Supporting Youth Entrepreneurship in Pakistan

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In a country of around 190 million people, 60 percent are below the age of 25 years. This might of human capital can be converted into a highly productive resource by improving the quality of education, imparting management training, developing skills and providing opportunities to participate in the mainstream economy more effectively. 

Every year public and private colleges and universities churn out a large number of graduates in both technical and management disciplines. In the absence of proper career counseling, however, most of them face great difficulties in finding the right opportunities in the marketplace. The mismatch of talent and opportunities is not only producing more unemployed and frustrated youth, but also causing severe damage to the social fabric of Pakistani society. These young people can only use their strength and abilities if Pakistan can offer conducive work environment.

In order to help youth realize their potential and create an environment conducive to their success, the Islamabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI) has supported youth entrepreneurship on multiple fronts. The chamber has advised youth on career options, engaged them in policy discussion, created channels for youth leadership in chamber activities, and promoted the culture and spirit of entrepreneurship.

Career Options and Barriers

In 2007, ICCI took the initiative by engaging youth in a consultative process. Funded by CIPE, ICCI’s objectives were to understand youth views about the job market and to look at possibilities for diverting their thinking towards entrepreneurial careers. Focus groups with stakeholders revealed that if a platform to guide youth on business opportunities existed and mentorship were accessible, they might start considering entrepreneurial careers as alternatives. ICCI learned that Pakistani youth have excellent business ideas, but lack implementation strategy as well as knowledge about laws, rules, and regulations for starting a business.

In brainstorming sessions, students identified lack of funding for start-ups as one of the biggest barriers to entrepreneurship development in the country. They were of the view that by landing a job, they would be able to start earning immediately, whereas starting a business takes much more time and risk before profits are realized. They identified social pressure, particularly from parents who have funded their education for years, and expect them to provide financial support to the family. Having said this, due to a reduction in job opportunities a large number of young people, both men and women, showed interest in experimenting with entrepreneurial careers.

To build youth understanding of the policy process and the dynamics of doing business in Pakistan, ICCI signed a memorandum of understanding with universities. From time to time, the chamber invited students to various policy dialogues and seminars. These were mainly focused on entrepreneurship and policies that are key stumbling blocks to promoting an entrepreneurial culture in Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s Independence in 1947, successive governments have focused on the development of large-scale industries to the neglect of policies to promote entrepreneurship and small business.1

Advocacy and Awareness

The chamber picked the Draft National Youth Policy as a key policy reform initiative. The chamber identified four components in the draft policy that required improvement: entrepreneurship, microfinance, skills development, and internships. ICCI engaged policymakers, young business professionals, people from academia, and students in an intense consultative process. This initiative greatly helped in changing the mindset of the public sector, which started to realize that youth should be provided opportunities by creating an entrepreneurship ecosystem in Pakistan.

With greater involvement of youth in the Chamber and increasing interest in the advocacy campaign, a group of young business professionals created a Young Entrepreneurs Forum (YEF) which until now has been the key driving force in promoting entrepreneurship culture. More and more young people are joining this forum and YEF has created a strong network of national and international stakeholder organizations to promote the cause of entrepreneurship in Pakistan. YEF representatives are also part of the managing committee, sub-committees, and are now becoming young leaders of the Chamber. We also shared with them the democratic system in business associations such as election processes, the role of managing committees, and other leadership positions.

Through mentorship programs, YEF members are invited by universities and youth organizations to offer lectures that inculcate a spirit of entrepreneurship in youth. YEF has also supported universities in introducing entrepreneurship as a subject and encouraged students to take internships in the private sector to get a feel for the business environment. This initiative has increased the number of business plan competitions and now a few universities have established incubation centers on their campuses. In the near future, ICCI is also planning to establish an incubation and skill development center at its recently constructed Export Display Center.

In 2012, YEF organized a major youth conference on the theme of “Inspiring a New Wave of Entrepreneurship.” The main focus of the conference was to promote the culture and spirit of entrepreneurship amongst the young individuals of the country. The conference highlighted the main challenges and opportunities youth face when it comes to venturing into entrepreneurship. The aim was to initiate a wave of entrepreneurial development that not only encourages potential entrepreneurs through technical assistance, mentoring and capacity building, but ultimately contributes to the overall economy by creating job opportunities, and revenues for businesses as well as the government. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at the conference, about how entrepreneurship can promote economic growth, peace and prosperity.

