When I was 8 years old, my father enrolled my little brother and me in karate. For a young girl, martial arts gave me ownership and agency over my body. I discovered how much power I could wield from within myself, just by turning my body a certain way or by aiming my fist at a certain angle. I took to the sport with focus and determination; while my friends were attending dance classes after school, I was ensuring my karate gi was perfectly pressed and my belt was tied just so. During one exhibition that took place in a massive hall in Dhaka with students from all over the city, I overheard an older boy whisper to his friend, “Wow. Pichki (little one) has a loud kiai (yell).”
Sometimes I think back to that little girl, to the quiet confidence she emanated from her high ponytail down to her bare feet. That same power — that unshakeable belief in myself — has carried me through most of my life. Nearly eight years ago, I founded Invest2Innovate, or i2i, based on the deep-seated belief that the next great innovators don’t just live in Silicon Valley — they come from places like Nigeria and Vietnam and Pakistan, countries we overlook but have many young people and many, many challenges to address.
i2i was launched to unleash the potential of young innovators in frontier markets, to help success stories emerge from these really difficult places to build a business. In 2011, we started i2i in Pakistan, launched the country’s first startup accelerator in 2012, and, as we grew our body of work, we realized how important it was to go deep into one nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem than go wide to many countries. We learned what it meant to be “ecosystem builders,” because we, along with many other partners and friends in Pakistan, were building a road that didn’t yet exist. I’d love to say that i2i’s strategy eight years ago was well-thought out and linear, but truly we were just addressing needs as they happened. Our team over the past eight years has shown up every day with a growth mindset, asking questions of ourselves and others, and constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible and what we should be doing next.
Eight years on, i2i is now three verticals — Incubate, Invest & Insight — and our work has expanded beyond our own flagship accelerator to support other entrepreneurship programs and partners throughout Pakistan as well as in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Cambodia. Our research body of work has included comprehensive analyses of the Pakistan market, as well as products like the Startup Toolkit, an effort to equip founders with the tools they need to build and run a business. But while I can point to tangible outputs we’ve created over the years, the decidedly intangible is what matters most to me — the family of founders we’ve created along the way, entrepreneurs who have forged their own path amidst the chaos, who lead with empathy and remind our team every day why we do what we do.
About two years ago, that same motivation came to a head when I got off yet another phone call with a past founder upset with the terms offered to them by an investor, in which they’d have to give away a disproportionate amount of equity for the money on the table. In Pakistan, vulture capital versus venture capital; i.e., investors who offer onerous terms to a startup founder, is sadly the norm. The power dynamic is often top-down, and in a landscape with scarce resources like Pakistan, founders often take what’s offered to them. As someone who has worked with startups for nearly a decade, there are many reasons a company can and does fail — bad investors should not be one of them. After hearing yet another story affirming that reality, I decided to do something about it.
Today, i2i officially launches i2i Ventures, our early-stage venture capital fund for Pakistan. It’s taken two years to get here, and a LOT of blood, sweat & tears (and many, many grey hairs). My partner (slash work wife) Misbah Naqvi and I asked many, many questions in building our strategy because we wanted to design a fund that challenged traditional power dynamics; a fund that allowed founders to have as much power at the negotiating table as the investor.
At i2i Ventures, we see ourselves as partners with the founders we invest in; we believe if we want to see our companies succeed, that can only happen with trust and open communication baked into every facet of our process. We are the first female-founded institutional fund investing in Pakistan. I now own and recognize the significance and responsibility that comes with that term. In seeking to challenge traditional power structures in our work, we are taking a gender-lens approach in our investing, which does not mean we are limiting ourselves to only female-led companies, but it does mean we are attempting to be as inclusive as possible in our sourcing, decision-making and management of our investments. That in itself is noteworthy in a place like Pakistan, though I hope it becomes the norm in the future.
We announce the launch of i2i Ventures with the close of our first investment, a company we’re so proud to be aligned with and feel reflects the manifesto of this fund. Mauqa Online is an on-demand platform for household help in Pakistan, co-founded by Suniya Sadullah Khan and Muhammed Mustafa. Mauqa not only addresses a clear market need, but also provides uneducated domestic helpers in Pakistan with jobs where they are treated with dignity and receive benefits like quality health insurance. While our seed investment will allow this startup to grow from Islamabad/Rawalpindi to other major cities this year, our decision was also based on the leadership qualities exhibited by Suniya and Mustafa. I have had the honor of working with these founders since they were part of the i2i Accelerator two years ago, and I’m constantly inspired by how intentionally they think about their work and lead from behind, empowering their team to take ownership of Mauqa and their vision. While i2i Ventures will not solely invest in i2i Accelerator companies, I’m so proud that our first investment was from the i2i family, in a company that embodies our values and what we stand for. I am also proud that it’s an investment that showcases the kind of approach & strategy we plan to take as investors — as partners in this startup’s future, with a minority stake that will allow them to grow over time.
While we’re so excited to finally and officially announce our launch and our first investment, we also know that the hard work really starts now. For Misbah and me, this has been an endless uphill battle, one that we’re ready to keep fighting if it means we’re challenging the status quo, redefining what it means to be a good investor, and helping startups succeed. And we’re not doing it alone — we wouldn’t be here without our tremendously awesome colleague Asad Jafri, the rest of the amazing i2i team, our incredible advisors and IC members, and our investors who believed in us in this first phase. We wouldn’t be here without the support of the Dutch Good Growth Fund (DGGF), and especially Judith and Davide, who fought for us to be the first fund DGGF supported in Pakistan.
As I take a deep breath and steel myself for all that is yet to come, I am reminded again of my 8 year old self, clear-eyed and self-possessed, ready to take on the world one high kick at a time. To that younger version of me, I say, “Pichki (still) has a loud kiai.”