If you’re starting a startup: listen. learn. act. pivot.

Maryam Mohiuddin Ahmed is the Director of the Social Innovation Lab, Pakistan’s sole incubator providing mentorship and sustainable business practices for startup ideas related to poverty alleviation and rural development. She currently lives in Lahore and holds a LL.M. degree from University of California, Berkeley.


What was the dream when setting up The Social Innovation Lab? 

The dream was to have a space where young change-makers can come together to help solve some of the world’s most pressing social justice issues in creative, innovative and sustainable ways. We wanted to create a place where people from all walks of life could make magic together.


Given that social enterprise is still a new concept for Pakistan, what were the challenges for you when entering the space?

I think the biggest challenge was getting people to understand the concept itself and understand its viability. This is true across the board, from big corporates to educational institutes to the government to even the parents of our incoming batches of aspiring social entrepreneurs. People have a hard time understanding that it is indeed possible to do good for our communities and also earn sufficiently well. They also have trouble understanding the concept of self-sustainability as well as how Social Enterprises are different from regular forms of entrepreneurship – for a Social Entrepreneur, the risks are much higher, the stakes more personal for a greater number of people, and the need to have an open mind much more necessary.


At what stage did you feel ready to go full-time with SIL? Did you have any doubts? 

I believe we always knew we will have to do this as a full time initiative – this kind of work requires sustained commitment. For me personally, this choice was made by fate. When we got our first tranche of funding to set up the Lab formally at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, I almost saw it as a duty – something I owed to the group of people who started Literaty Pakistan (a youth-led initiative that served as the precursor to the Lab).


What is the one thing you wish people had told you before you started your entrepreneurial journey?

I wish we had been told not to be too hard on ourselves, and that to fail and in fact to ‘fail fast’ and be nimble on our feet is a great thing. I feel we have been lucky enough to learn it much sooner than most people.


In your opinion and based on your experience, what does it take to set up a successful business? 

I think you need to believe in what you’re doing and do it with all your heart. Intentions matter a lot when it comes to one’s work and we’ve seen over time that folks who work with the greater good in mind, tend to do better generally, often running in to ‘little miracles’ that help them attain what they aim to.


I also believe there is no two-step method to success in business. However, another element that sets a successful business organization apart is a well defined ‘why’ of the organization. Successful businesses distinguish themselves from the competition by giving the consumer a compelling reason why they should buy their product and not others that pre-exist. They know their unique value proposition and market the hell out of it.


Do you believe age has an influence on the change you can create?

This is a bit of trick question. In essence, age has little influence on the ability to bring change- some of the smartest, most-hardworking and creative folks we’ve worked with are also the youngest. However, age becomes an impediment for young people quite often in the world as it currently stands – especially in the government and corporate sectors.


Business sustainability – what exactly is it? 

Its something we wish more entrepreneurs consider before jumping on the start-up wagon, but to answer your question, sustainability refers to the soundness of the organization’s social, environmental and financial footing. It is necessary for a business to modeled along the principles of ‘human centered design’ i.e. it must be tailored to the needs of the people it serves. Furthermore, the impact it has on the environment is a crucial factor to be considered in any calculations of sustainability. And of course, if we were to look at it by the books, a business must have a revenue model that is capable of not only sustaining costs but of generating enough surplus to scale its impact. It means breaking free from dependency on aid and philanthropy and innovating a solution that is able to pay for itself and more. In the context of a social enterprise, sustainability also means the durability of the social benefit such an enterprise provides. To ensure sustainability, a social enterprise must ask itself: ‘How should the product be priced?’, ‘what is affordable?’, ‘what price will start to exclude the intended target market (low-income consumers)?’ One of our biggest learnings, however, has been that at the core of the term ‘sustainability’ lies happiness and meaningfulness i.e. anything that gives one happiness and meaning in life is bound to become self sustaining.


What does it take to get recognised as a mentor or a leader within a niche market?  

Results! I think one must always let the work speak for itself – this happens when you start showing results and impact. The stories, money, success etc. all follow as a result of good, meaningful, consistent work.


Gaining access to finance is a big hurdle for young startups and keeps a lot of people from starting earlier on. How did you tackle this?

I think this is an on-going problem and we haven’t tackled it directly. However, we have realized that finances often aren’t the issue for social enterprises – it is in fact access to the right connections, mentors and beyond that, building the right relationships. Our incubation program therefore focuses significantly on pitching, story telling, impact evaluation and making the most of the opportunities and connections the startups are exposed to while working with us. Beyond that, we promote our startups through our own blog and other media platforms that provide their work much needed visibility. This in turn leads to garnering interest and potential investment from various platforms and networks.


What advice would you give to a young social entrepreneur?

Be willing to take risks. Put your whole heart into what you’re doing – if you find yourself having trouble doing that, you’re probably not doing what’s right for you – change, immediately. And above all, remember to be fluid. At SIL, our mantra is always to: Listen. Learn. Act. Pivot. (repeat cycle ad infinitum.)


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