Shamim Rajani — You need to have the courage to break out of your bubble yourself

Shamim Rajani profile picture
We’re so excited to welcome Shamim Rajani as our latest Tech Sister! Tech Sisters Stories is a series that profiles Muslim women in tech and brings attention to the incredible personalities and work we have in our community.
Shamim Rajani is a Techpreneur and has been serving the Pakistan IT industry for the last 15 years. She is COO at Genetech Solutions, a software company dedicated to providing End to End IT solutions and services to its global audience. She is also the founder of ConsulNet Corporation, a tech training incubator that imparts technology training on social grounds. The CODEGIRLS bootcamp is one of ConsulNet’s few initiatives to improve inclusion in the Tech Sector. 

Can you describe how you first got into tech?

Growing up, I was very interested in medicine and biology; I never really studied technology. At 17, I got married and to let go of my dreams of becoming a doctor. However, I never stopped wanting to continue my education. When my daughter was four years old, I found a nearby vocational school that offered a degree in computer science. Their classes matched my daughter’s school hours, and although it wasn’t related to medicine, I just wanted to do something. I ended up falling in love with coding. It came very naturally to me, and I was one of the top students in the class when the program finished two years later.

Around this time, my dad got some money on his retirement and, with my help, decided to use it to teach young people how to code. We started with a free bootcamp in Karachi. After eight years, we expanded to four locations throughout Karachi and taught 800 students per day. We had a lot of community support and sponsors who picked up the expenses. I started as a trainer teaching students about the fundamentals of coding. Eventually, I would train the trainers.

One day, I got an email from someone in the UK, asking me to build a website for him. I thought it was just spam at first, but I answered it anyway and made a deal for a lot more money than I was used to. I built and delivered the website, and he was happy and sent me more work. This was my first experience with freelancing! Freelancing was very new to Pakistan at that time. There were very few people or companies doing it, and especially few women. But I loved the feeling of making my own money and wanted to keep going.

My dad let me use part of his office, some equipment, and some of his employees part-time. We started building websites! At first, we took whatever website-related work came our way, but later narrowed our focus to just development because that’s what we were best at. We broke even after two years and got our own offices. Alhamdulillah, now I have a team of over 75 employees and have hundreds of customers. We do a lot of work around web and mobile applications as well as emerging technologies like AI, IoT, and blockchain. It’s been a rollercoaster ride, but we have a very talented and stable team and do great work, alhamdulillah. 

Most women who get married as teenagers aren’t allowed to continue their education or work outside the house. It’s interesting that you had so much support from your dad and husband.

Yes, they were very supportive. But I had to take the first step and push for what I wanted. I was heartbroken when I had to give up my education, and very clear with my family that I wanted to finish it. I actually did an HTML for Dummies course before starting the CS degree, so my family could see that I had the spark and drive to achieve what I wanted. You have to prove yourself and be persistent to change your situation. 

You have to prove yourself and be persistent to change your situation. Click To Tweet

How has your company evolved as it went from just you to 75+ employees and hundreds of customers?

Today Genetech is a renowned name throughout Pakistan. The values and vision were clear from the beginning and haven’t changed much despite our growth. It’s always about customer satisfaction and success. We put the customer first, even if that meant we didn’t make as much money in the early days. Customer loyalty is essential.

I never had or needed a marketing department. All of our work comes from customer retention and references, and I have very loyal customers who love to talk about us. That’s because we make sure that our customers’ success was our success, we have integrity, and we fulfill our commitments. 

What were some of the key lessons you learned from growing Genetech?

One lesson is that it’s essential to take risks, both as a woman and as an owner of a company. If you’re too scared to take risks, you start to stagnate and die. With technology companies, you have to keep moving forward. Bringing onboard new tech stacks, more people, and more diversity. I was always a risk-taker, but I was careful to take smaller, calculated risks than huge gambles. 

The other lesson is if you never fail, then you never really succeed. You have to be willing to fail fast and learn from your failures. Don’t be stubborn about it or start thinking that you are a failure, but notice when it’s happening and learn from it. 

If you never fail, you never really succeed. Click To Tweet

About five years ago, we closed down our SEO department. At the time, it still had some subscription-based customers, but we closed the department anyway. SEO is very gray, and a lot of it is outside of your control. As a development company, we wanted to make sure our customers get the result they want every single time. And that’s not really possible with SEO. 

I learned to focus on what you’re good at and move forward with that. Definitely have diversity in your services, but stay within your strengths. SEO was totally outside of our domain. We were just offering it because everyone else was doing it. It only took a few months after closing the department for it to be clear that I made an excellent decision. 

The third and most important lesson is that you need to have women in management and on the board. I never worked for anyone else, other than my dad, and I was shocked when women would tell me some of the workplace discrimination they faced. I especially learned how widespread this problem is once I started working with WomenInTechPK and P@SHA, the trade association for the IT industry in Pakistan. 

One of my missions with Faiza is to speak with other technology companies in Pakistan and tell them how important it is to have gender diversity in management. It’s a hard nut to crack, but we’ve taken it up, and we’ll see how it goes. I’m currently the only woman on the board for P@SHA and Genetech won a diversity award last year for having a 26.7% gender diversity ratio. 

You previously said that it takes 3-4 months before someone with a computer science degree is ready to contribute to work. What can students do to ensure they’re industry-ready?

What I mean by this is students who come from universities with no industry experience. In Pakistan, there’s a massive gap between what students learn at university and what they need to learn to  succeed in the industry. I don’t disagree that theory is essential, but some of these courses are so obsolete there’s no place for them outside of academia. As a business owner, I need people who can build applications fast. That means having hands-on experience with WordPress, iOS, or any other tech stack we’re using. 

