Welcome to” Digital Bethak” powered by Institute of Digital Entrepreneurship Pakistan ( www.idepakitan.pk )
My name is Iftikhar Anjum. I am a co-founder at IDEPakistan where we teach digital skills and helps entrepreneurs to grow.
Today, I am very excited to have a ” Digital Bethak With Laila Kasuri”
“Kasuri is currently a water analyst with Global Green Growth Investment’s Policy Solutions Division and has led the research at organizations such as the World Bank, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences on climate-smart irrigation, flood risk reduction, and river basin planning.”(copied)
She is a writer, Tedx Talk Speaker, Member of the Global Shapers in the World Economic Forum and recently she has been featured in Forbes 30 under 30 Asia List 2019.
She has been acknowledged as an expert researcher, as a game changer and Asia’s next-generation leader.
Iftikhar Anjum: Laila before talking about your achievements, we are interested to know about you. Who is Laila Kasuri? Please tell us something about yourself?
Laila Kasuri: I was born in Lahore, Pakistan where I studied at Beaconhouse Liberty Campus (from Kindergarten through O’ and A Level). Since I was “smart” I was constantly told to pursue medicine but managed to fight my family about it. Finally, I applied to universities abroad and got a full scholarship to Harvard University. There, I ended up doing my degree in Environmental Sciences and Engineering. It was also in my first year of university, that I spent my summer as a research associate in Islamabad, working with the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FoDP) Water Sector Task Force led by the Asian Development Bank. As part of this, I worked with a team to review Pakistan’s water economy and institutional framework, highlighting systemic bottlenecks to equitable water allocation. At the time, I was 19 only at the time, the youngest among the team, and had the opportunity to work very closely with the government agencies in Pakistan from WAPDA to PID. I thought that this would be a one-off opportunity. Except I continued in this field for the next 10 years.
After that, I won a two-year competitive fellowship (Harvard University Water Fellowship) to look at water resource management in federally managed river basins. Within this time period, I worked and researched with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, in Vicksburg, MS and was also awarded a Medal of Excellence. The culmination of my four years at Harvard led to a thesis on the Indus River, and I won the highest award for academic research – Thomas Temple Hoopes Award. I have been the only Pakistani in history of the University of Harvard to have won this award.
After my graduation, I worked as a researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences in California, which was then facing the drought, while also on the side completing my Masters Degree on water management at UC Davis. Immediately afterwards, I was hired as a water resources consultant at the World Bank in Washington DC. As part of the World Bank, I was involved in many projects in Asia, including in Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Afghanistan, where I worked on multiple projects (described later).
In 2015, I returned to Pakistan, where I began to work at LUMS as Faculty and introduced and designed the curriculum for an undergraduate course “Water, Sustainability and Development”. At LUMS, I also helped establish a research centre called the Center for Water Informatics and Technology; As the lead in this project, I worked with Dr Abubakar Muhammar, and developed the strategy for the centre; developed the project portfolio, as well as conducted workshops for integrated water resource management; formed partnerships with research institutes and universities working on water resources management and represented WIT at national and international forums.
Since 2017, I have been working as the officer and project manager for water and sanitation projects in the Global Green Growth Institute. Some countries I’ve worked in include Cambodia, Laos, Jordan and Myanmar, where I’ve worked with the government and private sector in developing PPP projects in the water sector and get more private sector investment into the water sector. In this regard, as part of GGGI, I work closely on identifying local/national entrepreneurs and business models and try to help them scale up.
This has been a long and exciting 10-year journey. During this time, I have five publications to my name, nine international awards and contributions to many reports and strategies. I am also a Member of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers, and a TEDx speaker. I regularly write fiction and non-fiction, run a travel blog and also working on finishing a novel. If you want to see some of my writing, you can check it out on Medium (https://medium.com/@lailakay)
Iftikhar Anjum: Recently you have been selected among Forbes “30 under 30” in Asia for providing advisory support on policy and strategy development in more than 30 countries. Will you please share more about the role you played?
Laila Kasuri: During the last ten years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time working with governments, both at the national level and the municipal level, as well as in the global international development space, where I have presented in many conferences and summits (the youngest and only female), including at the Budapest Water Summit and the Water Week.
I started in Pakistan when I was very young – but had exposure to working with a range of people, from WAPDA, PID, farmer associations, Ministry of Water and Power and other NGOs active here. This work was through a range of activities, from the FoDP task force, consulting with IWMI, my role as a faculty associate at LUMS, and part of the World Bank on a water capacity project. Moreover, I was also nominated as a member on the Lahore High Court Climate Change Commission (the youngest member and only female), I advised on addressing the impacts of climate change on water resources in Pakistan in regular monthly meetings and provided recommendations on adaptation management in the water sector. I’ve been recognized in this space.
