Pakistan needs to harness the potential of its women to become stronger: Sadaffe Abid

Closing the gender gap can boost Pakistan’s GDP by 30pc.
Published March 7, 2020

Sadaffe Abid wears many hats. As the founder of CIRCLE, a women empowerment and inclusion enterprise, an advocate of digital inclusion for women, and a businesswoman inspiring many to follow in her footsteps.

The day I am interviewing her in her quiet office on a leafy Karachi street, she has acquired yet another milestone: a successful third outing of She Loves Tech in Beijing, one of the world’s largest startup competitions for female founders, where her mentee Yishel Khan represented Pakistan.

We settle in a cosy corner and start chatting about her journey towards beginning CIRCLE, a women empowerment platform, and getting involved in initiatives that promote gender diversity in technology in Pakistan.

With the She Loves Tech initiative, Sadaffe Abid's organisation CIRCLE is showcasing and supporting women entrepreneurs on a global front. — Photo courtesy Twitter/ Amna Ejaz
With the She Loves Tech initiative, Sadaffe Abid's organisation CIRCLE is showcasing and supporting women entrepreneurs on a global front. — Photo courtesy Twitter/ Amna Ejaz

Born in a military household, Sadaffe grew up in shady, peaceful cantonments. At 18, she decided to attend Mount Holyoke, a liberal arts women’s college in the US. It took her a year to convince her father to let her go.

Four years later, with a degree in economics and international relations, Sadaffe returned home and found herself working for World Bank, a job that’ll take her all over the country, from remote parts of Balochistan to slums in Rawalpindi.

“Working on these projects was very eye-opening,” she tells me. “I had never seen such poverty before. I was working on development projects; there was money coming in, but no tangible impact was being made.”

A dissatisfaction with the social development sector led Sadaffe to seek other opportunities, and a mentor recommended moving to Kashf, a microfinance operation that was then only just getting started.

In the 12 years spent at Kashf Foundation, which has disbursed USD 200M loans to women clients in Pakistan, Sadaffe rose through the ranks to become the COO and later CEO of the organisation. Under her leadership, Kashf received several awards including the AGFUND International Prize for Microcredit.

But her journey has encompassed so much more than that. She shared some of her learnings as well as plans for the future during my conversation with her, the excerpts of which are shared below.

You wear many hats — businesswoman, entrepreneur, startup mentor and technology advocate. Which do you feel fits you best (or which do you consider your true calling)?

SA: I think my true calling is really about women’s economic empowerment; I feel it’s essential for a woman to be economically independent because women invest back into the family. I believe that for Pakistan’s prosperity, we need to bring more women in the work force, especially in the areas of tech and entrepreneurship. Technology is an equaliser, and it’s an enabler. If we combine tech and entrepreneurship and give its access to our women, we can make powerful stuff happen.

One of the main things that CIRCLE promotes in Pakistan is the She Loves Tech Global Startup Competition. This year was your third time facilitating a woman-led startup to represent Pakistan. How has this event helped contribute to the startup ecosystem of Pakistan, particularly when it comes to female founders?

SA: She Loves Tech is the world’s largest startup competition for women, with participation from over 50 countries. We first brought the competition to Pakistan in 2017; I was very excited that we got an opportunity to represent Pakistan at this event, because I feel there aren’t enough platforms to increase visibility of Pakistani women and support and celebrate the work that they do.

Representing Team Pakistan in Beijing for She Loves Tech 2019. — Photo courtesy Twitter
Representing Team Pakistan in Beijing for She Loves Tech 2019. — Photo courtesy Twitter

In our first year, we just had one round in Karachi, but this year we organised five rounds. Over the years, we have had more than 400 women participants from Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Abbottabad. Global competitions like this bring attention to women-led tech startups which then helps build a pipeline of similar ventures. This year's finalist Yishel Khan has developed headgear that uses AI to detect ADHD, particularly in children. It’s solving a global problem. In the past, we have had Raaji and TrashIt from Pakistan; both have gone on to do more impactful things. We are also glad to have so many partners join us on board.

