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Invest2Innovate Accelerates Pakistan's Young Entrepreneurs

Angel investors, university-run technology incubators, co-working spaces...this isn't the Pakistan of yesterday's headlines.

Pakistan is a country beset by poverty and persistent political unrest, with two-thirds of its population under 30. Many Americans more closely associate Pakistan with terrorism than innovation. But Pakistanis are striving to replace that image with one of philanthropy and entrepreneurship.

Kalsoom Lakhani, 30, the daughter of a successful businessman, was educated at international schools (she speaks English with an unmistakeable American accent) and started blogging about her native country's burgeoning creativity as she was running the philanthropic arm of her father's company.

"I was fascinated by the role that strategic and innovative philanthropy could play to support private enterprise," she says. "And I was meeting all these young Pakistanis through my day job and through writing. They had these amazing ideas but couldn’t get the capital to start up."

She started Invest2Innovate two years ago as a four-month accelerator program for early-stage startups run on a $5,000 budget. Invest2Innovate is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to fund its second class of startups—to the tune of $15,000.

The seven companies included in this round aim to be economic multipliers—like Oddjobber, a mobile app that is like an "Uber for rickshaws"; and Setu, which gives young graduates the soft skills they need to prepare for the workforce.

Invest2Innovate is part of a widening ecosystem of entrepreneurship supported by the state, universities, individual business leaders, and outside companies like Google. Invest2Innovate will be using space at Dotzero, a co-working space and hub in Karachi. Invest2Innovate is partnering with Plan9, a government-supported technology incubator in Lahore, and the Karachi Institute of Technology and Entrepreneurship, which maintains a "hacker's hostel" so youth from out of town can stay in Karachi and work while they learn. And Invest2Innovate mentors include local success stories like Zafar Khan, founder of tech company Sofizar, who also runs an organic farm that he started "for fun," says Lakhani.

With so many great connections, I asked why Lakhani turned to crowdfunding to support her second round. With her infectious enthusiasm, it's clear she'd have no trouble raising cash. It turns out the strategic purpose is twofold. She wants to use the platform to get the word out about her entrepreneurs and widen their circle of supporters. Secondly, over the next month Invest2Innovate will be approaching investors to create its own fund to invest and take equity in the companies it is accelerating. "We'll be functioning almost as a holding company," Lakhani says. "So many people want to invest in Pakistani startups, but don’t want to take the risk. We do the work of finding, vetting, and investing in these companies so they don't have to."

[Image: Flickr user Natasha d.H]