In this latest series of articles, we are publishing interviews of some incredible women who are part of the tech industry or the broader STEM fields.
In these interviews, you will find women working on solving real-world problems, breaking stereotypes and creating the next big impact on the industry. This series of interviews shows that even with the lowest rate of women participation in the labor market in Pakistan, there are still lots of smart women who are creating and using technology to work wonders.
Today, we are featuring Asra Rizwan. Read on to know more about her work and get inspired.
Tell us a little about yourself, your background, your education, and your work.
I was born and raised in Karachi, went to Happy Home High School then landed at PECHS Government College for intermediate and later ended up going to NED University to pursue my undergrad degree in Software Engineering. Growing up with a brother and a techie dad, I was always surrounded by tech. A fond memory is going on the dial-up internet on my dad’s PC with neighborhood kids and playing games.
Later in school tried my hand on basic programming. Inspired by Anya in IGI Video Game. I always wanted to grow up and become a hacker.
Years later, I ended up in the Pakistani tech and startup ecosystem. I profile Pakistani entrepreneurs and startups for TechJuice and have my own social startup called OpenMic Pakistan. We kickstarted it in November 2015 and have been sustaining at a slow (haha!) but a steady space. We engage youth in open dialogue and policy debates and are currently deploying a digital content platform that will generate data insights and document youth perspectives pertaining to open dialogue and policy debates. We were part of the 8th cohort at The Nest I/O.
What are your future plans/aspirations? What impact it will have on the community/society/your team/your project?
I want to build upon my professional experience and pursue more tech policy and study it further at a graduate level. Primarily, I want to advocate for the ways in which technology can assist developing economies. Globally there is a boom in social entrepreneurship, especially in developing economies, however, in Pakistan, a lot has to be done to substantiate change or an
impact. There is a lot of talk about deep tech and startups, but we see sort of a vacuum or black hole when it comes to data or AI for social good. I want to change that.
With OpenMic Pakistan, we want to grow it into a platform that aggregates data about Pakistani youth that can help influence and make way towards youth inclusive policies, be it for rural or urban youth.
Please brag about your career accomplishments, what are the things you are really proud of?
So far, I think OpenMic has been my biggest accomplishment and the toughest challenge. I still consider myself quite young in the field. Developing my start-up that focuses on data for social good is an amalgamation of my community work and my academic interests – who said you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
At the opening ceremony of the Harvard Asia Conference, the Executive Director was introducing the program and the applications they received from around the globe. She named 10 inspiring applicants and the second one was my name. I could not believe it! All the Pakistani delegates texted us on our Whatsapp group and that recognition really helped me break the ice with other delegates from around the world. I will always be proud of scoring a scholarship to Harvard Project for Asian & International Relations with an application that I wrote under four hours (procrastination not recommended!).
What has been your best education/career decision and why?
Ah, there are many!
When I had to take the decision for my undergrad, I was inclined towards automotive engineering, dad sat me down and said, “Hey, you want to challenge yourself and open up opportunities? Opt for Software Engineering!” He convinced me that I’d have more work opportunities and control over my career with an option to work from home whenever I liked (my lazy bone was sold on this). This decision opened so many opportunities for me. I spent a great campus life challenging the norms and landed a gig at TechJuice when I was only in my sophomore year. Another great decision that helped me network and know more about our ecosystem and startup life. Then working at Karachi Civic Innovation Lab, really helped to see my city and its problems in a totally different light and helped me realize how social entrepreneurship and civic tech is important to solve urban challenges.
What’re the best lessons you’ve learned?
To be less apologetic about taking up ‘space’ whether it be in the industry or a room. ‘Space’ being the confidence to speak up and to operate in professional settings knowing that I am worthy of the opportunities that come my way. My experience as a tech journalist at Techjuice led me to data about inequality in employment opportunities for women. Certain tech companies strictly only hire men, and many others are guilty of discrimination against women during the recruitment process. Hence, I always make sure to operate consciously through the tech industry, firmly reminding myself that women like myself are needed to take the industry forward.
Another hard lesson I have learned, that we often try to work pro-bono for the things we love, but sadly, but often employers and stakeholders do not even show the courtesy of feedback if it does not meet the ‘business’ task list. Therefore, it is necessary you look for the right people. Do not let one bad experience, define another.