In partnership with CIPE, YEF of ICCI has held two events in conjunction with Global Entrepreneurship Week. Other partners in these events were the Kauffman Foundation and Junior Chamber International. The students underlined the need to develop a better entrepreneurial culture by making entrepreneurship an integral part of educational curriculum. They were of the view that private sector support in mentorship programs at college and university levels could greatly help in promoting an entrepreneurial culture in the country.

Students also discussed several challenges they expected to face while starting a business. They demanded that the government consider creating business development centers for incubation and mentorship of students to help aspiring entrepreneurs. They said that government support is needed to promote a culture of entrepreneurship and universities should introduce entrepreneurship subjects. Participants suggested that chambers of commerce should provide platforms to help students along in their entrepreneurial career.

In order to understand how corruption impedes the start-up process, YEF undertook an initiative to conduct an anti-corruption survey. The survey report “Unpacking Corruption” presents opinions of the business community on the perceptions, manifestations, causes, effects, and remedies of corruption in Pakistan. This document will become part of an advocacy campaign by YEF to improve the Pakistani business environment by addressing needed reforms. An important message of the report is that corruption is viewed as a governance issue, which includes poor law enforcement, archaic regulations, and a weak internal compliance system.

Thus the survey calls for improving both public administration and corporate governance.

YEF has organized the Indo-Pak Young Entrepreneurs Bilateral. This bilateral mission is one of the building blocks for creating awareness about entrepreneurial opportunities by highlighting success stories in the region and channeling the potential in the required direction. The initiative was aimed at providing a suitable platform, to the representatives of the youth population that accounts for over 60 percent of both nations, to bring together change makers and young entrepreneurs to interact, promote an ongoing linkage, discuss, deliberate and share ideas on building bridges and propose suitable recommendations for the consideration of Pak- India leadership as a way forward.

Youth Entrepreneurship and Leadership within ICCI

Taking these recommendations to heart, ICCI created an entrepreneurship Development Center at the chamber in 2011. This center works as an information resource center for university graduates setting up businesses and plays an active role in promoting entrepreneurship in the region.

With the passage of time, YEF has gained widespread recognition as the body representing young entrepreneurs in Islamabad. In 2013, a delegation of young and aspiring entrepreneurs, led by the YEF participated in the Commonwealth Asia Alliance of Young Entrepreneurs Summit in Mumbai. The group was a cross representation of entrepreneurs from all over Pakistan with delegates from Punjab, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, and Sindh. The focus of the summit was to share best practices and prepare recommendations for improving “access to finance” for young entrepreneurs. The flag of the Commonwealth was handed over to Pakistan to host the next summit in Islamabad, Pakistan, in June.

The chairman of YEF participated in U.S. President Barack Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, as a participant from Pakistan. The summit highlighted the importance of social and economic entrepreneurship as well as strengthening mutually beneficial relationships with entrepreneurs in Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities around the world. 

ICCI was the first business association in Pakistan to recognize the importance of building a second level of leadership and that young entrepreneurs could be encouraged to fulfill this role. YEF has now become a role model for other chambers in the country to follow. There are currently several chambers that have formed youth committees, signed memorandums of understanding with universities, and are engaging youth with many of their programs, providing them opportunities to take leadership positions in the chamber.

In 2009 in recognition of ICCI’s efforts towards entrepreneurship development, the Ministry of Youth Affairs conferred the Jinnah Youth Award and a cash prize on International Youth Day.

Concerted efforts by various stakeholders, particularly CIPE, ICCI, and Global Entrepreneurship Week have now made entrepreneurship a buzz word. Many organizations, both from the government and private sector, are supporting entrepreneurial initiatives in the country. The discussion generated by ICCI is showing some excellent results through policy reforms and awareness on the subject.

ICCI was the only chamber in Pakistan that qualified in the competition in the 8th World Chambers Congress, held in Doha, Qatar in 2013. The ICCI project on entrepreneurship was selected out of 65 innovative projects pitched by 42 countries and was among the finalist in the category of "Best youth entrepreneurship project.” 

Majid Shabbir is Secretary General of the Islamabad Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

1 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Pakistan Report 2010 (Karachi: Institute of Business Administration, 2010).

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