Event Recap: Indus Valley Connect Initiative – Connecting Pakistani Startups to the Silicon Valley

Technology can be disruptive. Technology — in a nation thirsty for even basic solutions ranging from healthcare, public transit to e-commerce — has the potential to change the entire fate of people. Such is the story tech startups in Pakistan are beginning to write — a story Aatif Awan, former VP Growth & International at LinkedIn, decided to share with Pakistani expats everywhere.

On June 30th, 2019, Aatif launched the Indus Valley Connect initiative’s first event in the heart of Silicon Valley, one that will be followed by a series around the world (the next one is in Dubai!) that would inform and connect the Pakistani diaspora to startups in Pakistan. The event itself was a considerable success marked by close to 100 people in attendance and excitement so tangible that one could almost taste it along with their cup of chai!

Aatif started his career at Microsoft and later on joined LinkedIn to lead its Growth team. Soon enough he became known as one of the top growth experts in Silicon Valley. Once he took LinkedIn to its 500 millionth user, the Growth Guru decided to get started on a different career track entirely, but first, he would travel the world. With airline miles left to burn and curiosity to fuel the remaining trips, Aatif then began his most extended presence in Pakistan becoming deeply acquainted with Pakistan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem over the next year. He then decided to launch a Venture Capital fund with a dedicated focus on investing in Pakistani startups.

In laying out the groundwork for the initiative, Aatif conducted an online survey floated out amongst the Pakistani diaspora. The survey resulted in an overwhelming 300 people from the Pakistani diaspora wanting to be able to advise, mentor, and fund startups in Pakistan! More than 125 startups in Pakistan also signed up to connect with the diaspora.

This recent surge of interest in Pakistani startups is not surprising, nor sudden. Against the backdrop of very successful exits of Pakistani startups, such as Daraz and most recently that of the rideshare app Careem, that got acquired by Uber, generated a lot of momentum. The constraint identified by respondents was not knowing where exactly to begin given the informational disconnect and lack of a single reliable coordinating entity to act as a bridge. The initiative emerged as a natural solution.

Aatif kicked off the event sharing with the audience the strong case for getting involved in the Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosystem bringing to light essential trends on the upswing — improved security situation, a rapidly growing middle class, 70M broadband subscribers, and consumer spending of $257 Billion which is growing at twice the global rate.

“Something fascinating is happening in Pakistan right now. After a slow build over the years, the Pakistani startup ecosystem has hit an inflection point in the last 12 months.”Aatif

The highlight of the event was a virtual introduction to several startups in Pakistan and their founders that Aatif carefully vetted for their innovative approach, social impact and high growth promise! Startups showcased included: 

  • Bykea, a startup offering ride-sharing of motorbikes that recently raised $5.7M in Series A funding
  •  Sehat Kahani, a healthcare startup leveraging telemedicine to connect women doctors with under-served communities
  •  Airlift, a fast-growing startup re-inventing mass transit in Lahore and Karachi
  •  Oraan, a FinTech startup simplifying financial management
  •  Mauqa Online, a startup providing on-demand help from cooking to cleaning and more
  •  Dot-and-Line, an EdTech startup providing after-school Math classes, 
  • and Mohafiz, a startup that aggregates emergency services in a single easy-to-use app.

Startups presented drove home how Pakistani founders were innovatively solving the very real day-to-day problems specific to Pakistan. With app-based solutions that were already on the uptick, startups were proving high traction for their ideas and intentional design capturing unique on-ground conditions in Pakistan.

“ It is unfathomable that a country that produces the best human capital in the world cannot help people through emergencies. That’s what we are trying to solve- we don’t have it all figured out, and that is where we need you (the Pakistani Diaspora) to step upthrough finances, investment, and mental capital…” Fahd Khan, Founder of Mohafiz

A blitz of lightning talks followed featuring Adnan Faisal, Head of Technology Incubation Center, National University of Science and Technology; Manan Amin, Co-founder Tintash and Naveed Sherwani, President and CEO of SiFive. The speakers covered different aspects of the Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosystem highlighting the rise of national incubators and government-led interest in expanding opportunities to create startups, the state of venture funding and the need to create the right supports to launch startups with great ideas to maturity.

Following the talks, Asra Nadeem, VP of Entrepreneurship at Draper University, facilitated a structured networking session where participants were divided into carefully curated groups of eight to ten folks. Participants discussed the need for a better way of vetting startups both in Pakistan and the Valley; the need to improve and bolster the very nascent corporate structure and the potential ways that technology could be leveraged to tighten collaboration across the sea to facilitate angel investment and mentorship.

In concluding the event, Aatif made a call to action encouraging participants to connect and to remain engaged with the initiative. He also announced a partnership with TechJuice to launch a startup guide for Pakistan and encouraged the participants to volunteer to help develop it.

The event was historic on multiple fronts. For the first time, members of the Pakistani diaspora got together at this scale to create a bridge between Pakistan and the US for startups, mentors, and investors. What was remarkable though was the extra length that was traversed to keep women in lockstep, with onsite childcare arrangements at the event and carefully crafted opportunities for women to have a seat at every and any table!

“Realizing women’s full potential is essential to putting Pakistan on a prosperous path. That begins with ensuring equality of participation and opportunity in all avenues”Aatif Awan

Sabika Nazim, one of the event participants, when asked about her experience of the event mentioned:

“ We all got so much out of the event. I  appreciate the thought and effort that went behind identifying and presenting startups in Pakistan to folks here. Because of that, we got a very clear snapshot of what’s really happening on-ground and we would like to stay involved. A well-executed wholesome event!”

Kudos to Aatif Awan for bringing great ideas to reality! What’s next for the initiative? Fill out the survey below to stay up to date and get involved.

  • Pakistani diaspora: take this survey so we can connect you to relevant Pakistani startups and related events.
  • Pakistani startups: take this survey to connect with investors, advisers and potential hires in the Pakistani diaspora