Month: October 2016

Labelled ‘not-so-bright’ as a child, this entrepreneur is teaching kids the power of impossible

The society in which we grow up only judges us for how well we can swim when thrown in the water. No one ever thinks that perhaps we were meant to fly instead. Bad grades, low GPA, and quitting jobs are viewed as flaws in people and not problems in their lives. However, most success stories are made up of failures treated as opportunities

This is the story of Waqas, the CEO and co-founder of Wonder Tree, a platform that develops games using augmented reality to boost learning and development for children with special needs.

Usman and I have grown up together since he was my neighbor. Usman’s brother has an intellectual disability and required special attention. He had been working on this program for last 10 months with the name of UAB Solutions. When he realized that I was good with marketing, he offered me to join him in the initiative.  

Augmented reality is a very unique and new field and it’s being used for various educational purposes. When you talk about using augmented reality with special education, the funny thing is we are the only ones who are doing this right now.

Pakistan, Entrepreneurship in Pakistan, Positive Pakistan, Wonder tree, children with disability in pakistan, teaching children with disability
Waqas goes on to narrate his not-so-bright child experiences from school and college.

My subjects in school were related to engineering. I never had any interest in them. Teachers didn’t understand me. I would always zone out into my imagination during the lectures. Some teachers also suggested that I might have some sort of attention problems. They told my parents that they should get me checked.

In college, I followed up with engineering subjects again. I was never a good student because I could never follow orders. That’s why I used to fail a lot and get really bad grades. My parents thought their child was hopeless. There were so many teachers who used to say that I will not be able to achieve anything in my life.

A low graduating score in college meant that Waqas could not secure admission in any of the prestigious universities, or even the mediocre ones. There weren’t many options open for him. Regardless, he never let the world put him down and instead, there was a rebellious spirit growing inside of him.

I thought about how everyone keeps telling me that I am wrong and I can’t do anything. And that I am dumb, and stupid. I thought, maybe they are wrong. And maybe if they are wrong then I can prove it to them. So how do I prove it to them? I need to get better at whatever I do, I need to get smarter. I need to get stronger physically and mentally. One thing led to another.

There is a thing called self-learning and given the resources we have at our disposal these days, it can do wonders. Unfortunately, a lot of us still do not indulge ourselves in it.

I started to self-learn religiously. I learned graphic designing, web development and video editing through which I used to freelance and earn a decent pocket money.

Then he discovered the option of Chartered Accountancy, which a lot of people choose to pursue and most of them fail as well.

One of my friends was pursuing Chartered Accountancy and he said I could pursue CA because they take you in with a low percentage. I passed that test and then I was enrolled in an accountancy school.  If you fail one paper in the module, you fail the entire module and you take the exam again. So I failed in one paper in module B which meant I failed in the whole module B. I tried module C and failed that too. My parents suggested I try BBA. Turns out, that was my real forte.

With engineering and accountancy basics, Waqas handled BBA courses like a piece of cake. Meanwhile, he also got a chance to indulge in other ventures and activities. He became popular for his public speaking and design skills and worked on a small startup where he sold customized T-shirts with a friend.

I also have a creative side. I used to love sketching and I was really good at it. I had a sketchbook with me all the time. One day my teacher asked me if I had a rough book and when I took it out, he saw sketches and said that he didn’t want to see this anymore and I was so embarrassed that I started doing it less. Had I not listened to him at that time, like I normally don’t listen to people, I would have done some really good sketching.

Once graduated, Waqas landed at Interflow after hopping around some jobs. It is not very rare that people gossip about you when you’re struggling and want to gossip with you once you achieve something big. Is it so difficult to try to believe in someone’s potential? Interflow being a renowned advertising agency, shut down the worries of several related and unrelated people about what he was going to make of himself.

Interflow was a really big name back then and that’s when my parents realized that I was making something of myself. The challenge was that I was the youngest one. I was young and new in the field and I was doing everything right. So my co-workers were really intimidated. They used to gang up on me and bully me when my boss wasn’t around. There was this time at Interflow when I was questioning everything.

I decided that If I leave I’m going to leave when everyone realizes my full worth. I worked on extra gear. Within one year I learned everything. I was developing entirely on my own. At one point I was developing a behavioral strategy on women empowerment for USAID.

As soon as Waqas had proven himself at Interflow, he left the job. It may have been professionally satisfying but he was seeking growth as a person.

I had four other job offers at that point in time but I had put the entrepreneur plan away for far too long. Now that I had the experience and the time to try it out, I wanted to see what I could do. I ended up meeting a very old friend of mine who used to be with me in ACCA. He wanted to do something marketing related. We decided to grab another person who was a digital marketer and open up a marketing agency. Within a span of 4 months, we were able to get on board international clients. We even did a country wide digital strategy for Telenor.

Some dissonances in his own start-up and an offer from Usman got him thinking about Wonder Tree. Unlike the people around him, Waqas could foresee potential. He had seen it in himself when no one else did, he could definitely see it in Wonder Tree.

