Female entrepreneurship is not just a trend now. There are already over 11 million women-owned companies in the US only according to National Association of Women Business Owners. But it’s not just about the US. It is now a worldwide movement.

Kalsoom Lakhani, the founder and CEO of Invest2Innovate startup accelerator, grew up in Pakistan. We met with her in Washington, DC where she resides. But Kalsoom isn’t connected to just one place. She deserves to be called the global citizen now. In 2008, she started blogging about the changes in the economy and business environment of Pakistan. By now, her company has accelerated 35 startups that have raised over $5.5M in funding (87% by female-led startups). She has trained startups from Nepal, Cambodia, Ireland, Bangladesh, Kosovo, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, and has spoken at numerous venues, including the World Economic Forum, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, U.S. State Department, the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, and the Global Entrepreneurship Congress. The question that comes to mind when you read her story is – “How did she manage to do all this?” Kalsoom answers with a heart-warming smile and a remarkable confidence of a real female hustler.

This Female Entrepreneur Risked Her Full-Time Job In Pakistan To Start A Startup Accelerator. Six Years Later, She's Launching A Venture Capital Fund
Photo credit: Creative Ideation

THIF: What was the turning point for you to decide to start Invest2Innovate accelerator?

KL:

I started the company 6 and a half years ago. I was working in the venture philanthropy at that time. I have transferred to running a pretty successful blog in Pakistan and covering not just the negative news, but also the news about the entrepreneurs, the change makers. I was doing this on the side while I was working. I was meeting all those amazing people that I was writing about.

At that time I realized that there were a lot of gaps in the market. All the investors that I was talking to were going to the same markets, no one was looking at frontier emerging markets. And I saw so much potential and many young people in those places.

Realizing that I decided to leave my job and start the company. We decided to start in Pakistan because that’s where I am from. So it was what I knew already. We’ve supported the first accelerator in Bangladesh, we’re now looking at scaling to Nepal. We’re looking at places where there is a big potential. But we are specifically looking at places where it’s hard to do business.

When we give women the access and opportunity to lead, they will actually perform better than their male counterparts.

Kalsoom Lakhani

We’re not just an accelerator program, now we incubate and invest. We also license our curriculum to do the program in other countries. Now, we’re launching our first venture capital fund. And we also do research on the market to encourage investors.

THIF: While starting a company in Pakistan, did you feel any pressure because of the fact that you’re a woman?

KL:

I have gotten married soon after I started the company and people would assume I wouldn’t continue building the company after I got married. Generally, I think my whole life, I tend to be underestimated a lot in terms of how much I know. Like, after I speak at the conference where I’m the only female panelist. I always get people coming up to me and trying to say that it was really nice, but in fact, they are patronizing about how surprised they were about what I knew. I think it was more about people underestimating me as a young Pakistani-American than a woman.

THIF: The startups in your company’s portfolio raised $5.5M dollars and 87% of them are led by females. Is this a coincidence, or you give the preference to the female-led startups?

KL:

No. We’ve happened to build a pretty inclusive program. If you look at the incubators and accelerators in Pakistan right now, I think we are starting to see more female participation. When we just started we had only one female-led company.

We don’t expect women to move to a different city to be a part of an incubator program, we’re not a residential program. We call it a non-moving program. It’s six weeks over 4 months. We pay for travel and accommodations. We are also thinking how to provide child care because we have single moms too.

I think that [we’re having so many female-led startups] because we thought a lot about how to be inclusive. Another thing that helps is that we’re a woman-led organization and women feel more comfortable because of that. When we give women the access and opportunity to lead, they will actually perform better than their male counterparts.

This Female Entrepreneur Risked Her Full-Time Job In Pakistan To Start A Startup Accelerator. Six Years Later, She's Launching A Venture Capital Fund
Photo credit: Creative Ideation

THIF: How do you think, in terms of management style, in which ways female entrepreneurs are better, and in which male ones are? It is said that women are more emotional while managing the companies. Is this really the case?

KL:

I don’t think that women are emotional when it comes to management. I think we are intuitive. We’re empathetic. I can speak for myself but also for many other women-leaders that we have worked with. We did management training for the bigger companies in Pakistan. We’ve seen women-led teams in big companies that we’ve worked with. Those teams tend to be extremely happy. It’s empowering when women behave like women, as managers, and as bosses. I think we tend to be really intuitive and empathetic leaders. That’s how I lead my team for sure.

THIF: Tell us more about the process of starting a company in Pakistan. How hard is it? Is there a lot of bureaucracy?

KL:

It’s not hard to set up a business in Pakistan. It’s hard to run it there. Taxation is very difficult for startups. And it’s also very difficult to close the company if it fails. As the result, there are not many incentives to start a company. And a lot of businesses will be running informally and set up a company only when they need investment when they need to scale. That becomes tricky because you have a lot of companies that are working in the informal marketplace. The regulatory barriers are very high too. It’s not only the taxation but the issues around payment systems. Pakistani companies are getting paid for products that are {editor – shipped} internationally and getting money in and out is very difficult if you’re a business.

There are also a lot of issues related to investing in Pakistani companies. It takes six months to get approved if you’re a foreign investor.

THIF: Where can entrepreneurs get the starting capital to launch the company?

