You’ve read our opinion on neighboring Bangladesh earlier on: we’re extremely positive about this frontier market which has the energy, the 160m population and the growth to be a very exciting new market.
For the Pakistan startup scene, a good indicator could be that Rocket Internet, the German incubator which “clones”, has no less than 6 startups on the ground, e-commercing everything from cars (Carmudi) to cab rides (EasyTaxi) or food delivery (FoodPanda).
These are for the commercial-focused startups. What Kalsoom Lakhani does with Invest2Innovate is a bit different, and she shared with us a few details.
From the US to Pakistan and South Asia, new opportunities for the youth
Innovation is Everywhere: Can you share with us your experience so far, Kalsoom? How do you share your time between Pakistan and the US? What kind of diasporan are you? Soon-to-return? Always on the move?
Kalsoom Lakhani: I’d like to think of myself as a perpetually moving global citizen – I don’t really fit in any one box.
I split time between both the U.S. and Pakistan, particularly since we are still in our early years.
Our Global HQ for i2i is in Washington, D.C., (I’m going to start hiring for our Global team this year) while our main operations is in Pakistan currently, with our Pakistan team based in Islamabad.
We hope to scale i2i to Bangladesh this year, so I will also be adding Dhaka on to that travel itinerary. My vision is that i2i will be operating in multiple countries in 5 years, with our global HQ in the States.
Innovation is Everywhere: In Dhaka, you shared what you did with I2I, which you say is an accelerator. Are you focusing solely on social enterprises? Where would a more “traditional” tech startup find some guidance in Pakistan?
Kalsoom Lakhani: i2i is actually not just an accelerator – we’re ecosystem builders. In Pakistan, our ecosystem approach has translated into a startup accelerator, an angel investor network, and a consulting arm that builds products/services to support the broader enabling environment for entrepreneurs.
Our accelerator is focused on for-profit social ventures – at i2i, we believe in entrepreneurs who want to change the world. Technology ventures often play into that, but for more traditional tech startups, there are a number of options in Pakistan, including Plan9/PlanX – a technology incubator/accelerator launched by the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), the incubator at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and the soon-to-be launching Karachi-based incubator The Nest.Io by P@SHA.
Invest2Innovate as an ecosystem-builder in the Pakistan startup scene
Innovation is Everywhere: We’ve been to a few countries which I think share a few traits with Pakistan, such as Nigeria: supposedly dangerous, with a large market, a lot, lot of issues to solve, and sometimes, the feeling there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. How is it “on the ground”? Who are the people launching new businesses? How do you support them?
Kalsoom Lakhani: On the ground, there are obviously a lot of challenges – the security situation, political instability, corruption, the list goes on. But I think all those challenges come with tremendous opportunity and in some ways, are what make Pakistan exciting as an ecosystem. Pakistani entrepreneurs are scrappy hustlers – our daily lives are a constant state of coming up with creative solutions to get things done. There are a range of people launching new businesses, but what’s been exciting is to see the amount of young people building companies. 2/3 of Pakistan is under 30 years old – we have a very young population that want to change the environment around them.
Innovation is Everywhere: A last comparison to try better understand what’s happening in Pakistan. We’ve been to Iran last year, and rarely saw so many attendees at the Startup Weekends – and a lot of female engineers. Their country seems to be at a turning point. Reformist president, a possible nuclear deal, and diasporans tend to look back to Iran as a new, potential market where doing business is an option. What’s your feeling about Pakistan? What would be key milestones to change the perception the world has?
Kalsoom Lakhani: Pakistan has been exciting for some time, we’re just clouded by news headlines and risk perception. This is not to say bad things don’t happen in Pakistan – there is a abundance of factors that make it difficult for entrepreneurs and citizens as a whole – but most people don’t see the amount of energy on the ground.
It’s palpable when you’re there. Startup competitions happen in every major city on any given weekend, there are numbers of entrepreneur support organisations sprouting throughout the country, the list goes on.
There is still a lot to improve on, but I think we’re growing in the right direction. Key milestones are startups in Pakistan attaining not just seed investment, but also later stage investment. Acquisitions and exits are going to be important, not only for creating a great story about Pakistan, but also for spinning off more entrepreneurs launching their own ventures (think the AOL and Paypal Mafias).