Accountability Lab Pakistan is an initiative to support youth, civil society activists and social entrepreneurs working around promoting transparency, accountability and responsible citizenship. Through this bottom-up approach, our work supports these leaders to create social awareness, transparency and responsibility among the citizens of Pakistan. 

The Lab’s Accountability Incubator was thrilled to be selected as one of the participants of the Frontier Incubators virtual cohort for 2019, an Australian Aid initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange.

A total of twelve organisations from all over the Asia-Pacific region were selected to participate in the virtual component of the program, each with their own diverse set of achievements and challenges. 

What excited us most about this program was the opportunity to be matched with mentors who would help diagnose the needs of our organisation, before helping us to identify our leadership and organisational goals. A total of 7 partners were matched with different participant organisations and provided individual mentorship for six months. 

In addition to this one-on-one mentorship, the Frontier Incubators program also ran a series of group calls with all participants of the virtual cohort. These provided an opportunity to share common achievements or challenges with our fellow incubators and accelerators.  

Our incubation journey begins: One-on-one virtual mentorship

The Accountability Incubator was fortunate to be matched with our mentor Kalsoom Lakhani, founder of Invest2Innovate (i2i) in Pakistan. i2i finds, selects and vets impact entrepreneurs for the i2i Accelerator, an annual four-month program that provides business support and access to mentors and investment. 

From the moment we began to work with Kalsoom, it was clear that an exciting journey of learning had started. She presented herself as a pioneer of Pakistan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem from the outset. Our calls with her were scheduled on a bi-monthly basis. Kalsoom began by encouraging us to gather needs assessment surveys from our current cohort of participants and exit interviews from our previous ones. 

We then got to work arranging an across the board meeting with all of the Accountability Lab Pakistan staff. Kalsoom facilitated these organisational conversations based on the data collected from our interviews. These also helped us to identify the areas where we most needed  her help, which included:

  • The effective development and implementation of the incubator’s training curriculum;
  • Community building;
  • Learning how to execute effective training sessions;
  • Strengthening our leadership skills so that we may more confidently and effectively lead the accountrapreneurs (the participants of our incubator) through our program

An in-person experience

Accountability Lab was fortunate to host Kalsoom in Pakistan at the end of our mentorship experience. Having her there allowed us to show her first-hand what we were doing in our organisation and in our programs. In some instances, she was able to validate our practices and the fact that we were on the right track with our work. 

Rather than tell us what to do, Kalsoom would ask us questions to get us thinking about the ways in which we could improve. For instance, she asked questions like, “What sort of engagement do you have with your mentors?” and  “How do you plan a session?” These simple enquiries helped us to better map out our sessions and plan the outcomes of each session ahead of time. Kalsoom was also able to provide insights and examples from her own experience at i2i. This helped us to see that expectation setting was a challenge that almost all incubators face, even an established organisation like i2i. It wasn’t something that we had to battle alone.

During our time together in Pakistan, i2i ran a bootcamp for a group of Atlas Corps fellows who had recently returned from a one-year exchange experience in the United States. Now that they were back in Pakistan, the bootcamp was designed to help them to continue their entrepreneurship journey in their home country. Members of the Accountability Lab team were able to sit in on the three-day bootcamp and observe i2i at work.

The team from i2i took the bootcamp participants through a process of reflection and visualisation to help set the goals of their different initiatives, before giving them the tools to achieve those goals. It was amazing to see how Kalsoom empowered her team to run the session and was a great opportunity for the Accountability Lab team to see why knowledge-building sessions like these are so important. This was a highlight of the time we spent together with i2i.    

The merits of mentorship 

Our mentorship experience with Kalsoom and the i2i team was incredibly valuable. She raised some important questions about the program which helped to frame our goals and provided an initial framework to start achieving them. Most significantly, Kalsoom’s mentorship gave us the perspective to step back and look at the bigger picture of our organisation – an important tool for any organisational goal setting exercise. Stepping back can help you identify problems that you hadn’t seen before and develop new solutions to address them. 