The competition is global, but I have always wondered how we can use it to create inspiration and a movement for women to join the economy and to explore entrepreneurship and tech. Pakistan has less than 35% women in the workplace, so women are a huge untapped potential in the country. According to the IMF, our GDP will be boosted by 30pc if we have more women in the economy.

So there’s a very clear economic dividend associated with this and there are many setbacks that hold women back. We want to get rid of these hurdles.

Another one of your initiatives is the #TechKaro programme. Can you tell us about this programme and the impact it is making?

SA: With TechKaro, we are giving young women from marginalised communities access to both tech and life skills. We train them in HTML, CSS, and JAVA, as well as areas like problem solving, collaboration, ethics, and discipline. We have also introduced certification courses from a US based company this year, and try and keep bringing mentors from the tech industry to make sure this is a demand centric programme.

The next step is to get these women jobs and internships. So far, we have had placements in some of the biggest software houses in Karachi. Our next cohort graduates in November, and we are convincing more and more companies to hire these women to boost diversity in their workspaces. This in turn boosts innovation because of a variety of thought and experiences.

With the Tech Karo initiative, the aim is to train women in Lyari in technical skills. — Photo courtesy Twitter
With the Tech Karo initiative, the aim is to train women in Lyari in technical skills. — Photo courtesy Twitter

TechKaro has now gone to Lyari. We have set up a tech hub in partnership with the Lyari Girls Café, with support from Engro Vopak. This is the first time that girls in Lyari have a safe space where they can learn digital marketing. These girls do have basic education and skills, it is just that their exposure is limited, and they face many sociocultural challenges. Our long term goal is to bring in counselors, role models, and mentors for stress management and improving mental health as well so that they have access to a holistic life training programme.

You work with many women who are running small businesses of their own. What are the issues that women entrepreneurs in Pakistan generally face?

SA: When I started working, I used to go to work in a rickshaw or mini-wagon. Even though it was a nice, well-heeled area, I still experienced street harassment. I never told my parents, because I didn’t want them to worry, but it showed me what women have to go through on a daily basis. Women end up paying so much more for transport, just for safety and to avoid harassment.

Workforce safety and security is critical. Boards and senior management need to pay special attention to the fact that their environment is safe and enabling for women. It’s just about the simple things, really, like in a KP government office, one woman administrator shared that there aren’t any separate toilets for women. Access to basic necessities can make a world of difference.

It is also very important that women raise their voice, think through the bottlenecks, and develop the confidence to talk about their issues. Like on social media, if you raise your voice, companies will pay attention. We have to build allies; networking is critical. Speak up, talk to people, say yes to opportunities, have faith in yourself. Men have lots of confidence, women need to do that too.

We often read about the unique challenges women startup founders face in Pakistan. But in your years of being a mentor and coach, what have you found is the unique skill or advantage that Pakistani women bring to the table?

SA: The remarkable thing about Pakistani women is that despite our cultural context, there’s a lot of resilience in women. This can be nurtured with self-awareness tools, and a community they can rely on to motivate and counsel them.

I believe women of our country have tremendous possibilities because you’re so used to working hard, multi-tasking and going the extra mile. The strength and skills we show in our personal life can prove to be very useful and impactful in the professional space as well.

You have your fingers in many pies these days. What impact do you hope to have created in 10 years? And what tangible change do you expect to see in Pakistan’s entrepreneurship landscape in that time frame?

SA: By 2030, I’d really like to see more women who are in leadership roles. To create an impact, we need more diversity in senior management and governance levels. For a young woman to be able to dream big, she has to see other women in leadership roles. As a policy maker, it is essential that anything that is formulated should have women's participation, hence assemblies and national policy making committees need to be inclusive and diverse. Benchmarks need to be set for higher percentages of women by law.

In the next 10 years, my aim would be to inspire more young women to come into STEM and join the tech workforce, because that’s where the future lies. We also need to develop men as allies, encouraging boys to respect women, and have them take a bigger role in household responsibilities.

For women, financial independence and stability is absolutely crucial. You harness the potential of women, you will have a stronger family, you will have a stronger community, and eventually Pakistan will become stronger.