You are the fire. #021Disrupt19

4 mins read

Who are these people and why are they here?


If you were at Karachi Pearl Continental yesterday at 9 am, this is the question you would have asked yourself. Unless you were one of the eleven hundred delegates, guests, speakers or panelists attending 021Disrupt 2019. If you were a founder, dream, influencer, policy maker, investor or banker, you knew exactly why. You were there to start conversations, push the envelope a bit and change perceptions.

Ali Hussain from Analog Device summed it up in his session on long term investor relationships just before he wrapped up.

“I was having  lunch with an old friend and investor in Silicon Valley last week and I told him I am traveling next week to Pakistan to attend a tech conference”

“You are going where to do what?”, said his friend. Quickly followed by the even more unexpected. “When you do decide to invest, let me know. I would like to co-invest with you.”

No conference in Pakistan captures the spirit of the startup ecosystem like 021Disrupt. Now in its third year, the conference has become a beacon of data, numbers, connections and light for founders. If you want to convert non-believers to the cause, bring them to 021Disrupt. Even hardcore believers have trouble accepting the fact that there were 1,100 people present yesterday. With a room filled with 950 seats, there were a number of packed, standing room only sessions. PC’s lobby had no place to sit since every single corner and sofa was taken over by run time pitches and real time deal making. With its growing middle class, it’s undiscovered technology sector and its under served population of 220 million, Pakistan is a story that tech investors are just beginning to discover. The evidence is in the deal flow and the back to back announcements witnessed yesterday and expected today.

At 021Disrupt17, in its very first year, the conversations with international investors were about the case for Pakistan. At 021Disrupt18, last year, the announcements focused on fund raises and fund closings. At 021Disrupt19, this year, the conversations has shifted again. We are no longer talking about why Pakistan. We are talking about the size of the deals and the structure for larger offshore funds.

Jehan Ara, Akash Shaikh and their team of mischief makers and volunteers at the NestIO have put on this incredible two day show every year for the last three years.  

Imagine a conference that opens up with a plan to bring affordable internet to the world. An idea hatched in Karachi, marinated in Dubai, Incubated in San Francisco, pitched in South Africa and moving towards a live deal in Pakistan after 4 years of hardcore R&D. Isfandiyar Shaheen pitch for affordable internet seem impossible and audacious, but is just as real as the promise 021Disrupt wants to highlight and present.

Jehan opened the event on Saturday morning and spoke from her heart for all of us.  

You are the fire, said the woman who lit the dry powder and started the fire more than two decades ago.

Here is a short extract from her speech, reproduced from her notes on special request.  We all believe that her words deserve a larger audience than just the ones who were lucky enough to hear her in person.

Jehan Ara, Big Bird at Nestio, 021Disrupt

When I first came back to Pakistan, there were just a handful of us in the tech space. I think I wouldn’t be wrong if I were to say, you could count all of us on the fingers of your hand.

We were not large enough or big enough to be called an ecosystem because for all practical purposes we were not big enough to be one. We were like a makeshift chadar with holes and stains on it.  We weren’t perfect or complete or even photogenic, but we were all that we had.

But that never stopped us from dreaming about a day when we would fill a hall like the one you’re in, where you would be able to be surrounded by founders, by startups, by investors and by established veterans and players. For three years running.

To a large extent 021Disrupt is a celebration of that dream. Our dream. Your dream. A shared dream. Of recognition that we have grown beyond our original expectations. Of how far we have come from those early days. I have friends here in this room, who rightly say, that you – dreamers, founders, startups, team members – young men and women with ideas, talent and will –  have grown to a point where you are ready to move out, to show the world you mean business, to shine in your own light.

In your journey forward you will meet many naysayers.  People who will come and tell you that you are not ready yet. That the time is not right. That what you dream of is not possible.  That this is not progress. That you cannot do it without them. That you are wrong.

When they do, I want you to remember this room. I want you to remember this moment. I want you to close your eyes and feel the energy and the vibe.

I want you to look around. Go ahead. Look.

I want you to shake the hand of the person sitting next to you – go ahead – I am waiting – shake it. Now hold it and listen.

I want you to tell them. We are ready. No one is going to hold us back. As long as we are together, as long as we support each other, as long as we stand by each other, as long as we buy from each other, sell to each other, we will never ever need anyone again.

Thank you for making this real. For making this day possible. This is all you. We are just the torch bearers. You, my friends, are the fire. 

Enjoy the sessions. Start conversations. Push limits. Stop total strangers, shake their hands, share your dreams. Don’t take no for an answer. Have fun. 

And most importantly celebrate your dreams.