This new perspective couldn’t have come at a better time as our sessions with Kalsoom took place just as we were designing the program experience for our next Accountability Incubator cohort. This enabled us to directly apply what we were learning to our program. Accountability Lab is now looking to build our network of mentors with people who can facilitate honest conversations with our cohort, and help them to see the bigger picture in the same way that Kalsoom helped us to see ours.

The most beneficial outcome of our engagement with Kalsoom and Invest2Innovate is that it has opened a channel of communication which will continue to be helpful for future guidance. The team at i2i have made themselves incredibly open to us throughout this process, and their generosity continues beyond the end of the Frontier Incubators program.

Virtual check-ins as a group

Every six weeks, all twelve organisations participating in the Frontier Incubators virtual cohort would get together on a group call with the Frontier Incubators delivery team. 

At this point in time, Accountability Lab Pakistan was evolving our own program into a combination of in-person sessions and virtual sessions. Having never run any virtual sessions before ourselves, these group calls helped us to understand the fundamentals about how virtual sessions worked – how to run them, how to introduce people in a virtual session where time is limited, and what tools to use. These calls directly helped us to kick-start our own virtual sessions with our cohorts. 

These calls also provided us with access to the knowledge-building Frontier Incubators Masterclass library. These recordings were helpful in learning about the common problems incubators around the world face and how they tackle them. These masterclasses provided standardised protocols for all the participants, which had been perfected over time by experienced founders of well run incubation/acceleration programs from around the world. These standardised protocols helped us to adopt and implement some of the language used around incubation programs, and were easy for us to adapt for use in our own context in Pakistan.

As an incubator who is still learning about different approaches and systems of management, it was also beneficial for us to observe how the Frontier Incubators team worked together to deliver this program. It was useful to see the different ways that they shared information with us in a virtual setting and to learn more about the systems and tools that they used to do so.

The challenges of working virtually

One of the biggest challenges of working in a virtual environment is a lack of reliable technology. Connecting to the scheduled group calls was not always possible as we experienced problems with our microphones or our webcams. It makes it difficult to connect authentically with people when you can’t see or hear them!

Another challenge of the virtual environment was due to scheduling. Trying to get twelve organisations in different time zones on a call at the same time is difficult in itself, but it can be especially hard to commit to a scheduled time when everyone is already busy running a business. We weren’t always able to attend the calls at the scheduled times and feel we may have missed some of the opportunities to connect with people as a result.

As we strongly beleive in working with our community we were looking forward to peer learning opportunities with the other members of our Frontier Incubators virtual cohort. While we did learn a lot from what others shared on our group calls, the diversity of the group made it hard for us to engage with our fellow cohort members beyond the borders of those calls. In such a diverse group, it was difficult to find a common starting place for us to initiate a deeper connection with them. The Frontier Incubators team did a good job of bringing us together, but the virtual setting and short incubation cycle made it quite challenging to connect with and learn from our peers as much as we would have liked to.   

What we have learned

As a key take-away from the Frontier Incubators program, we have learned the importance of connecting to other incubators, and working with them to support each other. When we work in our silos, it reduces the impact that we as incubators are able to achieve. A more integrated approach is needed – one that builds a conducive system for new ideas and individuals to grow. 

It is always helpful to see things from another lens for goal setting and strategising. This is something that we were especially grateful for in our work with Kalsoom and i2i. 

Programs like Frontier Incubators can assist in bringing harmony to the different processes of incubator programs. Programs like this help incubators to work together to build strategies for their ecosystems and communities to grow. By incubating the incubators, these programs can help to better evaluate the effectiveness of incubator programs, and improve the quality of sessions that incubators are providing to their cohorts. In doing so, they are focusing these support programs to work towards similar goals and, ultimately, create greater impact. 

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