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Syed Babar Ali, featured in the New York Times as “an institution in Pakistan”

To be or not to be an entrepreneur in Pakistan

Although one of the most frequent suggestions our Amal Fellows give is to add entrepreneurship to our Career-Prep Fellowship, I often feel a deep reluctance to encourage this career path fresh out of university.

This often strikes me as counterintuitive — even hypocritical — given my life’s purpose has been discovered through entrepreneurship, given society’s need for both job creation and problem solving, and given how much I believe our future as a world depends — at least in part — on the beauty created through entrepreneurship.

And so, this post is an attempt to sift through these hesitations — specifically focusing on entrepreneurship for fresh university grads in urban Pakistan — through my limited experiences and especially through the advice and wisdom of entrepreneurs with deep experience in the country.

Maximizing your chance of success

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Imran Sarwar (image from Rabtt)

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to be on a panel with my friend and fellow education-entrepreneur Imran Sarwar (Rabtt, Cofounder/MD). The student-inspired discussion centered on entrepreneurship and several questions were asked about going directly into entrepreneurship after university. One of the stories Imran shared was about “the dark side of entrepreneurship,” how impossibly difficult, desperate and sometimes despairing the journey can be.

One thing I have learned through Amal is that we might not be able to totally prevent these storms, but we might be able to develop the ability to continually weather through them, in order to reach the rare but brighter days of entrepreneurship. And that this ability is especially developed by building the necessary skills, mindsets and learning abilities. Indeed, these are the three areas we focus on in the Amal Fellowship, as they are also essential in the job.

In other words, becoming a great employee can be one of the prereqs to being a great entrepreneur. For example, developing the ability to manage your time, to collaborate and communicate clearly in a team, to understand and solve problems, to embrace failures, to learn from your team or your customers, to grow and leverage your network. All of these are critical skills that we should ideally learn in university but should definitely learn on the job (before sailing out into entrepreneurship).

When we were launching Amal, we reached out to our mentor Jacqueline Novogratz, Founder/CEO of Acumen and a close friend to Pakistan. Her advice — given how difficult entrepreneurship is — was:

Choose a place where you will have the best shot at success. And where we would have the biggest shot at making a difference.

And although this was specific to our situation, I think it’s universal advice that can be applied to fresh grads in Pakistan: maximize your chance of success before catapulting into entrepreneurship.

Learning on someone else’s horse

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Syed Babar Ali with the Amal Fellows at Naqsh School of Arts

Syed Babar Ali is perhaps the most qualified person to share advice on this topic, given the transformation he’s built within Pakistan’s business (and education) sector — including Packages, LUMS, Ali Institute, Nestle, WWF, Siemens, etc. — over his 90 year life. He has also been a guiding light to Amal and so we asked him this question of starting a business as a fresh grad: his advice was to “learn on someone else’s horse first.” To join a company, especially a reputable start up or fast moving company where you’ll learn a lot, and where you’ll learn on someone else’s dime.

Jacqueline refers to this as apprenticeship: a period of deep learning in preparation for what might lie ahead. Where we can enjoy much of the growth and development while also not taking on much of the risks. Which feels especially important for many of our fellows, given the family structure and the potential expectations to start contributing immediately after graduation.

If you go directly into entrepreneurship, it’s likely you might not be able to draw a salary for quite sometime (Amal’s Advisor Sohail Rizvi says it will take at least 6–12 months, on average). Hence, Babar sb’s suggestion to learn on someone else’s horse. To develop the skills, mindsets, and learning abilities first, and then jump in when you’re better prepared to weather through the storms.

This advice feels especially relevant in Pakistan, given the family expectations and the challenges within the education system to fully develop these abilities. However, it’s not particular only to Pakistan: as recently shared by Yasser Bashir, Amal Advisor and the incredible entrepreneur/CEO behind one of Pakistan’s most exciting companies (Arbisoft), even the global mogul Richard Branson has suggested getting 4–5 years of experience before launching a startup.

An emerging (but unique) ecosystem

A final — albeit slightly technical — idea to consider is the deep differences unique to Pakistan’s startup ecosystem, where the potential to “make it big” is not yet as promising as it is in other parts of the world (e.g., Silicon Valley / the Bay Area). As Yasser recently shared, we haven’t seen a major exit in Pakistan, yet, although we are very close.

Although the percentage of fresh grads in the Bay Area who go directly into entrepreneurship is still quite small (less than 5%), one of the reasons why it seems more prominent (and viable) is because the ecosystem is more developed, including the possibility of getting bought out, going public, or even failing fast (a counterintuitive but critical ability for a startup to have).

In Pakistan, however, the life cycle for entrepreneurship is quite drawn out, making the opportunity costs higher and the time / career investment much more profound. Like Yasser said, however, this is changing quickly and hopefully the next 5–10 years will be incredibly exciting.

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Imran (left) with Yasser (right) at the School of Tomorrow panel discussion

Start in a small way

Does this mean entrepreneurship in Pakistan is not promising or exciting? In fact, it is just the opposite: Pakistan is one of the most exciting markets in the world (which is why we set up Amal here). Almost any enterprise you establish can make a huge difference.

That said, I think we can maximize this potential by first developing a stronger toolset of skills, abilities and mindsets. This can be done on the job, and it can also be done while starting small projects on the side. Wharton Professor Adam Grant shares very counter intuitive research that shows that some of the most successful entrepreneurs are actually those that hedge their risks, by having jobs (or job opportunities) while working part time on their start up project.

In the words of Jacqueline:

You do it, you learn how to do it better. You start to see a path to doing it deeper and in a way that can have exponential impact. And before you know it, a corner of the world starts to change.

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Jacqueline with the Amal Fellows in Lahore

Postscript: Although there is deep value in gaining experience first, there is also danger in believing you need too much experience, and then spending 5–10+ years without being able to make the jump into entrepreneurship (a topic for another post!)

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @theunderstory cofounder | nature novel in progress

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