4AM Calls

Yesterday, I had the chance to catch up with the inimitable Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali, Acumen Pakistan Fellows and co-founders of Markhor. For those of you who don’t know, Markhor is startup that is crafting some of the world’s most beautiful men’s shoes, reviving a waning craft in Pakistan and making a major splash globally.

Markhor ran by far the most successful Kickstarter campaign out of Pakistan, raising more than $107,000, and Sidra and Waqas are now part of the select few high-potential startups in Y-Combinator – an unlikely turn for a shoe company in the midst of a bunch of tech startups.


So, what do we have to learn from a pair that has their sights set on building a $1 billion-plus company selling luxury, made-in-Pakistan shoes to the world? A lot about a lot of things, but I was struck in particular by some lessons about tenacity and humility.

I asked them what they’ve learned at Y-Combinator so far, and Sidra shared, “one of the great things about the program are the mentors. How it works is that, if you set up time with a mentor, you get 20 minutes, no more. And when you meet with a mentor, they ask you three questions: ‘What did you do last week?’ ‘What are you doing next week?’ and ‘How can I help?’ You have to be ready! And what I like about that is that it communicates that their time is valuable, and that your time is valuable.”

Waqas took the point further as we started to talk about how to teach people how to use networks well. “You know, when I reach out to someone, whether a mentor or someone else I’m trying to connect with, you have to know how to write that email in a way that is clear and respectful and gets to the point. And you have to know how to handle that communication. Especially if I’m in Pakistan, I know that I might have to be available at 4AM to take a phone call. And I am.  Sidra and I will be taking 4AM phone calls for years to come. That’s OK.”

For me this connected back to Tuesday’s post about the power of humility. What I hear Waqas and Sidra saying is that, as they are reaching out to the far edges of their networks, they have to do that with a certain posture. If someone is willing to take a bet by giving  their time to help, it’s Waqas and Sidra’s job as to mirror that respect back – in this case by accommodating that person’s schedule at crazy hours. Their power in this moment comes from putting their ego aside, choosing not to frame that interaction as one with lots of power dynamics, and simply doing what it takes to make the connection they are trying to make – in this case by being ready to jump calls at 4AM, again and again.

The equation is flipped because, in taking this stance, Sidra and Waqas are essentially unstoppable. No behavior, whether a rejection or a slow reply or someone asking them to twist themselves into knots to meet their timing, can stop their forward trajectory.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur running a startup, a leader of a nonprofit, or a fundraiser of any stripe, the biggest trap is to allow each interaction to become a measurement of your worth, to take it all far too personally. What Waqas and Sidra model is the power of an unshakable commitment to mission: when the goal becomes our purpose, when we exist to achieve that goal, then we do what we have to in service of that mission – no questions asked.

Every great company has a story, and Markhor’s is a beautiful one that’s still being written. It is a different story coming out of Pakistan, it is the craftsmanship of Pakistani artisans, and it is some really beautiful shoes. It’s also an unfolding story of two amazing entrepreneurs who dream big and back up every dream with a willingness to show up and work harder and smarter every day.

In reflecting on where they are in their journey, Waqas shared, with a twinkle in his eye: “In our first month, we sold seven pairs of shoes. And we lost money on each pair we sold! Now we are selling thirteen pairs a day. And that number keeps going up.”

That’s what overnight success really look like.

[bonus: the best riff ever about 4AM]

Beauty and grit – from Lahore with love

Waqas Ali keeps telling me that he sleeps.  I’m not sure I believe him.

The last time I saw him was in late June in a coffee shop in Lahore.  We sat down at midnight, and it was clear that his day was just getting started. The Ghana-Germany World Cup game was being projected on a 15 foot screen in the background, but there’s no risk in being distracted when Waqas starts talking.  His energy is infectious.

Waqas and I first met two years ago. He was the young, quiet, skinny kid in a group of six applicants that were part of the final selection for the Acumen Pakistan Fellows.

