05 July 2017

From Geneva to Running a Social Enterprise in Islamabad

Samar Hasan‘s (Master in Political Science, ’07) Journey to launch “Epiphany”

For many years in my life, I wanted to do a PhD. In fact, I was selected for the Fulbright scholarship as well in 2009 to pursue a PhD in Political Science at Boston University! However, the week I found out about the Fulbright decision was also the week I learned that I was expecting my daughter, and hence, I did not accept the scholarship. Years later, I was still contemplating a PhD and would often ask people around me for advice. As expected, people would ask me the reason behind this desire. Did I want to pursue academia full-time? Did I want to be a prolific researcher and writer? Did I just want the “Dr.” in front of my name? And then, somebody asked me the most pertinent question ever — did I have a burning question in my mind that was keeping me awake at night? And sadly, my answer was no.

Now let’s go back in time to December 2007 and my move to Karachi after spending a quarter of my life in Geneva, one of the most tolerant, multicultural cities in the world. The first question I was confronted with was, “where are you from?” referring to my ethnicity and the second was, “are you Shia or Sunni?” In subsequent months and years, I became witness to religious, sectarian and ethnic violence, as well as mindless brutality all over the country. Ordinary citizens got caught up in rage and burned thugs alive; two brothers were beaten to death with sticks and people stood by making videos while refusing to lift one finger to help them; politicians were fighting with each other like lunatics on television while the general population was egging them on; and the list goes on and on. And so emerged my first set of burning questions — why are we unable to coexist with one another like we used to? How can we address this growing intolerance? How can we humanize our society again?

Now let’s fast forward to 2011, to the grave moment of the Governor of Punjab’s assassination and the resulting polarization of society; the celebration of the person who killed him as a hero; and the aftermath of this saga in which any one of us can be killed if accused of blasphemy. Therein lay another scorching question: how do we reclaim our space, our freedom of speech, our ability to question things that seem unfair?

In the backdrop of all these developments, the rights of citizens continued being squished, the state’s institutions were consistently weakening, and power continued to rest with a select few. Once again, questions were rearing their head. How could we transfer power to the people? How could we ensure more women would participate in governing the country? What could be done to ensure that the topmost leadership was elected through a free, transparent and unbiased process?

On the other hand, I was becoming deeply interested in financial inclusion and the potential it had for alleviating poverty, but was frustrated since no one was actually trying to understand the needs of the population at the bottom of the pyramid. At the same time, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to justify spending my entire work day projecting the work done by other people and other teams. My mind was filled with questions like, was I always going to reflect on Habib University as the most important contribution of my life? Was this the only legacy I was leaving behind?

Then, between July and September 2016, I conducted a research on women entrepreneurship for Simply Shariah Human Capital’s 2016 Women in Islamic Finance and Islamic Economy Report: Unlocking Talent, and was wrestling with the issues faced by women entrepreneurs as well as glaring gaps in the eco-system. The questions plaguing me were: Why were there hardly any specialized offerings for social entrepreneurs in the country given that they understood some of the most pressing problems faced by communities across Pakistan, and had the desire, innovative mindset and ability to solve those issues? How could we enable them to solve these problems much faster and in much better ways, so that their impact grew exponentially? And what could we do to help women advance in our country?

All these questions that I had accumulated over the years were burning now, keeping me awake, night after night after night. That is when I knew it was time — time for me not to get a PhD, but to venture beyond my day job and try to bridge the gaps that I saw. I had my epiphany then, my moment of utter realization, and naturally that is what my social enterprise is called.

Original article