The young team from ibex. answered our questions with smooth and patient assurance. We were the middle-aged guys from the United States seeking more details on ibex.'s operations, they were the multi-lingual millennials from Pakistan chatting with what seemed like a distinctly American sensibility, laughing gently and knowingly at our forgetfulness and goofy references to bad 80s music.
I was joining a visit to Pakistan last week by members of ibex.'s sales leadership team in the U.S., namely, General Manager Doug Hoffschwelle and Senior Vice President Rob Patterson. Earlier this year, IBEX CEO Bob Dechant had suggested I see what his company had going on in Pakistan, so the visit by members of his sales team seemed as good an opportunity as any to make it happen.
Now, as I sat listening to our young Pakistani hosts, my eyes were drawn outside the conference room windows, where dozens of eagles rode the skies over the vast city of Karachi in easy circles, catching every shifting current as deftly as the young men and women from IBEX were leading us through an integrated customer lifecycle experience platform that includes everything from digital marketing solutions to business analytics and artificial intelligence (AI).
Doug, Rob and I had just barnstormed from Islamabad to Lahore and now Karachi, and my simultaneous interest in the meeting and the scene unfolding outside was augmented by an encroaching sense of jet-lag.
Like observant eagles, the young team from IBEX, so effortless and natural in their interactions with visiting Americans, asked me if I needed another coffee.
Running on Dunkin’
Just two nights before, Doug, Rob and I had driven the modern six-lane highway from Islamabad to Lahore with Nadeem Elahi, Country Head and CEO at IBEX in Pakistan and Managing Director at parent company The Resource Group (TRG). When, halfway into our four hour drive, we rolled into a Dunkin’ Donuts on the side of the M2 motorway, I had to pinch myself. I’m a Bostonian, and there are few brands so closely associated with Boston and few logos that will warm a Bostonian’s heart quicker than the orange and pink letters of Dunkin’ Donuts.
There I was, ordering a medium coffee (milk, no sugar) with genuine excitement. Nadeem had received his MBA from a little school just across the Charles River from Boston, so he understood what all the fuss was about. It was almost inevitable when somebody brought up the Red Sox (yes, Nadeem had been to Fenway Park), but nobody seemed to know for sure if baseball originally emerged from the game of cricket sometime in the early nineteenth century. I’d have to research that later.
As we chatted, the bit of reticence I might have felt when I was invited to visit Pakistan just two weeks before was evaporating like the skim milk into my hot coffee. I was at a bright, efficient Dunkin’ Donuts franchise next to a highway marked with signs in both English and Urdu, chatting easily with locals about sports.
Talk about cultural affinity.
Last week’s visit was introducing me to a Pakistan that a largely incurious American media doesn’t seem overly interested in reporting on. In fact, during a lunch in Islamabad with Naeem Y. Zamindar, Chairman of the Prime Minister’s Office’s Board of Investment; Shehryar Hydri, Secretary General of the Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT and ITES (P@SHA); Barkan Saeed, Chairman of P@SHA; and Ather Imran, CEO of Sybrid, I learned about a vision for technology-induced development in Pakistan, with the government soon to launch 5-G mobile broadband technology for even faster Internet connectivity.
It all made me wonder – how many people are aware that Pakistan already outranks India in mobile Internet speed? Conversations kept returning to this quiet, neglected narrative of progress. Danish Iqbal, CEO of Mindbridge, was typical of the many business leaders I met last week, chatting eloquently and enthusiastically about the opportunities Pakistan presents.
In the words of Minister of State for Information Technology Anusha Rehman, “We are working towards making a digital Pakistan. Digital economy through IT, freelance, start-ups, e-commerce and mobile apps are the future.”
The Media’s Primary Narrative
Mention Pakistan to many Americans, and the first thing they might think about is terrorism and Osama Bin Laden. The media (as well as Hollywood) seems to read from one script when it comes to this place, so the concerned reactions of most of my American friends to my visit was hardly a surprise.
Pakistan has certainly faced very real problems over the years, terrorism among them, and none of the tragedies associated with her sometimes turbulent times should be denied or dismissed. From the Soviet war in Afghanistan through the period around September 11, 2001, and beyond, extremism seems to be emphasized in the news narrative fairly regularly, haunting both Pakistani and American consciousness.
After all, not long after I returned from Pakistan this weekend, there was front page news about a bombing at the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church that killed at least 9 people in Quetta, capitol of Baluchistan Province, a city far from Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi, close to the border with Afghanistan.