Well, quiet until he started talking…

We asked each applicant to tell their story and share how they’d heard about Acumen and the Fellowship. Waqas, who is from a humble background, and who seemed a bit shy until he got going, told us that he wasn’t doing well in college but he did spend a lot of time in the library. He ended up making his way to a corner of the library where there were old copies of the Harvard Business Review, which he started pouring over every day, and he eventually found his way to Seth Godin’s blog and to Acumen. He told us about his dreams, interspersing bits about bringing dignity and opportunity back to his village and talking about what he felt he had to learn from Mark Zuckerberg. I remember thinking that he was either a crazy dreamer or that he was going to change the world.

Fast forward two years and I know now that Waqas is much much more than a dreamer. I’m one of many people who has had the chance to watch Waqas and his partner Sidra push through barrier after barrier in their crazy, beautiful dream to build a global-quality, ultra-premium shoe company using the skills of local Pakistani craftsmen. I’ve had just a tiny glimpse of the challenges they have had to overcome, and it’s been a long long road just to get to today.

As Waqas has told me many times before, there’s just nothing harder to get right than shoes. Sizes, leather, tanning, fitting, craftsmanship, brand, shipping…..  They’re getting it right, and then some.

Yesterday Waqas and Sidra’s company, Markhor, launched their Kickstarter campaign. In 22 hours they hit their $15,000 goal. I have a feeling the momentum is just starting to build.

I got my hands on a pair of Markor’s new shoes earlier this week. These are some of the most beautiful shoes I’ve ever seen. I don’t have much of a shoe vocabulary but “buttery” comes to mind when describing the quality of the leather and “immaculate” is how the whole shoe feels. They are exactly as beautiful as these pictures.

Markhor shoes

Of course there’s a lot more to this story than beautiful shoes. There are the artisans who Waqas and his team patiently invest in – not just working with them and providing them with the potential for a brighter future but treating them as family, and helping them through personal hardships. There’s a story of bootstrapping entrepreneurship in its truest, most raw farm. There’s a different story coming out of Pakistan. And there’s the chance to get in early on something that’s going to be big – like if you’d bought some of the first pairs of Tom’s shoes before everyone else was doing it.  Unique gifts are hard to find these days, and this is one of them.

Check out the Markhor Kickstarter campaign to get your hands on a pair of very special shoes, and to be part of a very special story.

Markhor shoes_video


While the biggest highlight of my trip to Karachi last week was definitely meeting all the applicants to the Pakistan Fellows Program, the most fun and surprising piece was getting to play squash twice during the week.

Pakistan has an incredibly illustrious history in squash – Pakistan dominated the sport for nearly five decades, starting in 1951 when Hashim Khan, a former squash coach in the British Army, won the British open (dominating then champion Mahmoud Karim of Egypt 9-5, 9-0, 9-0), and carrying through the reign of Jahangir Khan, considered by many to be the greatest player ever to play the sport – he won the Squash World Open six times and the British open 10 times, and had a 555 match winning streak from 1981 to 1986.  Unfortunately since 1998, when Jansher Khan was defeated in the finals of the British open, squash has fallen from prominence in Pakistan, but there remains a proud history and tradition in Pakistani squash.

And so, the day I arrived in Karachi, after 20 hours of flights and then heading straight to the office to work, I was particularly excited when my Acumen colleague Humza Khan dusted off his squash racquet and took me out for a game.  As I told Humza, on my spectrum of ways to spend a first night on the road, if the bottom of the spectrum is being alone in a hotel room ordering room service and watching crummy TV (and not being able to sleep because of jetlag), pretty near the top of the spectrum is getting to play a good game of squash with some (new) friends.

Yes, Karachi can feel very foreign, but to get the chance, within 12 hours of arrival, to step on a squash court with a colleague and then rotate through games with a bunch of other guys who were playing…at that moment when you’re on the court, everything else drops away and you are just two people playing a sport that you love, interacting as equals and using the shared vocabulary of a game.  And in that moment you glimpse and feel your shared humanity with ease.

It made me think that it would be fabulous if it were easier to travel places and find a great squash match, cricket game, game of pick-up football, you name it.  What better way to really get to know a place?

After our game that night, Humza (who does amazing work with youth football in Karachi) and I got to talking about sport, and he shared that the only time Pakistan feels and acts truly like a nation – and not tribes or sects or groups with regional differences – is when Pakistan plays a cricket match.

