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.”


9 months ago No Comments Views

This Bhutanese refugee camp in Damak, Nepal is giving its displaced inhabitants a brighter future

This post is a part of Neer, a collaborative project by DCB Bank and Chaaipani to bring out stories of individuals and initiatives that are working hard and smart to save water.

A Bhutanese refugee camp in Damak, Nepal is giving its displaced inhabitants a brighter future thanks to green investment.

From the outside, the Bhutanese refugee camp in Damak looks like a traditional Nepalese village. It’s surrounded by a thick jungle, and a sea of bamboo structures mingle with trees, making the camp ‘invisible’ from the nearby highway. What is remarkable about this Bhutanese settlement is how little it resembles the refugee camp of our imagination. It almost operates like an ad hoc sustainable village.

If it weren’t for a UN refugee agency banner, you would never think that you had just entered a place usually associated with rows of tents sheltering thousands of men, women and children queuing for aid handouts.

Here, from bamboo structures to solar lighting, several organizations have been building sustainable, eco-friendly projects that respond to refugees needs.

“Our family has had a very painful past. When the camps were first created, life was difficult. We are trying to resettle in Australia now, but living conditions here have improved a lot in the last couple of years,” a 60-year-old refugee told me as I explored the narrow alleys of this ‘mini-Bhutan’. I did a quick calculation and realised that he and his wife had been living in the refugee camp for more than 20 years.

“If it weren’t for a UN refugee agency banner, you would never think that you had just entered a place usually associated with rows of tents and queues for aid handouts.”

Situated between the emerging superpowers of India and China, the isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, hailed by some as ‘the last Shangri-La’, has generated one of the highest numbers of refugees in the world in proportion to its population. Little did I know that behind its gross national happiness index lies the story of an inter-ethnic conflict which forced more than 100,000 refugees – almost one seventh of Bhutan’s total population – to seek asylum in Nepal.

When we hear of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley struggling amid a harsh winter, or of the Nigerian refugee crisis, the orderly accommodations of this Bhutanese refugee camp truly seem to be an exception to the rule. The site has gradually been ‘upgraded’ as various organizations started linking green and environmentally sustainable projects to issues of development and livelihood.

Susmita, a 35-year-old refugee shared that until five years ago there was no lighting; after sunset, the camp would shroud in darkness. Refugees were forced to use a minimum of 1 liter of kerosene a month just to light their rooms. Simple activities such as studying for children were difficult; visiting the toilet and collecting water dangerous, particularly for women and girls.

As part of the overall improvement of living conditions, more than 176 street solar lights have been installed “raising security and comfort standards for refugees”, Santosh Shrestha, representative of solar company Suryodaya Urja explained.

The company set up the renewable energy infrastructure and trained refugees to independently maintain the system. Most Bhutanese have not had any paid work since living in the refugee camp, but the project provides a degree of ‘green-job skills’ suitable for future employment after possible resettlement – a prospect that looks increasingly likely. In 2007 a total of 107,807 Bhutanese refugees were registered in Nepal, following the implementation of a major third-country resettlement program. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that less than 10,000 refugees will be left in the camps by the end of 2016.

Walking around the bamboo huts I notice several reflectors that look like the remains of an extraterrestrial spacecraft. I was later told that the camp is home to the world’s largest solar cooking project. The Vajra Foundation supplied and installed about 7,000 solar cookers, benefiting the 25,000 Bhutanese refugees who are currently living in two camps.

“When we started distributing solar cookers there was a kerosene shortage in the camp. Today, refugees still use them, although less. We took this idea from similar projects which were set up in camps across Africa,” Dor Bahandur Bhandari, vice chairman of the Vajra Foundation told me.

Since refugees usually don’t work during the day when the sun is high, they are able to cook dinner in advance without having to spend money on gas or kerosene. Because it uses no fuel and costs nothing to operate, solar cooking is useful in refugee camps where people are housed closely together, and the danger of accidental fires is high. Suraj, a man in his 30s, told me of the several fire breakouts which displaced hundreds of Bhutanese refugees and destroyed their huts.

Finding a home away from home is challenging for most refugees. But in this microcosm, carrying out daily activities is relatively easy; you see women fetching water and hear children repeating the alphabet from their classrooms. Elders told me that the quality of public health and education has been adversely affected by the departure of skilled refugee workers who were resettled. Yet you can still see youngsters running home gardening projects that help the community to break the dependency on donor aid and external assistance to meet its daily food needs.

Most of the camp is built in bamboo available locally in the southern part of Nepal; a highly renewable resource which has long been common in Asia and the South Pacific. From schools to huts, the bamboo structures prove just how durable, eco-friendly and aesthetically pleasing the perennial evergreen plant can be.

Over the years, I visited several camps in both Asia and the Middle East, where degradation of resources and the environmental concerns that affected refugees were largely ignored. Most of the 50 million refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide are living in appalling conditions with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement and inadequate access to basic services including health, education, water, and sanitation. Even though the majority of Bhutanese refugees dream of going back home or of being resettled, their current living conditions in Nepal allow them to live in a secure and peaceful environment.

9 months ago No Comments Views

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

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.

9 months ago 1 Comment Views
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