Across Asia, I’ve been involved in a number of countries. Some examples include in Afghanistan, where my work was to assess the hydrological models to support transboundary water management in the Kunar river; In Bangladesh, I was part of a team to develop a river bank improvement project to manage floods, and in India, I was working on a technical assistance project on groundwater management.
More recently, in Cambodia, I’ve been developing a larger investment program for sanitation and wastewater management and providing guidelines for decentralized sanitation at the provincial level. But my role has not just been on policy but also on mobilizing private sector funding for water and sanitation projects. I thus work closely with local entrepreneurs in the water sector and help them develop business models that can scale up. In Lao PDR, I helped draft the National Urban Water Strategy (under works) and am supporting a larger investment program for water and wastewater management within funding from KOICA ($6.5 million). In Jordan, I’ve been working with Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Jordan Valley Authority and Miyahuna municipality to identify green infrastructure projects from their investment plan (CIP) and develop the green action plan for water.
Iftikhar Anjum: In an article, you have written about “ The Startup Bug”.” Too many kids are interested in becoming founders.” You are of the view that first becomes a specialist before becoming a founder. Are you not in favour of entrepreneurship?
Laila Kasuri: I am certainly in favour of entrepreneurship, but I think to start any successful business or enterprise, you need to learn about your industry before you jump in and have a solid set of skills to offer. Some of the best CEOs were actually specialists before they went on to start their business. Bill Gates was a brilliant programmer and worked for companies before he built Microsoft. Similarly, Jeff Bezos who is the founder of Amazon, graduated from Princeton in electrical engineering and worked at a Fintech company and also with a number of companies in finance before he started Amazon.com. Sure, some entrepreneurs jump in, directly, but the world’s most successful ones try to gain skills and experience to understand the sector.
I’ll give an example – I was recently a mentor to a water startup in Pakistan – It was started by recent graduates who wanted to develop low-cost filters to treat water in Pakistan. However, not one of them had ever worked in the water sector in Pakistan, nor had a clue about the rivers and canals in Pakistan. To work on any canal, they needed to speak to the Irrigation Dept, but they had no idea how to. Their startup failed. One of the reasons for this failure was that none of them knew anything actually about water management in Pakistan or the actual challenges in the country, nor had they interacted with the government on this. If you work in the water sector, it’s important to be closely working or being aware of government regulations and also to know the facts of the water debate.
If people embark on startups and do not understand the sector, they cannot develop a business model that is sustainable. Not all sectors are suited to startups. I will explain this more in the next question. Thus, I do think that being a specialist really sets you apart and makes you a good entrepreneur because not only do you know the technical side of things, but you know your product, or your service better, your market, the laws around it.
I would also be more mindful about using the word, entrepreneur. These days a lot of people call themselves founders or entrepreneurs though they’ve not really developed a product or business. For example, many young Lahoris are starting “initiatives” or Facebook groups, such as reading clubs, biking movements, social movements, magazines etc. but with no actual business model. All these are great things, but in my opinion, this is not entrepreneurship by definition. They need to be developing a product or business model.
Iftikhar Anjum: Experts say that entrepreneurship is the only solution for Pakistan. We don’t need technicians but we need entrepreneurs to elevate poverty from Pakistan. What are your thoughts on it?
Laila Kasuri: I disagree – entrepreneurship is not the ONLY solution. Some of the best minds in Pakistan – such as Abdus Salam – were not entrepreneurs. We need entrepreneurs for sure, but we also need people who can be good leaders, senators, lawyers, doctors, scientists, researchers, cultural historians and policymakers as well. We need innovation in these fields too.
And, if we need entrepreneurs, we need “Real” entrepreneurs who are building actual teams and companies and providing jobs. These days a lot of people call themselves founders or entrepreneurs though they’ve not really developed a product or business, nor are they having a real and meaningful impact. For example, many young Lahoris are starting “initiatives” or Facebook groups, such as reading clubs, biking movements, social movements, magazines etc. but with no actual business model. All these are great things and initiatives, but in my opinion, this is not entrepreneurship by definition. They need to be developing a product or business model. They need to be building something that can scale. And for these entrepreneurs to succeed, they need specialists.
Secondly, it demands on what impact you want to make and what sector you want to target.
For me, I have wanted to work on issues like water and livelihoods. But for these sectors, the best business model is to start either an NGO or work with a larger international organization. It’s not suited for a business or market-based model – at least for now in Pakistan. Even microfinance and microcredit models are now widely recognized as ineffective in addressing poverty. Most recent data has shown that microfinance institutions have used exploitative lending techniques and many agree that it is not able to alleviate poverty.
