Pakistani entrepreneurs flourish in the U.S.

Kazi Mannan standing outside his restaurant (© Kazi Mannan)
(© Kazi Mannan)

Immigrants come to the United States from every part of the world, and many from Pakistan have pioneered a variety of ventures in their new home. Here are three recent success stories.

Feeding the homeless

Kazi Mannan was inspired to feed the homeless in Washington, so in 2014 he started the Sakina Halal Grill. At his restaurant, anyone experiencing homelessness can receive a hot meal without paying. Anyone who can pay for food, does.

But when his regular paying customers stayed home during the pandemic, Mannan had to close the restaurant. When it looked like he might have to close for good, a friend suggested a fundraiser to keep the business going.

Within a matter of days, contributors pledged double the initial goal. People around the world contributed to keep the restaurant running so Mannan could continue to feed those in need.

Because of the donations, the Sakina Halal Grill remains open for anyone who needs a hot meal. Mannan hopes to inspire others to open similar restaurants in all 50 states and the rest of the world, starting with his home country of Pakistan.

“It’s not just a restaurant; it’s a mission,” he said. “I want to be able to convince other restaurants in areas where there are a lot of homeless communities” to help those most vulnerable.

Connecting cultures through cafes

Khalida Brohi won praise speaking out against honor killings in Pakistan. She’s been recognized twice in Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” for her social entrepreneurship and was an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow in 2014.

Sughar, Brohi’s nongovernmental organization, empowers girls and women in tribal and rural communities to become leaders for women’s rights.

A member of the Brahui indigenous tribe of Pakistan, Brohi started Sughar when she was 16, after a friend was murdered for falling in love with a man outside of marriage.

“A custom that kills did not make any sense to me,” Brohi said during a 2015 TedTalk. “I knew I had to do something about it this time. I was not going to cry myself to sleep. I was going to do something — anything — to stop it.”

Brohi also started social business ventures in the United States, where she lives with her husband.

Chai Spot, a restaurant venture Brohi started that connects Americans with Pakistani culture, has locations in New York and Sedona, Arizona. Brohi donates half of the restaurants’ profits to scholarships and grants for women in rural Pakistan.

Selling shoes and supporting communities

Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali met in Okara, Pakistan, and dreamed of starting their own business together. In 2012, they launched Markhor, a company to sell leather dress shoes made by artisans from their hometown.

In 2015, the pair were accepted into the Y Combinator’s accelerator program, a U.S. private venture designed to help startups like theirs. Qasim and Ali moved to California, where they continued to work on their designs.

“Language was a barrier, background was a barrier, no money, no right education — all of those things,” Qasim said in a 2020 interview. “We were incredibly lucky.”

While in California, they developed a plan for another shoe company, Atoms, after observing Silicon Valley workers’ street style. Qasim and Ali moved their operations to New York City in 2018. There, they sold invite-only access to their product through their website.

They successfully built a 40,000 person waitlist. With that kind of popularity, the pair were able to attract investor interest and to launch their retail business publicly in 2019.

“The ultimate desire is to build Atoms into a company that matters,” said Ali. “It’s not just being able to make great product, but how we can do it over and over again and how we can do better and better.”