While she may share a first name with another Pakistani woman who stole our hearts and launched a thousand education campaigns, Malala Khan, like here namesake, carries a quiet confidence that comes from knowing she will persevere in the face of great odds. Whether as the founder of GirlTech – a startup that develops technological solutions for women’s socio-political, economic and health problems or an electrical engineer working in the male-dominated oil and gas sector of Pakistan – Malala wants to do it all, and perhaps, inspire a few of us in the process.
UGRAD and Beyond
Malala attended the University of North Dakota (UND), North Forks on the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program (UGRAD) while still enrolled in an electrical engineering course at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad. She considers her semester abroad as one that gave her keen insight into her personal and professional development. “More than anything the program allowed me to explore wholly what I liked and wanted for my future, to discover parts of my personality that I could groom and skills that I could continue to hone upon my return to Pakistan,” she said.
It also gave her a unique opportunity to take a diverse set of classes, some she never would have had a chance to in Pakistan; The Study of Women, Concept Generation and Tech Entrepreneurship and even Ballroom Dance are just some of the diverse classes she enjoyed while at UND. Access to a multitude of resources such as the startup incubator at her host university, mentors and a diverse network of scholars (the Third Wave Feminists, the International Organization, Society of Women Engineers) also contributed to her professional growth and greatly enhanced her networking and leadership skills.
More than anything the program allowed me to explore wholly what I liked and wanted for my future, to discover parts of my personality that I could groom and skills that I could continue to hone upon my return to Pakistan,” said Malala.
Where She is Now
Malala has since graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering from NUST Islamabad. She is currently employed by Shell Pakistan as a Terminal Operations Administrator and was recruited as part of their Management Trainee Program. She is considered the first woman to work at Taru Jabba Terminal – part of the Shell supply chain and about an hour from Peshawar, where she lives. With responsibilities that include standing for hours on a gantry, occasionally climbing onto tank lorries and interacting with individuals ranging from lorry drivers to local administrative bodies and contractors, it is no wonder she is among the few female faces seen at the Terminal. It is obvious she faces cultural barriers and works in a region of the country where there are increased security risk. “Although [working at the Terminal] is very much out of my comfort zone, I enjoy the challenge and hope it will pave the way for female engineers in the gas and oil sectors of Pakistan,” she said.
In addition to her full time job, she is also in partnership talks with a Pakistani company interested in buying one of GirlTech’s products: MaaCare, which is a real-time blood pressure monitor for pregnant women struggling with hypertensive disorders and an upcoming violence prevention app, StaySafe that’s still in development phase.
On Entrepreneurship and Overcoming Adversity
Her experience as an entrepreneur in a STEM field (electrical engineering) who founded GirlTech has placed Malala in a unique position – one where she can speak confidently about the challenges (and triumphs) that come with managing a tech startup. She speaks on how the experience forced her to look beyond “the glamour of entrepreneurship,” when she found herself working on GirlTech even after a 12 hour works. Malala succinctly sums up her entrepreneurship wisdom as follows.
“One doesn’t need to put all their eggs in one basket and pursue a startup as a do or die situation. There’s many ways to go about a starting a company and one of them is to continue working on it while you take on a day job to pay the bills and only leave the job when you feel that it is time for your company to take off. Not only does that time period prove to you whether there is potential for the idea to grow but it also clarifies for the initiative-taker themselves whether they are committed to the idea for the long run or not.”
One doesn’t need to put all their eggs in one basket and pursue a startup as a do or die situation. There’s many ways to go about a starting a company and one of them is to continue working on it while you take on a day job to pay the bills and only leave the job when you feel that it is time for your company to take off.
She hopes that GirlTech someday becomes for people what it has been for her: a story of intersecting passions and resilience, and especially a practical example of where vision, passion and hard work can take you. She hopes her story inspires young women to take that all important first step towards to turning their social entrepreneurship ideas into reality.
**Please note: While the current application cycle for the Global UGRAD is closed, this should not discourage you from visiting the USEFP website for details on next year’s competition which opens in October 2016. Learn more about the program here.