She Loves Tech 2020: Empowering Pakistani women through technology and entrepreneurship

In a bid to empower Pakistani women entrepreneurs and provide international exposure to their businesses, Karachi-based startup CIRCLE brought She Loves Tech – the world’s largest startup competition for women in technology – back to Pakistan for the fourth time.

An online event, called the “She Loves Tech Pakistan National Finals”, ran from November 6, 2020, to November 7, 2020, where 14 female-led startups presented their innovative, tech-related business ideas.

Enabled through the support of Habib Bank Limited (HBL) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), participants from 10 Pakistani cities, including Gilgit, Quetta, Multan, and Faisalabad, entered the contest this year, breaking previous records.

Judges and speakers listening to a pitch (Photo: Zoom webinar/Screengrab)

Speaking about the importance of promoting women’s participation in previously male-dominated fields like science and technology, CIRCLE’s founder Sadaffe Abid said that investing in women is critical to Pakistan’s progress.

“Through the She Loves Tech Pakistan event, CIRCLE is building a platform to support female startups that are using technology to solve critical challenges,” she told Geo News. “I am inspired by our women.”

Citing Pakistan’s dismal ranking on the Global Gender Gap Index 2020, where the country is placed at 151 out of 153 countries, she said that platforms like She Love Tech bring a ray of hope for women who want to make a difference and encourage others.

“She Loves Tech has become a movement. It is not only about entrepreneurship but it is solving very crucial problems in Pakistan. By taking part in the competition, all the female participants are inspiring thousands of women across the country and beyond.”

Speaking during the event, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection Dr Sania Nishtar said that she is excited to hear the stories of all the young ladies who partook in the competition.

“I appreciate how they have connected the dots between self-learning and the power of digital technology and entrepreneurship,” said Dr Sania Nishtar.

Appreciating the initiative, she added: “If a country does not make the way for half of its population, i.e. women, to fully participate in economic activities, and if it does not systematically invest in empowering its women, then it loses half of its growth potential right away.”

Co-Founder of She Loves Tech Leanne Robers appreciated the novel ideas put forth by participants and congratulated them for making it to the finals.

“This is the first time that we have held the She Loves Tech competition online. And although it was a disappointment because we could not meet the participants and organisers at CIRCLE in person, the virtual nature of the event gave many women a chance to participate who would otherwise not be able to travel to big cities.”

She also announced that the winning project will be included in the global finals of She Loves Tech, due to take place later this month, where participants from 30 countries will be competing for a prize.

The innovative ideas

For the 2020 competition, She Loves Tech Pakistan received hundreds of entries from all over the country, out of which 14 female-led startups were selected. From unique e-commerce websites to crop-production and enhancement technology, and from a remote hospital to an online portal documenting the incidents of street harassment that women face in their daily lives, all the projects gave judges a tough time to deliberate and select a winner.

During the first day of the event, seven teams presented their ideas and answered questions, while the remaining teams pitched their ideas on the second day of the event.

Photo: Facebook/ She Loves Tech Pakistan

The project included The Red Code, Live Natural, Technoknowledge, Rinder, Doch, Agritech, Shama-e-Zindagi, APRUS Technology, Nayab’s Rogue, ScaryAmmi, Mobiliti, Home Medics, Alif, and Love for Data.

While all participants received international recognition, the winner was awarded a cash prize, sponsored by Unilever. 

The winning project

At the end of the two-day event, APRUS Technology, a startup comprising “the architects of the world’s safest and smartest electrosurgical units,” was declared the winner for coming up with a cost-effective solution to a complicated problem.

“In Pakistan, all electrosurgical units are refurbished which means we have to smuggle new equipment because of unaffordability,” said Hira Irshad, the CEO of APRUS Technology. “Our solution will allow doctors to use locally-made, high-quality electrosurgical units that too at a cheaper price.”

She Loves Tech Team with competition winner Hira Irshad of APRUS Technology (Photo: Zoom webinar/Screengrab)

Shedding light on her experience, Irshad said that the competition was nothing short of amazing.

“What we usually forget is that being a woman and an entrepreneur is extremely tough,” she said. “You sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture in day-to-day operations. So, the competition really made me feel grounded and confident again.”

Irshad added that she and her team did not have access to good mentors, adding that it was especially difficult for her to even have a conversation with someone around her startup in a city like Peshawar.

“I am extremely thankful to She Loves Tech team and Saddafe Abid for reviving my energy and connecting me to Faisal Sherjan, who was my mentor for the competition,” she said. “We are very, very excited to be representing Pakistan in this competition. And we hope that our efforts will get global exposure.”

She added: “I would urge every woman entrepreneur in Pakistan to participate and reap all of the benefits of the competition. It’s a very strong and useful platform.”

Judges and speakers

The online event invited some of the most renowned names in Pakistan to represent the panel of judges, with each individual belonging to different areas of expertise. The panel included [email protected] president and The Nest i/o founder Jehan Ara, Mastercard country manager Atyab Tahir, Pakistan National Clearing Company chairman Humayun Bashir, TansformX co-founder Javaid Iqbal, BBC journalist Fifi Haroon, Open-Silicon Valley president Andaleeb, and HBL’s head of technology Aamir Matin.

Photo: Facebook/ She Loves Tech Pakistan

Besides that, some prominent personalities were invited to the event as speakers, including HBL’s chief operating officer Sagheer Mufti, the MIT Sloan School of Management’s senior lecturer Imran Sayeed, and Unilever’s director strategy and digital transformation Fawad Ahmed. 

On the second day, HBL’s head of consumer operations Fouzia Janjua, Jazz Pakistan’s chief business officer Ali Naseer, PM’s special assistant on poverty alleviation and social protection Dr Sania Nishtar, and UK FCDO Pakistan’s development director Annabel Gerry attended the event.