In sport we are human, and for a few brief moments all that makes us different is stripped away.   I wonder how we might access that feeling and spirit more often.

Another face of Pakistan

I had the chance to spend last week in Karachi for the final round selection for the inaugural class of Acumen’s new Pakistan Fellows program.  From more than 500 applicants from all corners of this country of 175 million people, we had winnowed the group down to just 40 finalists and had, in the course of a day, to select 20 people as our first Acumen Pakistan Fellows.  The program begins in early 2013.

The images the world (and Americans in particular) sees of Pakistan are difficult ones.  Just yesterday a very troubling article came out in the New York Times about Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, where there have been increasing numbers of open attacks on members of the Hazara community.  The article suggests that the police and security forces are at best ambivalent about stemming the violence that has resulted in the deaths of 100 Hazaras this year alone.

This is one reality in Pakistan, and it is daunting to say the least.

Last week I saw another story, perhaps a quieter one and one that doesn’t scream for headlines.  These are the stories of the applicants to our Pakistan Fellows program: a woman from rural Punjab, the first in her family to get a formal education, who is working on extending credit and education to those who are still excluded from all formal systems; a woman with a Masters in Economics who left her teaching job at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi and is now creating a speed English literacy program for kids in the slums; another young man, a born entrepreneur from a very humble background, who somehow found his way to a quiet section of the library and began reading Harvard Business Review articles and then watching TED talks, and whose startup business Hometown (the website will blow you away) aims to have local artisans and leather-workers provide world-class quality shoes to the world; and finally, a man with a Master’s in Computer Science who is working in Quetta, Balochistan – the same city profiled in the NY Times piece – who is helping build a university from scratch to bring education to some of the most tough-to-reach, downtrodden populations, and is paying for it by creating small businesses ranging from biomass power generation to cut flowers.

These were just four of the 40 amazing people I met last Friday, each one with a story of hope, each one committing themselves fully to making positive change from the bottom up in Pakistan, each one leaving our panelists – all prominent business and social sector leaders – humbled at their spirit of service and commitment.

These are just four stories that never make the front pages – but they should.

Dispatch from Pakistan

This was written by Acumen CEO Jacqueline Novogratz and appeared today on the front page of the Huffington Post.  Plus here is some striking raw video footage that gives a sense of things on the ground.

Dispatch from Pakistan

by Jacqueline Novogratz,
Founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, Author of The Blue Sweater
Posted: September 2, 2010 07:33 PM

At a camp for flood victims in Rhojan, Pakistan, we meet a man named Humayan who is standing beneath his USAID-issued plastic tarpaulin with 16 family members on a 100-plus degree morning. He tells us he is a tractor driver and earned good money before the floods, but the tractor is now underwater. He and his family only arrived at the camps yesterday — they had been living at the railway station for three weeks when someone told them about this camp’s existence. He says he’s happy to be here — he appreciates the shelter, the water, the food. And he knows they might be there awhile. In the morning, he tells us, he went back to see his home, and swam across the river only to discover it had disappeared entirely. As he speaks, tears fill his eyes. His wife adds that they’ve had nothing but the clothes on their backs and don’t know how they will restart now that both house and tractor have vanished.



I look at the family of proud people, this man with the pained expression, his many scruffy-haired children managing to smile shyly, his anxious wife. Could I ever be as patient? Could I sit quietly in a hot tent waiting? Then I notice a little boy named Imran. He is dressed in a tan shalwar kameez. His eyes are piercing, hot and angry. He stands with fists on hips, lips pursed, a tiny pipsqueak who has seen too much sadness and felt too much fear in his young life. I want to hold the child, to make him laugh somehow, to give him joy. I give him my blue cap that Ali had just gifted me. When Ali and his brother-in-law had given their caps, the children squealed with delight. Imran just continues glaring. Ali calls him Imran Khan and we try teasing him — no response. I look at him again. Maybe this little man is the most honest man here. His anger is raw, and he doesn’t hide it. I bet he’d fight if he could, and imagine a rage rising from knowing how little control he has in a world that ignores him.



