OPEN Silicon Valley:
An Organization on the March
OPEN SV president Umair Khan talks
about fostering strategic partnerships between Silicon Valley
entrepreneurs and Pakistan.
By Zunaira Durrani
Silicon Valley chapter members and volunteers enjoy
working and playing cricket together. Picture taken
at a recent match held in Gilroy
In 1998, six Pakistani entrepreneurs
in Boston found themselves in conversation about their daytime
pursuits frequently. Linking the Pakistani professional
community in the United States with the entrepreneurial
environment around the group became an ambition. Following
twelve months of informal meetings, the group of six founded
the Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs of North America,
From Boston, OPEN went coast to coast as the ambition snowballed
into a full-fledged organization with a charter. Volunteers,
who to this date are the pulse of OPEN, enrolled and encouraged
likeminded colleagues to get onboard. OPEN found itself
filling a void for bright young Pakistani minds in business,
technology, telecom and other sectors vying for a piece
of the entrepreneurial action.
With chapters in Houston, New England, New York, Washington
DC, and Silicon Valley, OPEN will be heading East with a
new addition: Dubai. OPEN is working with institutions locally
and globally to offer Pakistanis a path to innovation and
success. A recent $50,000 contribution to the MIT Entrepreneurship
Center has brought it one strategic step closer to forging
lifetime ties and knowledge exchange between Pakistan and
On June 16, 2007, OPEN Silicon Valley will hold its fourth
annual Forum in Palo Alto, CA. Here, Silicon Valley chapter
president Umair Khan talks about the opportunities in store.
Q: How did OPEN Silicon Valley evolve?
Umair: Back in early 2001, the journey for OPEN Silicon
Valley began when friends from Boston and MIT approached
Salman Akhtar and me about OPEN. They were narrating their
positive experience, saying that they needed East Coast
to West Coast transference and presence. We got together
a group of charter members and Open Silicon Valley was formed
in June 2001.
Q: Does OPEN work
with other organizations targeting Pakistani-American working
Umair: Our focus is the Pakistani American business community,
particularly the entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs
within that community. The broader community benefits and
the Pakistanis back home benefit in the broader perspective.
But the focus has been narrow compared to other Pakistani-American
organizations. We work with several other groups for instance
IOPWE which is focused on women. Their demographic is part
and parcel of our demographic. Then there are other organizations
that are working for the betterment of the Pakistani community
and Pakistan. We, true to our name, are open to partnering
with people and organizations that want well for the Pakistani
Q: What are the opportunity
areas OPEN is eyeing in the future?
Umair: The interesting thing is that OPEN continues to draw
its strength from voluntary participation. Certainly, looking
at the last six years, how much or how little OPEN has achieved
depends on your perspective. It has achieved a sense of
stability and regularity, which is difficult to achieve
in a decade of existence. Some of the highlights are events
like the OPEN Forum which have gained in stature.
I see the strategic initiative we have launched with the
MIT Entrepreneurship Center as a major milestone in OPEN
growing up. OPEN has sponsored the MIT Entrepreneurship
Center by giving $50,000 and becoming a lifetime sponsor.
In this way, we are engaging the Center within the Sloan
School to work towards improving entrepreneurs within the
Pakistani-American community and within Pakistan. As a direct
result of that, the Head of the Entrepreneurship Department
at MIT has traveled to Pakistan twice to have day-long workshops
on entrepreneurship, venture capital, CEO summits -- all
of that in Karachi. This is the first time that an MIT professor
is teaching there.
All I can say is that OPEN’s potential pales its achievements,
and it is this potential that drives us all. The great thing
about potential is you will never succeed in achieving it,
but you will achieve far more than what’s possible.
That’s true of me or you as a person, that’s
true of OPEN as an organization, and of Pakistan as a country.
Q: What is the nature
of OPEN’s relationship with the government and the
business sector in Pakistan?
Umair: OPEN is apolitical and a secular professional organization.
The relationship with the Pakistani government is an open
dialogue on all issues of business and commerce. So whenever
there is an opportunity to engage the government on business-related
matters whether its through our events, annual forum or
in private meetings, OPEN charter membership takes the opportunity
to hear what the government has to say and the government
in turn listens to what we have to say to them. And that
dialogue has always been positive starting in 2004 when
we had Minister of IT Awais Leghari speak for the first
time at the OPEN Forum. Since then, the dialogue has been
In terms of presence in Pakistan, we have started to think
of OPEN as standing for Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs,
and not just for Entrepreneurs in North America. We will
be opening foreign chapters starting with one in Dubai.
Likewise, we are talking to people in Pakistan. TiE Pakistan
exists and it is a very good organization. We are working
with the right people in Pakistan to put together a bridge
between Silicon Valley Pakistanis and US Pakistanis.
The business community in Pakistan is aware of OPEN and
it makes sense for OPEN to have an office there. Whether
it’s a liaison office or a full-fledged chapter, that
remains to be seen.
Q: Who are the
hot shots to watch out for at the upcoming OPEN Forum?
Umair: We have an eclectic lineup. One of the big attractions
is Syed Babar Ali, the founder of LUMS who is extremely
well respected in the Pakistani business and education circles.
Then Sophia Qureshi of Al Jazeera is one to watch, as part
of a theme on alternative paths to success. We also have
Monis Rahman who created Naseeb Networks. He is a fantastic
story of a Silicon Valley resident repatriating to Pakistan
and then creating this whole world online. Another one is
a Pakistani named Khalid Saiduddin who is a runner up to
the 100K MIT business plan competition -- the first time
for a Pakistani to reach that high up in the competition.
His company is called SaafWater, a social entrepreneurship
project addressing the number one need of Pakistan fulfilled
by this young student. He will be part of this entrepreneurial
idol with two other companies pitching to VCs who, like
Simon Cowell, will shred them to pieces (humanely, of course)
and we’ll see who survives. No entrepreneurs will
be harmed in the process!