Hira Saeed and Faiza Yousuf had both been working in the technology industry for 12 years when they started talking about the lack of career acceleration opportunities for women in Pakistan and, also, the impact of Covid-19 on women’s careers.
Knowing that Faiza had in-depth experience in the field – especially since she runs a coding boot camp for women – Hira asked Faiza to join her in her new venture CaterpillHERs, an entrepreneurship and career accelerator for women in Pakistan.
With the strategic partnership of one of the largest accelerators in the Bay Area called Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, CaterpillHERs started off as Pakistan’s first online and equity-free accelerator founded to help women-led businesses scale. During the fast-paced 12-weeks acceleration cohorts, women receive fast-paced and blended curriculum, 1:1 mentorship, leadership coaching, fundraising training and access to a powerful and close-knitted community.
Based in Karachi, both young women are motivated to boost women entrepreneurship, especially in South Asia where getting funding or outreach for women-led ventures is an uphill battle. “I see this problem multi-layered. It’s more complex that what meets the eye,” says Hira, who also leads Pakistan’s leading tech community called Tech Geeks.
She explains: “Women in South Asian societies grow up seeing very less role models in the business world; they lack confidence and risk-taking ability due to conservative values imposed on them since childhood and they are also marginalized due to lack of enabling environment for both genders.”
Faiza, who is a multi-award-winning community leader and is the founder of WomenInTechPK, the biggest tech community for women technologists in Pakistan, says, “Women aren’t taken seriously and, in most cases, their careers as employees or entrepreneurs are considered as hobbies. They also don’t find access to the right mentors and training and education for being investment-ready. For bridging this gap, CaterpillHERs works with female founders to help them get investment-ready.”
According to the World Bank, Pakistan has the world’s lowest rate of women entrepreneurs with only one percent of female entrepreneurs compared to 21 percent of male. Also, the urban female labour force participation is among the lowest in the world at only 10 percent. Nearly 75 percent of university graduate women in Pakistan are unemployed.
“CaterpillHERs aims to improve these numbers through our acceleration programs that provide women access to curriculum, training, support network, and mentorship to build and scale their businesses and careers,” says Hira.
They do it in two ways. One is the entrepreneurial vertical where female founders go through training and mentorship to become investment-ready and find direction to scale their businesses. Another is via the career acceleration program. “Our first track is freelancing skills, where female professionals are learning how to build their freelancing businesses and scale them to build and run agencies,” says Faiza.
Both believe that internet technology is a key tool for women’s empowerment in countries like India and Pakistan. “The internet provides flexibility and accessibility. Women in our part of the world have not been able to access so many opportunities due to lack of freedom of choice, household responsibilities and mobility issues. Internet minimizes all of it and also give them the access to other women to share their challenges and struggles. This is why all our programs are remote and provide 1:1 mentorship and access to a power-packed community of inspiring women from all over the world,” asserts Hira.
Faiza too believes that internet access has been a game-changer for women in Pakistan. “From learning to work opportunities, you see the internet at the center of all of these activities. Communities like WomenInTechPK, TechGeeksPakistan, ConnectedWomenPakistan, and PWiC, programs like CaterpillHERs, TechKaro, and CodeGirls, and initiatives like Femprow, Digital Rights Foundations, and Invest2Innovate, all of these were made possible because of the internet. We now see countless small home-based businesses run by women, thousands of women freelancers bridging on remittance, and women activists and community builders changing the cultural landscape of the country,” says Faiza, who holds a postgraduate degree from NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi and has been part of a World-Bank-funded program called WomenXPakistan.
As young women on a mission, both Hira and Faiza have drawn on challenges and lessons from their own life that drives them to push ahead despite odds, despite the systemic obstacles they are up against.
“Growing up, I only had two choices to live my life: settle for an unequal world with no or little opportunities for women, or build a life where I change things. I ran another company and worked in the corporate sector before I started CaterpillHERs. I walked on the same journey to understand the struggles women face and why we should change it. This drives me every day and CaterpillHERs is the brainchild of the same frustration,” says Hira.
For her part, Faiza shares that access to engineering education and work opportunities changed her life and that is what drives her. “I want other women to get the same opportunities and have the courage to dream big and get where they want to be. The internalized misogyny that we see day-in and day-out makes me really frustrated,” she shares. “We need men as allies but we also need women to shed their shackles and think beyond patriarchal norms.”