OPEN Forum 2019: Pakistani Entrepreneurs Summit in Silicon Valley

OPEN Forum 2019 drew hundreds of Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans to Santa Clara Convention Center in Silicon Valley on Saturday April 20, 2019.  This year's conference featured a keynote by Karachi-born Mudassir Sheikha, co-founder of Careem ride-hailing service. In addition, there were sessions on artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, financial technology and entrepreneurship.  Careem has recently been acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion.  The attendees included entrepreneurs, technologists, business executives, investors, lawyers, accountants and others who make up the tech startup ecosystem of Silicon Valley.

Careem Co-Founder's Keynote:

Mudassir Shiekha, born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, gave the morning keynote. He talked about his personal and entrepreneurial journey and the challenges he faced along the way. His first hand experience of riding roof-tops of buses in Karachi stayed with him and eventually led to the choice of starting up a ride-hailing service to ease public transit problems in the MENAP region that covers Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan.

Mudassir Sheikha, Pakistani Co-Founder of Careem

The first challenge Mudassir Sheikha and his fellow co-founders Magnus Olsson and Abdulla Elyas faced was raising capital for their new venture. Although there is no dearth of capital in the Arabian Gulf, the risk capital in the region tends to flow to Silicon Valley and San Francisco startups like Uber rather than to local entrepreneurs in MEAP region. Initially the trio were turned down by all five Middle East investors they approached. Somehow, they were able to persuade one of them to relent and give them a term sheet that they accepted.

Audience at OPEN Forum 2019

The second challenge was lack of good maps that Careem drivers needed to provide efficient and reliable service to their customers. The approached Google but they were told the company is focused on markets in Europe and North America. MENAP region was not a priority for them. So Careem had to take it upon itself to develop more complete and reliable street level maps. "We not only had to build mapping infrastructure, we had to build our own places database because Google was not complete nor reliable," Sheikha told the audience.  As of February 2019, Careem has mapped 45,000 miles of roads in MENAP region.  In addition, Careem has also had build its payment system that accommodates cash payments.

Mudassir said that acquisition of Careem by Uber is not the end of his journey.  Instead, it's a new chapter in his and Careem's lives. He sees great potential for Careem to serve a region with 700 million people. Only 2% of them afford Careem's service today but he sees the rest of the 98% as hid target. He sees delivery business with the growth of e-commerce as another major opportunity for Careem.

Artificial Intelligence:

The panel discussion on the current state, the promise and the future impact of artificial intelligence (AI) featured 5 AI experts, including 3 Pakistani-Americans: Professor Ali Minai, Professor Irfan Essa and Batool Arhamna Haider. All three are from Karachi. Ali and Batool are both my fellow alumni of NED University of Engineering and Technology. Batool, the sole woman on the panel, works as a scientist at Amazon's AI group. Irfan Essa teaches Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia.  Abbas Rafii and Ahmad Abdelkader, both CTOs of the Silicon Valley companies they founded, were the remaining two panelists.

Panelists said the artificial intelligence (AI) software today serves as tools to aid people in getting basic things done.  Advances in sensor networks and availability vast amounts of data and neural networks will help advance machine learning as well as machine cognition and understanding.

The question going forward is whether AI will eventually be an entirely new autonomous species or serve to collaborate with humans in accomplishing higher level tasks in a variety of fields ranging from retail and manufacturing to education and health care. What eventually happens has huge implications for productivity and labor markets. Dr. Ali Minai used the example of Google translation of Urdu poet Ghalib's poetry to make the point that AI today lacks nuance.

Philz Coffee:

Philz (Faisal) Jaber sat for a fireside chat with Omar Siddiqui in the afternoon. Born in Ramallah in Palestine, Faisal has become a fixture in San Francisco over decades.  As an 8-year-old in Palestine he sold coffee beans door-to-door and spent afternoons at family gatherings where his grandma shared Turkish coffee.

Phil (Faisal) Jaber of Philz Coffee

Philz' is highly caffeinated coffee of choice in Silicon Valley. It is an expensive alternative to Starbucks and Pete's.  Philz fame shot up after he served coffee at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's surprise wedding with Priscilla Chan. Here's how Forbes reported it:

"Everyone who arrived that Saturday afternoon, including the couple's parents, was taken aback when they saw Chan in a lace gown and the Facebook chief in a navy-blue suit. Everyone, that is, except Phil and Jacob Jaber. As the purveyors of Philz Coffee, San Francisco's alternative answer to Starbucks, father and son were among the few entrusted with Silicon Valley's biggest secret. On the day of the event they served their signature drinks, which were such a hit that Zuckerberg invited them to the postnuptial brunch the next day."


