Pakistani women fight gender norms to build online health business

Pakistan ladies combat gender norms to construct on-line fitness trade.—Thomson Reuters Basis
  • Rising choice of Pakistani ladies soar into fitness tech.
  • Girls founders face a couple of obstacles in conservative Pakistan.
  • Psychological fitness care no longer regarded as official.

After surviving a automotive crash that left her hospital-bound and not able to stroll for months, Saira Siddique launched into a venture: to make fitness care available to Pakistanis.

The 45-year-old left her high-profile task in executive fitness to pitch her app linking docs and sufferers through video to traders.

Months later, with COVID-19 hurting companies throughout Pakistan, Siddique’s company, MedIQ, burst directly to the scene as the rustic’s first “digital health facility”.

“(The pandemic) in point of fact gave a spice up to my corporate,” mentioned Siddique.

With face-to-face docs’ appointments limited because of contagion dangers, Siddique’s corporate, connecting sufferers throughout Pakistan with docs and pharmacies, used to be all at once in call for.

MedIQ served 16,000 sufferers in its first six months. Virtually two years on, the quantity has greater through just about 20 occasions.

Siddique is one in all a rising choice of ladies in Pakistan who’re defying conservative gender norms through leaping into the fitness tech business.

Saira Siddique, founder and CEO of health tech company medIQ, poses for a photo at her office in Islamabad, Pakistan on April 14, 2022. — medIQ
Saira Siddique, founder and CEO of fitness tech corporate medIQ, poses for a photograph at her administrative center in Islamabad, Pakistan on April 14, 2022. — medIQ

“Working a startup trade is like using a bull,” she instructed the Thomson Reuters Basis through telephone from the capital Islamabad.

“You by no means know which means or how onerous it’ll dollar.”

Siddique’s corporate raised $1.8 million in an early level of financing closing week after receiving mentoring within the Global Financial institution-backed WeRaise programme, which is helping women-led ventures in Pakistan elevate capital.

Physician brides

Others are blazing a equivalent trail.

Two marketers in Karachi sought after to make use of the untapped doable of tens of hundreds of so-called “physician brides” – feminine docs who give up their clinical observe after marriage in a rustic the place tens of millions don’t have any get admission to to hospital treatment.

Iffat Zafar Aga and Sara Saeed Khurram’s platform permits feminine medics to supply e-consultations from their properties to sufferers in most commonly rural communities.

Within the nation of a few 210 million the doctor-patient ratio stands at just a bit over one for each 1,000 sufferers, in step with the Global Financial institution.

International locations akin to america, Japan and Brazil have greater than two docs for each 1,000 sufferers, whilst Britain has just about 4.

The pair has arrange dozens of ‘e-health clinics’ in low-income communities the place, for as low as 80 rupees ($0.43), a affected person visits a nurse who makes use of the net platform to achieve a physician.

Khurram mentioned they supplied unfastened consultations right through COVID-19 after the federal government sought their assist – a role made imaginable through their staff of seven,000 docs, a lot of whom are former physician brides.

The phenomenon of physician brides stays pervasive with many households encouraging their daughters to check medication no longer for a profession, however to strengthen marriage potentialities.

Greater than 70% of the rustic’s docs are ladies, however simplest part will ever practise, in step with the Pakistan Scientific Fee.

Past due-night offers

From home violence to nervousness over task losses and the grief of dropping members of the family to COVID-19, requests for digital appointments on ReliveNow, an internet psychological fitness care platform, surged right through lockdowns.

Amna Asif, its founder and CEO, mentioned lots of the purchasers had been ladies, together with unmarried moms, suffering to juggle kids whilst operating from domestic.

“This put us at the radar, and helped build up our gross sales,” mentioned Asif through telephone.

Based in 2018, ReliveNow has purchasers – 80% of whom are ladies – in dozens of nations together with Pakistan, Britain, Canada and Australia.

However the highway to good fortune for corporations like MediIQ and Sehat Kahani has been paved with misogyny, stereotypes and discouragement.

