A Conversation with a Young Woman Entrepreneur from Pakistan

Entrepreneurship is all about mindset, ambition, hard work, and motivation. Recently I had an opportunity to have a conversation with Zehra Shallwani from Pakistan as she shares her insights into her business journey. She holds a Master’s Degree in Islamic studies from the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) London, and an MSc degree in Tourism, Environment, and Development from Kings College London. In her professional life, she is a Tourism, Hospitality & Handicrafts Professional & Life Coach. She is the CEO of Dastaan Tours (Pvt) Ltd and an activist who promotes handicrafts in Pakistan. Zehra aims to help females build their lives and dreams through mentorship and guidance.

Here is what she has to say:

Sujjawal Ahmad (SA): Tell us a bit about your inspiration in life and entrepreneurship.

Zehra Shallwani (ZW): So my inspiration basically comes from the AKDN, working in a sustainable paradigm in its development model. I believe that your work should create a positive and instrumental impact on the quality of life of the people. 

SA: What kind of work do you do?

ZS: Basically, I look into the culture, biodiversity, and human interaction, amongst themselves as well as with their environment/ecology. And I enjoy exploring and working on such diverse aspects.

I won’t call myself an activist, but I work in the domain of reproductive health, youth empowerment, interfaith harmony, cultural preservation & respect for ecology and biodiversity.  In addition, I also have my own business in the field of tourism. I am also transitioning my business towards virtual reality.

Zehra Shallwani visiting the Kalash Community of Pakistan during the Choimus winter festival for exploring intra-cultural values

SA: Do you do your work in your volunteer capacity?

ZS: Yes, the work that I do is not restricted to paid opportunities only, but I also look for such opportunities where I can offer my contribution in any way, whether at the Jamati level or beyond, as far as I can play a role in being an agent of change for a social cause that needs work in Pakistani society.

SA: Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

ZS: The story of starting my business is very long, and to be honest, I had never thought I would start my own business. I used to study case studies of people starting their businesses, but nowhere was it on my mind that I will start my own business.

It all began during my study years at the IIS. I had a very good friend from whom I received a lot of inspiration for starting a business. I had no idea of business, as my parents have never done business. My family was always job oriented. So I got a lot of inspiration from my friend that with a business you have to work hard initially for some years and then once you reach stability, you are in a kind of better position both socially as well as economically.

In addition, during my student years at SZABIST, Karachi, and at the IIS, I always used to wonder how I can apply this knowledge as a whole to my work. I always used to brainstorm as to what my calling is, what is my ‘why’ and how can I contribute through my work to work as an ‘agent of change in my society.

I think I found my true calling when I started visiting different countries in the UK and Europe the Middle East, East Africa & North Africa. I started the process of unlearning & relearning; not only I gained confidence, but I also visited a lot of places on my own, made friends from different nationalities, gender identities, races, socio-economic classes, and so forth and through these diverse interactions, I began to position myself in these conversations and that’s when I realized and adopted what we call ‘multiple identities as a cosmopolitan ethic’. I learned a lot about myself, found my strengths, and polished them further. My friends at our hostel would often tease me and give me the task to work on travel itineraries, doing research, interviewing people, and finding the best travel quotes for 3 years. I used to plan our destinations & excursions, bargain with people, and try to bring forth the best deal.

The final push came when I participated in World Travel Mart in London and Berlin during 2018-2019. The first was in London and I was participating as a student, and I got an opportunity to represent Pakistan there. Although at that time I was not in a position where I play such a huge role because the task was very demanding. It was also at that time when I realized that there is not much representation of women in this area, and I realized that women should come forward.

During the experience of presenting Pakistan at the World Tourism Mart, I very frequently heard people saying that it is only after years that they are seeing a woman coming forward to represent Pakistan on the stalls. And the exact same thing happened the next year in Berlin. And I received similar remarks. It was the time when I realized, that this domain needs work as there are no women representing Pakistan.

I also came across some of the very forward-looking participants from Hunza as they motivated me to a large extent for the business that in a job you work for others, but in business, you are quite independent. But independence also calls for a sort of self-discipline. And if you cannot do self-discipline you cannot run a new business.