In the late afternoon sun, we visit a camp called Kandhkot in Sindh, organized and run fully by the Mahvesh and Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation. Fields of green sprawl in the distance, but the 100 tents and 820 individuals inhabit a patch of dry dirt. The tents stand one after another, each family sitting together beneath their tarpaulins to avoid the sun’s heat, harsh even at this point of the day. It must still be more than 100 degrees and near 100 percent humidity: Rivulets of sweat run down my face, and I arrived at this place in an air-conditioned car.

A young woman named Mairani lies with a tiny child on a rope bed beneath a plastic tarpaulin. She gave birth six days prior, but only today did she name her new son Wahid Ali. Her face, framed with a chartreuse scarf, is exhausted, spent, vacant. Flies walk across her face and dance in circles on her arms and legs, but it takes too much energy in the heat to shoo them away — and does little good. She, her husband and mother had to flee their home, which has since washed away. Their sudden exodus made it impossible to bring any belongings. They both have only the clothes they were wearing three weeks ago. Indeed, she wears the same shalwar kameez in which she gave birth.

Mairani can’t talk about her son’s future, not yet, not while he is so fragile, not while her world is so fragile. The little boy, tucked under a makeshift canopy held up by a bamboo stick, is sick with fever. Mairani’s mother sheds tears as she asks for help, her hands folded in prayer. “Please bring to us mosquito repellent, for the insects are strong here, and we have this infant child.” Mairani’s husband is somewhere in the camp but his mother-in-law makes clear that he does little for the family. There are thousands like Mairani, which means “lady princess” across the country. She needs the world’s help so that she can raise her son and enable him, finally to dare to dream and make his dreams real.

Twenty million Pakistanis were rendered homeless during these floods, which are continuing — two more towns are expected to be submerged in water tonight. I’ve met scores of people who stand huddled with their families, and all they have left which is each other. They need food and new houses, clean water and good sanitation, of course. They also need the stuff in life that gives us dignity — a change of clothes, education for the children, toys so that they can smile and forget for just a moment the sense of hopelessness and despair all around them. My organization is keeping a community site to give up-to-date information on what is happening in Pakistan and where you can help at www.ontheground.pk. Right now, Pakistan needs all of us.


We Can Be Heroes
Across Pakistan, uncommon heroes are arising in response to the worst natural devastation in the country’s history. One of them is Ali Siddiqui, head of the JS group, a financial services conglomerate employing 23,000 with stakes in companies in transportation, agriculture, energy and the like. Though only 33 years old, Ali is a man of vision, courage and great spirit. While too many complain that government isn’t providing services, he and his family and employees have just gotten on with the business of bringing their skills and resources to do what they can against the odds — which is ultimately what it takes to bring about change.

Ali has mobilized the family’s companies owned by the JS Group to set up and run five camps serving more than 10,000 displaced individuals and providing food supplies to more than 20,000. He works with the army, the military, the UN and grassroots NGOs, and in this way, has created strong relationships that have allowed the camps to function relatively smoothly. He spends five days a week in southern Punjab and Sindh, problem-solving, troubleshooting and ensuring the steady flow of what has become a major operation. His family has donated significant financial resources, but what amazes me is how they’ve mobilized others to enable them to give, having raised nearly $1 million for their relief efforts in the camps.

Ali has 15 or 20 of the company’s senior people working closely with him on everything from partnerships to logistics to working with the United Nations. Rather than wait for international food rations, his team works through bank offices to identify the best prices at local markets and puts together packages that feed 20,000 people daily. Ali’s beautiful wife Saira and brother-in-law (also named Ali) spend considerable time fundraising and giving other types of support.

Yesterday, we visited three of the camps with Ali and a small team, meeting military officers and police who provided us security, speaking with camp residents and listening to the stories of children survivors. We were amazed by the efficiency of operations and the strong relationships among different organizations working together. Mostly, we were humbled by Ali’s leadership. Indeed, one of his slightly younger employees, Imran, told me that he was in the camps because Ali inspired him daily to give all he can to the world.

As David Bowie sings, “We can be heroes.” Ali Siddiqui and the JS Group are showing the power of the private sector to move quickly, nimbly and efficiently. He is saving lives and changing perceptions of what role business can play in responding to crisis and in building a country that needs to believe in itself. It starts with leadership, and Pakistan — and the world — needs more individuals like Ali Siddiqui to show the way.

