Last year, five hopeful social entrepreneurs came together for Plan 9, the PITB’s (Pakistan Institute of Technology Board) Tech Incubator, in Lahore, Pakistan, to present their start-up ideas to a host of potential investors.
The young entrepreneurs were part of a relatively new initiative called Invest2Innovate (“i2i” for short), a social enterprise intermediary that not only trains newly launched social entrepreneurship initiatives in Pakistan, but also connects them to i2i’s global investor network – i2i Angels.
Members of i2i’s first Accelerator Class in 2012 included BLISS, a company that produces high-end fashion accessories, handmade by marginalized Pakistani women; Milk’Op, a social enterprise that supports and finances dairy farmers in the country; and EcoEnergy Finance (EEF), which provides clean energy solutions to rural communities in Pakistan; among others.
These dynamic entrepreneurs were part of i2i’s first Accelerator Program, where they were trained and given one-on-one feedback and support by mentors before their big pitch, meet and mingle with heavy-duty investors at Plan 9, straight after the commencement of the i2i workshops.
Founded by a young, dynamic Pakistani, Kalsoom Lakhani in 2011, I first heard about Lakhani when her well-known blog Chup! Changing Up Pakistan went viral a few years ago. The blog covered every topic under the sun related to Pakistan, and Lakhani’s impartial and fresh reportage would oft get quoted in local and foreign media alike. While the blog has been put on the backburner for a bit, i2i’s CEO Lakhani came across as a hands-on, happy and highly passionate young woman when I met her at the PITB’s massive, sprawling, and high-tech building in Lahore late last year.
Last month i2i announced their second Accelerator Class of 2013 , which features thoroughly exciting and offbeat social entrepreneurship initiatives such as the Reading Room Project, an initiative that fuses learning and technology for low-income Pakistani students; the Ideacentricity/OddJobber, a venture that aids low-income workers in finding employment opportunities via mobile technology, and other start-ups that seem to have the potential of becoming remarkable social enterprises that aid Pakistani communities at the grass-root level.
Speaking with The Diplomat, Lakhani says that i2i continues to work with entrepreneurs, even after the commencement of their Accelerator Program. “Once you’re part of the Accelerator, if you have been an entrepreneur, a mentor, an investor, a partner – you’re part of our family.” Commenting on her former batch she adds: “Out of the five entrepreneurs, four are currently still operational, and one recently closed on her first round of investment, all from Pakistani investors (a second is still in talks with funders)!”
In a blog entry for The Express Tribune, the Director of the PITB’s Plan 9, Khurram Zafar, states that the world needs to be aware of other, encouraging sides of Pakistan “Despite the 46 drone strikes, 652 bomb blasts, and over 1351 terrorism related casualties in 2012, the Pakistani people still continue to persevere, adapt, innovate and thrive!” Zafar writes. “The complete story is the tale, at one end, of 100 public listed Pakistani companies that provided investors with over 49 percent capital gain in 2012; and on the other end, of a young fruit vendor who collects orders for fruits via SMS and makes same-day-home deliveries. And then somewhere along this spectrum lie dozens of new businesses led by dynamic entrepreneurs that are developing innovative solutions for the local and global markets instead of whining in their drawing rooms about the problems of the country.”
I2i’s presence in the country is not only heartening, but also extremely encouraging for young, social entrepreneurs in Pakistan to come forward and have their ideas further developed and steered in the right direction. While the country is ripe with ideas, resources are limited. Therefore, terrific initiatives wind up calling it a day. The support structure is practically non-existent in Pakistan; hence Lakhani’s own start-up provides a glimmer of hope.
For Lakhani, there is currently “tremendous growth of the broader environment that is needed to support entrepreneurs. From successful entrepreneurs investing time and money in younger entrepreneurs, to university entrepreneurship programs, to an increase in funds, competitions, and events, it all not only adds to the energy, but helps create the right environment for creativity and ideas to flow, fail, and succeed,” she states. “Social entrepreneurship is really a subset of entrepreneurship, but I think it’s been exciting to identify really viable businesses that can receive businesses and yet also create enormous social impact. Given the challenges Pakistan faces, there’s a huge opportunity for social entrepreneurs to solve problems in the environment around them.”
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: sonjarehman [at] gmail.com