Catalyzing Innovation: A Conversation With Jehan Ara

Catalyzing Innovation: A Conversation With Jehan Ara
You won’t find a single person associated with Pakistan’s start-up ecosystem who hasn’t heard of Jehan Ara (unless of course they’ve been living under a rock).

Currently running the ship at Katalyst Labs, her own start-up accelerator and innovation hub in Karachi, Jehan Ara was the former President of the Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), a role which she held for over two decades, including her instrumental role heading The Nest I/O (a technology incubator and innovation hub), apart from advisory roles with the Punjab IT Board, Sindh IT Advisory Board, and many more.

Born in Karachi, Jehan Ara mentions that she lived in Hong Kong for over twenty years, and lived in the UAE for five years, as a result of her father’s postings as a successful banker. “[My parents] were sincere, loving people with a lot of integrity and a giving nature. They instilled in us values that serve us well to this day,” she says.

Little wonder then, Jehan Ara’s recognition as a beloved mentor to many start-up founders and young entrepreneurs in Pakistan. A powerhouse with a heart of gold, she has tirelessly worked to create an ecosystem of successful start-ups, all the while providing a gentle nudge to those wanting to take a much-needed leap of faith into the exciting – and at times, terrifying – world of entrepreneurship.

Currently preparing for the Lahore edition of +92Disrupt (a national tech and innovation conference) spearheaded by Katalyst Labs, in collaboration with COLABS (Pakistan’s fastest growing co-working space), Jehan Ara is excited about the sessions that she’s put together with her team.

Amidst her jam-packed schedule, she spoke to us about her work, what it takes to be a successful start-up and more…


Sonya Rehman: What were you always inclined towards during your childhood growing up in Hong Kong? Did you always know what you wanted to be when you grew up? 

Jehan Ara: I wanted to be a writer, a communicator. Hence the foray into writing, advertising, communications, multimedia. I don’t think I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up. All I knew was that whatever I did it had to create some impact and I had to actually enjoy it. I have stuck to that and have only ever done things that were needed and that I enjoyed.


Sonya Rehman: From journalism, PR, advertising, IT and startups - your career has been rich and varied working both overseas and in Pakistan. What have been your biggest takeaways over the years?

Jehan Ara: It has been an interesting journey. The biggest takeaways have been that if you work hard and are sincere in your mission, things normally work out. There may be challenges, but somehow you are able to find the strength to overcome those challenges and move ahead. I have found that if you look around, there are always people who want to conspire to make you succeed, who somehow end up in your corner because they believe in your mission and are drawn to the purpose you have set yourself. Whoever I have worked with over the years, I have remained connected with and somewhere along the way we have ended up working on things together, connecting each other to opportunities. I have drawn so much inspiration from the young people I have worked with – and continue to work with. They have taught me a lot about resilience, about the joy of making something out of nothing and just the genuineness and sincerity of purpose.


Sonya Rehman: Having worked with and mentored a plethora of young entrepreneurs and startups in Pakistan over two decades, I bet you've been asked by many young founders what it takes to be grow a successful startup venture...what advice do you feel still holds true, today?

Jehan Ara: A purpose, drive, grit and the ability to take a punch and rise again because you know that one failure does not define who you are. That has always, and will always, hold true.


Sonya Rehman: Jehan, compared to say 10 years ago, what do you make of the start-up ecosystem in Pakistan today - what's promising about it, and by the same token, what should those within the ecosystem be weary of?

Jehan Ara: A lot has changed. When you tell someone – family, friends, colleagues – that you are either starting a start-up or joining one – people don’t look at you as if you are crazy. In fact sometimes I suspect they envy you. The landscape has changed. The talent pool has increased. People have learnt from experience what works and what doesn’t. There is more investment and mentorship available. However, one thing that founders should be weary of is burning too much money too quickly and also the danger of giving away too much equity early on in their start-up journey.


Sonya Rehman: It has been over a year since you launched your very own platform - Katalyst Labs - to work more closely with emerging start-ups...what has it been like so far?

Jehan Ara: A year has gone by so fast. Creating a new brand, starting out fresh with a new team of young people has been challenging no doubt and I must admit that initially I was a bit scared but hard work, support from a few key people, and bright young colleagues have helped turn Katalyst Labs into a name that people look up to. Our mission to work with and connect emerging start-up founders to mentors, investors and organizations while working with them on their business models, their investor decks and helping them with figuring out how to manage their finances, has been seen to work. The Women Leadership Fellows Program is meant to create more women business leaders, help women in mid-career positions to grow into senior leadership roles and help them create business networks.

Sonya Rehman: Your mother endured an illness for two decades of her life, how did witnessing her struggles change your view of the world? 

Jehan Ara: My mother had lupus for 20 years and was constantly in and out of hospital. She also frequently suffered from pulmonary thrombosis, hypertension etc. But you know, although she suffered, she was such a good patient – never complained, always smiling. She taught me how someone could be so selfless, put up with so much suffering and yet continue to be a loving and giving person. I learnt during those years how to balance my work responsibilities along with giving her the care that she needed.


Sonya Rehman: Whenever people have spoken of you, particularly young entrepreneurs, there's a lot of (very) genuine love and admiration for you -- what has it been like working with and mentoring so many young Pakistanis over the course of your career? What have they taught you in turn?

Jehan Ara: I am fortunate to have the love and admiration of so many young people. They have been there for me as much as I have been for them. They are my family, my community. I think the fact that I have stood by them through thick and thin during their personal and business challenges is to some extent responsible for the genuine love that they bestow on me and the trust they have placed in me. They have been a source of inspiration and strength for me and I adore each one of them and would do anything for them.


Sonya Rehman: What advice would you give to women entrepreneurs in today's world? How can they effectively slay the dragon of misogyny in the workplace in Pakistan?

Jehan Ara: This is a problem that has multiple solutions and we have to pick at it a piece at a time. What we are working on at Katalyst Labs is helping women professionals and entrepreneurs to gain confidence in their own abilities, developing them to become leaders, introducing them to women role models and male champions, connecting them to mentors and assisting them to build business networks. While they are with us, they share experiences and work out ways to handle situations at work. We also connect them with trainers who guide them on workplace harassment, on building synergies and growth. One of the best ways of dealing with misogyny is to create awareness in the organization, find seniors who can be supportive and who ensure that such things are handled head on and nipped in the bud.


Sonya Rehman: What are you most looking forward to regarding your upcoming +92Disrupt conference taking place in Lahore, this month?

Jehan Ara: The ability to engage with young entrepreneurs and professionals in person and to have useful conversations with them is the thing I am looking forward to most. The panels that we have put together are really exciting – the keynote by Sarmad Khoosat is something I am really going to enjoy. Then there’s the mobile gaming panel, the music panel and the NFT panel as well as the content creator’s panel, including the discussion around start-up failure and growth which are going to be very interesting!


Note: For more information about how you can attend Jehan Ara’s +92Disrupt conference in Lahore, please visit: