You are a motivator, an entrepreneur, a social activist, a writer and a regular speaker at seminars and conferences, colleges and universities. Where do you think your strength lies and what do you want to be remembered as?
I think my strength lies in my passion for everything I do. It’s that passion that drives me to strive for excellence. For example I motivate not for the sake of mere motivation but because I see so much potential in so many of our young people – potential that is not realised simply because people don’t believe in them. I write only about things that matter to me – that either make me happy or that celebrate things and people around me. I also write about things that concern me, that I feel require changing. I want to be remembered as a person who cared enough to make the effort to bring about change.
Is being an IT technician something you always aspired to do when younger?
Actually, I am not a technical professional at all. I started off my life as a writer, went into PR, marketing, advertising and communications and before multimedia became a buzzword, I became part of a team that developed pioneering multimedia products. That was my entry into the technology sector. It happened in the early ‘90s. What a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that the tech sector comprises of many elements and talent streams – there are the innovators, the computer scientists, the entrepreneurs, the user experience professionals, the product managers, the business guys, the creative people and so many others. Each one of them is equally important and has a role to play.
How did The Nest I/O and P@SHA happen for you?
When I moved back to Pakistan and co-founded a multimedia company with my mentor and friend Zaheer Kidvai, I immediately looked around to see if there was an association that represented the sector that I had inadvertently become a part of. P@SHA existed and was run by a strong group of individuals. I joined the association, became an active part of it and was eventually asked to join the executive board. I strongly believe that trade associations can only be effective if people come together and lend their voice and their strength to the body that is trying to bring about policy change. A common platform is always a stronger means of communicating with the government. That is beneficial for everyone in the industry. The Nest I/O came out of a need that was identified by young people in the community – a need for mentorship, for a space where like-minded people from the community could converge, share their talents, their ideas, their knowledge, discuss challenges and learn from each other. P@SHA had been running multiple events for young aspiring entrepreneurs as part of our overall strategy to grow the sector and to provide the support that was needed by companies large and small. Our Annual ICT Awards, our P@SHA Launch Pad events, our Start-up Insider Series and our Social Innovation Fund were only some of the key things we were doing. As a next step to fulfilling the need of aspiring tech innovators, we decided to take the plunge and set up The Nest I/O. It was an experiment that has succeeded beyond anything we ever expected. It has now been around for over two and a half years. We have just incubated our sixth cohort of entrepreneurs and each day is more interesting and fulfilling than the next.
Tell us about an interesting and memorable moment that happened during your career.
There have been so many. I don’t think it is possible to pick just one. I have been so fortunate in the work I have been allowed to do, in the things I have been able to learn, in the amazing people I have met, collaborated with and come to admire. But I think one of the memories that stand out is my experience at Headway Media Services – a media company owned by Adrian Batten – an amazing Britisher who could sell anyone anything. I worked for him and with him for nine years. After the first few years, Adrian came to me and said that he wanted to make me a director in the company and give me a 40 percent stake. I told him I didn’t want it, that I was happy with the work and the remuneration. It was a very small company – a handful of people accomplishing the most amazing things. That is why I find it so amazing when young people change jobs saying they need to work for a larger company because they can only grow if they can report to someone, if they have multiples of people reporting to them. My God, don’t they understand that the growth and learning and competence and skill happens much more in a start up and/or in small companies where you are not restricted to one kind of work. Anyway, to get back to the story, Adrian wouldn’t take no for an answer and insisted that I become a partner in the company. So I did. He gave me full signing authority on all our bank accounts – US$, Pound Sterling, Deutsch Marks, Hong Kong Dollars, etc. Again I resisted. I told him he shouldn’t do this. He travelled so much. What if I ran away with all the money? He should not place so much trust in one individual. In answer to this he looked straight at me and said “But you wouldn’t do that, would you?” Of course I wouldn’t but he couldn’t have known that. Such trust, such faith. I was totally blown away by it and made sure there was never a second when he regretted having this level of belief and trust in a young woman from Pakistan.
‘I too owe a lot to this country and although I have had opportunities to move out, I have chosen to stay and give back to this country and its people. It is the least all of us can do’
You have 29 years’ experience in marketing, communications and interactive new media in Hong Kong, the Far East, the UAE and Pakistan. How much do you think our country is lagging behind in the field of information technology? In what ways can we improve and move forward?
Our country has amazing potential; a lot of talent, a young population that has the power to reach for the stars and often does despite all the challenges we face. Many companies in the IT sector have done a lot of great work, provided employment to large numbers of graduates and improved the lives of so many people. However, this sector needs to be recognised and given the status it deserves. We have not accomplished even a percentage of what we can. What we need is lots more investment in relevant training, seed capital for experimentation and innovation, growth capital for scaling companies and tax incentives that will allow companies to reinvest in its human capital, infrastructure, marketing and growth.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on preparing for P@SHA’s Annual ICT Awards, which are in their 14th year. These awards recognise innovation in the ICT sector in Pakistan and showcase it to the world. I am also working with my team on new initiatives at The Nest i/o to add to the already existing energy in the space. In addition, I am looking at raising a start-up fund so that The Nest i/o can help start-ups with good potential face the initial financial challenges that they face in terms of seed and follow-on funding.
What is your vision for Pakistan and what does it mean to be Pakistani for you?
