Islamabad – At first, the response was expectedly slow. Students were unsure perhaps about the meaning of the concept and what was required of them. Starting a business is not exactly like taking a quiz for a university course. The word itself — five syllables, French origin — is difficult to pronounce for desi speakers. Entr-a-which-ship?
But things have changed since 2012, when the COMSATS Institute of Information Technology’s Business Incubation Centre first started with support from the Higher Education Commission (HEC).
“Now so many students are approaching us that we do not have space to accommodate them,” says Salman Saeed Zauq, the acting in-charge of the incubation centre, which is housed in the National Institute of Science and Technology Education building in H-8.
The COMSATS centre, which is currently incubating six registered tech companies that were all started by fresh graduates, is part of a growing trend of promoting tech start-ups.
The federal capital might not be the hub of industrial or cultural activity like Karachi or Lahore, but private companies and universities in Islamabad are mounting their own efforts to bring about an attitudinal change in fresh university graduates.
Students, especially in the disciplines of engineering, information technology and computer software, are being encouraged to become “job creators” rather than “job seekers.” If the response towards entrepreneurship from the student body is lukewarm at the moment, the initiatives are nascent as well.
But the people behind these efforts believe a few success stories and more awareness can instill an enterprising spirit in graduates — a spirit that has mostly been missing from the Pakistani higher education landscape. In the broader picture, the push towards entrepreneurship can also lead to a culture of problem-solving, ideas generation, analytical thinking and product design.
“This is how you can end unemployment,” Zauq says. “By taking students towards entrepreneurship.”
Pakistan’s unemployment rate is projected to grow slightly in 2014 from 5.17 per cent to 5.29 per cent, according to an International Labour Organisation report. Access to higher education is not great, either. According to HEC statistics, Pakistan has 1.2 million people enrolled in higher education in 2013-14. That’s around one percent of the country’s estimated youth population.
But those who do get to graduate from university now seem to have an option to a regular 9-t0-5 job. Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, the Executive Director of HEC, likes to think of it as the “shifting role” of the country’s higher education institutions from being traditional education providers to modern promoters of “innovation, entrepreneurship and outreach.”
In Islamabad, at least, this shift in higher education philosophy has provided results.
The Technology Incubation Centre at the sprawling National University of Sciences & Technology, also set up with HEC support in 2010, has around 14 incubated companies at the moment working in diverse sectors such as computing solutions, software development, energy services and aviation. Another 11 companies have moved on to independent operation from the technology centre.
The centres are helping overcome challenges that most students might not be able to tackle alone.
“Most students worry about the initial capital for their business idea,” Zauq says. “Some of them do not even have enough resources to build a prototype and others lack the skills to write a good business plan.”
Like the NUST centre, the COMSATS centre also provides free-of-cost laboratory facilities, internet connectivity, support with writing business plans, legal advice and marketing tips, according to Zauq.
The private sector is not far behind the universities.
Based out of a small basement office in the capital’s I-9 sector, Moftak Solutions, an IT service provider, is one such private initiative. The company is launching a project to encourage entrepreneurship by the name of “Jumpstart Pakistan.”
“Jumpstart Pakistan is not an incubator,” says Muhammad Farrukh, a manager at Moftak Solutions. “It is a greenhouse through which we will organically grow startups.”
Farrukh is hinting at a crucial industry link that might help budding entrepreneurs. Under the Jumpstart model, he says, Moftak intends to bring the chief executive officers of existing tech companies to mentor the students establishing their own start-ups. The plan is to launch around 1,500 startups over the next five years, admittedly an “ambitious” goal but one that can lead to “sustainable change” in Pakistan.
Pakistani tech startups are already making a name for themselves in global and regional technology markets. But their achievements, often feted within the industry, are still relatively unknown in the Pakistani public sphere.
University-based initiatives and efforts by the tech industry can, however, potentially spread the word, and more importantly, the idea among fresh Pakistani graduates that entrepreneurship is not a terrible ship to board after all.