OPEN Forum 2019 drew hundreds of Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans to Santa Clara Convention Center in Silicon Valley on Saturday April 20, 2019. This year's conference featured a keynote by Karachi-born Mudassir Sheikha, co-founder of Careem ride-hailing service. In addition, there were sessions on artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, financial technology and entrepreneurship. Careem has recently been acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion. The attendees included entrepreneurs, technologists, business executives, investors, lawyers, accountants and others who make up the tech startup ecosystem of Silicon Valley.
Careem Co-Founder's Keynote:
Mudassir Shiekha, born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, gave the morning keynote. He talked about his personal and entrepreneurial journey and the challenges he faced along the way. His first hand experience of riding roof-tops of buses in Karachi stayed with him and eventually led to the choice of starting up a ride-hailing service to ease public transit problems in the MENAP region that covers Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan.
Mudassir Sheikha, Pakistani Co-Founder of Careem
The first challenge Mudassir Sheikha and his fellow co-founders Magnus Olsson and Abdulla Elyas faced was raising capital for their new venture. Although there is no dearth of capital in the Arabian Gulf, the risk capital in the region tends to flow to Silicon Valley and San Francisco startups like Uber rather than to local entrepreneurs in MEAP region. Initially the trio were turned down by all five Middle East investors they approached. Somehow, they were able to persuade one of them to relent and give them a term sheet that they accepted.
Audience at OPEN Forum 2019
The second challenge was lack of good maps that Careem drivers needed to provide efficient and reliable service to their customers. The approached Google but they were told the company is focused on markets in Europe and North America. MENAP region was not a priority for them. So Careem had to take it upon itself to develop more complete and reliable street level maps. "We not only had to build mapping infrastructure, we had to build our own places database because Google was not complete nor reliable," Sheikha told the audience. As of February 2019, Careem has mapped 45,000 miles of roads in MENAP region. In addition, Careem has also had build its payment system that accommodates cash payments.
Mudassir said that acquisition of Careem by Uber is not the end of his journey. Instead, it's a new chapter in his and Careem's lives. He sees great potential for Careem to serve a region with 700 million people. Only 2% of them afford Careem's service today but he sees the rest of the 98% as hid target. He sees delivery business with the growth of e-commerce as another major opportunity for Careem.
The panel discussion on the current state, the promise and the future impact of artificial intelligence (AI) featured 5 AI experts, including 3 Pakistani-Americans: Professor Ali Minai, Professor Irfan Essa and Batool Arhamna Haider. All three are from Karachi. Ali and Batool are both my fellow alumni of NED University of Engineering and Technology. Batool, the sole woman on the panel, works as a scientist at Amazon's AI group. Irfan Essa teaches Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia. Abbas Rafii and Ahmad Abdelkader, both CTOs of the Silicon Valley companies they founded, were the remaining two panelists.
Panelists said the artificial intelligence (AI) software today serves as tools to aid people in getting basic things done. Advances in sensor networks and availability vast amounts of data and neural networks will help advance machine learning as well as machine cognition and understanding.
The question going forward is whether AI will eventually be an entirely new autonomous species or serve to collaborate with humans in accomplishing higher level tasks in a variety of fields ranging from retail and manufacturing to education and health care. What eventually happens has huge implications for productivity and labor markets. Dr. Ali Minai used the example of Google translation of Urdu poet Ghalib's poetry to make the point that AI today lacks nuance.
Philz (Faisal) Jaber sat for a fireside chat with Omar Siddiqui in the afternoon. Born in Ramallah in Palestine, Faisal has become a fixture in San Francisco over decades. As an 8-year-old in Palestine he sold coffee beans door-to-door and spent afternoons at family gatherings where his grandma shared Turkish coffee.
Phil (Faisal) Jaber of Philz Coffee
Philz' is highly caffeinated coffee of choice in Silicon Valley. It is an expensive alternative to Starbucks and Pete's. Philz fame shot up after he served coffee at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's surprise wedding with Priscilla Chan. Here's how Forbes reported it:
"Everyone who arrived that Saturday afternoon, including the couple's parents, was taken aback when they saw Chan in a lace gown and the Facebook chief in a navy-blue suit. Everyone, that is, except Phil and Jacob Jaber. As the purveyors of Philz Coffee, San Francisco's alternative answer to Starbucks, father and son were among the few entrusted with Silicon Valley's biggest secret. On the day of the event they served their signature drinks, which were such a hit that Zuckerberg invited them to the postnuptial brunch the next day."
Hundreds of Pakistani entrepreneurs met for OPEN Forum 2019 held at Santa Clara Convention Center in Silicon Valley. The event featured a keynote by Karachi-born Mudassir Sheikha, co-founder of Careem ride-hailing service, which was recently acquired by Uber for $3.1 billion. In addition, there were session on artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, financial technology and entrepreneurship.