Meet Pakistan’s First Female ‘Blackboxer’ – Sana Farooq

No other news has been more inspiring for female entrepreneurs in Pakistan than Sana Farooq, CEO of ELN being selected for one of the most prestigious residential programs at Silicon Valley called Blackbox Connect.

For two whole weeks of May, she will be living in a house with promising female entrepreneurs from all around the world and being mentored by leading startup coaches, advisors, speakers and founders who have built global companies. Blackboxers come out from the program as stronger leaders, who are able to “redefine what’s possible for themselves, their company, their community, and the world.”

This is a huge achievement for Pakistan and entirely changes the global narrative of Pakistani women. Sana opened up about her journey from a daughter to a working mother/wife and now a global entrepreneur who has dreams to revolutionize the teaching systems and educational methodologies in Pakistan.

Growing up

Sana comes from a family of strong women. When she was just eight, she lost her dad who was a successful doctor in Ireland.

“My mother raised four strong daughters single-handedly and it’s because of her that I had such a happy childhood. I speak Urdu perfectly despite living abroad and I have immense respect and appreciation for my culture, religion and family. It’s all because of her hard work in bringing us up.”

Genetics to Literature

“I grew up in Ireland where I could pursue any field I was interested in and that’s what I find most troubling about the education in Pakistan. Students are expected to take up a career direction at a time when they are not fully aware of their interests.” In Ireland, children can continue to take up any subject from any disciplines so that they can truly find their talents and areas where they excel. Sana studied Home Economics & Business Studies at O-Levels stage and later pursued Art History, Business Management and Biology during A-Levels.

Being an educator now, she feels Pakistani students have a narrow choice of career fields and ideas of success.

“If you don’t take up science / commerce subjects, most parents and family members will think you are ‘wasting’ yourself, although now things are changing,” she says. However, her mother has always encouraged her to do what she believes in and is passionate about.

Based on her diverse background and interests, she was able to get into the Genetics Program at Trinity College, Dublin. She had started her first year there when life decided on a different route for her and the family moved back to Pakistan.

Moving back

“When I came back to Pakistan, I found out that there was no proper genetics program in Karachi. The only place for Genetics was at Karachi University but even they offered classroom training and no labs.”

Despite wanting to pursue genetics, she decided not to go ahead with it due to lack of facilities at the time and instead took up her favourite subject, English Literature along with Psychology and International Relations. She ended up receiving the gold medal in her Bachelors and Master’s program.

“I was proud of the education I received at Karachi University. The teachers who taught me were global influencers and travelled around the world to teach at places like Cambridge and Oxford.”

By the time she finished with her degree, she got married and moved to London.

Her husband turned out to be her biggest ally and one of the reasons she’s become an entrepreneur today.

That’s why I give a lot of credit to my husband who pushed me to go out, have a career and be independent.”

The deadlock

When she started giving interviews for academic jobs in London, she had a hard time being considered more than an A-levels student.

“My university degree from Pakistan counted for nothing. I was so disheartened that no one acknowledged my degree. If I was studying with the same teachers in another place geographically, the treatment would be different.”

That incident became an eye-opener for Sana and the defining moment that convinced her she had to do something in education.

“Before I left for London, I had covered for my sister at one of the top schools in Karachi and realized there were problems with the syllabus, the teaching methodology, and thought-process. Rote learning is still being used for some subjects while exploration, creativity and analysis were not encouraged.”

Still, now was not the time for her to pursue academics.

“Around that time, our family friends had started an online training business. I started working there; I set up their teacher training program and got my certifications on the side. I started travelling all over England to train teachers.”

It’s been 9 years for that company, and it has a multi-million dollar turnover, offering short courses to adults across 40 locations all over UK.

“In Pakistan, we place so much value on degrees. And the large amount of degree holders are still unemployed or in low level jobs.” We need to make high quality vocational training available in Pakistan to help with increasing the relevance of the qualification to the careers people are actually taking up. This will in turn lead to respect and growth in various sectors and careers

Sana places a lot of emphasis on ‘lifelong learning’. But when she wanted to continue learning, with a full set of responsibilities, she ran into a dead-end.  “I had two young kids and I was still involved in the family business and consultancy projects. I was looking for a Level 5 Diploma in Education and Training, which is equivalent to a UK Bachelor’s degree in Education. But for the longest time, I couldn’t find a single company online I could trust.”

She wanted a solution that was flexible, online, and accessible and had great customer service. “Most companies took months to get back to me on an email, offered programs that required coming in person for trainings. And with two kids, I couldn’t travel as much.”

When her youngest was ten months old, she thought she had enough free time to create an online platform where educational courses that were recognized globally could be delivered online.

A new solution?

“An online business would help me spend time with my kids as well. I used all my evenings when my kids had gone to sleep to read up on business technicalities and skills. I hadn’t learnt the marketing and finance side of things in the family business, so this was my opportunity to fully immerse myself in all aspects of the business.”

Today her websites ELN (The E-Learning Network) (http://www.eln.com.pk) get organic traffic from not only England and Pakistan where she majorly operates; but also from places like Egypt, Qatar, Thailand, Belgium and Switzerland. ELN also operates a blog (http://blog.eln.com.pk) site highlighting the key issues being faced in Pakistan’s education system right now.

Silicon on her mind

“I never would have applied for the program had not been for the support and push by Jehan Ara, President of P@SHA,” says Sana whose business has been incubated by The Nest i/o in Karachi.

When asked why she wanted to attend a program like Blackbox, she said, “If I was an actress, I’d want to go Hollywood. As an entrepreneur, who doesn’t want to go to Silicon Valley? Besides being attracted to the glamour of it, I really want to meet people who have made it and converse with these larger than life entrepreneurs on a more human level.”

The visionary entrepreneur headed to Silicon Valley strongly believes that global education needs to be revisited since it is still pretty much the same as it has been since the Industrial Revolution. Education needs to change and how we think about education needs to change with it.

ELN also plans to develop vocational training certificates in traditional Pakistani handiwork to promote Pakistani creativity and give longevity to ethnic forms of artwork. Their focus with her current content and trainings is to make them bilingual and expand into further markets and sectors.

For anyone who thinks getting married early and having kids makes it impossible to pursue your dreams, think about this brilliant Pakistani woman who has achieved it all despite because of her marriage and kids.

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