But to me, it immediately sounded somewhat like what happened just last month at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, when 26 people lost their lives in what was the 307th mass shooting in the United States in 2017.
Both of these events are the kinds of tragedies that rattle us as human beings, and neither should be dismissed. But the former event in a distant region near the border with Afghanistan won’t dissuade me from returning to Islamabad or Lahore or Karachi on business, nor will the latter event, the latest in a dizzying array of mass shootings in America, stop me from flying to Dallas to meet with a client.
As our car approached Lahore during the drive from Islamabad, Nadeem pointed out how resilient and hard-working the people of Pakistan are, how they get up every day and get to work – regardless of the western media’s often obsessive reactions to our turbulent times. That work ethic is especially the case in Karachi, by some counts a massive city of 24 million people.
Long drives can feed interesting conversation. Recalling his time in Boston, Nadeem also happened to mention in passing his passion for South Asian poetry. It was a short aside that immediately brought my mind back to the sight of all those eagles swooping in gentle persistence over the vast, often mountainous Pakistani landscape.
There is a brief, beautifully rendered image of an eagle in flight deep in Herman Melville’s great meditation on the nature of American fear and obsession, Moby Dick. In what reads like poetry, the narrator talks of the majesty and resilience of a certain kind of eagle that dwells in the mountains of the mind, one distinct from its peers for its ability to see the world from unexpected perspectives, its journey at times difficult, yet ultimately never determinative of its future fate:
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
The Catskill eagle is not controlled by fear. And being in Pakistan was allowing me to see through the dense fog of an American media’s obsessively fearful coverage of this place. It’s wise to be aware of risk, and nobody is dismissing the reality and woe of terrorism, but such focus, taken too far, can often seem to approach a kind of madness.
The cost of all that fear is lost opportunity.
Today Melville’s Moby Dick seems particularly prescient – American media a Captain Ahab of sorts, consuming itself and its viewers with constant coverage of its white whale of terrorism. But what of all the woe America has endured these past few years from all of her mass shootings? It’s estimated that 11,000 people are killed in the United States every year from gun violence.
Would it be at all wise to advise non Americans to avoid doing business in the United States for fear of being shot?
The Quieter, Less Dramatic Narrative: A More Connected Future
If the technology-savvy young people we met during our visit to IBEX are indicative of the future, then Pakistan just might be a Catskill eagle rising out of the fears, obsessions, and misunderstandings of our time. The young people I met at IBEX last week, the ones explaining how business analytics is woven into their solution set, laughed with me as they recalled visits to America during which they were occasionally asked by some Americans if they had computers in Pakistan, if people drove cars.
The irony is that every one of the young people around me spoke two or four languages, including fluent English, Urdu, and perhaps one or more regional languages. There are 24 universities and 20 affiliated colleges in Islamabad, 32 universities and 200 affiliated colleges in Lahore, and 41 universities and 250 affiliated colleges in Karachi. I listened, intrigued, in learning that since 2003, Pakistan’s IT growth has been averaging 30% a year. Five submarine cable providers help enable Internet access across the country for 30 million Internet users today. Talent and increasing connectivity may ultimately end up being a more powerful combination than poverty, extremism, and fear.
As Naseer A. Akhtar, President and CEO of InfoTech, Asif Peer, CEO of Systems Limited, and Arsalan Amdani, CEO of LiveWireLabs, later made clear during a discussion at one of IBEX’s gleaming Karachi offices, their focus is on doing business rather than the dramas of the news cycle.
But as Humayan Bashir, Chairman of the NCCPL and former IBM Country General Manager, Danish A. Lakhani, CEO of Cybernet, and Osman Asghar Khan, Honorary Consul for the Consulate of Ireland, suggested to me over dinner near the end of my trip, in order to really get beyond the confusing fog of news coverage of Pakistan, one needs to actually visit the place. Or as Mark Twain, another great American thinker and contemporary of Herman Melville’s, once put it:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
The first thing I’d noticed when I arrived in Islamabad was the beauty of the mountains surrounding the city, ranges somewhat hidden by a rainy but temporary fog that always eventually clears. And I could only imagine the north of Pakistan, an area that features three great mountain ranges of the Karakorams, the Himalayas, and the Hindu Kush.
They tell me there are eagles there too, riding the wind over glacier-fed blue lakes, rugged peaks, and lush green Alpine valleys. But as Twain suggests, I’m sure I’ll need to actually see it all in order to truly begin to appreciate it.
Digital Experience Analyst & Speaker at Frost & Sullivan
Washington, DC, USA