Sophiya Khwaja

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 Sophiya Khwaja. 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’m currently the Managing Director of Digital Street, a boutique brand marketing agency with presence across both Pakistan and Dubai.

I moved to Dubai from Pakistan shy of a decade, where the startup scene was just taking roots. So my journey to becoming an entrepreneur began when the circumstances seemed just right.

I have a background in studio art, with a BFA from NCA and an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in the US. I’m still also a practicing studio artist with several exhibitions (both solo and group) under my belt, both in Pakistan and internationally.

My background in Fine Arts prepared me for life as an entrepreneur. Artists, in my opinion, are trained right from the start to be entrepreneurs. We are taught to not only think out of the box but to break boundaries altogether; to be creative, innovate, and strategize. We are often our PR and marketing agents, presenting work, and speaking in front of audiences.

Above all, we learned self-discipline, without which neither artist nor entrepreneur can work towards a vision. This principle helped us execute it and convince others of its value.

What are your plans/aspirations? What impact will it have on the community/society/your team/your project?

Digital Street functioned mostly out of Dubai until last year when we officially launched our office in Islamabad in January 2018. Having established ourselves and our name in Dubai, I’m looking to now shift focus to starting ourselves in Pakistan.

I feel that Pakistan has recently had a spectacular emergence onto the startup scene, and an incredible startup ecosystem is rapidly taking shape. Within just a few months of launching in Islamabad, we signed on our first retainer client, the International Committee of Red Cross Pakistan- a real source of pride for any agency, especially one that had just opened up shop.

Our approach in Pakistan will, of course, be different from the one we have in Dubai. I feel that along with regular retainer and project work, there is an excellent opportunity for both CSR work and work with organizations in the development sector that we are eager to explore as a company.

Sophoya’s visit to the Islamabad office with the rest of the team on a video call in the background

Please brag about your career accomplishments, what are the things you are proud of?

I suppose we would need to look at my career as both an entrepreneur and an artist separately. So let’s start with art since that came first.

My proudest accomplishments include having my work acquired by the Yale University Museum’s Permanent Collection, Graduating the top Art Graduate School (RISD) as one of the ten most emerging printmakers to watch for (Wallpaper Magazine 2007), and representing Pakistan at the annual UNESCO Art Camp in Andorra (2012).

As an Entrepreneur and co-founder of Digital Street, my accomplishments include achieving financial break-even and profitability within 1.5 years of launching while growing our team from 2 – 15 in two countries, winning prestigious brand accounts such as Unilever, Dubai Silicon Oasis and Dubai Technology Entrepreneurs Campus (Dtec), ICRC Pakistan, and being recognized as a finalist for entrepreneur of the year at the 2019 Gulf SME awards.

What has been your best education/career decision, and why?

Education decision: applying for a Fulbright. I believe I was one of the first to receive the scholarship for Fine Arts, and among the few in Pakistan when only a handful of applicants were considered for the grant.

Career decision: to enter the workforce and gather the right amount of experience before going down the entrepreneurial route, so I am better prepared to bring the best and discard the worst of building a great company and culture.

What’re the best lessons you’ve learned?

I can’t choose one particular lesson, because each experience is wholesome on its own. But, having learned the value of having a plan B, C and D is worth its weight in gold.

Which woman inspires you and why?

People inspire me- I don’t like categorizing women as separate from men. I firmly believe that notions of gender within the workforce need to be let go, and people judged solely on their achievements and success. That being said, I do acknowledge that for me to be able to think that way is only possible from a position of privilege. We are not in an ideal world but in a world where inspirational women fight harder battles than men to get to where they are.

I’m a fan of Nighat Dad and everything that she has accomplished over the years. I’m in love with how she’s fought tooth and nail for what she believes in and stands for and the drive and power behind her (fairly small) organization.

Do you think Pakistan has changed as a society, in terms of accepting career-oriented women?

This is a tricky question- one that I think of often but have no real answer for. Our society is too diverse and multi-layered; our cultures within Pakistan also varied for this question to have one straight forward answer.

We’ve always been, on some level, more accepting than many other countries of women in power. We’ve had female prime ministers in a time when it was highly uncommon (and still is), and we’ve never had problems with women in government, speakers of assembly, or ministers.

Our banks have female CEOs, and many other organizations (universities, colleges, government institutions) have had women at their helm.

That said, the gender disparity has always been huge and continues to widen at an alarming rate. So, I do not have an answer to this question!

What needs to change to help more women come forward?

I think that most things begin at home. Encouragement and moral support from one’s parents can go a long way into how much and how far someone is willing to push to come forward.

I can speak from experience in that mine played a pivotal role in providing an enabling environment to help build my confidence and to find my best self.

What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you?

Self-awareness and a sense of belonging in a disparate and a fiercely competitive world

And I don’t think the challenge is just one for women, but all those in the generations that follow. Collectively, there is a greater need for women to be given fair and equal opportunities so that our society no longer considers our gender to be a weakness.

If you could change one thing about the tech industry/business, what would it be?

To reward people on how good they are rather than on how well they can market themselves. I see this happen quite a bit where people create an “all-knowing” persona of themselves hoodwinking both online and offline communities into believing them to be experts in their fields. It’s interesting because it does also, on the flip side, show us how powerful good marketing can be, which is what Digital Street is all about!

How can WomenInTechPK help you and other women?

This platform can help us tell our stories on forums where we can play a role in motivating other women who are thinking of walking down a similar path.

You can follow Sophiya Khwaja using her profiles below, and please do not hesitate in hiring her for your next project.