Wonder Tree was a zero cash start up. We won IamKarachi brand innovation challenge and got some money from there. Then we won the GISK competition which was an international competition and got more funds. Later we secured the Pasha grant. The fun thing is what we have done so far in that amount of cash is really miraculous. We have a team of 7 highly dedicated people who are over qualified and overworked.

What Waqas learned throughout his diverse set of experiences, he is applying at Wonder Tree. Not just on the work but also in developing the culture of the startup.  

We are all friends. Hierarchies and standards are discouraged at Wonder Tree. So we all hang out, go out to eat, do small celebrations. What we are doing is brilliant and beautiful and I have all the hopes that I will be fulfilling my dream of doing something worthwhile. My target for Wonder Tree right now is to make it a global company. It should impact the life of at least a million people. The way we are progressing, it might become a reality in 2-3 years.

The prospects of Wonder Tree are positive and lucrative. That is because it is not just a highly technological startup but one which is strongly needed by the world.

Evangelists in multiple countries literally talk about our product on our behalf and we have said nothing. That is because this is a need and people want it. We haven’t launched it yet but when we do, the cycle will start. We have an advisory board of therapists and psychologists from Dow University and other places. They guide us about the needs we need to cater. We have also started clinical trials and research.

Waqas ended his story with a message that so many young souls out there long to hear.

I want to specially help children realize that they are worth something no matter what society tells them, they can do something. As Jack Ma puts it, “It’s what you do after office hours that’s going to change your life.”

Since everybody is quoting great people every time they tell a story, let us end this one with the saying of another great personality who is my personal favourite, J.K Rowling.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all- in which case, you fail by default.”

 

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Hiral is a customer care executive at a bank. Big deal ? No. Big deal ? Yes.

“On the day the results were out, I was absolutely confident. I didn’t have to check my result.” the girl says with a smile.

The class – students preparing for competitive exams – falls silent, apparently uncomfortable with the touch of bragging in the girl’s voice. I too stare at the girl.

The girl’s smile broadens and erupts into a laugh, “I knew it! I was sure I’d fail!”

The girl’s self-effacing humour immediately touches base with everyone. We all laugh out loudly. She has won our hearts.

“And you know, I have appeared for umpteen exams – 18, to be precise. Two more and I would have crossed the “-teen” threshold of exams, with 20,” she continues to joke about herself as the laughter subsides. More smiles.

It’s been a year now, but this incident is fresh in my mind. I was witness to this girl talk confidently to aspirants about her umpteen failures and subsequent success (comprehensive success; coming up later). Against all odds. Her good humour cleverly conceals what she has gone through.

But then, this brave girl, Hiral Malvi, is no stranger to overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Being blind – she has zero vision – is just one of them.

“As a kid, I was quite naughty. And also quite headstrong,” Hiral says,

“So it was a shock to me when I lost vision before I was four.”

She puts it so matter-of-factly, without the slightly tinge of complaint, you’d think you didn’t hear her right. But Hiral is quite objective about herself.

“One evening, a little before my fourth birthday, I suddenly started having blurred vision. Before long, I completely lost my eyesight,” Hiral recalls, her smile never leaving her lips.

“My father was an auto-driver and my mother is a home-maker. Even with the extremely limited resources my parents did everything possible for my treatment, including taking me to Nethra, Chennai. Everything failed. I was blinded forever. Just like my sister who lost her vision before she turned 3.”

Finance was always tight in this family of 6. It was simply not possible to offer any special facility for the two differently abled sisters. Things couldn’t have been worse for them.

The two girls were enrolled at a local institute for the visually challenged.

“I did all my schooling, right up to class 12, from V D Parekh Blind School. Often, Braille textbooks were not available in some subjects, so I had to rely on my memory and audio recordings.”

Hiral, in spite of all the limiting factors, did well in academics. When she cleared class 10, her interest and achievement strongly indicated she choose science stream. However, strained finances, among other things, dictated she opt for arts.

“I won’t say I was very committed till I finished graduation. I worked sincerely, but not very hard. And suddenly computers happened.”

Her voice betrays her excitement.

“I was absolutely swept off my feet! It was sheer magic!”

She had found her calling. From Braille to bytes, her life was set to change.

“I learnt about PGDCA (Post Graduate Diploma in Computer Applications) during my college days. I was thrilled that I, an arts graduate, too could study computers!” The headstrong Hiral emerged and without paying attention to naysayers, she applied for and was admitted to PGDCA.

 

“Many people were apprehensive when I, a blind girl, opted for PGDCA. But I was determined to master it.”

And master she did.

Once she cleared her PDGCA, she set her sights even higher: M.Sc. (IT), a course often considered comparable to MCA (Masters in Computer Application).

“The course turned out to be more rigorous than I had first thought. The schedule was hectic and the deadlines were often insane,” her giggles resurface.

“It didn’t involve computers just for fun; it was serious programming…. something so conceptual! But I had already been handling a variety of stress since long, so I somehow managed.”

I thought ‘somehow managed’ would translate to ‘barely passed’ or something similar. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In 2014, Hiral passed her M.Sc.(IT) with 92% – the first visually challenged student (repeat student, not girl) in the state to complete the course.