If you really make an impact in sectors like water, you have to work with governments closely, and with the public. No private sector entity has ever successfully made a huge impact on improving water management in Pakistan – this may change in the future, but for the next 50 years, governments are playing the main role in this sector, so it’s important to work with them. The reason for this is that the current business model in water is not sustainable because of the laws here. Among all sectors, no private investor has in the history of Pakistan invested in water. The reasons are political and institutional. This may change, as Karachi is looking into private sector investment in water, but if you want to solve the water challenge in Pakistan, you cannot do it through entrepreneurship.
However, for those who choose other sectors, like textiles, agriculture, transport, there are lots of opportunities for startups and businesses and these can have a large impact.
Iftikhar Anjum: To what extent academic qualification is important in becoming a specialist? Do you think that our schools, colleges are universities are producing specialist? If not how to bridge the gap?
Laila Kasuri: More than academic qualifications– learning is important and this can happen inside and outside of schools. I certainly agree that having a BA or MA is more important for a specialist than it is for an entrepreneur, but its not always the case. It totally depends on the field.
In fields such as sales and marketing, social media, and media arts, you can become a specialist without a degree or academic qualification. I do think that a BA helps others (employers, investors etc.) know that you have skills and you have a basic level of education but I think that you can demonstrate it through other ways, depending on what you are going to do. For example, you can prove to be a specialist by demonstrating better performance in your work. Bottom line, having a BA or MA doesn’t matter always, but it helps. Even investors investing in a business want to know you have a BA sometimes. But I think that no matter what, you should aim to be learning through doing and demonstrating.
In our schools, I think there’s too much focus on grades and rote learning, but not on actual learning, including practice-based learning. This is no surprise. Our education system is not even producing the best scientists because we cannot apply our knowledge of science. So, while we might do a good job at teaching theoretical knowledge, we fail to provide the facilities and opportunities to practice it. This includes improvements in technology access, infrastructure for education and internship opportunities, and spending much more on research and development.
Take the example of Nergis Mavalvale – she is the Pakistani responsible for detecting gravitational waves and has been recognized globally for this. Though her early education was in Karachi at Convent of Jesus and Mary and no doubt excellent, I think that having the ability to conduct research and actually have the facilities for research and practice allowed her to make this amazing discovery. She has made a contribution internationally in this field – but it would be difficult to do this in Pakistan when there is such a weak infrastructure for research facilities.
Research is also important not just for specialists, but for entrepreneurs – some of the most innovative countries such as South Korean and Japan have the highest expenditure on research and development per capita. Not surprisingly Pakistan has one of the lowest.
I also think that the burden of learning in a country needs to also be with parents and the entire community. Instead of making more malls, and boutiques, we should be setting up museums, and learning exhibits for children.
Iftikhar Anjum: What is the secret to become a specialist in any fields?
Laila Kasuri: My only thing is that in order for anyone to succeed – whether it’s a specialist or entrepreneur – you need to remain persistent. I owe my success to working consistently on something and learning in it. It’s no different for an entrepreneur. The other thing is to learn by doing. For me, it means as a water specialist, I have to go into the field and work as a practitioner. I would not call myself a specialist if I had not worked in the water sector.
Lastly, for a specialist, there’s no end to how much you can learn and grow. Keep focusing on learning new things – inside and outside of your field, and realize that learning should not end after school
Iftikhar Anjum: What is your message for the young people in Pakistan?
Laila Kasuri: I think that they should try to carve out their own career path – entrepreneur or specialist alike – and choose a career path that works for them. In all honesty, I never had a career counsellor who advised me what to do. Not everyone has to be an entrepreneur and not everyone has to work in a job, but it’s important to take responsibility for whatever path you set out on. Too many young people end up in careers they are unhappy with, that are forced upon them, only to leave that career later. It’s important to take ownership of your own career.
Secondly, be open to any career field. Sometimes we decide on what we want to do, without even working in that field. Many girls I know say they don’t want to do engineering because they are bad in math, but then find it to be a perfectly great career. Similarly, many kids are convinced they aren’t “smart” enough for certain careers, while the “smart” kids are told they should become doctors or engineers – I think that is terrible advice that our society gives and reinforces. The examples of Gates and Bezoz demonstrates how “smart” people ended up as excellent businessmen. Thus, I would suggest being open and interested in different things, expose yourself, and then decide. And whatever field you select, remain persistent because you do not reap awards overnight.