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Prescribing creativity for Pakistan

March 04, 2013

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Will Christophers strode confidently across the stage at the University of Sheffield, UK. US students had seen him selling teriyaki noodles out of a van on campus. What skills could a student vendor of Japanese food teach us about entrepreneurship?

We soon found that Christophers had wisdom to share. He had done what entrepreneurs do best: spotted an opportunity and taken the risk to turn an idea into reality. He spoke of the struggles and mistakes he and his partner, Xin-xin Cao, had made as they created the brand WillYaki. However, they persevered with the support and guidance of Sheffield’s entrepreneurial division.

Would such a scheme succeed in Pakistan? I imagined myself, a student engineer, setting up a small food van at Punjab University where I visited friends during my summer. The thought sent shivers down my spine. Friends and family would have ousted me from their social circles and teachers would have used me as a good example of a student “distracted from his studies.”

If a new graduate starts a small business, we feel sorry for him or her. The media runs despairing stories about people who can’t find jobs, furthering negative perception about entrepreneurship. But these fledgling businesspeople need to be encouraged, not demoralised. Pakistanis distrust the creative spirit. We’re more comfortable walking well-trodden paths, doing what is expected of us.

By neglecting the development of critical thinking, freedom of thought and understanding, we inhibit creativity and innovation. Thus, we ranked 80th out of 82 countries in overall creativity in the 2010 Global Creativity Index report, which assesses prospects for a sustainable prosperity. In the same report, based on a Gallop World Poll survey, we ranked at the very bottom in attitudes toward minorities. In addition, we scored poorly in entrepreneurship compared with other economies in the 2011 Global Entrepreneurial Monitor Pakistan report.

To improve, a real shift in the approach of our education system is required. In our schools, we discourage students from investigating a subject and drawing their own conclusions. We imprint our beliefs and ideas into our youth and call this quality teaching. Instead of inspiring young people to think critically and creatively, our schools produce human data machines that merely take in and regurgitate information.

Schools in Pakistan resemble factories. Our pupils, like products, are differentiated — discriminated — by grades. School is where we first learn the fear of failure, which sadly ends up dictating most of our choices in life. We as a society need to learn that it is OK to be wrong. As Sir Ken Robinson says, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original”.

We almost force our children to get good grades. In our society, grades can get you anything from a date with an attractive girl to the Pride of Performance Pakistan medal. Whenever grades were announced, my life flashed before my eyes. If I was in the top three in the class, I was saved. If not, I had some explaining to do. On Matric and F.Sc. results day, my house felt like a betting shop, where everyone rings to confirm the odds of the game.

With this personal background, I was shocked to hear Christophers say, “Although having good grades helps, it doesn’t guarantee you success in life”. He used his own experience as an example. Though he had studied architecture and earned good grades, he’d also ventured into business with all its risk and uncertainty. (Five years later, Christophers continues to operate Willyaki, catering and taking their Japanese food to festivals around the country. They also run the Willyaki Business School to promote financial literacy).

Christophers’ speech back in 2008 made me ask myself important questions: What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Do I just want to be an engineer getting through the day, looking forward to my next pay raise? What are my talents? Why didn’t I ever discover them?

After the lecture, I took the first step in bursting through the Pakistani middle class bubble. I toned down opinions and advices from others in my life’s orchestra so I could hear my inner voice. The university encouraged involvement outside the classroom, so I began volunteering, first at science fairs. Here, parents would bring young kids to encourage, not force, an interest in science. Then I joined Engineers without Borders-UK (EWB-UK), an organisation dedicated to alleviating poverty by removing barriers to technology.

The real change is my mindset. I’m less focused of fears of failure and more open to new experiences and experiments.  For instance, as a national executive with EWB-UK, I launched the Engineering in Development, a platform for sharing knowledge and experiences in international development sector. The journey to explore my talents has given me the opportunity to live my own life. My eventual career may be completely different than what our society prescribes for success, but it will be my own choice.

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A gem of a suggestion comes from the 2011 Global Entrepreneurial Monitor Pakistan report, which states, “There is a strong need for entrepreneurship awareness and education programs. The training and education has to be designed in a way to prepare individuals who can pursue entrepreneurship when needed or when the opportunity strikes.”

To improve, a real shift in the approach of our education system is required.

Singer and humanitarian Shehzad Roy has provided us with an example of the changes needed to create a prosperous, open-minded and tolerant society. With his Zindagi Trust, he wants to change the status quo in our education system. The trust proposes administrative, educational and infrastructural reforms in public schools.

The trust already has transformed the SMB Fatima Jinnah Government School in Karachi into a vibrant learning center with thought-provoking and imaginative books, extracurricular activities and student development courses such as art, sports, health and abuse-awareness workshops.

The trust also operates I Am Paid to Learn, an informal program to provide education to working children from urban slums across Pakistan. Roy has showed us what needs to be done. With such reforms, our government could lay the foundation for a prosperous Pakistan and a more fulfilled and productive society.


Muhammad J Tahir
The writer is a UK-based engineer for Siemens. He can be reached at



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