In this latest series of articles, we are publishing interviews of women who are working as a professional or a student in the technology sector. The objective is to highlight their work and contribution to the industry as well as to the community.
In these interviews, you will find women working in technology to solve real-world problems, to break stereotypes and to create the next big impact on the tech 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 Haya Ansari. 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 in Karachi but raised in the UAE. While giving my IGCSEs I had the opportunity to study ‘Design & Technology’ where we had to ‘invent’ solutions to problems for our coursework. That was my first taste of engineering and I had found my calling, I was hooked!
I went on to get a BSc. in Electronics Engineering and was naively surprised that no one in my undergraduate class shared my passion for engineering, well almost no one…
In 2010 I teamed up with a bird of my feather, Maryam Zubair (co-founder of the Aagah Initiative), together we created an eye-controlled computer mouse for the physically impaired for our graduation project, that went on to win awards across the Middle East and eventually got published at an International Conference.
Since then I have worked for a short while in the corporate sector before diving into entrepreneurial ventures. While in the US I headed the team that set up and ran the first Islamic Pre-school in the Henrico suburb of Richmond, VA. Then in Qatar, I established and grew local healthy foods and also worked as a Marketing consultant. I spent last year studying everything I could on Artificial Intelligence and Data Science, and have set forth on my greatest project yet, the Aagah Initiative.
What are your future plans/aspirations? What impact it will have on the community/society/your team/your project?
What is clear to me is that I am meant to work with technology in an entrepreneurial setup. It is my inclination to make sure my work has a sense of purpose, which to me translates to making the world a better place.
I work very hard, that’s no accident, and I aim very high. I plan (hope/pray) to develop the Aagah Initiative into a useful resource for women across the world on a level that has not been done before. I plan to publish groundbreaking research that will be a valuable contribution to the global ecosystem of theoretical and practical knowledge. Many of my plans are dependant on the results of what we can achieve in the near future, but the common denominator is that I aspire to put forth the best of my abilities and create a system/solution that will contribute to solving the many problems our society faces.
Please brag about your career accomplishments, what are the things you are really proud of?
- Achieved 2nd place in Research Design Competition for our eye-mouse project competing against 28 universities from 12 countries.
- Being a published author while holding just an undergraduate degree.
- Consecutively received 100% every quarterly appraisal for two years when working in the corporate sector.
- Setting up the Al-Iman Academy in VA – I interviewed for a position I had no prior experience for and managed to get the role of the team lead. Long nights and many stressful days paid off when we got glowing reviews from the community. All this was done with a five-month-old baby in tow and another on the way.
- Building my own brand Au Naturel – My first experience of setting up my own brand was both exhausting and exhilarating. Launching in a highly competitive market meant door-to-door sales, setting up booths on the weekend, and doing online marketing during my toddlers’ nap time. It all seemed worth it though when stores started to stock my products!
- Aagah Initiative – It is a bit premature to place this project on the list just yet, but the last two months have been of exceptional growth and productivity. I can see great potential for this one.
What has been your best education/career decision and why?
This one is difficult to answer because my decisions are tailor-made for me and my circumstances, they cannot be taken as blanket advice.
In general, I have never followed the norm, and instead always pursued my own interests while keeping in mind my limitations.
- I skipped my A levels. It was a risk at the time, but I believe it paid off since I started university aged 16 and graduated by the time I was 20.
- Even after harboring such a passion for engineering I started my career in Marketing in a tech firm. Jobs are difficult to come by for freshies especially in the Middle East, so keeping my mind over my heart I leaped at the opportunity I had instead of the one I dreamed about.
- In retrospect, I believe it was a good decision to not pursue a Master’s degree after I graduated, because of the financial constraints I was under at the time. However, I would love to go back to school and get a Master’s and even a Ph.D. one day.
What’re the best lessons you’ve learned?
- Don’t worry, no one knows what they are doing: Even the most put together, most apparently successful people could not re-create their success if they had to. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.
- Just because you are different, doesn’t mean you are less: Your path is as unique as you are. Compare yourself to where you were yesterday, not where someone else is today. This is especially true for women, our path will always look different from the traditional successful trajectory.
- Be grateful: Traditional lesson, but so powerful. There will always be people doing better than you, much much better, but then there are also going to be people worse off. Cherish your gifts and the opportunities that come your way and make the most of them.
Which woman inspires you and why?
Jacinda Ardern – PM of New Zealand. Her position, her success, her intelligence or her political prowess is more than enough to impress, but what inspires me the most about her is how she focuses on empathy and humanity. She uses her talents, her gifts, her resources to do whatever she can for her country and her people. After the Christchurch incident in 2019, she was the first ruler of a country who reacted like a HUMAN BEING and not like a mouthpiece for a state. It could not have been easy, but she inspires because she has the courage and the daring to acknowledge her vulnerability and in that lies her greatest strength.
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?
Personally, I have not seen any evidence to suggest that Pakistan has made great leaps in this regard. My parents’ generation saw women doctors, engineers, my generation has seen the same. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of change in the support granted at home or the softening of attitude in the community towards them.
What needs to change? This is a thesis-worthy question, off the top of my head:
1) Flexible timings – The world is moving towards work-from-home models and flexible work timings. Our commerce industry, much like our education system, repels any innovation and is rigidly traditional in terms of work culture, timings, etc. The problem is these rules are made keeping in mind a single man. It is bad for fathers, it is especially terrible for mothers.
2) Protection for women – Street harassment and workplace harassment is a global issue, but it is especially rampant in Pakistan because it is not being taken seriously, and even more so due to our silence and inability to call out the perpetrators.
3) Change mindset – Both the leaders in the workplace and leaders at homes need a transformative mindset shift, that does not see working women as a problem that needs to be solved, rather an asset that needs to thrive!
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
We are raising a generation of empowered women, but who is raising the men to accept these empowered women?
A community is made up of both genders and the better we work together the more peace and prosperity will ensue. As our gender roles in society become more fluid with time, I see the differences between men and women widening. It will be a challenge for the next generation to carve out roles and responsibilities between them that both are happy with. The traditional system doesn’t work anymore, and we have struggled to create new ones that are fair, balanced, and acceptable to both parties. Good luck girls (and boys)!
If you could change one thing about the tech industry/business, what would it be?
Of all the industries, the tech industry is the best in terms of flexibility and recognizing young talent. It is not run by a few titans but new technology always challenges the industry leaders, and so we are consistently growing. It’s fast-paced and favors no one in particular. I do wish though, the tech industry would have a more open learning environment as does the academic/research industry.
How can WomenInTechPK help you and other women?
Honestly, the more I have interacted with your pages and online presence I am surprised by a community like this exists. You are doing real work, helping women from all levels across the industry and you seem very dedicated to your cause. I’m grateful for being involved with WomenInTechPK, and I am certain your hard work is planting seeds across Pakistan that you will one day see bloom into an entire garden of accomplished women in tech.
You can follow Haya Ansari using her profiles below, and please do not hesitate in hiring her for your next project.