Resilient, hard working and optimistic, Shan Rizvi came from a working class background, but beat the odds after facing countless Obstacles. Today Shan is successful doing what he loves, solving problems using technology. He has co-founded with investors based in Sweden, commercially successful startups, like Pencil News and Just Ads. Sana Zehra sits down with the visionary to talk about his tech companies and factors that shaped him into becoming what he is today

Your journey is quite interesting and inspiring; you broke all the barriers to achieve success. What drove you?

Going to Finland at the age of 18 was a transformational experience. It was like going from 0 to 1 with an onslaught of new responsibilities that taught me a lot. Being the only South Asian student also made me interact with other international and exchange students, interactions that gave me a new perspective.

For the next five years, I took literally every possible opportunity to spend a semester abroad, with every new place offering a chance to start anew on some level.

Tell us about your two companies, Just Ads and Pencil News.

I started my entrepreneurial career as a search engine marketing consultant but knew from the onset that while it was lucrative, it was repetitive to the point of being depressing. There was a need to take a step back and re-think what the same process might look like in a post-AI world. In that future, running state-of-the-art campaigns will not be so painful; it’ll be Just Ads.

The time to get super rich from cryptocurrencies is probably over

Pencil News stemmed from my frustration at the half-hearted support for Urdu in the digital realm. The largest newspapers displayed Urdu text in the form of images to preserve the Nastaliq font, a hack rendered unnecessary long ago. There were many amazing apps that I used daily, so it was jarring to realize that the technology that most of them are based on isn’t available in Urdu. With artificial intelligence on the horizon, the technology gap between languages seemed to be widening further, so Pakistani languages have some catching up to do and we’re working on that.

What made you come up with these names?

Kristoffer, one of our board members and co-founders, came up with the name Just Ads and it just clicked with everyone.

Pencil was more deliberate. While we were working on natural language processing and machine learning applications for Urdu, on the surface, we were a news aggregation app. That made it more important for the name to reflect our true ethos: using technology to enable people to create and consume content, like a pencil once upon a time.

What innovation are you most excited about at the moment?

Self-driving cars. It is amazing that they are less than 3 years away. Imagine being able to sit in a car in Karachi, set location to Gwadar, and work or enjoy the sights throughout the way there without having to drive. (Yes, I’m quite sure it’ll work in Pakistan too)

What development do you see in technology startups soon?

Not sure how soon it will be, but eventually, the cost of tablets or similar devices will be so low that the government will only have to maintain an up-to-date digital curriculum and ensure that every child in the country has access to such a device, like an identity card. Adults will be able to use the same devices to access government services, continuing education, and vocational training.

You talk about a turning point in your life when you attended that prestigious school, do you think attending that school helped you?

Oh, without a shred of doubt. Up until O-Levels, it was a foregone conclusion that I would pursue higher education in Pakistan. It was at the Lyceum that I saw people pursuing higher education abroad so actively; it encouraged me to pursue the same.

(My parents) gave me existential puzzles and questions that frustrated me but also got me in the habit of finding my own answers

It also gave me a chance to get to know people from a diverse set of backgrounds, which prepared me well for the life ahead.

Do you think kids from middle SES (socioeconomic status) should attend these “prestigious schools” or do you think that it can result in social awkwardness or isolation for them?

Prestigious or not, kids should attend schools that have good teachers, good extra-curricular opportunities, and a socio-economically diverse student body.

Light and easy

How would you define the colour blue to someone blind?

Light is a wave and wavelength determines colour. Blue, for example, has a shorter wavelength than both Red and Green. The sky is blue, and the oceans are blue, which might be why it’s associated with the calmness and serenity of nature but we’re not even sure if the same colour appears same to all of us, let alone how it makes us feel.

What does love sound like?

Love sounds like a laugh, a moment in which two or more people are bound by a shared understanding of something amusing.

Whose brain would you like to have had?

Easy, Albert Einstein.

If you could commit one crime without ever getting caught?

Travel to countries without a visa

Worst purchase you ever made?

Nokia N900 rather than the iPhone in 2007; it had a Unix terminal!

What’s the most fun you’ve ever had?

My last year of university for sure, one semester in Barcelona, another in Rotterdam, while having a remote part-time job to pay for the travel and entertainment.

What would you say to students on their graduation?

The world is changing, presenting new threats and opportunities. You should know the basics of artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, climate change, block chain, clean energy, and other emerging trends. You should also be able to work efficiently in a team with people from different genders, personalities, cultures, religions, professions, expertise etc. You can either complain about how difficult things are in Pakistan, or you can solve those problems competently and earn love, respect and wealth. If one problem is too big to solve, break it down into very small chunks, and if that’s not possible, look for another problem; there is no lack of those, right?

Whether middle or upper SES, kids can learn a lot from being exposed to diversity early on. Any social awkwardness is temporary, a source of learning, and might even be the antidote to isolation. Don’t hurt anyone, and try to be kind; your awkwardness might be more accepted than you think, today more than ever.

What role did your parents play in where you at today?

They gave me existential puzzles and questions that frustrated me but also got me in the habit of finding my own answers.

What’s your typical day like?

I wake up around 7 A.M., drink two glasses of water and try to avoid looking at my smartphone for 10 minutes before jumping into phone calls. Because of the time difference, in Sweden it’s 5 P.M. there at that time.  After the morning meetings, I freshen up and clean my work space if needed, while reviewing the most important goals to accomplish that day. Then I spend a few hours on related tasks, especially those that must be done by the end of day in Sweden and Pakistan.

Evenings are for reading, watching, listening, thinking and writing; sometimes for fun, sometimes for learning. But whenever possible, it’s preferably to hang out with a close friend and talk about something fun.

Why aren’t more women in this field?

Because for a long time, people have held misperceptions regarding gender that led them to perceive engineering as a field somehow more suitable for men. For example, I recently interviewed a candidate whom I asked this question and he laughed condescendingly before saying that women don’t make good engineers. Even if there is a minority of people who hold such thoughts, it must make a pretty uninspiring work environment.

Cryptocurrencies are here to stay but there are so many speculative factors involved that risk is high and it’s probably unwise to invest right now, except an amount you wouldn’t mind losing. The time to get super rich from cryptocurrencies is probably over though.

Block chain is more interesting, but there are too many wantrepreneurs and hyped projects. Stay away from ICOs, if you can resist the temptation.

What are some of your favourite apps out there and why do you like them?

Music-streaming app Spotify is the gold standard, because it’s evident in every part of the app that the developers care about user experience.

Any food delivery app, because I don’t like to cook.

Students should learn about the basics of artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, climate change, block chain, clean energy, and other emerging trends

Good Times


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