KL:

A lot of kids will have to go to their family and friends. There are a lot of competitions right now in the country. There are a lot of opportunities to apply for grants.

I wouldn’t recommend kids to go to multiple competitions though. I hate when people have to jump from competition to competition, from incubator to incubator, but often, when ecosystem for investment is still weak, people will have to do that in order to be able to build a company.

THIF: Where did you get the capital to start Invest2Innovate – were those your personal savings or you fundraised money?

KL:

Literally, all of my savings went into this company. Plus, I got support from my family and friends. Our startup accelerator was the first startup accelerator in Pakistan. There are multiple programs like that now. But at that time, nobody even knew what that term was.

We had $6,000 left in our bank account. And I was like “alright, let’s just do it with this money that we have”. And then for our next accelerator program, we actually did a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and raised for the next round. Since then, we’ve been able to get all the capital together to cover each year’s program.

This Female Entrepreneur Risked Her Full-Time Job In Pakistan To Start A Startup Accelerator. Six Years Later, She's Launching A Venture Capital Fund
Photo credit: Creative Ideation

THIF: What ways to earn money does your accelerator use? Do you take equity from your startups? What else?

KL:

We do offer equity option. We take a flat fee when they raise funding. Equity model is really difficult on our markets because you never know when it’s going to pay out, especially when you have markets where we don’t see many exits.

That’s why the flat fee model is something that we do offer as an option to our startups and a lot of them choose it. We also earn on our consulting work and the research that we do. It doesn’t cover the accelerator fully though, that’s why we go for sponsorships.

THIF: What do you love the most about helping startups from the growth markets?

KL:

Sometimes, I wish that it was 100% of my job. I joke sometimes that my team gets to do the really fun stuff and I have to do like…[laughs].

You know, right now we are fundraising for a fund and we are closing everything related to that and I have to worry about how we pay salaries this month. So for me, there are a lot of the bigger headaches.

The fun stuff for me is working with the entrepreneurs, that’s why I started this company. I have so much fun with it. I run curriculum even with everything else that I’m doing. And I love that. I could literally do that all day every day. It is unfortunately not something I get to do all the time.

THIF: If one of our readers is currently reading this and wants to apply to your program, what should they do? What their projects should be, etc.?

KL:

Our applications open every summer. If it’s a startup based in Pakistan, they are working full-time on their business, they are a for-profit company, they’re creating impact with their work, then they are welcome to apply. We select 10 to 12 companies [editor – for each round of the program]. They basically just have to follow our social media pages, we’ll definitely do a lot of announcements. We do a physical roadshow in Pakistan too so that people can meet us in person.

THIF: If one of our readers is currently reading this and wants to apply to your program, what should they do? What their projects should be, etc.?

KL:

Our applications open every summer. If it’s a startup based in Pakistan, they are working full-time on their business, they are a for-profit company, they’re creating impact with their work, then they are welcome to apply. We select 10 to 12 companies [editor – for each round of the program]. They basically just have to follow our social media pages, we’ll definitely do a lot of announcements. We do a physical roadshow in Pakistan too so that people can meet us in person.

THIF: What is the average competition?

KL:

We used to select about 5-6 startups due to the resources and the money that we had. We scaled to 10-12 thanks to funding that we got from our sponsor.

The pipeline is still not great though. When I say we get 250 applications, about 100 of them are not great applications. We’re doing a lot of work trying to figure out the pipeline even on our training sites. We design bootcamps, we work on the innovation academy, and we also partner with a lot of incubators in Pakistan.

If you’re in it for the glory and everything, you’re not going to be able to hustle.

Kalsoom Lakhani

This year showed by far the highest quality of startups that we ever had. And the feedback that we got from the investors at our demo day and just generally was that this has been the highest quality of companies so far.

THIF: What advice can you give to women from around the world who would like to do the same thing as you do – help startups, raise funds, network. What should they start with?

KL:

The biggest thing – don’t start a business because you think it’s cool to start a business. Start because you feel passionate about it. I think that often when we design problems that we feel personally attached to, those tend to be the best businesses. Often, I think, we overcomplicate. Literally, the best companies I have seen recently were the ones that have built the simplest solutions to problems that they solved. Also, don’t feel pressure over having to quit full-time. Let it be a side hustle for a while and do it until you feel very strongly that this is something you need to go with.

A lot of times we overthink how much work we have to put into something before we launch. I say – just launch something and test it out, see how people respond to it.

THIF: What does “hustle” mean to you as a female entrepreneur?

KL:

I think “hustle” means grit. And for me, it’s determination and passion. If you have grit, you’re someone who is able to hustle hard. And I think that “hustle” is literally working every day, executing even when it’s really really difficult, especially when it’s the most difficult, that’s when it’s the most important to be able to hustle and think about things like the light at the end of the tunnel.

Grit to me is something that not every founder has. If you’re in it for the glory and everything, you’re not going to be able to hustle.

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Posted by:Bozhena Sheremeta

Bozhena Sheremeta is the founder and the chief editor of TheHustleIsFemale. She has launched the online magazine when she was 24 to promote financial freedom, ambition, and financial literacy among women around the world. Previously, Bozhena worked as a tech journalist, tech media CEO, and a digital marketing consultant for tech startups.

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