Recently, ProPakistani’s Shariq Ehsan got a chance to sit down with Maria Umar, the Founder and President of the Digital League. Here is the full interview.
Women’s Digital League is a social enterprise that trains and connects women to online work. We have been operating for last 5 years. Our training includes ways to earn a digital livelihood whether its through computer-based work on platforms such as Elance and oDesk or by selling goods through social media or be it trade.
The Digital League is a mere net to catch any task that our network at WDL is unable to assist with for some reason or the other.
What inspired you to start Women Digital League?
Getting fired! I taught at a private school for 3 years. They let me go because I was expecting a baby and their maternity leave policy was almost non-existent. During this time I found online work. And it made me realize this was the perfect way to work for women in Pakistan who are largely discouraged from working outside their homes.
Did you enjoy support from your family and friends?
Initially it was hard to convince them that what I was doing wasn’t merely a way to kill time but was serious work. The hours spent in front of the screen writing 5-8 articles a day were difficult to justify. But once everyone saw how serious I was about it and that it was an actual profession and not merely a hobby they became very supportive.
What were your targets while starting Women Digital League?
All I wanted to do was spread the word out about online work. Let other women know about this whole new world out there that they could use to work out of home at flexible hours. Someone told me to put a name on it so people would take me seriously and so it became Women’s Digital League. WDL has grown organically and there was no plan to actually do serious business. But somehow it culminated into what it is today.
Do you think you have succeeded in what you aimed to do?
Somewhat! A lot more people are now taking digital freelancing more seriously. Other startups have emerged who are also working for a similar cause, that is, empowering women through online work. One of my favorite amongst them is HerCareer and HerMarketplace. They are doing great work. What is still shocking to me is that so many young girls; college students etc, are still unaware of it. So have come a long way but still got miles to go before I sleep.
What are your future goals?
I would first like to take WDL to the most far flung areas of Pakistan, and then expand to other countries where women face similar changes in the job market as they do here.
In how many areas WDL is currently active?
All over actually! We have a freelancing community. Every time a new task comes in we post it to our Facebook page and on Twitter. Anyone can apply. That’s the beauty of online work. Physical location doesn’t mean anything. So I have had women from Peshawar, Karachi, Hunza, Gujranwala, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi .. a lot of places.
What about workshops, do you organize workshops all over country either?
Right now we are doing workshops at Lahore College for Women University (LCWU). Have done one at the Alauddin Academy in Lahore as well. We are working on conducting more in KPK. It all depends on the interest we receive from institutes or organizations. If someone in, say, Muzaffarabad wants us to have a workshop for them and they can get enough people to attend we will be happy to visit and give them a workshop.
So what are the pros and cons of work-at-home for women in Pakistan?
I can’t see anything but pros. You have flexible timings. You are working out of home. You commit to only as much work as you feel comfortable taking. You can take time off whenever you want to. Traveling with the family and going on vacations is not an issue because you can take your work with you wherever you go.
But yeah it can be hard for anyone anywhere because you have to struggle convincing people around you that being at home does not mean you are free. That working from home is a serious profession for you and you don’t like to be unnecessarily interrupted when you are busy on your computer. Teaching people to respect that takes a bit of an effort.
What resources would you recommend for women who want to start business from home?
Depends on what kind of business they are thinking of. If its digital services then they should definitely start from Elance/oDesk/Fiverr etc to gain experience and then venture out on their own. Social media plays a huge role in marketing but the most important of these is LinkedIn. Trust me … I have relied solely on LinkedIn for many years for finding work before going on to starting my own website.
For selling goods, Facebook is a great place. You can start with a group to understand your demographics and then build your page and website later.
Also, don’t underestimate the importance of a mentor. I could have never made it so far on my own without my mentor and now cofounder.
Would you like to give some advice to Pakistani women?
Don’t be a victim. Take a good look at your life, accept what can not be fixed and focus on what can be changed or improved. Dream big and do not listen to any naysayers. The first step to making dreams come true is to have the courage to dream them.