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In Conversation with Navera Waheed

In Conversation with Navera Waheed

A Female Tech Entrepreneur Who Aims to Revolutionize the Education System through Augmented Reality

Before leaving for the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) in November 2015, Navera Waheed had not anticipated the changes that would follow: giving up her day job; signing her biggest client over a Thanksgiving dinner in Texas.  In the span of a year, Waheed’s startup “Cygnus Solutions” evolved from a company of two female co-founders working on all things logistics, technical, and financial, to a team of 10 male employees working on multiple innovative tech projects.

“When I came back from my exchange program, I knew it was time to step out of my comfort zone of an eight-hour working day and a monthly salary check and fully commit myself to the startup that I had co-founded!”

Waheed with a host of female tech entrepreneurs

Waheed attended the IVLP on “taking your tech startup to the next level” that lent her the opportunity to travel and discover Washington D.C., Detroit, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Texas and learn about the American entrepreneurial ecosystem for technology startups.  “Meeting so many women at the forefront of technology and entrepreneurship was just the kind of inspiration I needed,” she says.  “What impressed me the most was this incubator for hardware startups run by a woman who started off from her basement – how often do you get to hear that?” she exclaims.

As a female engineer, Waheed is aptly aware of the stigma and stereotypes attached to women in technology.  She credits her colleague, Wajiha, for being a strong influence in her entrepreneurial journey.  “I had never ever thought in school that I would run a startup!  It was at work one day when Wajiha suggested we should put our engineering skills to good use.  I had no idea how startups worked, but I knew technology.  Initially, we just had one project and Wajiha and I would spend hours after our day jobs on that one project.  We were making no profit! In fact, our salary would go in the startup just so we could support it,” she says, recounting the early days of Cygnus Solutions.

Augmented Reality Project in Progress

Fast forward to 2017, Waheed’s startup is now lucrative and flourishing.   Along with her team, she is working on a line of augmented reality products that can influence meaningful changes in education, fashion, and technology.  Her dream project is to create a Virtual Dress Room (VDR) that allows users to virtually try on clothes.  This caught the attention of her biggest client and now her partner, John Highland, the Chief Executive Officer of Biovideo.

Waheed with her team at Cygnus Solutions

“The IVLP experience was what set things in motion,” she says.  During one of the networking dinners on Thanksgiving eve, she met Highland and after a riveting conversation on augmented reality and 3D modeling, Highland proposed that Cygnus Solutions handle the backend for his product Biovideo.

It was this offer, combined with the exposure of visiting female-led tech startups and meeting women in technology and entrepreneurship who were making an impact, that had Waheed committed to fully invest herself in her entrepreneurial venture.

“Somehow, I managed to convince Wajiha and together we traveled back to the U.S. for a follow-up meeting with Highland to finalize the terms of our agreement.  By this time, we had both quit our day jobs and there was no way out anymore.  We knew Cygnus Solutions was all we had.”

Today, Cygnus Solutions is incubated at the National University of Science and Technology – Technology Incubation Center. where Waheed manages a team of ten male employees, along with her partner Wajiha.  Presently, they are developing a mobile application that uses augmented reality to show the complex processes that go inside a human body.

 

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In Conversation with Nagina Tahir

In Conversation with Nagina Tahir

An Advocate of Inclusive Development

From teaching sign language to students at the Sir Syed College for Special Children in 2008 to leading the National Forum for Women with Disabilities (NFWWD) as an Executive Director in 2013, Nagina Tahir’s journey is one of strength, resilience, and passion.

Born Deaf, Tahir received her education from the Sir Syed College for Special Children, Rawalpindi, in Fine Arts. In 2013, after receiving her certification in attendant-ship, she started to work as an attendant, and later as a Sign Language Specialist with Special Talent Exchange Program (STEP). It was here that she had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. as a participant of the Disability Exchange Program.

Tahir was placed in Eugene, Oregon for a six-week intensive leadership program that helped her understand disability equality and inclusive development from a different lens. For her, this exchange signified a stepping stone for it opened her up to a different reality for persons with disabilities – one that was not marked by indifference and social isolation. “When I went to the U.S. I saw a different reality for persons with disabilities; there was accessibility provided for them at every step,” she says.

