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Maria Umar: The Pakistani Digital Dynamo Breaking Gender Barriers Online

Maria Umar: The Pakistani Digital Dynamo Breaking Gender Barriers Online

Nani PK |

By Nyle Omar Mian

Maria Umar, a trailblazing figure in the digital arena, serves as the visionary founder and president of Women’s Digital League (WDL). Boasting over a decade of committed service in the online digital outsourcing sector, Maria has played a pivotal role in propelling WDL's mission to offer Pakistani women digital training and transformative computer-based opportunities.

Notably, WDL stands as one of the pioneering official partners of Facebook in Pakistan, while also forging impactful collaborations with UpWork, the largest freelancing marketplace, for its Social Impact Project. Currently serving as a Gender and Financial Inclusion Consultant for Kuunda, a fintech venture backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Maria continues to redefine the contours of women's participation in the digital economy.

Maria's illustrious career includes the successful implementation of the first-ever Digital Livelihood Training Project (DLTP) funded by the World Bank in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KP). The project, focused on teaching women the art of ‘e-lancing,’ garnered widespread acclaim and was embraced by the provincial government, scaling its impact. As an advisor to the Punjab Information Technology Board's TechHub initiative, she plays a pivotal role in shaping the digital landscape for youth in Pakistan.

Recognized as a thought leader by Ashoka Changemakers, Maria's achievements extend to winning the Early Stage Award in Changemakers' ‘Women Powering Work’ competition. Google Pakistan has spotlighted WDL for its innovative use of technology, showcasing Maria's commitment to pushing the boundaries of digital innovation.

Her influence reaches beyond borders, with international media giants such as Mashable, Forbes, Virgin, Ashoka, Express Tribune, Dawn, BBC, and CNBC featuring her as an innovative leader. A strong advocate for gender inclusion, Maria champions the cause on global platforms, including the US Embassy's flagship event, Azm-e-Alishaan.

As the first Chairperson of the Think Tank Committee at WeCreate Center, Maria continues to shape policies that foster gender equality. Her role as Project Manager and Consultant for Sustainable Business Practices in WomenX, a World Bank initiative, reflects her commitment to advancing economic empowerment for women. 

Maria's impact extends into the sphere of education, where she actively encourages girls to pursue STEM fields from an early age. Her noteworthy contribution includes introducing the Technovation Challenge for Girls to Pakistan, further solidifying her status as a pioneer in fostering innovation and inclusion.

This new series of interviews by Nani aims to shed the spotlight on amazing Pakistani women who share their insights about work, motherhood, and more, providing a platform for their stories to inspire and empower.

Can you share a specific instance in your career where you went against the conventional wisdom and took a bold decision?  

Career-wise I don't think I’ve ever taken a bold decision, but a lot of people ask how I transitioned from teaching in a school to becoming an entrepreneur in the fintech industry, thinking that it just fell in my lap! The bold decision was probably not doing a regular job and focusing on my sole proprietorship in the social enterprise I formed. Even though I was teaching in the school for three years, they let me go when I was having my first child; which perhaps meant that I was a liability given my pregnancy. Later, I somehow stumbled upon online work, which worked out really well for me. This eventually made me stop working in a formal manner and inspired me to do my own thing which, mind you, was a huge risk but it made me the Maria Umar that I am today. 

Another thing which I think was a bold decision was raising my voice for more inclusive spaces for women over ‘mannels’ and ‘manfrences,’ calling out institutions and organizations. Even though I may have become a bit of an outcast, I never regretted it. I followed my values. It made me happy raising my voice for people who were not able to do it for themselves. This made me acquainted with a different group of people who were more aligned with my values.

In a world with certain expectations for women in the workplace, what challenges did you face while forging your own path, and how did you overcome them?

This was the worst! Teaching wasn’t hard because it was all women and we were teaching children. WDL was smooth-sailing because I was working from home and primarily working with women, hence that didn’t pose as much of a problem. But the problem came when I went out and started working in the IT and development sector. I have a big personality. I was a tom boy growing up (I still am), therefore genders don’t matter to me. I think that posed some problems. People can take it the wrong way if you’re open and frank without any submissive shyness. Initially though, men I would interact with in a professional setting would message me at odd hours and attempt to chat me up. It was quite off-putting. I guess studying in a co-ed school gave me a lot of confidence to deal with men and it helped in setting boundaries and protecting myself. It does take a toll though. But the way I dealt with it is by being straightforward and drawing the line early on. I built a reputation for myself for being ‘rude,’ it kept the creeps away and it has helped me a lot. Even though let me add, I’m not a rude person in real life!

Another thing that I’d like to mention here is that a lot of women – me included – suffer terribly from Imposter Syndrome. I have to consistently revert back to friends who’ve seen my progress and my journey for emotional validation. I think me not feeling ‘good enough’ has stemmed from working in the IT sector where a majority of my colleagues are males. Being taken seriously takes quite a bit of effort and I still struggle with it from time to time. 

Balancing a successful career and personal life, especially as a mom, can be challenging. How have you managed to strike a balance between your professional and personal responsibilities?

You know what? Men never get asked that question: how do you manage being a dad, a husband and the CEO…think about it. But to answer your question, I’m not the best at both, sometimes my work will suffer and sometimes my motherly duties will excel and vice versa. The balance tips every now and then – for everyone. It’s a see-saw. I play the role of the dad and the mother, both, apart from being a career-woman who has to put food on the table for her kids.

If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?

I would tell my younger self to just breathe and relax, and to know that you'll be OKAY. There’s a Divine Plan for you – just be a good person, don’t give in to any temptations to hurt those that hurt you. To remain kind and open-hearted and that God is watching over you at all times. Also, I’d tell my younger self to enroll in short courses because they really, really help later on.

What's the most unexpected skill or hobby you've picked up along your career journey?

I started out with a degree in English Literature, and I barely passed. I don't know if I remember any of Shakespeare’s works [Laughs]. My career took a different direction. I ended up starting my own social enterprise, getting involved in women economic development through tech and then becoming a project manager for the World Bank programs, apart from becoming a gender and inclusion specialist in fintech!

These are all things I've picked up on the way. I’ve always been very curious: I always asked a lot of why’s. That ‘why’ element eventually brought me to economic development and entrepreneurship. I would just reach out to people on LinkedIn who were into tech and talk to them, and ask them why they were doing what they’re doing. Due to this, I picked up things here and there and somehow it all came together to bring me to the point that I am today. It helps to ask questions. And it truly helps to remain consistently curious throughout one’s life.

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