By Maria Umar (Founder, Women’s Digital League)
Two years ago, I launched a startup called the Women’s Digital League. It’s a virtual firm that provides basic digital administrative services to clients around the world that I often describe as proudly owned and powered by Pakistani women working from home.
I first started working online in 2009 when I was a virtual assistant on oDesk. That got me thinking; why not provide opportunities to other women in Pakistan who for various socio-cultural restrictions could not work outside their homes? I could form a network of women all over Pakistan working from home doing digital tasks. Little did I know that this would change everything the way it did!
I had no background in business and my startup idea was just that: an idea. But now a whole plethora of possibilities was opening before my eyes. I had to decide what to do. That’s how Women’s Digital League was born — from an idea, some encouragement, and an initiative by some amazing women helping empower other women.
The Art of the Start: Women’s Digital League
I started working harder trying to generate work through oDesk and a not-for-profit based in Palo Alto, California that specialized in outsourcing digital tasks to people in developing countries.
So far, I have worked with over 20 women, have 3 fulltime employees, and 10 others in the remote northern areas of Pakistan working out of a small IT Center generously provided by a local organization. I have the odd high school student coming in, the expecting mother who wants to work for only a few months until she can go back to her fulltime job and the housewife who can only give a couple of hours on weekends but needs the extra income to pay off a loan.
Vision, Hope and Strength
Is it hard? You bet it is. There are times when I want to give up but then I visualize myself ten years down the road as an accomplished businesswoman.
I recently completed a 3-week business management and leadership course jointly sponsored by the State Department’s Global Women’s Initiative office and Goldman Sachs. I graduated as both a participant of Project Artemis, where we were trained for two weeks at Thunderbird School of Global Management, and as a participant of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program.
The Elevator PItch and Idea Validation
The very first class at Thunderbird, and the Professor asked us if we knew what an “Elevator Pitch” was. I was perhaps the only one who knew what it meant — my 30 second commercial! I knew because 3 years ago when I was filling out the forms for Women 2.0 Startup Competition, I had turned to my husband and asked, “What’s an Elevator Pitch?”.
I applied to the Women 2.0 Startup Competition out of curiosity. It was unexplored territory — it fascinated me — a bunch of women helping other women start their businesses with nothing more than an idea. If that’s all it took, I sure could do it.
As a line from a famous commercial goes, “An idea can change your life!” and that’s exactly what happened. Below is an excerpt form the email I received a few weeks after the Pitch Night from the judges at the competition:
“The idea is sound and if it were to be marketed and executed properly could compete with firms like e-lance. With proper mentors and management assistance, this could fly.”
I have kept the email after all these years because it was what propelled me into action. Here were people at the top of their game, and potential investors, and they were telling me my business model could compete with Elance!! I told myself I would be a fool if I didn’t pursue it.
Big Idea, Big Vision
My experience with Project Artemis has given me a bigger vision for Women’s Digital League. I want to touch the lives of as many women as possible because I firmly believe that women can be potent catalysts of change. In a country traumatized by extremism, to empower a woman both financially and psychologically is to ensure a stable society.
More than a conventional business, Women’s Digital League is a social enterprise venture. I am currently working on my business plan so I can try raising some seed funding for building a highly interactive CRM-based website to facilitate clients as well as make managing the remote team easier.
I have come a long way from a self-doubting, shy woman, and I am finally taking out time to thank the people that helped me be where I am now. So, a BIG thank you to Women 2.0 for believing in the innate strength women have, and for giving them a platform to prove themselves.
About the guest blogger: Maria Umar is the Founder of Women’s Digital League, an all-women start-up virtual firm providing affordable content writing, virtual assistance, transcription and data entry services to clients all over the world. Before founding Women’s Digital League, she taught as an ESL teacher at a private school. Maria is from the South Waziristan Agency in Pakistan, and currently lives in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. Maria holds an M.A. in English Literature. Follow her on Twitter at @mariaumar.