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BR Research

Interview with Sadaffe Abid, Founder & CEO of CIRCLE; and Sagheer Mufti, COO of HBL

‘We are catalyzing digital literacy, financial inclusion and entrepreneurship for women’ In a recent...
Published April 22, 2022

‘We are catalyzing digital literacy, financial inclusion and entrepreneurship for women’

In a recent conversation with BR Research, Sadaffe Abid, the founder & CEO of CIRCLE talked about the women entrepreneurship landscape in the country and empowering of women through competitions likes She Loves Tech. Sagheer Mufti, COO of Habib Bank Limited further highlighted the challenges for women in access to finance and why HBL has been sponsoring She Loves Tech for five years. Following are the edited excerpts of the conversation:

BR Research: Why did you decide to bring She Loves Tech to Pakistan?

Sadaffe Abid (SA): CIRCLE started with one goal and that is women’s economic empowerment and inclusion. For women to be empowered their financial and digital inclusion combined with leadership development and access to networks is crucial.

With Pakistan ranking 151 out of 153 on the WEF Global Gender Gap Index, and women holding only 4.9 percent of STEM jobs with just one percent of women entrepreneurs, there is a critical need to address the complex adaptive challenges faced by women.

She Loves Tech is the world’s largest startup competition that gives female entrepreneurs a chance to pitch their startups, get access to mentors, a dynamic global community and gain visibility. This makes She Loves Tech, the perfect platform to enable us on our mission for economic empowerment and financial inclusion of women especially in Tech. While CIRCLE has been building women up from the grassroots, She Loves Tech offers a wonderful mix of international exposure, recognition and strategic guidance. In the early days, my team and I have also travelled across the country on trains and buses to meet the wider community, engage and inspire more women towards entrepreneurship.

BRR: It is your 6th year, what has motivated you to work with these women startups throughout the years?

SA: Our winners from the last five years such as Trashit, Aurat Raaj, Dot Mind unlocked, APRUS technologies and Outclass, as well as the runner ups and the wider community have gone to build their startups.

Pakistani women are immensely talented but it is a series of challenges including inaccessibility to finance, to markets, limited opportunities for training, mentorship and networking that constrains women from taking initiative. In this context, CIRCLE through She Loves Tech is creating a platform for women inspiring them to believe in their dreams and apply their capabilities to solve Pakistan’s pressing challenges using technology. I am excited to bring the right opportunities and platform and be a supporter on their journey as an entrepreneur. We know that when women succeed, we all win - the family prospers, communities become stronger and nations move forward. The growth and success of women-owned businesses is an important development in our country and globally women are viewed as the next growth market.

When the Pakistani women entrepreneurs showcase their talent on a global stage, it gives us a chance to present innovation and talent from our country and build our image globally as a forward looking nation. To close the wide gender gap, we need to mobilize the entire ecosystem. It is important for our mission to have long term partners like HBL and UNDP who have been involved in the She Loves Tech Pakistan journey from its early days and have committed to growing the ecosystem with us. This shows their commitment to women’s advancement and to women in tech. We need more companies and businesses across the country to invest in women and women led initiatives so we can leverage the talent and ideas of our women and create a strong ecosystem.

BRR: What are your plans for this year?

SA: We have exciting plans for 2022 which include a mix of online and on ground activities for our community including local rounds with our partners in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad and alumni/community meet ups in different cities. We will scale up and reach at least 25,000 young women from across Pakistan including second and third tier cities to inspire them towards entrepreneurship and technology with at least 300+ startup applications sourced through our strong network of partners across the country. Boot camps with experts will engage with startups imparting critical skills, mentorship and office hours as we move along the local, final and global rounds.

BRR: There are only one percent women led startups in Pakistan; how do you see this growing in the next few years?

SA: Our entrepreneurship ecosystem, especially when it comes to women led startups; has been gaining momentum. The rising broadband coverage is fueling the startup system. With the 3G and 4G internet connectivity increasing, the consumers are becoming more digitally savvy as well.

We have a market of over 220 million people on one side and Pakistan youth with their ideas on the other side and both of these combined brings hope for a booming tech ecosystem in Pakistan. But the question around the growth of women led startup remains and that’s what we are addressing through a multipronged strategy from offering training for basic digital literacy and digital skills to leverage social media platforms, open e-wallets to promote financial inclusion in underserved areas, to support women led tech startups. Our partnership with global platforms like She Loves Tech is instrumental to enable us reach 100,000 women in the next three years who will be mentored from the Industry champions and our network of partners. We are committed to catalyzing a movement towards digital literacy, financial inclusion and entrepreneurship in the country with a focus on women.