It is really not up to me alone to have a vision for Pakistan. I think there are so many bright and talented people in this country who know what needs to be done to recognise the true potential of Pakistan. There is no reason that we should not be up there being counted amongst the comity of nations. We need to stop thinking of “me” and “I” and more about “us”. To me Pakistan is a country with a population that can make its mark on the world. We just don’t allow ourselves to. To me this country means everything. My father used to say that if not for Pakistan, he would never have been able to give us the education, the up bringing and the kind of life that we enjoy now. This country allowed him to build his career, to make a life for his family and to contribute to the community. He said he owed Pakistan everything. I too owe a lot to this country and although I have had opportunities to move out, I have chosen to stay and give back to this country and its people. It is the least all of us can do.
Policy advocacy through the use of cutting-edge technology is one of your passions. What more do you feel the most passionate about?
I am often asked why I focus on technology being used to empower people when poverty, hunger, lack of water and power are such essential problems in the country. My answer to this is that I understand we have a lot of challenges. There are different people amongst us who are addressing different problems. I focus on technology because I have seen how it can change the lives of young people. A kid from a small town can build a company with his/her talent and a very small amount of money, launch it and turn it into a successful business. If he understands the customer segment that the product or service is aimed at, and is actually solving a problem, there is no reason that he doesn’t have a chance of making it big. Even those who don’t want to start businesses, often bid for online work and generate thousands of dollars for themselves and their families. With the cost of mobile phones decreasing on a regular basis, the ability to own and use a phone to start a business is getting much easier. If you look at the Grameen Bank model in Bangladesh, it was the women in rural areas that benefited the most. It is important however that the government ensures that the policies that are brought into play do not take away from us the ability to harness and use this technology for the benefit of young people in this country. It is extremely important not to have excess regulation that will restrict innovation. We have already started seeing technology being used in healthcare, agriculture, governance, and education and for the empowerment of disadvantaged groups. We need to allow this to grow by leaps and bounds.
Describe a typical day in the life of Jehan Ara.
No day in my life is typical. Each day is an adventure. I work with people who are innovative and who wake up each day with new ideas, new energy, and new passion. It is no wonder then that I look forward to each day. I don’t consider what I do as a job. It is my passion. It is what makes me happy and that is why you will find me at work from 8:30am to 9:30pm six days a week. These youngsters I work with pump me with energy and excitement. They give me hope in the future. I would not want life to be any different.
Last year, you were invited by the White House on behalf of former US president Barack Obama to speak on entrepreneurship in Pakistan. Tell us about that experience. What did you take home from this?
The invitation from the White House was a great honour for me. I was delighted because it gave me an opportunity to present the picture of this country from a completely different perspective. I was asked to speak on “Investment in South Asia” so I talked about entrepreneurship in Pakistan, the growing wave of young people starting innovative businesses, impacting the society and creating wealth for themselves and their families. I told them that investors should start looking at the potential of a country with 200 million people a lot of whom were talented young people. “If you do not invest now,” I said, “It will be a missed opportunity.” I found that as I spoke, people actually listened and were surprised at the stories I related. We need to make sure that we blow our own trumpet and that we talk about what our people have achieved. If we don’t do it, how do we expect the image of this country to change? The Global Entrepreneurship Summit was a great opportunity to network with entrepreneurs, investors and eco-system leaders from all over the world, to change perceptions and to create linkages.
As an activist, you began ‘Bolo Bhi’, which is a conversation on human rights, Internet freedom and privacy in Pakistan. What other social causes you feel the most strongly about and why?
Bolo Bhi was started by a group of us because we felt that we needed a platform to bring about policy change through research and advocacy. Most of the work at Bolo Bhi has been driven by the two directors and co-founders of Bolo Bhi – Farieha Aziz and Sana Saleem. I do not think it would be fair for me to take credit for the amazing work that they have done. They are both amazing young women who have worked with policy makers, parliamentarians, the media as well as civil society and business stakeholders to create consensus and bring about an understanding on the need for policy that is good for government and citizens alike. More power to them. I personally feel very strongly about the empowerment of young people, especially women, the need for these youngsters to be able to voice their opinions, their frustrations and be able to make suggestions on how they would like their future to be. Why should they not be involved in determining the policies that are going to impact them in the future? I am also a very strong proponent of privacy and confidentiality laws so that our personal data is not compromised.
What, according to you, has been your biggest achievement until date?
I believe that I have been able to build a community that trusts me and has a strong belief in each other. That to date is what I am most proud of.
The renowned Jehan Ara is not just a multimedia professional but also a motivator, an entrepreneur, a social activist, a writer and a regular speaker at seminars and conferences, colleges and universities.
AT THE HELM OF AFFAIRS
Jehan Ara is the president of the Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT & P@SHA. She has to a great degree been responsible for developing the P@SHA brand and for creating linkages between P@SHA and local and international partners. She is currently also collaborating on an initiative called Take Back the Tech which is meant to create awareness on how technology can be harnessed to end Violence against Women and girls. In addition to her role as president of the industry association, she is working on an initiative known as the Women’s Virtual Network which will connect educated women with potential employers, mentors and peers remotely, thus bringing more women into the economic fold and creating a community that will evolve into a support network for professional women.
VETERAN MULTIMEDIA PROFESSIONAL
Jehan has 29 years of experience in marketing, communications and interactive new media in Hong Kong, the Far East, the UAE and Pakistan.
A FIERY ENTREPRENEUR
She along with a group of people began Bolo Bhi because she felt that they needed a platform to bring about policy change through research and advocacy. She personally feels very strongly about the empowerment of young people, especially women, the need for these youngsters to be able to voice their opinions, their frustrations and be able to make suggestions on how they would like their future to be.
Other than working abroad, Jehan was a part of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, in which she was invited by former US president Barack Obama to talk about Investment in South Asia at the White House.
Published in Daily Times, August 25th 2017.