember why you started. When you’re working a full-time job, it’s easy to want to stray away from other priorities. To remain consistent, it’s important to remember why you started in the first place. If you don’t start with a genuine passion, it’s hard to fake it.
  • Invest in infrastructure. Our team at A.I. For Anyone did the heavy lifting of setting up systems and processes to make our operations as smooth as possible. I recommend making that investment upfront, so you minimize growing pains.
  • Don’t try to multitask! It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to multitask. I try to block off my calendar and devote all of my energy to the task at hand.

Since AI is also uncharted territory for The NewsRun, we had to ask: What is the key to making AI material easy to understand? Hamza said:

“With a diverse team, composed of individuals with backgrounds in computer science, philosophy, and business, we’re able to sense check the content to ensure it doesn’t include jargon or nebulous concepts. We also apply the following test to our workshop curriculum: ‘Could a child understand it?’ If the answer is no, we iterate. Ideally, we strive for our content to be analogous to Pixar movies, which are entertaining for children and adults alike. We not only want to make the content easy to digest for people without a technical background, we want it to also provide interesting perspectives for the more advanced consumers of our content.”

Hamza and the team at A.I. for Anyone don’t want students to be intimidated by AI. After teaching students the fundamentals of AI, the team encourages them to consume news about AI and maintain a pulse on the technology. According to Hamza, students should also try to predict how AI may impact the industry or role they eventually want to pursue. Hamza thinks this foresight can help guide students towards a career path that is “less prone to disruption.”

Many of us think about whether AI will have a more positive or negative impact on our lives. Here is what Hamza has to say:

“Although the AI revolution is virtually inevitable, the net impact is hard to predict. Where AI sits on the spectrum between “good” and “bad” is to be determined, so it’s our responsibility to try to guide the direction. Developing responsible AI will require widespread participation; we will need input from all groups and communities.”

Thinking big: Mahira Munir

Over the past few years, event management/wedding planning businesses in Pakistan have sky-rocketed. People hire event managers to organize lavish blow-outs for birthdays and weddings.

However, with the coronavirus, all that seems to be at a standstill. Big halls that draw crowds are still closed, which means weddings have been put on hold as well. Big parties at home are also being discouraged, since that gives the highly contagious virus ample opportunity to spread. 

We reached out to Mahira Munir, a successful event planner in Pakistan, to get her insights on what COVID-19 means for entrepreneurs who were driving lucrative and widely popular event planning businesses before the virus outbreak. Speaking about her own business, Mahira said she has four weddings and one corporate event on hold. She’s waiting for clear instructions from the government regarding protocols and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

According to Mahira, COVID-19 lockdowns have dramatically affected the event planning business. The biggest impact can be seen with vendors. Besides a small percentage of permanent employees, the event management industry largely depends on daily wagers. Flower growers, transporters, chefs, serving staff, and a variety of retailers also come together to assemble an event. Now that upcoming Spring events are canceled or postponed, several workers that provide event services don’t have jobs. These people rely on daily income and have little-to-no savings. They haven’t had any work for the past two months.

Implementing social distancing at weddings is hard since Pakistani weddings are very cramped and crowded. We are assuming there’s not much event managers can do to enforce social distancing. They can’t go up to every single guest and tell them to stay 6 ft away from each other. However, we asked Mahira what precautions she would have control over as an event manager. She summed up some key safety measures:

  • Encourage a fewer number of guests so there isn’t a packed congregation. This involves making use of large spaces per square foot.
  • Make sure props, equipment, decorations and layouts are thoroughly sanitized. 
  • Suggest customized masks for guests so they are more likely to wear them at the event.

Mahira thinks weddings are an inevitable and ongoing process. However, she predicts they will be more intimate with smaller gatherings going forward:

“The weddings may not be as lavish, but will still demand formality and customization,” she said. 

