In celebration of the International Women’s Day, IDG is back with its series featuring women from around the local ecosystem. Tête-à-Tech with E-Elle’s; here in conversation with Founder of Aurat Raaj, Saba Khalid, who is currently busy with fine-tuning her AI chatbot, Raaji!
Technology is the newest tool being used to address issues that have been plaguing the advancement of women. In the developing world, especially in a country like Pakistan, where there is an ever growing youth bulge, girls are routinely marginalized. They find themselves vulnerable in a society that does very little to protect them. Enter Saba Khalid, whose cape might be invisible, but nevertheless is saving not just the day, but helping transform the lives of women and girls, in Pakistan, through her organization Aurat Raaj, and the game-changing, soon-to-be launched chatbot, called Raaji.
Q. Introduction; journey and startup.
I am a freelance journalist for Kulturaustausch, Rolling Stone – Germany, Musikexpress, Blinkist,The Express Tribune and Dawn. In early 2017, I created a digital content platform, for Pakistani women, called Aurat Raaj. It empowers, educates and entertains Women through textual, audio and animated content. With my visionary team, we have been conducting empowerment camps, self-defense workshops, and film screenings in remote areas such as Tharparkar.
Aurat Raaj has won recognition by UNICEF, The Pollination Project, Transforming Education Through Arts and UNESCO. We are part of the IBM Global Entrepreneur Program, and were the finalists in SHE LOVES TECH. We have also received incubation at The Nest i/o in Karachi, and was personally mentored by my role model Jehan Ara.
By mid 2017, I was selected for a prestigious Entrepreneurship for Social Good fellowship at The DO School, in Berlin. At the end of the fellowship, I pitched the idea of a chatbot, for the empowerment of women and girls, named Raaji and won the 1st prize to develop it. Raaji is currently in development and in a month’s time, we will be launching it in the Google Play Store.
Q. Tell us more about Raaji and the inspiration behind it.
At Aurat Raaj, I would conduct workshops, and often come back to our Facebook inbox filled with a large number of questions from girls regarding their health, hygiene, education, safety and employment. Many of them came to us personally, and spoke about domestic abuse, and the need for shelter. We became a hub that would connect girls to a wide variety of local and international NGOs.
I also observed other Facebook pages, and groups, and saw a large number of anonymous queries, by Pakistani girls, asking questions about their reproductive health, safety, protection. However, there was no place where they could receive empathy, support, or the information they needed. There are also far too many topics that are taboo in Pakistan, making it impossible to seek guidance openly.
I reached a point where I wanted to automate this ability, and be able to help girls, especially those that were in emergency situations. At many times, a response, even an hour late, could be too late for the person contacting us.
Many of our volunteers were contributing their advice, support and it was always routed through me. I thought,
“why couldn’t there be a version of me that could answer millions of questions at the same time, at any hour of the day, as many times as possible and without any lag or delay?”
By this point, we had already built an empowerment superhero, named Raaji, who had her own animated series, that we showcased through mobile cinema in slums, and rural areas. We extended upon the this, and started working on the app – it goes live on the Google Play Store, at the end of March.
To summarize, Raaji is a chatbot that allows you to anonymously ask questions, regarding any topic that you feel is deemed too taboo, and get her support, feedback and advice. If Raaji has not been trained on the topic, with your permission, she will revert you immediately to a human friend who can assist you.
Q. What were the some of challenges that you faced while working on your company Aurat Raaj and the product Raaji itself?
Having worked in content/journalism for many years, I had a wonderful lifestyle and a sustainable income. For the last year or so, I have yet to pay myself a salary. Fortunately though, many of my favorite luxuries like travel have been provided to me thanks to entrepreneurship. As my startup scales up, my own expenses have had to scale down exponentially.
Considering I work in human rights/gender equality/entrepreneurship, my parents often worry about my safety, security, income sustainability and overall future. I don’t blame them. Ninety percent of startups fail, and I am living in a country where many gender equality activists haven’t had the best of luck from society.
But none of this has been as cumbersome as the fact that I have a content background – not a development/software engineering one – and have been working on one of the toughest technologies, Artificial Intelligence. Fortunately, I have always found amazing tech allies, partners, friends who have guided me. In the process, I taught myself three different chatbot platforms Botsify, Dialog Flow and IBM Watson.
Presenting and pitching to panels, judges, and investors, where there are no women, can be challenging. Attending tech events, where women comprise only one percent of the attendees, can also be very disheartening. Female representation in the tech space is very important.
Q. What has the response been towards Raaji?
I posted a small demo for Raaji recently that received over 25,000+ views on Linkedin alone. I had software houses contacting me to partner for development, reporters asking to interview me, and global incubators/accelerators showing interest in having us on-board. We were shortlisted for Katapult in Norway, AI Incubator in Czech Republic, and F Lane female empowerment accelerator in Berlin.
However, I still know deep in my heart, there is still a lot of work to be done. Often, Raaji makes mistakes and is still learning about a wide variety of topics. And I didn’t want to toot my horn before she was ready to be publicized.
Q. What kind of industry support have you received?
My startup received incubation at The Nest i/o, and Jehan Ara has opened up a world of opportunities for me to grow, learn and become a leader in my space. Her team invites me for every possible opportunity to pitch to VCs, present at large scale events, meet mentors and foreign delegates.
My mentors and coaches at the Do School, and the fellows in Berlin, keep me motivated through the lows. I have a monthly catch-up call with entrepreneurs from around the world. I have a wonderful mentor in Munich, who is my sparring partner in times of conflict or confusion.
I do wish there were more local Pakistani organizations that had grants, competitions to help social impact startups thrive. Fortunately, this lack is helping us create a sustainable source of revenue.
Q. What advice would you give to the young girls who want to pursue a career in tech?
- If you value freedom, tech will allow you the most flexibility that many other jobs won’t!
- It’s hard, really hard! Things aren’t always fair. You will get ignored and sidelined because of your gender.
- Consider lifelong learning the only way to survive in tech.
- You have to be three times better than a boy to be able to convince an investor.
- No matter how sorted and driven you are, being a woman may lead to insensitive comments, judgmental questions and a lack of belief in your ability to deliver. Don’t give up!
Q. What are some of the hurdles a woman might face in the tech industry in Pakistan?
There are still only male investors in Pakistan, and many are interested in traditional eCommerce businesses only. Women-led tech ventures have a particularly hard time in getting investment. There are also a handful of women inventors, scientists, startup entrepreneurs based out of Pakistan.
Q. What are the expansion plans for Raaji? Where do you see Aurat Raaj in five years from now?
I want Raaji to be on every young Pakistani woman’s phone by 2019, and I hope that Aurat Raaj becomes one of the largest feminist platforms in the world. I hope my team and I get to play a role in ending gender inequality in Pakistan and other developing countries.