If you want to donate directly, please give to the Mahvash And Jahangir Siddiqui Foundation, go here.

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On the Ground in Pakistan

I wanted to share this note that came out yesterday from Acumen Fund Country Director Aun Rahman about the floods in Pakistan.

It’s shocking how muted the global response has been to this crisis, one in which 20 MILLION people, most of them poor, have been displaced and are now homeless.

And for more context on the floods:

Here’s the letter:

Dear friends,

The world has been slow to react to the enormity of the floods in Pakistan. Acumen Fund wants to help change that, and in the process take a small step toward changing the way the world sees Pakistan.

I know that all of us have been putting our thoughts and actions towards flood relief and rehabilitation. To create greater awareness globally on what is happening on the ground in Pakistan, Acumen Fund has launched a website www.ontheground.pk to capture both news and first hand experiences about the impact of the flood as well as the flood relief efforts.

The website allows you to post your stories or photographs in Pakistan as well as news updates regarding the flood. This information will build a compelling tapestry of what is happening on the ground in Pakistan, and will reach out to the global Acumen Fund community.

Please share what you are hearing or doing on www.ontheground.pk. Doing so will help demonstrate to the world that people (Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis) are taking action to help. We are rolling this out to our global community and leveraging Acumen Fund’s networks outside of Pakistan to get the word out and advocate for action!

At the same time, do help spread the word about this. Anyone is free to post what they are seeing/doing on the site. I believe that our message to the world will be stronger if we all come together to share what we are doing.

After all, Pakistan needs the world to act now.


Aun Rahman
Country Director, Pakistan | Acumen Fund

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Hope, Pakistan, and the power of storytelling

From Acumen Fund’s *spark! event last month.

Getting to work with people like Jawad Aslam gets me out of bed in the morning.

I promise this is worth seeing through to the end.

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Mohsin Hamid’s stories of Pakistan

In the past 24 hours I finished reading two books by Mohsin Hamid: Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I’m not unearthing anything new here – Moth Smoke was a New York Times Notable Book and The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a bestseller and a Booker Prize Finalist. Nevertheless, let me encourage anyone who appreciates good writing to read these two books. Hamid hits you in the face with the difference between being able to write and being a writer; he is a master of prose, pacing, setting and character.

The books also resonated because I was in Pakistan just two months ago, so the first-hand account of life in Karachi and Lahore was of particular interest. As Americans we have almost no personal exposure to Pakistan, and while I’m sure there are countless political histories available, one could do worse than begin with Hamid, if for no other reason than to remind oneself of the obvious: that Pakistan is a country of 180 million people each of whom has his own story.

I am a novice in my own understanding of Pakistan, having visited there once and having only a cursory knowledge of its history, culture and politics. But the contrast between my experience in Pakistan (confirming that most places, and most people, in the world are more the same than different) and the questions I got both before and after my trip (“how WAS Pakistan??!!”) reinforced my sense that we Americans we have, on the most part, an unbelievably limited exposure to and understanding of this country of 180 million people (and the exposure we get is often in CNN News briefings and statements by Presidential candidates about “the war on terror.”)

The cover of the Economist’s January issue blithely called Pakistan “The World’s Most Dangerous Place” (a Pakistani colleague of mine at Acumen Fund has that cover, hand grenade and all, ironically displayed at his desk). I find that hard to believe, but even if it were true, shouldn’t part of the answer be investing in local solutions that create economic opportunity and help fight poverty (and not just more bombs)? One-fourth of Pakistan’s 180 million people are poor. Food and energy prices are rising (Pakistan recently shifted clocks forward an hour in an effort to save energy, and Acumen Fund Fellow Jawad Aslam’s take on this is not to be missed) and, with rising prices, tension is also rising, especially in the cities. Meanwhile, under the Bush administration alone, the U.S. government has provided more than $2 billion worth of funding to Pakistan, with up to a third of it unaccounted for.

There’s a lot to bite off here, which is intimidating. So why not start with Hamid’s accounts, to pique your interest, and go from there?