We have examples like Conatural, Oraan, Marham, Sehat Kahani, and AimFit amongst others that are led by women and are successfully growing their enterprises while creating strong impact and much needed jobs for the economy.

BRR: There has been a significant jump in funding for startups in Pakistan in the last two years. Has there been any significant funding in women startups too?

SA: Female-founded startups account for only 1.4 percent of the total investment amount raised by Pakistani startups from 2015 to 2021 according to data by i2i. In 2020, the funding for female led startups accounted for 2 percent of the $178 million. For male startups the avenues for funding are vast but the female-led startups raise their investments from limited avenues and are presently relaying more on local investors, accelerators and incubators.

In 2021 women-led startups were able to raise $4 million including deals like $1 million raised by female fitness start-up AimFit and $3 million raised by Oraan, a fintench startups. Despite this growth, the relative share of funding received by these startups is still minute compared to the male startups. It’s a slow start but we are optimistic. Pakistan is the last big frontier market. As the women participation in the overall economy will increase, so will the funding opportunities. According to the excellent Invest2Innovate report, the rate of women that fall off in the pipeline for venture funding is high due to biases that women founders face. However with platforms like She Loves Tech that particularly focus on capacity building of women startups, mentorship and are now also looking at investment, we are hopeful that in coming years, the pipeline will grow more robust and diverse.

BRR: Do we have enough role models for women entrepreneurs to emulate?

SA: Definitely! Pakistan has no shortage of talent and success stories. We have names like Jehan Ara of Pasha, Sabeen Mahmood (Late) of T2F café, Myra Qureshi Co-founder Conatural, Kalsoom Lakhani Cofounder i2i Ventures and many more who are working actively to build the ecosystem in different capacities.

What we need is to celebrate the success of our women role models at every level so more girls and women across the country are inspired to take action. The future must include many more women with a seat on the table whether it is in business, startups, and government or micro enterprises.

BRR: As a leading bank, why have you decided to support She Loves Tech (SLT) Pakistan?

Sagheer Mufti (SM): HBL firmly believes diversity and inclusion are the key pillars of HBL’s values. The bank has been supporting the “She Loves Tech” initiative run by CIRCLE in Pakistan for five years. She Loves Tech is the world’s largest startup competition that gives women entrepreneurs opportunity to pitch their startup ideas, get access to mentors and take their startups to the next level. The competition currently operates in 30 different countries, including Canada, Singapore, and Germany. It not only supports diversity but also innovation.

The platform is in line with HBL’s vision of financial inclusion and women empowerment and we as a bank support this initiative by ensuring tech experts and venture capitalists from the bank participate, judge, and speak during the sessions. HBL, with its greater outreach via internal and external profiling channels has also enabled She Loves Tech Pakistan to reach out to a wider audience across Pakistan. The Bank will continue to support the initiative in the years to come also. Where there is fit, the products and services that are showcased at “She Loves Tech” are also considered for use at HBL to serve our clients.

We discovered this young lady working on a start-up called Sehat Kahani through the “She Loves Tech” program about two years ago. We provided her mentorship and guidance for the competition. We then looked at her offering which now was being used by other firms and put her through an extensive due diligence process. She and her company were up to mark on all our standards for the various criteria we have. HBL became one of her clients and the firm today is supporting our staff for easy, low-cost access to medical advice. I am pleasantly surprised at the uptake of the offering with 3,000 consults a month from within HBL. This and more examples like her give me a feeling of pride that we are doing something good for not only our staff, but also for women starting up businesses, especially tech related businesses.

The women entering this competition experience a knowledgeable journey that will sharpen their entrepreneurial capabilities. We need more women leaders in the tech space and those role models will be created through programs like “She Loves Tech”. The active participation of women in the Pakistani economy is a must for it to progress.

BRR: What is the collaboration with Circle like?

SM: In 2021, CIRCLE in partnership with HBL, hosted 10 competition rounds in 13 cities, virtually and making it possible for women anywhere in Pakistan to take part despite COVID from the safety of their homes. The goal was to reach and inspire 25,000 young women through panel discussions, digital boot camps, inspirational talks and workshops specially designed to generate interest and dialogue.