If you’re self-learning, you’re already in a better position than someone from academia. You’re studying courses that are actually useful and getting hands-on experience.

My advice for someone who is self-learning is:

  1. Decide what you want to focus on. Do you want to be a full stack developer? Frontend? Mobile? 
  2. Find out what tools and tech stacks are trending in your area.
  3. Learn how to use them and build your own projects to get experience.

When you have knowledge and experience of the most in-demand skills, you’ll be more valuable to your company than any fresh graduate. 

In our interview with Faiza Yousuf, she described a degree barrier in Pakistan. It’s hard getting students from boot camps like CodeGirls hired because many companies only want degrees. But it sounds like someone coming from a bootcamp might be more useful than someone with a degree. 

Faiza and I go and talk with company owners about this a lot. We’ve been able to convince some of them to give CodeGirls graduates a try, and they’ve been delighted with it. One large company, in particular, had a policy of not hiring anyone with less than eight years of experience. We convinced them to take four CodeGirls graduates as interns and they hired two of them. 

When we talk to these business owners, we speak in terms of numbers and research. Pakistan’s export revenue from tech is currently close to $2 billion, and we want to take it to $5 billion in the next three years. We have 25,000 graduates each year, but half of them leave the country and work elsewhere. If we keep insisting on degrees, we can’t possibly reach that target. We need to create more boot camps and train people with low coding backgrounds. 

What needs to change to enable more women to start and grow their own businesses? 

In terms of government policies and within the family, the mindset needs to change. The patriarchal culture in Pakistan goes deep and needs to become less biased and misogynistic. It was challenging for me to break through, and I had the advantage of living in an urban area and support from the men in my family. 

Any company with a diverse team makes more revenue than teams that aren’t diverse. Women have their own strengths and bring different ideas to the table. By not taking women seriously, we’re losing out on nearly half the workforce in a developing country. If you’re building a product for society and exclude half of your users, how can you possibly build a usable project?

The bigger problem is the mindset of the women themselves. Many women feel it’s wrong to want more for their lives or to go out and work for what they want. This comes from families and culture. I tell the women who come to CodeGirls that each of them lives in a glass box. I’m outside the box, and I can show you the box exists. But you can only come out when the box is broken, and you’re the only one who can break the box. You need to have the courage to do it yourself.

For women who break barriers, people think that they’re breaking the limits of what’s appropriate. But these women are learning to breathe, and we need to let them breathe. Your family will be upset, but they’ll understand eventually. Don’t misuse your new freedoms, or it will close the doors for those behind you. We have a massive responsibility on our shoulders, but we have the inner strength to do it. 

For women who break barriers, people think that they're breaking the limits of what's appropriate. But these women are learning to breathe, and we need to let them breathe. Click To Tweet

There’s a difference between loving your husband and family and letting them overstep your rights. They get so used to taking advantage of us that it hurts and shocks them when you pull back. They say you’re being rude and ungrateful and make you feel guilty for wanting your rights. 

But Islam gives us these rights! Khadija (RA) is the best example. She went against so many of our current cultural barriers.

  1. She was a businesswoman
  2. The prophet Muhammed (SAW) was her employee
  3. She was the one who proposed to him
  4. She was older 
  5. She was previously married

Women’s “right” place in society comes down to perspective. More women need to realize that they can define their role for themselves.

You have a great business relationship with Faiza. What are some elements that keep that relationship healthy?

Faiza and I have only known each other for three years, but we have a great friendship and partnership. The best things about us working together are that our visions align, we’re both very honest, and very very hard working. I used to think that there was no one more hardworking than me, and then I met her! She’s so honest and giving. I like to promote her on whatever platform I’m on, and she does the same for me. It’s just natural.

What are you most proud of? What did you do, and why is it so special to you?

I feel proud of a lot of things. I’m very proud that I started Genetech 15 years ago as a one-woman company. And not only that, but no one in my family knew anything about business. I’m even more proud of never needing a marketing department. I think that says so much about our company culture and our commitment to our customers. 

What is something in your journey that you regret or wish you did differently?

I’ve been in the industry for about 20 years, but it’s only since 2016 that I came out from behind the table. I initially hated the Pakistani corporate sector. It was very male-dominated, and I felt very, very lonely all the time. But in 2016, I did an entrepreneurship program through the World Bank. My mentor told me that if I want to do good, I should come out of my shell and talk to people and let them learn from my experiences.

When I met Faiza in 2017, she told me, “Where were you? I’ve never seen you. And you have so much experience!” She said to me that women lack role models. They need to see people like me to show they can be successful. That convinced me to start going out and participating in groups like WomenInTechPK and P@SHA. I realized that I not only gave them so much, but I also got so much back. I became a totally different person and learned so much. I started networking within the Pakistani technology sector, and I realized that they weren’t as bad as I thought they were! So I do regret not coming out sooner.

What is something or someone in your tech journey that you’re grateful for?

I’m most grateful for my kids. My daughter is my best friend, I confided in her so much. They give me strength, keep pushing me forward, and tell me that the sky’s the limit. I think I would have regretted it a lot if they didn’t turn out the way they are today. Being a working mother comes with a lot of guilt. It actually makes us better mothers because we make sure that any time we spend with our kids is quality time. 

I want to point out that if we want our daughters to grow up to be strong independent women, we need to let them make their own choices. That starts with letting them pick what they want to play with. If they’re interested in engineering sets, don’t force them to play with dolls. I tried to do that with my children.  

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Shamim. Jazakallahu Khair! If you’re interested in reading more stories from CodeGirls, you can read Sana’s, Fatima’s, and Urooj’s stories.   
You can follow Shamim Rajani on Twitter to keep up with the incredible things she’s doing. If you liked this, be sure to check our other Tech Sisters Stories and get to know the amazing talent we have in our community.

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