Game Changer: Women's Digital League

Published May 19, 2014
screenshot of womensdigitalleague.com pictured.
screenshot of womensdigitalleague.com pictured.

Located north-west of the Hunza River, the mountainous Hunza Valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan is known for its beautifully scenic location and friendly people.

Perhaps a little known fact about it is its excellent literacy rate. Unlike the national average, which in 2007-2008 hovered around 56 per cent, the literacy rate in Hunza Valley is remarkably around 90 per cent. Perhaps this is why an organisation in that region was so receptive to the ideas of Pakistani female IT entrepreneur, Maria Umar.

As the founder and President of the Women’s Digital League in Pakistan, Maria shares an inspiring success story that took place in Karimabad, the capital city of Hunza, involving the Karakoram Area Development Organization (KADO).

Here, KADO was struggling to run an internet café and was close to shutting it down. Maria came to their aid with an idea that not only changed the business’s fortune, but helped the organisation grow considerably, “We experimented with the women there and I started giving them IT work related to data entry and digitizing. This was successful and turned things around. They didn’t know what to do and how to utilise their resources back then, but now they are doing well and have eight IT training centres in Karimabad! Even now I am helping them with training and capacity building and guiding them towards commercial skills. This is our huge success story, where we ventured into an area which didn’t even have internet, now they have the requisite equipment and computer power backup in the valley.”

Similarly, Maria’s own entrepreneurial business, which has access to a pool of 100 skilled workers today, grew from humble beginnings, “I was teaching at a local school and they let me go because they didn’t want to give me maternity leave. So I went online looking for a job. Soon I was on rozee.pk and a lady hired me to write 200 articles a month. The articles were silly pieces about hair straighteners and freckles and I was given 15,000 rupees a month.”

Maria quickly realised that her employer was simply finding work from somewhere else and passing it to her while collecting the major chunk of profit. She decided to do this work on her own. Using online staffing platforms such as Elance and oDesk, Maria got so much work that she was not able to tackle it alone. She started recruiting family members, friends, and classmates, “More than the financial empowerment, it was the emotional empowerment that was so liberating for me.”

Although Maria’s conservative family took some time to warm up to her new vocation, she is very thankful for their support in helping her overcome cultural norms, “It took me three years to convince the men in my family. Three years ago I wasn’t even allowed to post my picture online, but today I travel to the USA alone thanks to their open mindedness.” Maria, who is originally from Peshawar, started with no investment aside from her computer and a UPS (uninterruptible power supply). Eventually, she created The Women’s Digital League, an all-women virtual company that today carries a strong reputation as an IT firm. The Women’s Digital League not only provides excellent services to its clients, but also trains rural women in the field of IT.

Maria acknowledges the challenges women face, “The mindset is a bit of a problem. A lot of people in our country think that many jobs aren’t respectable for women. But there is a whole new world out there and women need to look beyond jobs such as teaching.”

Laughing frequently as she talks, the good natured entrepreneur mentions that her stubbornness is the reason for her success, “I told people that you can work online and make a great earning but no one took me seriously, I also made a blog but it didn’t work as well. I approached big names in the industry and talked to them about creating a platform where women could work for clients and they thought I was crazy. Everyone asked how will we train these women and where will the equipment come from. So I took things in my own hands and started doing it virtually. The driving force behind my success was not taking ‘you can’t do it’ for an answer.”

What Maria hates more than anything is when women act as helpless victims and make excuses. She acknowledges that Pakistani women face challenges in the IT field, “The biggest problem for female entrepreneurs in the IT field is finance. While women get the mentors, men get the money. The financial institutions just don’t have the same type of faith in women.

Another issue is that as many women don’t own property they have nothing to show for collateral if they want to gain investment from banks. I also think women need centres where they get legal and taxation advice on running businesses. Like many women, I don’t like dealing with numbers and in fact they put the fear of god in me (laughs). It would be helpful if we could have help in this matter from the government. Because of this fear of number crunching, many women are scared of doing business.”

Although Maria feels that such women need assistance, she believes they need to stand up and be counted, “The problem is at the grassroots level. While the little boys at school are studying science and math, little girls are encouraged to be good at language and arts. That being said, women shouldn’t make excuses. Everything is the same for both genders.

Women shouldn’t think that they are competing with men, but they should think they that they are competing with an industry. It is understandable, if they are hesitant to interact with men for business because of cultural sensitivity, but asking for special treatment because you are a woman is ridiculous. I don’t agree with it. It is very important for women to stand up and be counted. The state invests a lot of money into turning women into specialised workers, but for one reason or another, women aren’t working.”

For Pakistani women who are hesitant in joining the workforce due to cultural norms, Maria says that there is no better field than IT, “You don’t have to be in an office nor do you have to be in front of a patient. You can sit at home with a computer and do what you want to do. We need to have platforms for these women. The irony is that most women are not aware of the international platforms that exist for freelance IT work. That’s what I do. I help these women find work. I inspire them to stop being victims and step out of their comfort zone.”

Maria is quite disappointed with the Pakistani government’s efforts for the IT industry, which for entrepreneurs such as her, have been counterproductive, “I wish the government could be a positive force, but from their track record, I sometimes wish they would just stay out. I lost six clients in two months because of the ban on Skype to phone calls, and numerous others when YouTube went offline. The problem with the government is that it politicizes things with these decisions. Because of one video they shut an entire platform which was giving business to so many. They were only thinking of satisfying their vote bank and not thinking of the bigger picture. Because of these actions small business women such as me suffer. If you had one bad book in a library, would you torch the entire library?”

Having already achieved so much, Maria has bigger goals lined up for the future, “I want to reach female colleges and universities in Pakistan and train the women so that there is a huge pool of Pakistani women in the IT field. I also want to break stereotypes where people think Pakistani women are burqa clad ladies sitting at home.”

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