Hundreds of Pakistani-American entrepreneurs met on Saturday, June 2, 2012 at Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum for this year's annual conference called OPEN Forum held each summer. It's organized by the Organization of Pakistani-American Entrepreneurs (OPEN) in Silicon Valley. The conference had a large number of sponsors, including dozens of Silicon Valley companies founded or managed by Pakistani-Americans.
Successful social entrepreneur Salman Khan of Khan Academy was the keynote speaker. There were also a number of parallel tracks on various topics of interest to the community. Panelists included venture capitalists, business executives, entrepreneurs, engineers, lawyers, scientists, editors and reporters. I am sharing with my readers some of the highlights of the key sessions that I personally found interesting.
INVESTMENT CLIMATE IN PAKISTAN – DO THE RETURNS OFFSET THE PERCEIVED RISKS?
It was moderated by Stephen West, Deputy Bureau Chief & Editor Bloomberg News, and included Sarfaraz Ahmed Rehman, CEO The Dawood Foundation, Junaid Qureshi, CEO, SSJD Group, Javed Hamid, Sr. MD, International Executive Service Corps, Former World Bank, Founder, LUMs and Naveed Sherwani, President & CEO at Open-Silicon as panelists. Sarfaraz Ahmed Rehman represented Dawood Group includes Pakistani conglomerate Engro with multiple businesses ranging from consumer products to fertilizer and energy. Rehman talked about annual growth of as much as 45% per year in some of the product categories in Dawood's consumer product sales and profits. He said other consumer giants like Unilever Pakistan, Colgate-Palmolive and Nestle Pakistan are experiencing similar rapid growth as well. All of these companies are investing heavily to expand their FMCG offerings in Pakistan.
Naveed Sherwani of Silicon Valley based OpenSilicon talked about his reasons for setting up his company's chip design centers in Lahore and Islamabad by hiring 67 Pakistani design engineers. Sherwani said OpenSilicon considered adding staff at their existing design center in Bangalore, India and also considered Shanghai, China for expansion before choosing Pakistan. The key reasons include availability of top talent, lower turn-over and lower costs in Lahore and Islamabad. Comparing turn-over, he said it's about 15% in Pakistan versus 30% in India. Answering a question on power outages and security concerns, he said both are manageable. Stand-by generators alleviate the problems caused by load shedding. And, being a frequent visitor to Pakistan, he feels quite safe there.
GAME CHANGERS TELL ALL: “WORK? PLAY? THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT"
The panel was moderated by Umair Khan, CEO, SecretBuilders; Chairman, Folio3; Venture Partner, Entrepreneurs’ Fund and included Joe Robinson: Product Lead, Square, Charles Huang: CEO Blue Goji; co-founder Red Octane (Guitar Hero), Zia Yusuf: CEO Streetline; former EVP SAP, Robert Martyn: Studio GM, Zynga; Executive Producer of SIMS, SimCity at EA, Omar Siddiqui: CEO Kiwi; former VP Playdom (Disney) as panelists.
The mobile apps market has exploded from almost zero to nearly $3 billion within just a few years as smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous. Panelists represented a range of apps from gaming and social media to an application that allows people to find a parking spot while enabling the cities to raise their parking revenues. The key question was how can developers effectively market their apps in such a crowded space. Zia quipped "Get Ashton Kutcher", referring to the use of celebrities to get attention. Another panelist suggested turning to new niches such as fitness and cycling to get a slice of the action by offering a piece of specialized hardware along with the application. One suggestion was to sell a hard-shell case for the mobile device and offer free download of a useful application for cyclists.
SALMAN KHAN'S KEYNOTE:
Defying tradition, Salman Khan chose an interview style format with Bay Area Journalist Thuy Vu who introduced Khan and played a CBS 60 Minutes segment on Khan Academy.
Thuy began by asking Khan if he was still recording his videos in his closet, and Khan said "No, I have come out of closet". Then he proceeded to offer to pay "market rate" for larger office & studio space in Palo Alto for Khan Academy.
In answer to a question about being "teacher to the world" in Bill Gates' words, Khan said he is aware that English language limits his ability to justify that title. He is working on broadening access to his tutorials in many parts of the world through translations in multiple languages ranging from Mongolian to Urdu. He showed a video clip of such translations.
Khan said the ubiquity and price declines of connected tablets make them ideal devices for watching and learning from his videos. With twenty students sharing a $100 tablet, the cost is only $5 per student, he said. In developing nations where electricity and Intranet infrastructure is not available everywhere, he supports the use of Internet cafes or off-line learning through kiosks supporting DVDs. He is prepared to license his video contents at no-cost for non-profit organizations seeking to educate the poor and the disadvantaged.
The conference was put together well by OPEN President Moazzam Chaudhry and his team. It provided a great opportunity for Pakistani-Americans to meet each other and learn about start-up opportunities and current entrepreneurial endeavors of the community members in Silicon Valley and Pakistan. I believe the conference clearly succeeded in its immediate objective of bringing aspiring entrepreneurs of Pakistani origin together with many investors and mentors in Silicon Valley, informing the audience and stimulating discussion of new ideas and opportunities, and educating the speakers and the attendees. But its real impact won't be apparent until there is a significant critical mass with many more successful Pakistani entrepreneurs inspired by what they saw and heard at OPEN Forum 2012.
Haq's Musings: OPEN Forum 2012: Pakistani-American Entrepreneurs' Conference in Silicon Valley