Interview with Ms. Mahe Zehra Husain – CEO Five Rivers Technologies
Mahe Zehra Husain is one of Pakistan’s youngest female tech CEOs heading a leading software firm. She is a trained mathematician and data scientist with a passion for creativity; she’s been using her right brain to balance her left brain dominated life and feels both sides of the brain work together as a whole to become much more than the sum of their parts. Unlike most children in Pakistan, Husain was home-schooled after she turned 10. She excelled throughout her school years and at nineteen she started her Masters in Pure Mathematics and topped her third semester at the Department of Mathematics, University of the Punjab in Pakistan. She then left for the University of Texas, Austin to pursue her Master’s degree in Operations Research from 2008 to 2010. Recently Husain became the Managing Editor of Cognitive Times (www.cognitivetimes.com), a US based AI and Technology publication. Through the magazine she hopes to share meaningful content for businesses and young technologists alike. Husain also serves as a consultant and Chief Data Scientist at Ballogy, an Austin, TX based sports AI startup.
In her spare time, Husain writes and paints. Under her e-publishing label, MZ Creates, she has authored several art books for Amazon Kindle, many of which made it to the top of their categories. She is now looking at ways to tap the art talent in Pakistan and allow women to work from home and earn a living through content creation. Her publishing label also hires female art talent to help develop books. Husain wants to empower the youth of Pakistan, especially young women, to create online digital businesses. She believes Pakistan has huge untapped potential in female talent and she wants to encourage women to build their careers and to join the country’s workforce. To meet this goal of helping women all over the country create their own revenue streams, Husain has started working on an entrepreneurial how-to book for women which will be launched this year.
PAGE: Tell us about yourself and your journey so far?
Mahe Zehra Husain: Five Rivers Tech (FRT) is one of the top software firms in Pakistan, supplying amazing talent across multiple technology fields globally. When I started working for FRT, it was already a software development firm, however, I made it into a unique solutions company, offering a range of services and becoming an integral part of my customers’ companies — living the FRT motto — We are an extension of your team! . Due to my commitment and dedication, I have become the company’s CEO at 31. Since I have joined the company, FRT has grown over 300% in revenue and personnel. Now Five Rivers is launching innovative new software products starting with Smart Windows (patent pending). This will lead to increased growth and revenue and multiply quality software products originating from Pakistan.
Since I am responsible for the strategic direction and investments of the company, I am working towards some innovative projects. I am building a custom campus for my company and hope to share the space with young tech start-ups. The e-commerce and digital technology industries are ready to take off in Pakistan and there is huge potential for growth, but most young software companies and startups don’t have the right mentors and guidance. I have already mentored many young female entrepreneurs who have taken advantage of social media and e-commerce to start small businesses but are in need of skills and advice. I have also created and sold a home decor e-commerce start-up – www.cheezain.com. Over a span of 10 years, I have mentored, guided and trained over 200 women engineers and entrepreneurs.
PAGE: What are FRT’s key initiatives till date?
Mahe Zehra Husain: After I joined the company, I started developing the skills that were missing from the company’s portfolio. One of them was UI and UX capabilities. It was the age of mobile phone applications and usability and experience design were very important to create good products. This also helped FRT’s product wing, Pepper.pk. Under my supervision, Five Rivers created several dozen applications for iPhone, Windows Phone and BlackBerry. Several of the applications created by my team went on to achieve world no 1 status on App World. “Our photo editor was No 1 on BlackBerry App World across all geographies and genres. This was a real breakthrough for us, and we felt on top of the world!” After this achievement was shared through the AFP, my team and I started working for names like Samsung, Warid and Dell to name a few.
At this time very few positive stories were coming out of Pakistan and to share the point of view of young technologists in Pakistan, I also worked on a documentary called Redefining Identity. The documentary went over all the ways in which my country was misunderstood by the western press and highlighted the work young technologists were doing in Pakistan.
After mobile phone applications the next big thing was Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Machine Learning and the Internet of Things. In a world that was becoming increasingly more connected and generating tons of data these skills were crucial for a tech firm. I had a mathematical and statistical background and wanted to add these new cutting-edge technologies to our portfolio. So, we created a team with capabilities in data science, machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT), AR, VR and AI. Today we are working on some truly groundbreaking products for our clients as well as our own product venture. We are all passionate scientists and love to look for the stories hidden in data”.
PAGE: Pivoting our discussion to female entrepreneurship, what do you think are the key challenges that need to be addressed?
Mahe Zehra Husain: When I joined FRT as Manager Operations in 2010, there were only a handful women working in the software industry and I knew I wanted to change that completely. When I returned to Pakistan, I was full of passion and new ideas. I wanted to serve the community and include more women in tech. I wanted to change mindsets and set new trends in Pakistan. In 2010, we were mainly a service provider at that time with a handful of enterprise clients and very few women in our team. I completely redid the company environment and culture making it a more modern and colorful workspace. With team building events and a focus on recruiting top talent and providing opportunities for women I slowly built the team to include a diverse skill set. I was aware of a lot of women who were capable and qualified to work for us but they hesitated; because it was a male dominant work environment, their families were not supportive and they could not put in odd hours when dealing with international clients in other time zones. I’ve tried to change that. Being in a leadership role has definitely helped since women feel more comfortable working in a company where a woman is CEO. After that it was just a matter of listening to what they need and trying to provide as much support as possible.
PAGE: What is your advice to young women?
Mahe Zehra Husain: My advice to young women is simple ‘Do not be afraid to fail’. Nothing worthwhile in this life comes easy and I am a big believer in trying things out and learning from things that go wrong. No amount of preparation or book learning can take the place of actual on the ground experience. New ideas and ventures don’t always gain momentum the way you want them to. Do not give up and keep trying. You do not fail unless you give up.
PAGE: Where you would like to see women in Pakistan?
Mahe Zehra Husain: Women and Entrepreneurship are the answer to many of the world’s problems. We need more women in the workspace, more women led businesses and I hope I am able to do my part in enabling the women who work with me to reach new heights.