Imran Sarwar – The Journey for an empathetic Pakistan


11026593_846288748766039_1155080928848629768_nImran Sarwar is the Co-founder and Managing Director of Rabtt- a social enterprise working towards a more Empathetic Pakistan. Raised in Lahore, he completed his secondary education and decided to major in Economics with a minor in Philosophy from LUMS in 2010. As a conventional practice, he interned at a local Bank during his Undergrad and did not find enough meaning in that experience.

In his third year at LUMS, he was engaged as a facilitator for the National Outreach Program, where he realized that above anything else, it was the human connection that mattered the most, in order to bring the best out of individuals. This is the first time when Rabtt was idealized. 

“During this experience I realized that more than anything else it was the bond we made with those students who were maximum four to five years younger than us, helped them strive for a better future.”

After graduating from LUMS, he started working as the research assistant for Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College. This is where he experienced a practical in look of how procedures are conducted and how his theoretical knowledge can be applied at a macro-level.

Later, working as project manager at Akhuwat- the pioneer of micro-financing in Pakistan. During this time, he worked on the first decade report of the organization, simultaneously spear-heading a couple of other projects. During this tenure he also travelled across Pakistan, collecting stories of people who had received the first ever interest free loan to start their enterprises and worked on a coffee table book- “JOURNEY”.

His experiences of working at numerous organizations cemented his views on developing the “human connection” in order to stimulate fruitful learning and doing something at a macro level to make this society a better place. Imran wanted to understand and work within systems to improve them and hence, made the choice of studying Public Policy from Harvard, Kennedy School for Public Policy as a Fulbright Scholar.

Wanting to use this time more productively, with a group of like-minded people he wanted to visit public schools randomly and just talk to the students. There was no formal plan or intention for guiding them or giving them tips for their future.

IMG_0371Discussing his ideas with his friend and university fellow Aneeq Ahmed Cheema who had similar ideas about a summer camp they ended up merging their ideas. They decided to work on critical thinking, empathy, creativity and confidence. All of this resulted in the birth of Rabtt, creating collaborations between private and public schools.

Like majority of the youth, they too wanted to start out big and had planned the programme in an elaborate manner, spread over a couple of cities. Once they presented it to Dr. Amjad Saqib and Dr. Kamran Shams from Akhuwat, they advised to cut it down to a pilot programme and see how it works.

“This was the best advice that we received and it helped us and the programme in a practical manner.”

Another individual who mentored him was Aun Rehman, the former Country Director of Acumen Pakistan, who was very helpful in providing technical knowledge as to how such an organizations successfully run.

IMG_0923While all of this was happening on volunteering basis, it was time for Imran to go for his Masters. The organization’s future was not so clear. However, the team in Pakistan made sure that the programme kept alive and they managed it for the next two years – Tooba Fatima, Hammad Anwar, and Taseer Raza Hassan played a pivotal role in those two years, and have been an integral part of the organization.

After a lot of deliberation, he returned to Pakistan after completing his studies with the decision that it was time to turn this volunteer based organization into a full time social enterprise. It was a necessary shift if Rabtt was to have any large scale impact and for that a permanent team was required. He decided on a two years period which were going to either make or break this organization and to date it has been a little over two years and the organization is showing all healthy signs of staying and expanding.

“It took some time for my family to accept this as my full time profession. They wanted me to join World Bank or some similar international development sector organization. However, I had realized that I should either give my full time to Rabtt and if not then it was better that we shut it down.”

Talking about some of the challenges that he and his team faced over the period of time, Imran shared that working with the bureaucracy to get IMG_0292the required permissions in order to access the public schools was one of the major challenges. They have come a long way now from asking people to vouch for them to now getting the paper work done on their own. Financial challenges were there and they are probably going to stay. In this case too, however, the organization has went through evolution from starting out to be an experimental project to now being a well-recognized, partially self-sustaining social enterprise.

For Imran the crux of it all is ones’ ability to make and maintain human connections. This has also been the key challenge, difficult than all others that he came across. No matter what profession one is pursuing the biggest asset is the human capital and how it is nourished.

“It’s all about the people no matter how technical your work is. How you engage with people. It is easy to pretend that you are a leader but in the end it all comes down to how you interact with them and the kind of impression you leave on them.”

Coming to the issue of stereotypes that Pakistan faces in general and his experience with this problem, Imran shared that he has never faced any specific ‘in your face’ kind of dramatic encounter. However, he agrees that there is a specific perception about Pakistan among many in the international community. One of his very good American friend who had even served in their military stationed in Iraq thought that Pakistan too came under the Middle East region. This just showed the level of misconceptions prevalent about our country.

10806430_911914425486677_1890358883941636376_nAnother interesting experience he shared was when travelling to Boston from Pakistan for the first time on a connecting flight he was asked to step aside at the Boston airport for extensive search. He was informed that a US citizen had been kidnapped from Lahore to which he responded that given that he has been in air since past twenty six hours this is the first time he is hearing of it. When he was leaving after the checking the security officials wished him ‘Eid Mubarak’ given that it was almost the closing of the month of Ramazan.

When asked as to how he thinks Pakistan’s image can be improved and how in his own opinion his work is contributing towards it he said:

“Re-imaging needs to be coupled with improving our act on ground. For me hiding the problematic side is hypocritical. When the international community comes across incidents like the Peshawar attack and then they see Rabtt’s work, they get to know that both narratives are in play and all of it is not negative. An example is when a team from Spain, Thinkkids, drove all the way to Lahore to work with us!”

Despite all our problems in Pakistan it is people like Imran, his team and organizations like Rabtt working on ground for a better future that reflects the true resilience of this nation and is a source of optimism.