This week we present to you champion of change, Jawad Aslam, founder of Ansaar Management Company (AMC). AMC was founded in 2008 as the first private sector company dedicated to affordable housing in Pakistan. The company was initially funded by the founder as well as Acumen. The unique model was based on the approach to development taken by Akhtar Hameed Khan and enacted in the field of housing by Tasneem Siddiqui through his non-profit Saiban. The principles in the model were taken by AMC and converted into a professionalized for-profit framework. After six years of lots and lots of ups and downs, AMC is on verge of success through the engagement of multiple foreign investors and a plan to scale up in Pakistan in a major way, God-Willing.
You took a courageous step to leave the U.S. and start a new life in Pakistan with your wife to give back to your nation. How daunting was this decision for you? What helped you maintain a positive mindset?
Well, since I am technically an American born confused desi (ABCD), I was not really returning to my nation. Rather we were returning to the nation that helped make our parents who they are today. The decision was based on a simple question: do we want to spend our entire lives pursuing the ‘American dream’ or do we want to do something greater with all that we have been blessed with. This is the question I think everyone needs to ask themselves. Do I have a greater purpose in life? Do I have a responsibility to others in this world for all that I have been given? These questions particularly apply to people who live in the west and have exponentially greater access to opportunities than the billions at the bottom of the pyramid.
Maintaining a positive mindset can come from different sources for different people. For me it has always been faith.
Do you believe your background in real estate played a part in understanding how to tackle the same sector in Pakistan? Do you consider experience to play a big role in an entrepreneurial venture?
I think real life experience plays a significant role in most ventures. ‘When’ is the question. One could argue how much experience did Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs really have when they started out. The answer is clearly that they did not have much. The reality is that one needs extra doses of persistence, perseverance, and smarts at the initial stages of a venture—not experience. As the venture grows, experience comes from the type of team you build around yourself. At the end of the day, the entrepreneur is the visionary and needs to have enough experience to be able to get his/her idea to a point where others can see and share the vision—that is when you start building the team, the advisors, the investors—they help on the experience side.
How important is having a passion? What was your dream when setting up AMC?
Passion is the only thing that keeps you going as you struggle through the initial stages of your venture. That passion leads to the persistence and perseverance I mentioned above. If you are not completely passionate about the idea you have, believe me, there will be plenty of road blocks along the way to make you abandon the concept very fast. The dream was big—it has to be, I suppose. Some of things I thought I would never achieve have already come true yet some of the things I thought would be easy are still a challenge. One dream was to become a global leader in affordable housing—this has clearly materialized through many channels in the last year. I am not sure if this speaks to how good we are OR how bad the sector is! On the other hand, I thought we would have had good clear exits by now, due to the complexities of a country like Pakistan we have demonstrated various parts of our model in various projects but not one clear exit yet—but soon…
At what point did you feel comfortable going full-time with AMC?
Since Pakistan was an entirely new environment for me, I decided to work for three years with Saiban as a project manager to understand the intricacies of business, people, government, etc. After spending a year as an Acumen Global Fellow I was ready. However, more than any of these technical aspects of preparation was the support I had from my family. I think this is a major determining factor that is often ignored. Having a supportive spouse or parents (whichever is relevant) is crucial at the outset AND during the entire journey. Without the support, one can easily break. Without a balance, that relationship can easily break.
Setting up a business is not easy and setting up a social business is even more challenging but a lot more rewarding. How did you overcome your challenges?
I think key for me was building the right people around me—people who are committed to the mission is a real way and willing to go to bat for me when required. I was able to do this with our team, our advisors, and our investors. It is because of these people that AMC has been able to overcome challenges. A little secret: it is a lot easier to get the right people on board with a social business than it is with a normal business—because the element of passion and vision that you are able to share together is a lot easier when there is a social mission involved. You generally are able to weed out the people that are simply in it for material gains.
Interestingly, you have said “the magnitude of the problem required that others in the private sector also realise that there’s money to be made in this sector.” A lot of entrepreneurs are afraid of competition but it seems you welcome it. Why?
Honestly, there are two reasons: a) there are 6 million housing units required for the lower income segments in Pakistan. AMC will build 100,000 in my lifetime if I am lucky. There is enough to go around and the result of competition will naturally be better solutions—more affordable solutions; b) this sector is SO hard to work in, if anyone is willing to pull up their sleeves and enter it, I think it is great. We openly share our model because we do believe replication will only lead to the solution.
Do you believe age has an influence on the change you can create?
I think there is something to be said about real world experience—as I mentioned before—but there are plenty of examples in our history that indicate that age has little to do with the change we create. And those examples exist in all aspects of society—not just business.
There is an uprising business model which includes social good and profit which AMC adopts too. What are your thoughts on this?
I believe this is the only way forward. In one way or another, all businesses are adopting this approach. People who associate themselves with the social enterprise sector need to stop thinking they are the only ones who are taking this forward. I believe the owner of a soap factory who employs 2,000 people, treats them in an equitable manner, has socially/environmentally responsible practices throughout the company as a core part of their processes, AND THEN makes the product available to the BoP in a cost effective manner—is a leader in this sector. However, you will see that he will never be acknowledged as a successful social entrepreneur. On the other hand if you have a microfinance institution that is charging 35-40% interest on loans to poor villagers and is servicing 10,000 clients a year will be celebrated globally as a leader.
We have to open our minds up a bit in this space.
Access to funding is the biggest challenge for startups. Do you have any advice on this?
Step 1: decide what the bare minimum is that you require to get started…to get to a stage where you can demonstrate an idea or concept to someone else
Step 2: invest money from your own savings—cash, not sweat equity!. Even if it is only 5% of what you require, it is a must. If you cannot bring your own cash, how can you expect others to put something in.
Step 3: go to friends and family and ask them to invest…take it as a loan, as equity, or just plain ‘pity’ money. If your family and friends are not willing to bet on you, I doubt others will at this stage
Step 4: get a semblance of a prototype, pilot, model or something to show to the greater world what your vision is. Essentially this step is where you need to work backwards from…whatever this model/demonstration might be. Social investors would like to see something on ground—it doesn’t have to be much, it just needs to make sense—and you need to make sense to them. Can they envision this person taking this idea to the next level?
Any last words of wisdom for a young and aspiring social entrepreneur?
Be practical, don’t forget about your responsibilities to others in life BUT aspire to create the balance between your responsibility to others and following your inner voice of what your greater purpose is in life.