As a cofounder of a social enterprise in Lahore, the question I get asked most often is “why Pakistan?” And it’s a great question, not because the answers are unclear, but because there are so many to choose from.
The following is a brief exploration into a few of those answers, with a particular focus on why Pakistan is an exciting place to invest as a socially-driven investor.
Why Pakistan? Building bridges
Yesterday, the fellows in our Career-Prep Fellowship at Amal Academy organized a small birthday party after their session. Huddled around the two birthday cakes, the party reached its peak when one of the fellows (Gohar) erupted into a Punjabi rap song.
After his performance, Gohar told me how grateful he was for Amal Academy and how he had previously thought Americans wanted nothing to do with Pakistan. But that his perspective completely changed after learning about our work.
What struck me was not the previous misperceptions that Gohar had about Americans, but how little was needed to change those perceptions. Indeed, this was the first time that I was actually talking with Gohar, but his perceptions had already evolved just by learning about Amal (a venture started out of California) and the work that we are doing.
To me, this is one of the most incredible opportunities for investing in Pakistan: the chance to foster understanding in a world full of misperceptions, endless negative news, vocal minorities, xenophobic presidential candidates, and more.
Why Pakistan? Learning what lies beyond the single story
And of course, investing in Pakistan creates a profound opportunity for investors to better understand Pakistan, as the the misunderstandings exist both ways. It goes without saying that the single story from Pakistan that Americans are familiar with is one of extremism, violence, and corruption. And, as written by Chimamanda Ngozi,
the consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
What happens when we learn how similar we are rather than how different we are? What happens when we move beyond the single story? In the words of Mary Lou Kownacki:
There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their [actual] story.
Pakistan is an incredibly diverse place, with not just one single story, but nearly 200M stories. Perhaps the best way to begin understanding those stories is to become a small part of them.
Why Pakistan? The return on investment of a candle
During Gohar’s unexpected performance, I quietly thought about how this song sounded just like those I used to hear from students I taught business to in East Harlem or the students I taught job skills to in East Palo Alto.
It was a beautiful reminder that people are people, regardless of where they live. But it also reminded me of why we set up Amal in Pakistan: because there really weren’t existing programs like the ones I worked with in East Palo Alto or East Harlem.
Zoya’s story is a powerful example of this. Zoya is an Amal Fellow who told us that even though she had a 3.96 GPA, she had been unemployed for over a year after graduation, looking for a job and also looking for an opportunity like Amal to help develop her skills. But at the time, she couldn’t find any such program that existed in Lahore.
Another Amal Fellow once said that “sometimes when it’s darkest, even the smallest candle makes the biggest difference.” For Fellows like Zoya, the Amal Fellowship was able to be that candle, helping her get a job as a Teaching Assistant at Information Technology University.
And for investors exploring Pakistan, this is one of the most exciting opportunities: to be that candle and provide a marginal impact in a way that I haven’t seen possible in any of the other markets I’ve been exposed to yet.
(Not to mention that — in our experience — $1 invested in Amal Academy goes 5–10x farther in Pakistan than it would if we were based in another market).
Why Pakistan? An emerging ecosystem
Pakistan is the 6th most populated country in the world, the 3rd largest English speaking country, and has had the second best performing stock exchange. And perhaps most exciting: there is a growing ecosystem of impact investors, incubators/accelerators, and of course entrepreneurs.
One such investor is Acumen, which entered the country in 2002, has invested over $15M in 12 social enterprises, and whose work specifically in Pakistan has been highlighted in Forbes as being catalytic for an ecosystem that is ripe for collaboration and partnership. According to Jacqueline Novogratz, CEO of Acumen (and an incredible supporter of Amal):
Working in Pakistan turned out to be one of the best moves we made.
Echoing Green is another investor that has also helped move the space forward, investing in two ventures that are based in Pakistan and another 3 entrepreneurs with significant operations in the country.
Regarding accelerators/incubators, companies like Invest2Innovate are accelerating Pakistan’s young social entrepreneurs in “a widening ecosystem of entrepreneurship supported by the state, universities, individual business leaders, and outside companies like Google” (Source: Fast Company)
And lastly, there are incredible early-stage social enterprises working tirelessly to scale up, like Rabtt, Reading Room Project, Markhor, Eco Energy Finance, ProCheck, Justice Project Pakistan, The History Project, Popinjay, Lettuce Bee Kids, and so much more.
Why Pakistan? Scaling it up
And yet while there is incredibly exciting progress being made in the ecosystem, Pakistan is a huge market and there is tremendous need for investors and partners to help take the ecosystem to the next level.
Achieving scale is a challenge that over 90% of social enterprises in Pakistan are facing, and unfortunately there aren’t yet many past examples to learn from or thought partners to ask us the right questions. Which, of course, is where investors can make a profound difference, given their deep experiences supporting ventures through different lifecycles.
Philanthropic capital can play an especially critical role in helping entrepreneurs experiment with innovative approaches to poverty alleviation and developing novel business models, particularly within the first few years of starting up. And, perhaps more importantly, these investors can provide the critical thought partnership, business acumen, technical assistance, and systems support that social enterprises need in order to cross the chasm and reach scale. (Source: Monitor Group)
Why Pakistan? A brighter world
In 2015, Forbes published a powerful article saying that Pakistan could be the next Colombian success story, with a very important cautionary note:
In order to participate in the upside of the Pakistan story, the United States will need to view Pakistan not as a problem to be solved but as a potential partner.
The article goes on to say that Pakistan continues to “suffer from a terrible country brand that has not caught up with [the positive] realities on the ground,” which includes “action against terrorism, political stability and a new development story.”
At Amal, we realize there are a lot of perceptions discouraging an investor from considering Pakistan. But we also have seen first hand the richness that exists beyond these perceptions.
Through our early supporters at Amal (e.g., Stanford University, Echoing Green, Acumen), we’ve seen first hand the power that investors can have in bringing about a brighter tomorrow for Pakistan. Through our board and advisors we’ve seen the potential of having partners who help illuminate the right questions along the path to scale. And through our fellows, we’ve seen how even the smallest candle can make the biggest difference.