Through the journey of setting up my start-up, Open Mic, I learned that we often ignore our inhibitions. My work is rooted in my potential and limitations, which keeps me from falling into the trap of viewing ‘success’ as a singular path versus something that is unique to me and my individuality.
Which woman inspires you and why?
Ah! Not one!
To me, the likes of Fatima Rizwan, Faiza Yousuf, Shamim Rajani, Jehan Ara, Zainab Hameed, Farah Ali, my grandmas, and my moms keep me going. They embody the definition of self-made and transparent. They all have mentored me in one way or another. Watching women maneuver in the tech industry often makes me feel that they understate their success and achievement. Moving like dark horses, only to become its pioneers. These women, on the other hand, with their no-bullshit attitude (excuse my language) maneuver through the industry with determination to bolster the tech and start-up culture in Pakistan.
For example, when I first started working for TechJuice, Fatima purposely assigned me big stories that challenged me to grow. The support she has extended to me throughout my career has been quite telling of her attitude in promoting young talent, especially women. Similarly, Faiza and Shamim engaged me for training in CodeGirls. Jehan Ara has always been the light in
the darkness, hearing our startup rants and giving the wisest of advice!
Do you think Pakistan has changed as a society, in terms of accepting career-oriented women?
What needs to change to help more women come forward?
I certainly do believe that tech space has changed significantly for career-oriented women through inclusive policies and focus on promoting diversity. Although, it still has not changed enough to the point where I would categorize the tech industry as ‘accepting’ of career-oriented women. As much as I appreciate women forums put on by tech companies and organizations, we still have a very long way to go. Ultimately, we need to get to a point where studying tech is not a privilege but an accessible option for women from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
There are multiple instances at frequent intervals where you will identify a manel (all male panel) at significant government or private conferences. Despite international tractions, these conferences gain spotlight for all the wrong reasons, and once criticized, it is often told that there are not ‘enough’ technical women out there.
I think we need to do a lot of outreach in schools and colleges to encourage young girls to pursue tech careers. Programs like CodeGirls, TechKaro, are good examples to boost the confidence of women.
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
Well, I’m assuming that the generation behind me will have to continue to fight for gender equality (read: wage gap) in the tech industry. Unfortunately, I do not think my generation will be able to completely eradicate sexism in the industry by the time the next generation comes of age. I think it would be better to say the industry needs to be inclusive to the point where no one is discriminated against based on their gender, religion, sexuality, or ethnic background. We need to see more intersectional policy changes in the tech industry (and the government, might I add) that encourage technology companies to build gender diverse workplaces.
There are still companies around us who either do not hire women or if they hire them, do not allow them to practice their choice of professional attire. Wage gap will continue to be a persistent problem (hopefully not), and be it this generation or next generation of women, they should know they put an ask for what they are worthy of. Nobody is going to give you special treatment just because you are a girl, you need to go out there and make your own space.
If you could change one thing about the tech industry/business, what would it be?
I have worked in the cross-section of civic tech, startups, and IT operations and what I have realized is that there is a lot of ‘big talk’ that does not translate into action. We throw out the word ‘innovative’ too much, especially when commending copycat ideas. Although I acknowledge that there is some great collaborative work being done, the tech and startup culture in Pakistan still needs to evolve past the point of rewarding ‘fluff.’ Also, we have a long way to catch up on using tech, AI, and data for social good. I think tech startups doing actual work, particularly, for social good are not recognized enough because of
a lack of understanding of impact startups in the ecosystem. The industry tends to put the spotlight on startups that have great marketing rather than substance.
Another trend that irks me how local venture capital funds are investing in tech startups only to remove the founders and taking over the helms of the company. Instead of focusing on making quick money, these funds need to educate and mentor future tech entrepreneurs to enrich their investment experience rather than turn it into a nightmare.
How can WomenInTechPK help you and other women?
In a very little time, WomenInTeckPK has emerged as a very important community for women tech professionals and fresh graduates are just joining the industry. For tech beginners, it’s a great space to learn about work culture, opportunities, networking in the local industry. And, most importantly, it’s a great way for established women in the industry to give back and
mentor talent. With its flagship program CodeGirls, I see the effort this community is putting forward to give back and empower young girls to join the larger tech community.
Building upon the current activities and engagement, WomenInTech can also launch focused discussion for female tech students to help them have an understanding of career options, meanwhile, this program can be expanded for women who are looking for returnships after a career break.
You can follow Asra Rizwan using her profiles below, and please do not hesitate in hiring her for your next project.