Weddings and big engagements are on hold at the moment. However, once halls open up for events, will people still be hesitant to attend functions, or will they welcome the chance to attend weddings again and make a beeline for the next event? Here is Mahira’s response:

“Generally, I feel that if there are no other social events, people will surely attend weddings as a means to socialize with relatives and friends after the lockdown.”

In conclusion, Mahira hopes the issues brought on by COVID-19 are resolved all over the world, and that humanity heals from the repercussions.

Thinking big: Aurat March

Thousands of women, men, transgender people, and children attended the nationwide Aurat March on March 8, 2020, which coincided with International Women’s Day. Organizers pulled through despite facing threats and petitions to stop the march.

Multan organized its first Aurat March. On March 7, women in Sukkur also held a torch rally. Assailants tied to a religious group threw stones and sticks at Aurat March participants in Islamabad, but that didn’t stop the marchers.

In honor of International Women’s Day, The NewsRun interviewed Aurat March (AM) organizers to learn more about their mission, impact, and future efforts.

The first Aurat March in 2018 followed closely after the global #MeToo movement began. In many ways, the Aurat March was a response to mounting cases of harassment, and the need to release years of pent-up anger. The march was also carried out in solidarity with non-men in Pakistan, and around the world. The key message they wanted to convey was “unity.” Each year, AM organizers release a manifesto that pushes for justice, accountability, and inclusion for women. This year, their manifesto also demanded an end to forced conversions. When asked where they have seen the most visible impact of their manifestos, organizers said:

“Open dialogue… it has fostered at home and in the media. It has brought contentious issues like transgender rights, forced marriages, marital rape, and bodily autonomy to the living room. TV programs across a range of networks have become increasingly willing to discuss formerly taboo topics regarding women’s rights, as well as key demands from our manifesto, such as economic justice and an end to violence against women. We’ve also seen a number of gender-inclusive safe spaces springing up online, which offer support and guidance to disempowered women and LGBTQIA+ people.”

The AM team also created Aurat Haq, a diverse intersectional political platform that focuses on women and gender minority issues in Pakistan. Since launching their movement, AM organizers are most proud of giving people a chance to be heard in the public sphere. The point is to promote dialogue, even if it’s contentious. They are also thrilled to see women and non-binary people take to the streets every year to raise their voices for themselves, and for others who are unable to make it. In their opinion, the biggest hurdles for women’s rights in Pakistan are:

“Hierarchies of caste and class that commoditize non-men in a gendered manner, violent barriers in the path of women’s right to education, economic justice, and safe public/private spaces.”

When asked what women can do outside of the march to protect their rights, empower themselves, and confront imposed gender roles, AM organizers suggested:

“…Women and non-binary folks should develop a strong network within themselves, one that supports and lifts them up. Reclaim public spaces and retain visibility. We will not recede once the March is over.”

There are also women in Pakistan who oppose the same Aurat March movement that is trying to give them a voice. While trying to wrap their heads around this backlash, organizers explained that:

“Women in Pakistan have often had no choice but to eke out what power and privilege they can within the patriarchy. In doing so, they’ve been persuaded that these are all the rights they are ‘allowed’ and deserving of. They worry about losing what they have if they were to protest. In a sense, they pick a vaguely defined honor over their fundamental human rights.”

When asked how they cope with ongoing threats and harassment, organizers said they have found great support systems in each other. Volunteers are also encouraged to take breaks if “it gets too much.”

AM organizers also started a dedicated support group to protect march participants in case they’re dealing with cyber harassment or other forms of abuse. Their social media team is “poised and ready” to help victims of online harassment. Plus, organizers advise participants to wear masks or cover their faces if they’re worried about being photographed.

“At the end of the day, we’re aware of the risks, and each of us is making informed decisions in their personal capacity about how to deal with them,” they said.

AM organizers will continue to confront opposition to their movement. They intend to keep the Aurat March relevant as long as there is oppression and harassment in Pakistan. In order to make the march an enduring institution, they will also work towards increasing legal and societal support.

Another long term goal is to make sure every marginalized person undergoing oppression has a space to air their demands.

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.