She saw busses that were wheelchair accessible, learned about the Fitness for All program that engaged persons with disabilities in exercises at the gym and on the basketball court. What Tahir found to be the most welcoming difference was the presence of a sign language interpreter at all events and meetings.

Connecting through Sign Language

“Because of the presence of a sign language interpreter, I never felt left out at meetings on my exchange program. I participated more actively and voiced my ideas and thoughts,” says Tahir. Interestingly, Tahir learned the American Sign Language (ASL) during her exchange program. “The sign language we learn in Pakistan is quite different from ASL, but this helped me develop another skill that has helped me incredibly in my sessions through the NFWWD.”

Tahir during one of the excursions to the beach

Tahir during one of the excursions to the beach

She vividly recalls the inclusive environment she experienced as a Deaf person. She enjoyed watching horror movies that were without any dialogues and saw Deaf persons work in a cinema that was accessible for persons with disabilities. One incident really intrigued her and it was meeting a dentist who was deaf. “Seeing a doctor treat patients using sign language was a promising sight! It further strengthened my resolve to continue teaching and advocating for sign language back home,” says Tahir.

While she connected with women from all around the world through sign language on her exchange, she also overcame one of her biggest fear of dogs.  “Our host family had a dog in the house and initially I closed my eyes while going inside because I had always been very scared of dogs.  But later, I enjoyed how the dog would sit and watch me talk in sign language with others!  We eventually ended up becoming very good friends!”

Leading from the Front

Since her return to Pakistan, Tahir continues to play an active role in breaking barriers and promoting inclusion for persons with all kinds of disabilities. As the Executive Director of NFWWD, she actively leads seminars on disability equality, peer counseling, and gender-sensitive inclusive development. She advocates for the rights of persons with disabilities on all forums and believes that creating widespread awareness is critical to behavioral change in the society. She strongly feels the general behavior towards people with learning disabilities is discriminatory and this is one reason why she regularly holds art classes at her alma mater with students facing learning disabilities.

Promoting inclusive development through outreach

Promoting inclusive development through outreach

She has spoken to persons with disabilities in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the U.S. She also teaches sign language to people around the word through video conferencing. As a matter of fact, Tahir has taught sign language to everyone in her community and therefore, broken a huge barrier to communication.

We asked her what does the future look like for Nagina Tahir?
She says, “I will work for people with all kinds of disabilities while staying in Pakistan and show them that they can – and they should – pursue professional careers. There is absolutely nothing that is coming in our way.”

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Alumni Corner: Ignore Disability, Explore Ability

Alumni Corner: Ignore Disability, Explore Ability

Alumni Organize Activity for Promotion of Sports Skills among Persons with Disabilities

This activity was organized by exchange alumni Sahib Khan Bhand and Abid Lashari in Nawabshah in February 2016 with the sole purpose of creating awareness among people to highlight the need for sports opportunities for persons with disabilities.  We are replugging this story to share how our alumni in Sindh are working towards promoting inclusivity for persons with disabilities.  The activity engaged key stakeholders from Nawabshah for an open dialogue with the community on the need for promoting equality and inclusion.  Participants discussed the importance of sports for physical and mental health, creation of accessible infrastructure for persons with disabilities, and promoting the spirit of entrepreneurship among persons with disabilities.

Click to read the Report Sports Skills among persons with Disabilities [sic] compiled by Khan and Lashari to learn more about this activity.

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In Conversation with Samiya Farooq

In Conversation with Samiya Farooq

By Rimsha Ali Shah

As a student of veterinary medicine at the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (UVAS), Lahore, Samiya Farooq held a strong belief in overhauling agricultural that were more suited to preserving the climate and the habitat.  Fast forward four years and now she is the first South Asian professional accredited by the Savory Institute for their course on Holistic Management.

The journey from her time as a student to a professional was lined with achievements, including becoming the first female vice president of her university’s debating club, the joint editor of a student magazine called Vision, an associate member of Seeds of Peace and going to the United States on the Global Undergraduate Semester Exchange Program (UGRAD).

It was, in fact, her association with Seeds of Peace that inculcated the spirit of volunteerism, community service, and civic engagement in her, and paved way for her UGRAD program.

“I was always active in arranging harmony camps and peace activities as a seed of peace.  It was during the national integration camp, I had organized that a fellow batch mate of mine, Syed Muhammad Faheem Ahmed, told me about the UGRAD program.  I applied and before I knew it, I was in the United States as an exchange participant!”