Sara Saeed Khurram (L), co-founder and CEO of health tech company Sehat Kahani, and Iffat Zafar (R), co-founder and COO of Sehat Kahani, pose for a photo at their office in Karachi, Pakistan on April 14, 2022.— Thomson Reuters Foundation/Khaula Jamil.
Sara Saeed Khurram (L), co-founder and CEO of fitness tech corporate Sehat Kahani, and Iffat Zafar (R), co-founder and COO of Sehat Kahani, pose for a photograph at their administrative center in Karachi, Pakistan on April 14, 2022.— Thomson Reuters Basis/Khaula Jamil.

Entrepreneurship has lengthy been a boys’ membership that hardly opens its doorways to ladies in Pakistan the place they’re generally home-bound whilst males paintings and make contact with the pictures.

Businesswomen say they’ve to paintings two times as onerous to be taken critically and are scrutinised way over their male friends.

“There’s a belief that girls can’t get started a a success trade, let on my own scale it up,” mentioned Siddique, including that she needed to pitch to just about 140 traders – two times as many as males normally do.

Project capitalists, the vast majority of whom are males, steadily requested Siddique why she did not have male co-founders. Sehat Kahani’s Khurram used to be requested to be accompanied through a person in long term conferences.

Her trade spouse Aga used to be pregnant along with her 2d kid when a potential investor instructed her that he would make investments provided that he were given a 70% percentage of the company.

“On most sensible of that he recommended me to maintain (the) youngsters and my domestic and no longer tackle such a lot tension,” she mentioned as Khurram recounted how every other requested her what she would do if she had to pick out between her circle of relatives and trade.

Social and cultural norms restrict ladies’s alternatives to fulfill doable traders and even mentors, the ladies mentioned.

Aga mentioned she needed to decline a number of overdue evening conferences over espresso or shisha.

“Many fundraising offers are clinched in a lighter, extra casual setting after dinner or over a smoke,” mentioned Siddique of medIQ.

“I wasn’t in a position to try this.”

Double bias

That can give an explanation for why there are so few businesswomen in Pakistan.

In spite of the pandemic, 83 startups in Pakistan raised $350 million in 2021 – greater than 5 occasions the quantity in 2020 – in step with a file through Islamabad-based invest2innovate, a consulting company that helps early-stage enterprises in rising markets.

However just one.4% of all investments raised previously seven years had been through only women-run startups, it discovered.

Kalsoom Lakhani, founding father of invest2innovate, instructed traders to prevent asking ladies “ridiculous questions”.

Employees at health tech company Sehat Kahani answer calls at the main office in Karachi, Pakistan on April 14, 2022.— Thomson Reuters Foundation/Khaula Jamil.
Staff at fitness tech corporate Sehat Kahani resolution calls on the major administrative center in Karachi, Pakistan on April 14, 2022.— Thomson Reuters Basis/Khaula Jamil.

“As traders you have to be extra conscious about … subconscious biases,” she mentioned, including that step one used to be to reconsider “how we discuss to ladies founders who’re fundraising”.

ReliveNow’s Asif mentioned she has her male workers provide the pitches.

“I’m the mind in the back of them,” she mentioned.

That is why it is necessary for ladies traders to enroll in the fray since they’re much more likely to put money into women-led companies, mentioned Shaista Ayesha, CEO and director of have an effect on investor SEED Ventures.

“(They) perceive their struggles and what a girl has long gone via to be there, and can be extra prepared to supply help and mentoring,” she mentioned.

Plus, she mentioned, ladies in finding it extra relaxed to pitch to feminine traders.

However Asif faces a double bias, with traders reluctant to fund a startup that works on psychological fitness in a rustic the place there may be nonetheless a large number of stigma related to psychological sickness.

“It’s been extraordinarily tough to search out traders,” she mentioned, including that the absence of a psychological fitness authority exacerbates the issue of legitimacy.

Whilst different ladies within the business forecast their corporations’ enlargement within the tens of millions, ReliveNow, which in large part survives on revenues, grants and awards, is also pressured to close store, mentioned Asif.

“It’s just right to understand when to let pass.”

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