Hundreds of Pakistani entrepreneurs met for OPEN Forum 2019 held at Santa Clara Convention Center in Silicon Valley. The event featured a keynote by Karachi-born Mudassir Sheikha, co-founder of Careem ride-hailing service, which was recently acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion. In addition, there were session on artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, financial technology and entrepreneurship.

Related Links:

Haq's Musings

South Asia Investor Review

Afiniti and Careem: Tech Unicorns Made in Pakistan

AI Research Lab and Startup Incubator at NED University

NED University Ranked Among World's Top 200 For Impact

NED Alum Raghib Husain Sells Silicon Valley Company for $7.5 Billion

Pakistan's Research Output Growth Among World's Fastest

Pakistani Universities Ranked Among Asia's Top 500 Up from 16 to 23 in 2018

Pakistan's Tech Exports Surge Past $1 Billion in FY 2018

NED Alum Naveed Sherwani Raises $50 Million For SiFive Silicon Valley Startup

OPEN Silicon Valley Forum 2017: Pakistani Entrepreneurs Conference

Pakistani-American's Tech Unicorn Files For IPO at $1.6 Billion Valuation

Pakistani-American Cofounders Sell Startup to Cisco for $610 million

Pakistani Brothers Spawned $20 Billion Security Software Industry

Pakistani-American Ashar Aziz's Fireeye Goes Public

Pakistani-American Pioneered 3D Technology in Orthodontics

Pakistani-Americans Enabling 2nd Machine Revolution

Pakistani-American Shahid Khan Richest South Asian in America

Two Pakistani-American Silicon Valley Techs Among Top 5 VC Deals

Pakistani-American's Game-Changing Vision 


Riaz Haq said…
#Egyptian transport start-up targets #Philippines, #Bangladesh after #Pakistan. Swvl, which has raised $80 million in funding so far, launched its services in August in #Pakistani cities of #Karachi, #Lahore and twin cities of #Islamabad-#Rawalpindi.

Swvl, an Egyptian startup with an app to book bus tickets, plans to launch operations in the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh by the end of next year, a senior official said.

The startup, which operates buses along fixed routes and allows customers to reserve and pay for them using its app, began operations in Egypt in 2017. Swvl has since launched in Pakistan and recently moved its headquarters to Dubai.

“By the end of next year, we want to be in more cities, a city is a market for us. We are planning to open in Manila, Jakarta and Dhaka,” Shahzeb Memon, Swvl Pakistan’s general manager told Reuters on Monday in a phone interview from Karachi.

The company, which has raised $80 million in funding so far, launched its services in August in the Pakistani cities of Karachi, Lahore and the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. It plans to invest $25 million in the country to create 10,000 jobs and hopes to attract half a million customers by 2021, Memon said.

The company, however, has already run into regulatory hurdles.

Last week, a provincial government in Pakistan issued notices to the startup and another similar service saying they were operating without route permits and no-objection certificates from the government.

Swvl Pakistan responded with a statement saying the company always carried out its business in a lawful manner and was committed to complying with the region’s laws.

Swvl says its service targets existing ride-hailing users and aims to create transportation options for a large and growing middle class in Asian cities.

Swvl’s services are 30%-40% cheaper than using a car, Memon said.
Riaz Haq said…
#Pakistan's #tech ecosystem is finally taking off. In 2021, Pakistani #startups are on track to raise more money than the previous 5 years combined. This capital is coming from investors from #Asia, #MiddleEast & top #SiliconValley VCs. via @techcrunch

Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous country, has been slow to adapt to the internet economy. Unlike other emerging economies such as China, India and Indonesia, which have embraced digitization and technology, Pakistan has trailed the region in the adoption of technology and startup formation.

Despite this, investors have dreamed for years of the huge opportunities in unlocking Pakistan’s potential as a digital economy. As a country of 220 million people, almost two-thirds of whom are under the age of 30, Pakistan draws natural comparisons to Indonesia — which has rapidly emerged as one of the most vibrant technology ecosystems outside the U.S. and China.

After years of lagging behind, over the course of the past 18 months, Pakistan’s technology ecosystem has come to life in unprecedented fashion. In 2021, Pakistani startups are on track to raise more money than the previous five years combined. Even more excitingly, a large portion of this capital is coming from international investors from across Asia, the Middle East and even famed investors from Silicon Valley.

The rapid emergence of Pakistan’s technology ecosystem on the international stage has been no accident — it’s the result of a confluence of changing facts on the ground and shifting dynamics in the startup and investing world as a result of the pandemic.

The sudden emergence of Pakistan’s tech ecosystem on the international stage has been driven by three major factors: an improving security situation, quickly growing mobile connectivity, and critical legal changes and deregulation.

As a frontline state and coalition partner in the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan saw fatalities from terrorist violence soar from 295 in 2001 to a peak of over 11,000 in 2009. This climate of instability and violence scared away international business and investors from Pakistan for much of the first two decades of the 21st century.

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