UO faculty throw the O alongside their KIU peers

Building Women’s Entrepreneurial Networks in Pakistan

The following is a first person account from Nathan Lillegard, program manager at the Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship and an instructor of business.

One of the great joys of my job has been the opportunity to travel to far off places—Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok, among others—and learn about the entrepreneurial culture and community abroad. In every place that I’ve visited, the fundamentals of entrepreneurial communities are the same but with unique local challenges and opportunities. Entrepreneurs around the world simply want to solve problems, create value, and follow their passion.

No place have I observed this more than in a remote corner of Pakistan. More specifically, Gilgit, a bustling city of 200,000 set at the confluence of two tributaries of the Indus River high in the Karakoram Mountains. Serving Gilgit and the greater region of Gilgit-Baltistan is Karakoram International University (KIU).

I visited Gilgit first in August 2015 as part of a grant funded by the U.S. State Department to establish a center for sustainable entrepreneurship. Now in 2019—four years later—I was back to see the progress that has been made in building connections between the community and the university, as well as to help KIU level up its support of female entrepreneurs. This project, funded by the public affairs section of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, is working to build stronger ties between the United States and Pakistan.

The UO-KIU relationship is grounded in the efforts of one woman. UO international studies professor Anita Weiss has spent her entire adult life immersed in the culture of Pakistan. She studies the social and cultural dynamics of gender in the country. With seven books published and an eighth in process, she is truly a world expert on the subject and has used that expertise to help make a difference at KIU and in many other areas around Pakistan.

Joining me on this tour was Lundquist Professor of Sustainable Management Michael Russo, an expert in sustainability in business and a leader amongst the Lundquist College faculty. Our goal for the trip was to see how the networks in the region support female entrepreneurs and help KIU expand their business incubation services and teaching in order to serve female students and community members.

Through many different opportunities to engage with students and others in the region, we discovered a thriving ecosystem that is ready to grow. Our visits with companies included a gem and jewelry maker building a sustainable and traceable supply chain as well as a female-run carpentry business making furniture and building houses. Another founder is building a simple floriculture venture to bring the beauty of fresh flowers to the area. And yet another is starting an Airbnb-type travel firm to share the natural beauty of the region. Each founder had the passion you would expect, coupled with the drive and smarts to make it happen.

Students at KIU also presented ideas that captured the essence of entrepreneurship—solving problems. Those ideas ranged from simple school lunch services for kids to a female-focused auto repair service. (Women can drive in Pakistan, but social norms make it hard for a woman to get her car serviced.)

Building Strong Ties

The next steps in this partnership will help build even stronger ties among our communities. At the end of August 2019, two women entrepreneurs from Oregon will travel to Gilgit to help inaugurate the women’s entrepreneurial network there. Caroline Cummings (a Eugene-based investor, catalyst, and business advisor) and Karen Bonner, MBA ’13 (cofounder of Red Duck Foods) will share their expertise with the community in Pakistan. Then, in October, four Pakistani entrepreneurs and two KIU faculty members will travel to Oregon to see how our entrepreneurial ecosystem works and learn from our community. These exchanges will allow many more to benefit from the relationships we’ve built.

This work aligns strongly with our mission at the Lundquist College and the University of Oregon to foster informed participants in the global community and enhance the social, cultural, physical, and economic well-being of our students, Oregon, the nation, and the world. Often the opportunities to make an impact require sacrifices. To go to the other side of the world and engage with this remote region of a country very few know well is not easy. If our work helps one founder move their idea forward—yielding more opportunities for her, her family, and community—we have made a positive impact. If that success helps move a culture be more open, expand opportunities for women, and engage with others, we have a made a lasting difference.

—Nathan Lillegard ’98, MBA ’06