“By then I was already on the lookout of a good career with the central government or a bank. So I started my preparations during my M.Sc. (IT)”

In the middle of 2013, Hiral and her teacher from the school for visually challenged, Jagruti Ganatra, walked into a coaching institute. They met the coach and asked whether he’d allow Hiral to enroll.

While eager to help, the coach was visibly confused,

“But how will she read what I write, or my printed handouts, let alone solve questions?” the coach wondered aloud.

That was swiftly taken care of. Hiral carried a recording device to the class. She would attentively listen to every word the teacher spoke. Once home she’d play back the day’s lecture. A special software in her computer would read out all the PDF notes to her.

(How the computer had reached the humble household that Hiral was a part of is also one of the many feathers in Hiral’s cap. As one of the earliest visually challenged person to have finished the degree, Hiral won the computer as a part of the state government’s drive to help differently-abled individuals.)

Daily her father would come to drop her at the coaching institute. Two hours later, her brother or father would return to pick her up. Any waiting period was used in playing back the previous day’s lecture. Her co-students, all with regular vision, were impressed with her involvement, but getting decent marks, even in the practice tests remained elusive.

Not surprisingly, things were difficult. On the one hand, she wouldn’t be able to read anything that the faculty wrote during the sessions; on the other, it was impossible for the faculty to speak everything that he wrote.

So no matter how diligently she prepared, gaps remained. And then, she was also studying for her M.Sc.(IT).  

The 4-month course ended, but she couldn’t crack any competitive exam.

In case you aren’t aware, the kind of competitive exams that Hiral was preparing for (Staff Selection Commission and IBPS Bank Exams) test quantitative, language and reasoning skills of candidates. Calculators are not allowed. (Such exams attract around 1.5 to 2 million applications, of which no more than 20,000 are finally selected from all over India.)

If you are a fully sighted individual, please take a moment to read the above paragraph once again.

Hiral had zero vision, and yet she’d be doing math and reasoning. Everything in her head. Without calculators. Without diagrams.

So why didn’t she give up since she didn’t clear the early exams, I asked. What kept you going?

“Oh, I think I had started to love the contents of the exams – they needed a great bit of logic and thinking. I found it too exciting to quit!”

And how were the exams going on, I ask.

“I had to seek help of sighted scribes in each exam. The scribes would read out the questions – puzzles, arithmetical computations, long passages, grammar, algebra, general knowledge…. I would understand the question, do things in my head and ask the scribe to record my answer.” (These exams are multiple choice types.)

“Things aren’t always easy for the scribe too,” Hiral laughs, “For exams that were conducted outside Rajkot, getting scribes willing to travel wasn’t all that easy. And often I wouldn’t understand some questions in the first reading, so the scribe would have to read it out again! It’s tiring for them too.”

But you weren’t successful in the early exams, I say. So how was it like handling failure?

I am met with the same disarming laugh.

“I think nobody likes failure, right? But I knew my road was a long one and there was no point giving up early. My parents, who have always been my Rock of Gibraltar, stood by me. And Jagruti madam remained my constant motivator.”

But before she tasted her first major success, a tragedy struck.

Hiral lost her father in 2014.

Hiral’s father Natvarbhai was the sole bread-winner of the family. With him suddenly gone, things went haywire.

“Not only did we struggle financially, but also emotionally. My father was a constant source of inspiration for me. Any time I’d feel low, he would encourage me,” her voice cracks, but she quickly regains her composure.

Her mother worked as a domestic help at nearby homes, thereby keeping the family afloat, but only just so.

“And then look what happened! I cleared not one but two exams after that!” she beams.

Hers was a resounding success, pun intended. She was selected at two different banks Central Bank of India and State Bank of India (SBI) through two different examinations. She chose the latter over the former.

“I have witnessed her struggle, her anguish, her grit, her losses, her resilience…But one thing I have never seen – she has never ever complained about her circumstances, personal or social. She’s always been a doer rather than a cribber.”

Jagruti Ganatra, who was her coach at the V D Parekh institute and who has accompanied Hiral at all exams and interviews outside Rajkot, told me some time back. I can only nod.

* * *

I am at the Gymkhana branch of SBI where Hiral works. Hiral successfully – and popularly – completed her probation at State Bank of India some time back. I stand aside, watching her deal confidently and patiently with customers.

“Since I take care of Customer Care, most of my time is spent explaining various technology tools my bank offers. I’m so happy doing this – staying in tune with technology,” Hiral tells me during her lunch break.

“Marketing and technology are two things I love, and that’s what I get to do here!”

“I aspire to grow to a senior role within this great organization. There’s so much to learn. I almost can’t wait!”

“And my seniors and colleagues are extremely supportive, but never condescending!”

“That makes me doubly proud that I am giving my best to my organization!” she says, finishing her lunch and returning to her desk five minutes ahead of time. “It’s been said so often, but I’ll still repeat. Differently able people don’t need sympathy, they need opportunity.”

Her satisfaction is palpable, her enthusiasm infectious, her potential limitless. Evidently she’s seeing that I am blind to.

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