The experience, Farooq says, has shaped her personality in great ways.  Placed at the University of Utah, Farooq had enrolled in livestock management courses that allowed her to visit Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho as part of her field visit.  “I wanted to build on the knowledge I had acquired in Pakistan, and my courses offered me the unique opportunity of learning new methods and practices.”

Her interest in veterinary medicine and agriculture helped her connect with people at her university and during her field visits.  In fact, Farooq’s keen interest in the subject earned her a spot on the campus radio show where she was able to impress everyone with her knowledge.  “I was the first international student to answer all the questions correctly!” she exclaims.

“Exchanges for me are more about exploring and understanding the people, rather than simply ‘going places’,” adds Farooq.  She has a special smile as she mentions Francia, her dorm fellow, KC Neil Sorenson, her mentor, and Professor Lyle MC Niel, her professors.  “They were always there to raise my spirits and push me to be the best version of myself,” she remarks.

On her return, Farooq continued to put the skills she acquired in Utah into practice.  Her outstanding leadership skills and her passion for the community development paved way for her to win the SMILE grant award in 2015 on the theme of teacher’s training.  She traveled across four districts of Punjab including Lahore, Kasur, Nana lana Sahab, and Sheikhupura to conduct her workshops with teachers serving in the local schools.

Last year, an opportunity presented itself when Farooq started working as a veterinary extension officer.  While studying proposals presented for Sir Richard Branson’s $25 million Virgin Earth challenge launched in 2007, Farooq came across the Savory Institute’s proposal on sustainable livestock farming.

As part of the accreditation process to become a hub of the Savory Institute, Farooq attended five online courses on holistic management, a workshop in Colorado to learn the basics, a boot camp in Zimbabwe where she practically witnessed the land healing, and also saw a demonstration of sustainable farming in a village close to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  She is now the first South Asian accredited professional certified by Savory Institute and a member of the team that is the first Savory Hub candidate in Pakistan.

“We are currently in the process of setting up our first research pilot project in Kasur, to learn the protocols of Holistic Management in Pakistan, according to the Savory Principals. This will not only help us in eradicating poverty by introducing sustainable farming practices, but will also give us a world lead on climate change by carbon sequestration,” she says.

Her active contribution towards climate action also led to her selection as a candidate for PUAN Climate Change Conference 2016, where she had the opportunity to network with exchange alumni from five different countries.  “I used to feel that there are not many climate change activists in our country, but to meet so many of them together has been quite inspiring!”

Farooq now plans to pursue her work in soil regeneration and sustainable farming practices.  From conducting awareness camps for farmers as a student at UVAS to working on a demonstration site for farmers and students so that they may learn about sustainable yet climate-friendly agricultural practices, Farooq has proved her commitment to bringing change in the lives of farmers through climate-friendly methods.

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In Conversation with Neelum Khan Toru

In Conversation with Neelum Khan Toru
Neelum Khan Toru with Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Evan Ryan.

By Rimsha Ali Shah

In October 2016, Neelum Khan Toru’s term as the Chairperson of the Provincial Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), was concluding.  During her two years at the PCSW, Toru was charged with reviewing legislation, assessing government programs, and monitoring their implementation for increased women’s participation in the political, social, and economic fronts.

It was a month prior to her tenure completion that she received an email confirming her selection for the inaugural Distinguished Humphrey Leadership Award taking place from September 16 – October 4, 2016, in the U.S.

“I was surprised when I received the email confirming my nomination for this program!” exclaims Toru.  She feels that such opportunities are equally pivotal for the continuous progress of professionals and students, alike.  “Once you are in the professional circle, opportunities for such executive courses are crucial for your professional grooming and growth,” she adds.

As part of the group of 10 leaders representing nine countries in the inaugural Distinguished Humphrey Leadership Award, Toru attended a one-week executive leadership course at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, one-week individualized job shadowing at Global Rights for Women (GRW), Minneapolis, and a one-on-one meeting with U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russel in Washington, D.C.  

