Pakistan’s Youngest Female Entrepreneur
Teaches Us How to Overcome the Odds
She was born in Pakistan, a place where girls and women receive little to no support or resources to become successful, strong women in life either personally or professionally. Somehow though, Shama Zehra beat those odds, becoming one of the youngest female entrepreneurs in Pakistan. She started her first company, one focussed on clothing design that she started in her family’s apartment when she was only sixteen-years-old. She then earned two MBA’s before joining the largest private sector bank in Pakistan as a Senior Officer and serving as the product head for the Pakistan International Airline (PIA) co-branded card. It was the first frequent flyer credit card in Pakistan. She soon moved on to a position at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. She’s a whirlwind. And that was just the beginning. She is now busy at work on an app called Jetzy “that taps into the emerging market of ‘flashpacker’ millennials who are lifestyle travelers that prefer to travel on their own terms, connect with locals and discover hidden gems all while making friends globally.” The app already boasts users from 137 countries and almost half a million social media followers.
How does a Pakistani woman do all of that in spite of it all? Well, for one thing, she follows her own advice when it comes to challenging the negative messaging so many women still experience today in nearly every one of life’s arenas is simple – she allows the things that don’t serve her to simply go in one ear and come out the other.
Here’s more on just how Zehra has managed to accomplish the remarkable work she has done.
What gave you the confidence as a child to think you would ever be more than “someone’s wife”?
When I was growing up in Pakistan, women were generally considered inferior human beings to men. Although it’s gotten better today, it’s still expected for a woman to be an extension of her husband, and her own dreams and ambitions are not encouraged or taken seriously. I was blessed with parents who were both entrepreneurs, with a ton of ambition, especially my mother, who was fearless, resilient, and supportive. She always encouraged me in my career all along the line
What inspired you to start working in fashion as a teenager?
I have loved fashion, lifestyle, and travel since I was a kid. When I found an opportunity to build something in the fashion space, I jumped on it.
How did that apparel company succeed despite you being a woman growing up in Pakistan?
From the beginning, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Pakistan is a hard place to run a small business, let alone a business run by women. Women were not treated with the same level of respect and importance as men in Pakistan. Between not being taken seriously in business negotiations and dealing with thefts, the setbacks we faced only encouraged us to work harder to overcome adversity. I heard all the time “you can’t do it” from multiple men and some women too. The negativity only gave me the fuel to prove even more people wrong.
What were you parents’ reactions when you started the apparel company?
Well, my mother, sister, and I started the company together. So they were all for it. My mother was no stranger to entrepreneurship. So she encouraged me and was my biggest supporter every step of the way.
How did you come to sell that first company?
We started the company in my family apartment, and it grew rapidly. We soon moved on to a facility where we could build a small factory with six staff members and a flagship store. We were doing business to customer from the store to women and business to business to the Pakistani equivalents of Macy’s. We also had pop-up stores at five-star hotels. Despite our success, the infrastructure problems (thefts, security issues, bomb blasts, curfew in the city, lack of electricity etc.) made it very challenging for small business owners to succeed in Pakistan, especially for women, that’s why I decided to sell the business when I was twenty.
When you were a little girl, did you ever imagine you would be where you are today?
Yes and no. I knew I could do a lot for some reason. I’m not sure where my drive was coming from. But I was very driven even as a child and used to think about creating another McDonalds. I didn’t know that I would be so fortunate as to pursue my passion of travel. Jetzy has made it all possible for me.
If you could speak to every little girl and young woman growing up today under the current administration, what words of advice would you give them?
I would strongly encourage them to ignore those who look down on them and use their discouragement as fuel to prove them wrong. No matter what you do, you aren’t going to please everyone, and that’s life. For young people who think they may not have what it takes to run their own business or make it in a certain industry; just follow your dreams. By surrounding yourself with the right positive people and pushing the limits, you truly can do anything.
What would you say is the greatest challenge/obstacle you ever encountered?
I would say the biggest challenge I faced was the security issue in Pakistan. Let alone all other issues, we had to work hard to stay alive and stay safe. Gender equality issue was another area. Not only was it extremely relevant in Pakistan, but on Wall Street as well. The finance sector is obviously a very male-dominated industry. Proving myself in several markets, I put in the time, discipline, and work ethic that was required for me to succeed in these male-centered environments. The female role models we have in business today are incredible. Women are now given a lot more equal opportunity that they were given in years past.
What is your dream for the future both for yourself and for all women across the globe?
I want to grow Jetzy so that it can help people in all walks of life. For women across the world, I want to be a resource of advice and connections.
Come join my Jetzy girl on the app. I will be building a channel of career connections for women globally who join Jetzy girl on the app.
How do you stay inspired?
Meditation, prayers, yoga, my little nephew, and, of course, my Jetzy family all keep me inspired.