The panel discussions revolved around encouraging the participants to pitch their startup ideas and leverage the SheLovesTech (STL) platform by getting access to mentors and speakers from the tech-fields. The talks focused on success stories of the former STL winners to inspire more women entrepreneurs to join the movement. The digital boot camps were meant to train the SLT participants and help them solidify their pitches, business and financial models through confidence building, presentation skills, project management and other relevant workshops

60 startups from the local rounds pitched in September 2021, followed by the country’s top 10 competing in the finals.

HBL as the largest bank in Pakistan, is proud of its association with CIRCLE and She Loves Tech, and will continue to support such a groundbreaking initiative, which provides opportunities to women to play an active part in building the economy of the nation.

BRR: Why are banks generally hesitant to finance women startups and what can be done to fix it?

SM: It is a widely accepted fact that the economy thrives when women actively participate in the economic landscape and get the same opportunities as men. Women make up 49.8 percent of the population of Pakistan and are playing a positive and constructive role in the development of the nation. They are active participants in all major fields including agriculture, commerce and the services sector yet they still appear to be a long way from full and equal economic participation.

Women’s entrepreneurship is an important tool for enabling female empowerment. However, women entrepreneurs in Pakistan face many barriers to starting and growing their businesses.

Gender specific barriers still hamper women entrepreneurs from entering the economic mainstream in Pakistan. Women are often thwarted in their business plans due to a mix of institutional, social, and cultural factors including lack of finance, restriction on mobility, limited decision making, lack of information and guidance and discrimination due to the patriarchal mindset of the industry. Access to finance remains one of the biggest obstacles for women startups in Pakistan for a number of reasons.

First is the collateral. Anew business owner has little collateral unless the woman entrepreneur can use her personal assets or has a co-signer with assets to pledge. Another issue that women face is that of capacity; a track record to show that the business has the capacity to generate enough money to pay back the loan. Also, new businesses don’t have business credit of their own; and banks generally look at the credit history of the borrower that owns the business. Banks often deny startup loan requests because the personal credit of the borrower is non-existent. Lack of experience and management are also factors for lack of access to finance for women entrepreneurs. Banks tend to deny startup loans to women that don’t have at least 1-3 years of experience working in the profession.And they are generally cautious with a brand-new business that don’t have a strong, experienced management team to make the business a success.

Women are an emerging market force. The growth and success of women-owned businesses is one of the most profound changes in the business world today. Serving this market not only makes good business sense, but encouraging women entrepreneurship has a positive impact on society as it fuels economic growth and job creation. Banks have a critical role to play in supporting women startups in their desire to establish and grow their businesses by providing access to cost-effective financial services; tailor made solutions for both transactional and financing requirements of women led businesses; and services that help them improve their overall understanding of the financial industry (financial literacy) and helps develop their business skills. Banks need to develop an ecosystem that empowers more women to start, build, grow and sustain their own businesses.

BRR: What are HBL’s plans for women entrepreneurship in Pakistan?

SM: Financial inclusion remains a key pillar of HBL’s strategy. The bank believes in encouraging women across all spheres both within the bank and externally and has been actively supporting this agenda over the last few years.

Women entrepreneurship is an area that HBL actively pursues and has partnered with Circle for the “She loves Tech” programme and Nest I/O to support woman entrepreneurship initiatives in the country. Through its continued collaborations with accelerators and technology hubs, HBL plans to develop synergies that encourage and support women startups and will continue to develop strategic alliances with similar organizations to develop the entrepreneurship ecosystem of Pakistan.

In 2021, HBL and Katalyst Labs signed a partnership agreement in an endeavor to grow the startup ecosystem in Pakistan. The Bank plans to develop similar partnerships to further its goal of digital financial inclusion and supporting entrepreneurship initiatives across the country.

Another area of commitment on gender equality and women empowerment is creating a gender diverse product focused on female customers to increase financial inclusion of women in Pakistan. HBL launched HBL Nisa, a female only platform, to bring the largely unbanked female population into the banking fold. HBL Nisa has a completely specialized and customized product suite for women entrepreneurs across Pakistan. The products and services of this offering is tailored to the needs and requirements of women entrepreneurs, giving them better access to our products and services at HBL.

© Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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