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‘Women-led businesses in Pakistan get a boost with Strive Women’

Mastercard has announced a new initiative that aims to strengthen the financial health and resilience of small businesses in Pakistan, with a special focus on those led by women. Business Recorder talks to J.K. Khalil, Cluster General Manager, MENA East, Mastercard about what this means for women - and the economy - in Pakistan.

J.K. Khalil is the General Manager of MENA East responsible for the UAE, Pakistan, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman at Mastercard. He has over 18 years of tech, banking, consulting, and payments experience, having held many roles across multinational banks, top-tier consulting firms, and tech start-ups. In his previous role at Mastercard, he was the General Manager of MENA Central, and before that, he was the Mastercard Advisors region lead for MENA Central.

He holds an MBA with distinction from the University of Chicago (Booth). He also holds a Computer Systems & Networks Engineering Degree from St. Joseph University in Beirut. Following are the edited excerpts of the conversation he had with BR Research:

BR Research: What is Strive Women and what was the rationale behind the initiative?

J.K. Khalil: Strive Women is a four-year program led by CARE International and supported by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth that aims to strengthen the financial health of women-led small businesses in Pakistan. The initiative will reach 1.5 million entrepreneurs through campaigns while directly supporting more than 100,000 entrepreneurs – the majority being women – to grow and scale their businesses and enhance their economic potential.

Statistics show that micro and small enterprises are the backbone of Pakistan’s economy. Indeed, there are more than five million SMEs in the country, representing 40% of GDP. However, while 1 in 5 men in Pakistan are engaged in entrepreneurial activities, only 1 in 100 women are active on this front, so there’s a lot more we should do on this front. Women entrepreneurs often remain underserved, or entirely unserved, by financial and non-financial service providers. According to the World Bank, only 13% of women in Pakistan have a financial services account, and only 11% of them have ever made or received a digital payment.

Strive Women will seek to develop methods that can help small business owners balance both household and business cash flow, prepare for and manage financial shocks, and increase women’s decision-making power.

Clearly, there is huge potential to boost the economy in Pakistan – and empower its women – by promoting, enabling, and supporting female entrepreneurship via initiatives that align with Pakistan’s National Financial Inclusion Strategy. Strive Women aims to do just that.

BRR: Is the initiative entirely new for Mastercard in Pakistan?

J.K Khalil: Here’s been a lot of good work and results on which this initiative builds. For example, the Ignite program is an existing collaboration with CARE International, funded by the Mastercard Impact Fund that helped small business owners by opening much-needed access to finance, technology, networks, and upskilling opportunities.

Phase 1 of the program reached 1.38 million entrepreneurs, unlocked millions of dollars in loans, and directly supported more than 50,000 Pakistani entrepreneurs, of which 35% were women. The vast majority of these business owners reported an increase in sales and higher confidence in running their businesses.

BRR: How do you see initiatives such as Strive Women having a positive impact on Pakistan’s economy?

J.K. Khalil: When we include more women and empower them to contribute to Pakistan’s economy, we’re also adding to Pakistan’s economy, “growing the pie” so to speak. With women currently being so vastly under-represented in micro and small businesses in Pakistan, and therefore in the country’s economy, it stands to reason that there is huge potential to grow the economy - and realize women’s full potential for exponential impact on the economy.

Research has also found that women are more likely to spend resources on supporting their families and communities, meaning an increase in women’s income will have a cascading positive impact on households, communities, and economies. Programs like Strive Women, therefore, deliver value on multiple fronts, not just pure economic value. At Mastercard we want to create more connections and promote wider access, underpinning our firm commitment to empowering female entrepreneurs and creating an enabling environment in which their businesses can thrive.

BRR: What other Mastercard initiatives support financial inclusion and female empowerment in Pakistan and elsewhere around the world?

J.K. Khalil: We continue to devise and roll out a range of initiatives and partnerships that support our efforts in promoting financial inclusion in Pakistan. Our collaboration with Jazz Cash connects more of Pakistan’s people to digital payments. Many freelancers and gig workers will benefit from our collaboration with the Bank of Punjab. Agriculture is a significant sector in Pakistan, and our partnership with agri-fintech company Digitt+ saw the launch of Commerce Pass, enabling users to receive, store, and spend funds digitally.

Elsewhere around the world, we are responsible for several programs and initiatives that support financial inclusion, women in tech, and female entrepreneurs. Notable efforts include a partnership with Women Choice which is helping to create one million jobs for women across the MENA region and our Girls4Tech program that has reached more than 5.5 million girls and women worldwide. Across the globe, we continue to leverage our experience, capabilities, and partnerships to benefit the communities in which we operate.


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