Zehra Shallwani representing Pakistan in Travel Mart Berlin

SA: What was your journey like?

ZS: So the first step was getting a license for tourism. And we realized that in Pakistan, tourism falls under the provincial government.  So my business partner and I listed down all things that we need in order to secure the license to operate and we had no idea how to fulfill so much paperwork & documentation.

In 2021, luckily we applied for business incubation at the national incubation center, and finally, we got incubated Alhamdulillah. And from there began our real journey as we got on a roller coaster ride. We learned through the incubation, that this is the way one can get our company registered. We also learned that there were many such startups, which were in the same boat as us.

We had started off with a registration process last year in January 2021, and this year in the month of August, we have not only gotten our company registered as a private limited with SECP, but we also opened our own business account and we also received a license from the government of Sindh and we also became a part of Pakistan association of tour operators (PATO) and handicraft association of Pakistan (HAP) as a licensed handicraft exporter.

Zehra Shallwani was recently named among 75 Startup founders by the Youth Parliament of Pakistan on the occasion of Pakistan’s Platinum Jubilee

SA: How difficult is it for a woman to start a business? What were some of the challenges you had to go through?  

ZS: In our part of the world, people usually think that a girl should get married and have children and keep her life limited to that, only then she can become a better daughter, a better wife, a better mother, and a better daughter-in-law. So she is always in a state of dilemma. Not able to go for her dreams. And at every level, girls are expected to do sacrifices for someone. A woman in our part of the world hardly carries her own distinct identity and this is something that we see in masses, unfortunately, there are various religious, cultural, infrastructural, and policy structural issues at a place that deter women from excelling in certain fields.

So the challenges that I faced were also multifold. My family and friends in my social circle were quite concerned for me as to what I am doing with my life. At the same time, I also had to face challenges when I actually jumped into reality for starting off with the business idea.  For example, I heard from so many stakeholders who asked me if I am sure that I want to start a tourism business as this falls into a high-risk category. Do you have a business background? Why do you want to do this, are you not able to find a job, what will you do once you get married, once you have children what will you do then? I had to listen to such questions from every corner.

SA: Did you receive encouragement from your family and community?

ZS: So initially it was very challenging for me. As I said, my family was quite concerned for me when I opted for a business instead of a job. But this year, I got featured on the Ismaili Pakistan on International Women’s Day. And this also started to make things change gradually in my personal circle and my family started to support me and be proud of me as their daughter was doing something that has the potential to have a bigger impact on our society.

SA: What have been your key learnings?

ZS: Never underestimate yourself, no matter what your gender or socio-economic class is. Don’t underestimate yourself even if you come from a developing economy of the Global South, seek your inner potential and work on it. Don’t pay heed to what people say about you, just focus on yourself, your growth & aspirations and let that lead you to accomplish your goals.

Secondly, upskilling, having a growth mindset in constantly learning and growing, helping others grow, forming partnerships and friendships with like-minded people, consistently and a belief that one day you will attain what you want to achieve, and staying humble & grounded is the key to continuous growth & development.

SA: What’s your best advice to women who want to start a business?

ZS: A woman has a very multi-dimensional role and the ability to multitask.  Give wings to your dreams. There is a lot you can do and achieve in your life. Take calculated risks and chase your dreams. Success won’t come to you; you would have to work hard & smart to achieve your dreams. During their student years, women should start participating in various workshops, competitions, and hackathons to understand what they are good at, where their strengths lay, and what motivates & inspires them. They should also work in voluntary, internships, or in part-time positions to understand their potential in terms of work.

To learn more about Daastaan Tours visit their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DastaanTours

To explore the cultural heritage of Pakistan with Zehra Shallwani and her team contact them at: dastaantours@gmail.com

Author: Sujjawal Ahmad

Sujjawal is an invited blog author from Pakistan. He finds it extremely exciting to develop a deep love of cultures around the world. The stories that are about humanity, and emotion, that compel us as individuals, and connect our hearts and minds are the kinds of stories Sujjawal has always gravitated to, and the kinds he tells. He can be reached at: sujjawalahmed@gmail.com

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