“My mother got married when she was barely 15,” narrates Sadia Shakil, a 46-year-old successful entrepreneur from Germany. “She lived through me — ensured that I did not miss out on life and realise all dreams.”
From studying at a unknown private school in a middle income locality in Karachi to sitting on the federal board of the Association of German Women Entrepreneurs, this is her story.
Born in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi, Ms Shakil was the eldest daughter with two younger brothers in a fairly enlightened family. “I was never told ‘girls don’t do this’ because there was no gender discrimination in our house.”
Immersed in the world of books from an early age, Ms Shakil aspired to learn foreign languages. Initially, she took French courses from Alliance Française before taking intensive German language courses from the Goethe Institute while studying microbiology at Karachi University. “I fell in love with the language. The librarian Mrs Zaman would recommend me books and I would read them all.”
The aspiration driven story of the girl from Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi, who became a leading female business leader in Germany
One day Ms Shakil got a call from Goethe Institute. As the best-performing student in the class, she was offered a scholarship for a German language course in Germany. Thus, at the age of 21, she undertook her first journey to Bremen which is her home today.
Upon returning to Pakistan, Ms Shakil was offered a position at Goethe institute. “I went through an intensive teacher’s training programme which allowed me to travel while drawing a nice salary.” Meanwhile, Ms Shakil switched education paths to computer sciences, taking courses from computer centers in Bahadurabad which would lay down the foundation of a successful IT career in Germany.
In the late 90s, Ms Shakil went back to Germany for her master’s, financing her studies from her years of teaching at the Goethe Institute. “I wasn’t expecting it but even though Germany is more advanced, I was one of the three girls in class in the IT stream I had opted for. The two other girls were Chinese — no German girls.”
Upon finishing her studies in Berlin, she was offered a job. “I called my mom and said I don’t know whether this is my monthly salary or my annual pay, but I am accepting it,” she laughs at her excitement back in the day. She was able to call her mom to Berlin for a trip and had a blast — just two girls enjoying the sights in the city.
Two years later, Ms Shakil shifted to Bremen, working for the European Aeronautical Defense and Space Centre. “By my late 20s, I was leading an international team of about 35 people placed around the world.”
After eight years in the aerospace industry, Ms Shakil and her husband founded Axtrion, an IT Consulting and Service provider focusing on the provision of innovative technologies for small and medium enterprises.
“Five people from my old department came with me which made for great dynamics and teamwork. At that time, cloud computing had just arrived on the scene so it was a huge risk and my team was sitting in different cities in different countries,” says Ms Shazil, talking about the early years of her firm.
“We were a cloud-native firm and wanted to sell that technology. But in Germany the industry, was conservative and resistant to change and new technologies. We started with projects and earned revenue from old IT, not cloud technologies which we wanted to promote.” Around 2013-14, Microsoft arrived in the cloud business and Axtrion became a gold partner.
It’s a business of trust, explains Ms Shakil. “As cloud service providers, we know the firm better than its executive like the doctor knows your body better than you. We have firm’s data and processes, we know their people and know who knows what. It’s hard to win that trust but once we have that trust, it’s harder for customers to switch as well.”
While Ms Shakil enjoyed a successful career, she noticed a lack of female involvement in her field. “Throughout my journey, my professional interaction with women was limited — too often I was the only woman in the room.” By 2013, Ms Shakil realised she had to do something about it and thus joined the Association of German Women Entrepreneurs (VdU).
Collectively, VdU represents 1,800 German businesses run by women that have an annual turnover of €85 billion and half a million employees. With these numbers, the association has some clout in the government. “We fought for a law that requires a 30 per cent quota for females on the board of advisors for publicly listed companies.”
Ms Shakil sits on the federal board of VdU and is responsible for digital transformation. “And even in my association, I am the only one in this field. And it was my choice of computer courses in Bahadurabad that led me to this seat today.”
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 7th, 2022