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, break stereotypes, and 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 Sadaf Rehman. Read on to learn more about her work and get inspired.
1. Tell us a little about yourself, your background, your education, and your work.
I am currently the co-founder of Codeschool.pk, a startup that provides coding literacy for children. I have nearly two decades of experience in Pakistan’s nonprofit education and skills-training space, driving positive social change for youth. In my last role, I served as partnerships liaison at LUMS, Pakistan’s leading nonprofit university, where I helped raise funds for the University’s annual scholarship requirement of PKR 1 billion. Before that, I was the founding CEO of the Pakistan office of Generation You Employed, a McKinsey-founded skills-training nonprofit, where I was also the technical advisor to the Punjab Skills Development Fund, a $200m semi-government fund created by the Government of Punjab and DFID. My previous experience includes The Citizens Foundation, the world’s largest chain of nonprofit schools, and Acumen Pakistan, an affiliate of Acumen, a US-based impact investment fund. I have also consulted for CIRCLE Women, a grassroots digital & financial literacy nonprofit, RAVI Foundation’s Infinity School of Engineers, and Pakistan Children’s Heart Foundation (PCHF), among others.
I serve on the Board of KTrade, Pakistan’s most downloaded investment app, whose mission is to democratize access to investments in Pakistan, on the Board of Damen Support Program, a financial-inclusion microfinance institution. I am the computer science curriculum development lead for the National Curriculum Council of Pakistan.
I trained as an IB instructor in 2017, have an undergraduate degree in computer science and math, and an MBA from LUMS, where I received a gold medal for first place overall.
2. What are your future plans/aspirations? What impact will it have on the community/society/your team/your project?
My plans all revolve around the startup I co-founded, Codeschool.pk.
1.8 billion young people in school today don’t have the skills and opportunities to succeed in the workforce and contribute to society. We believe schools are failing children – future visionaries are not learning the necessary skills to leverage the force-multipliers of modern technology, and we want to create young leaders equipped with 21st-century, computational, problem-solving skills.
We offer an online marketplace that brings together trained instructors, curriculum providers, and students at school or home to provide a technical learning journey for young children. We have reached over 850 children in 15 countries. In Jan 22 we won first prize in the Stanford SEED Spark cohort 3 regional pitch competition out of 85 startups from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
3. Please brag about your career accomplishments. What are the things you are really proud of?
This one is hard for me! I’m not sure there is an accomplishment I can take complete ownership of because it always involves standing on the shoulders of others.
I was proud of the work we did at The Citizens Foundation, where my team consisted of 2 women, one of whom was part-time. In three years, we raised US$15 million, which was a huge percentage of overall revenue for the organization, but all the work would not have been possible without the support functions that worked at scale across Pakistan that allowed the projects to be conceptualized and implemented.
I am proud of the fact that I went back to work when my son was six months old, but that was only because the work environment was so truly supportive of working mothers, where my line manager allowed me to work from home a decade ago before it was even a thing, where I took my baby into work meetings where he crawled on the conference table while I presented, or where the CEO comforted my crying son in his lap as I reported on a project.
I was very proud of going back to study after a decade out of the academic world. I was a single mom, working full-time, and studying on the weekends. I topped my class, even though during my first exam it took me 3 out of 4 hours just to read the case because I was so rusty – I felt like I couldn’t understand anything I was reading! But that accomplishment was only possible because I was privileged enough to have parents who put their lives on hold during the time I was in class to take care of my toddler, and a boss that was incredibly supportive in clearing the path for me to be able to focus on my studies.
I think I’m most proud of being able to look back at my work life and feel like I have been privileged to contribute towards so many meaningful causes.
4. What has been your best education/career decision, and why?
For me personally it was switching to the nonprofit sector. I had spent around 4-5 years in the corporate sector at the start of my career, and while everything was great, I was working in great organizations with great people, and making great money, I was miserable! I think it could best be described as driving with the handbrake up, everything seemed to be fine on the surface but there was something very wrong underneath. It was a difficult decision.
My first field visit to The Citizens Foundation – the nonprofit I worked with for nearly a decade– I remember I went to this small goth (village) an hour outside Karachi. We were on this road destroyed by wheel-deep sewage, and when we turned off into the jharis (bushes) there was no road: just sand everywhere, with no buildings as far as the eye could see. Eventually we arrived at this stunning, four-story, bright-red building, rising out of the desert, next to tiny mud huts. As I saw children in uniform making their way to school, I remember feeling awe that in some small way the work I was doing was contributing in such a meaningful way to the lives of the people of that community.
5. What’re the best lessons you’ve learned?
“This too shall pass.” It’s such a trite social-media-forward Hallmark-card kind of message, but it’s so true. Bad times will pass, hang in there and work your way through it. Good times will also pass, stay humble and be grateful for all that has contributed to the good times.
6. Which woman inspires you and why?
I think I’ll refer to the collective of Pakistani women here rather than an individual woman. We live in a world that is not kind to women, whether you look at it culturally, socially, physically, legally, emotionally or through any other lens. Yet Pakistani women for generations have continued to thrive, whether it was our grandmothers who marched for independence, our mothers who raised us at such young ages with such little support, my generation who broke so many barriers in male-dominated workplaces, or the generation after who is reaching new heights so early in their careers.
7. 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 think it’s all a matter of perspective. If the social indicators are any barometer, there hasn’t been much change in the last 20 years unfortunately. However, if we look at more subtle changes in culture in certain segments, say urban centers, things have moved forward in terms of gender ratio, acceptance of women, families allowing women to leave homes and work in non-traditional sectors.
8. What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?
The biggest challenge will always be at a personal level, understanding who you are, what you want, and negotiating the best path to ensure you get it. So many things come in the way of that – for women it can be cultural expectations, social norms, motherhood, the invisible burden of housework, the emotional burden of relationships, or institutionalized discrimination – so we must separate out the external issues and truly figure out our internal motivation and to always stay true to it. This is perhaps the hardest thing and will continue to be the hardest thing for future generations as well.
9. If you could change one thing about the tech industry/business, what would it be?
There is a huge dearth of qualified teachers to ensure tech is taught right at an early age, where it has the most critical impact. I feel like it’s a responsibility for anyone with technical skills to ensure they grow the ecosystem to ensure that knowledge is not held by a privileged few, but spread to all. Access to this knowledge can be a great equalizer of traditional gender and economic barriers.
10. How can WomenInTechPK help you and other women?
There are some sobering stats on gender in Pakistan overall – we rank 134 out of 135 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum for gender divide. So it’s not too far a leap to imagine that the typical gender issues that persist around us also apply to the tech sector. In addition to all the gender-related baggage of conflicting priorities, hostile work environment, lack of policy support, lack of mentorship, harassment, and gender bias, there are also some tech-related stats stacked against women. Globally women are 21% less likely to have a cell phone than men, only 5% of women own startups, and in 2012 in Pakistan a P@SHA study found women constituted only 14% of the tech sector.
Typically, women face barriers to entry to the workplace – even something as basic as leaving the house, accessing public transport, or navigating the streets is unsafe. The lack of social acceptance, family permission, cultural stigma of working day-to-day in proximity with unrelated males or being financially independent are huge cultural barriers for women in Pakistan today.
WomenInTechPK is already providing a critical platform and voice for women in the industry. It can continue to serve as a platform in which women can seek inspiration, raise awareness of common issues, and leverage its numbers to lobby for social change.
You can follow Sadaf Rehman using her profile below, and please do not hesitate to hire her for your next project.