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From Pakistan to Nepal: PUAN Delegation Bags Seven Awards at EIMUN 2016

From Pakistan to Nepal: PUAN Delegation Bags Seven Awards at EIMUN 2016

By Rimsha Ali Shah

The delegation at the transit

The delegation at the transit

While in transit at the Hamad International Airport, Qatar, Abdul Moeed Asad, Ayesha Amin, Sara Hassan, Umer Hussain, and Wahid Khan posed for a photograph hoisting the Pakistani flag.  It was August 14, 2016, Pakistan’s 70th Independence day, and this delegation, later joined by Aruba Khalid, Azeema Ilyas, and Baitullah Khan, were all set for the first regional edition of the Everest International Model United Nations (EIMUN) 2016 held in Kathmandu, Nepal from August 15 -19, 2016.

Their journey was one marked with extraordinary tales!  From meeting the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Alaina Teplitz, to singing the famous “Dil Dil Pakistan” on 14th August; forging bonds with young leaders from South and Central Asia to staging a cultural wedding show on the global village; exploring Kathmandu and Pokhara, appreciating the cultural diversity to winning seven out of eight awards! 

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In Conversation with Veengas

In Conversation with Veengas

By Rimsha Ali Shah.

Sitting in the Daily Ibrat office, a Sindhi newspaper in Karachi, Veengas typed away the ending sentences to a story she had been working on.  She had been at this very office since 2008 when she decided to delve into the world of journalism and started writing on human rights, politics, and minority rights.  As she picked up the phone to give her interview for the Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network (PUAN) blog, she recalled the journey she had had, sitting in this very office.

It was in 2011, while still working with the Daily Ibrat, that she stumbled upon an announcement for the U.S.-Pakistan Professional Partnership in Journalism exchange program.  At that time, this opportunity was what Veengas had been seeking.  She applied, got in and headed off to the United States for a six-week long exchange program that helped her increase her knowledge and strengthen her capacity as a journalist. 

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In Conversation with Ahmad Ullah Qazi

In Conversation with Ahmad Ullah Qazi

By Rimsha Ali Shah.

Who would have thought that a last minute application submitted in a frenzy would make it through to the pool of finalists for the Study of the U.S. Institute for Student Leaders (SUSI) 2011 and land Ahmad Ullah Qazi from Peshawar, then 21 and unexposed to the world beyond Pakistan, on a trip to the U.S. with 23 other students selected from Pakistan.

“I remember when Farhan Bogra, now an alumnus of Center Stage and a member of the famous band Khumariyaan, literally forced me to apply for the program.  ‘Qazi, I’ve filled out your biographical information all you have to do is complete your essays and letters of recommendation,’” recalls Qazi, who completed the application without any expectations.  Five years later Qazi works with United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as a Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, serves as a judge for various Model United Nations (MUNs) held across Pakistan, is a part of the youth coalition working on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) – 4: Quality Education, and is a mentor for the youth of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 

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In Conversation With Moiz Rehan

In Conversation With Moiz Rehan

By Rimsha Ali Shah

Moiz was in the midst of a hectic study regime for his matriculation exams when a call he had been anticipating finally came through.  He had made it to the interview stage for the Kennedy Lugar – Youth Exchange and Study Program (KL – YES).  Despite having an English exam the very next day, Moiz braced himself and went for the interview that later confirmed his participation in the KL-YES 2012-2013 batch.  He was going to be in the U.S. for an entire year as an exchange student at a U.S. high school!

“Five years since the summer of 2011, I can now sit here and say that anything is possible!  That is what the YES experience taught me.”

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21st Century Learning: Empowering Educators through Innovations in Learning

21st Century Learning: Empowering Educators through Innovations in Learning

By Rimsha Ali Shah.

“As an educator from Pakistan’s higher education sector, this symposium has helped me learn the cutting-edge technologies and pedagogies that are out there,” said Tanzeel, an attendee of the first ever international conference for educators in Pakistan.  Addressing these key developments in an age of education revolution was the primary theme of the 21st Century Learning Symposium, held on March 19, 2016 at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST).  The symposium was organized by Youth Impact to empower local educators with 21st century learning methodologies and technologies through a day of interactive, focused, and targeted workshops with local and international trainers.  The man behind this vision is International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP) alumnus, Abdul Samad Khan.  The symposium was made possible with the help of the alumni small grant from the Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network (PUAN).  All alumni of various U.S. government sponsored exchange programs in Pakistan are eligible to apply for the grant of up to $5,000 USD to enable them to give back to their communities.

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