Brandeis International Business School

037: Finding Your Voice & Doing Something That Matters

Kalsoom Lakhani is the Founder and CEO of Invest2Innovate, supports and unleashes the potential of young entrepreneurs in growing markets like Pakistan. She's also partner at I2I Ventures, Invest2Innovate's early stage investment fund for Pakistan, and the country's first female-founded institutional fund. She's trained young entrepreneurs and changemakers in Kosovo, Nepal, Cambodia, Ireland, Bangladesh, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Kalsoom is a third culture kid, which means that she spent most of her developing years outside of the country she was born in and has picked up on all different cultures. She lived in Bangladesh during elementary school and Pakistan during middle and high school. A third culture kid can feel like they belong everywhere and also belong nowhere, so their identities can be hard to pin down. This plays into how their identity develops as well.

From the Dorm Room

Kalsoom knew that she was going to go to the U.S. for university. It was really important to her parents that that happened. She applied to eight schools, with her top choice being Northwestern. She got in, but her dad didn't want me to go to film school.

In high school she was always saying, "I'm going to go to film school. I'm obsessed with film. This is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.” While her dad didn’t want her to go, he did promise her, "If you still want to do this after undergraduate, then I will support whatever you want to do."

Kalsoom had a family friend that went to the University of Virginia. She showed her the yearbook, Corks and Curls, at UVA. And that was the moment she made the decision to go there.

Going to college, she thought, “I'm going to do something creative.” And then, her very first class was a Comparative Politics 101 class, and she was sold from that moment. She became a Foreign Affairs major. Every single class she could eat, breathe and sleep was in the foreign policy of politics.

“You feel like you have to have all the answers when you're graduating. And I feel, at least, I thought I did, and I felt like that was kind of what was being told to me by society, like I need to know what I need to do. I need to know where I'm going with my life. And I think that's kind of the biggest lie and the biggest myth that someone can say to you. I think it's great to have an idea and have passions, but I think we are dynamic as humans. We are ever-changing, and the world is ever-changing around us.”

Kalsoom didn't work right out of college. She was on a student visa, which severely limits your options. You have to either get your OPT, or Optional Practical Training, or work permit to work for a year. And then, ideally, get sponsored. One of her teachers suggested to her, “If you feel like you really want to do foreign policy, why not apply for graduate schools?"

She got into George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs straight out of undergrad, where she ended up interning for a number of different places in DC. Washington was great for someone who wanted to get into politics.

To the Boardroom

In her last semester, Kalsoom started to do conflict resolution, which is what she had started to focus on in graduate school, and did a lot of work on counterterrorism. Conflict resolution at this time was really synonymous with counterterrorism.

She ended up getting hired by a defense contracting firm after graduate school, and then going straight into being an analyst right afterwards.

"For me, at least, my one biggest lesson was that your path is not linear."

When she graduated from college, she went straight to graduate school to explore foreign policy. It was the reason she moved to Washington DC. The common thread through everything was that she wanted to move things, to make an impact, and she really thought that that was her avenue to do that.

Her work in counterterrorism was, unfortunately, overrun with toxic masculinity. She was one of the youngest and one of the only women analysts in her division, and she started to realize she wasn’t being seen or heard for what she could bring to the table.

That was the beginning of her diverging from this path she thought she was supposed to take. She was the daughter of a serial entrepreneur, and one thing she always learned from him is that if you have an idea, you need to just go for it.

One day, Pakistan was on the cover of Newsweek for being the most dangerous place on Earth. Kalsoom was so incensed by how unfair that title was. It did not reflect all the nuances of what she knew of her home country. She was really unhappy at work, sitting in the back seat of a car with her dad, and she said to him, "I can't believe that this is the cover. This is bullshit." Her dad replied, "Well, what are you going to do about it?"

So Kalsoom started a current affairs blog on Pakistan, which become her avenue for creativity. She wrote every night, doing an analysis of what was happening in the news in Pakistan. She covered filmmakers, and artists and all the voices you weren't hearing about in the news. Then she realized that it was starting to become this platform, and suddenly she was speaking for the BBC and a number of other outlets.

That was what started her on the path into entrepreneurship. She switched her day job and moved into the venture philanthropy space, which is where the inspiration behind I2I came from.

She realized that there was this hidden opportunity that no one was talking about. Everyone was putting money into the same countries, India, Brazil, Mexico and East Africa. No one was talking about countries like Pakistan, or Nigeria or Vietnam, these places where the potential was so high, where there were so many young people and so many challenges to address. But no one was working there because it was too high risk and too hard to navigate.

Saying yes to something that was uncomfortable, and saying yes to what are you going to do about it, and then doing something about it created this avenue that she never knew existed. There was so much out there, creatives and artists, and it was almost as if she were tapping back into 17-year-old Kalsoom who wanted to be a filmmaker, and she remembered that there was so much more out there.

The Entrepreneurial Edge

Every week, we highlight one piece of advice for aspiring, struggling, and successful-but-want-to-be-even-more-successful entrepreneurs:

“Say yes to things that feel uncomfortable, and travel and get out there. Even if it's just going to a different city or getting a different perspective, making yourself a little bit more uncomfortable than what you're used to because you always find inspiration and potential for creativity in those in those moments of discomfort. And that's the big thing when you're coming out of college, you're told this very top down way you have to do things. And I think that's not true.”

“I really knew very much from the get-go that I really needed people to support me, to advise me, to tell me what I didn't want to hear. And I think that's what's really important is you don't want to have an echo chamber around you. You don't want people telling you how amazing you are. You want people that are going to challenge you and be critical of you in a constructive way.”


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