Humaira Ahmed | Locelle | S1 Ep2
Opening Doors Through Sheer Passion
In episode 2 of 20Mile’s season 1, we sat down with Humaira Ahmed, CEO and Founder of Locelle (/lōk-el/) - A location based women only social networking platform.
Humaira tells us her story, from being raised in Pakistan and challenging cultural norms to fit her vision, to moving to Canada with her family at a young age and her march towards empowering women entrepreneurs.
20Mile Podcast is designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio which conveys speakers’ emphasis and emotions not available on text. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. Please check the audio before quoting in print.
Mike: Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of the 20Mile Podcast with your hosts, myself, Mike Williams and Gabriel Barcante. We're really excited to chat today again about another founder's march. Today, we have Humaira Ahmed, founder and CEO of Locelle. Humaira lives in beautiful Victoria, BC. She's married with two kids, Zara, age four and Gea, age two, and she was born and raised in Pakistan in the city of Karachi. Did I say that correctly?
Humaira: That's right.
Mike: Humaira has a background in software engineering and apparently has the highest GPA in her class-
Mike: ... that she's quite proud of. Something that's pretty interesting about Humaira is she used to play cricket and was actually invited to play on the national team, which is pretty cool, pretty exciting. She also says one of her superpowers is largely due to cricket, which is her amazing hand-eye coordination and probably contributes to her second superpower, which is being fearless. Anytime someone's hitting a ball at your head at that speed and you're able to grab it with your bare hands, that's pretty fearless. So, we'd love to hear more about how you've translated that fearlessness into your entrepreneurial journey. So, at this time, I'll hand it to Gabe.
Gabe: Well, welcome, Humaira. Thanks for being here with us.
Humaira: Thank you so much.
Gabe: So, to get started, could you tell us a bit more about what Locelle does?
Humaira: Yeah. Locelle is a women-only, next generation social networking platform that connects women based on their interests, activities, and location. I've used machine learning to do that. Yeah. It's basically like a LinkedIn for women only to not only find business network, but also friends.
Gabe: Okay. Very good. What's your entrepreneur story so far, from where you started to where you are today with Locelle?
Humaira: Yeah. I mean, I'm a second-time founder. I guess it just kind of runs in my blood. All the characteristics of an entrepreneur are there, so taking initiative, just going after it, and being persistent with it. So, or a year and a half ago, I was coming off of mat leave with my second daughter, and I started to feel really isolated and that was leading to depression. I realized supposedly I have a good life, live in a beautiful home, husband, great husband, super supportive and two beautiful girls. I seem to have it all, but that wasn't the case because I'm ambitious and I am a working mom and I wanted to just get out there and just hang out with like-minded women, and that seemed to be harder than actually to find a date, actually.
I just realized that the friends that I had made over the years in Victoria ... I've now lived here for seven years ... there was an increasing disconnect because I wanted to talk about work and ambitious stuff and a lot of my friends decided to stay at home, which is great, but then you can't really relate to a lot of the life experiences. So, I started to just look around and see what was out there and how I could easily meet up with these women, and it was just challenging. There was no easy way to just ... Hey, it's Saturday morning. I just want to go for coffee, or Friday night. None of my friends are around. I want to go for a glass of wine, but also have meaningful conversations. This was one of those ideas that you just can't shake off, so I decided to pursue it.
Gabe: All right. You have a pretty interesting background as Mike mentioned, software engineering background, as well of course, which goes hand-in-hand with what you're doing today.
Humaira: Yeah. Yeah.
Gabe: I guess from Pakistan to where you are today in Victoria, what .... And you said you're also a second time founder, so just for context looking back, how did you get here, I guess, to Victoria itself as well as your first company?
Humaira: Yeah. Long story short, my family, when I was in Pakistan I was 20 actually. So 13 years ago, not too long ago ... people are usually surprised. But I was 20 doing software engineering, really killing it. And my family just decided to move because my brother wanted to move and my dad just thought, okay, if we're moving now I would rather take everybody with me. And so it was just a family decision and we moved to Toronto back in 2005 and at that time, interesting story actually, so I'm just doing stuff engineering and I got my credits transferred to York, I got into all schools like UFT and Ryerson. I picked York and got all my credits transfer. And so I was supposedly a third year student. I had done two years in Pakistan and I also did communication study. So, I enrolled in double majors.
What was interesting was in Pakistan our class is maybe like 30-40% women. In Toronto, I was the only girl in a class of around 60.
Humaira: Yeah. And maybe it was just the classes I had picked, but I was also in third year, right? So that kind of shows you how women may enroll in the first year, but the dropout rate is really high. So I was in third year and it was intimidating because coming from a different culture and just thinking Canada should be more progressive than that. It was not. It was the opposite from Pakistan. And so I had a really hard time. I did that for maybe eight months and that was it for me. I just could no longer do it. It was painful to go to class or different classes each time.
Mike: It makes a lot of sense now, right-
Humaira: It does, it does.
Mike: ... that you've created this social for women.
Humaira: I know. exactly.
Mike: I wondered where this came from.
Humaira: It's interesting, because even at that time I felt that social isolation, couldn't relate. Yeah, so I just decided to, well not drop out, but I just continued on with my communications and that was hard too because it was totally different for me. But then I thought, you know what? I was told all my life what I could do, what I couldn't do. I could do communications in Canada, like I totally could. And that's one of the good things that kind of came out of it, that actually, you know what, this is good. Now I can actually pursue what I want to do and just learn about cultures and communications. But it's really empowering in that I learned how to present and just getting the command of the language. So, that was great. And just learning about different types of peoples.
I'm really passionate about gender equity, equality, and also that comes from my background because I'm truly on a mission to change the dynamic. So yeah. Then, I worked in sales and marketing for, gosh, over a decade. I was working in Toronto. I met my husband online, very fitting. He's from Victoria, but he was living in Vancouver at the time. So this was back in 2009 when I met him and just continue to break stereotypes. So where I come from, my culture, again, I could only be with a Muslim Pakistani guy. And when I met my husband online, we just had this amazing connection and I decided that I was not going to marry a Pakistani Muslim guy because of how I was raised. I just didn't agree with a lot of the cultural stuff there. So, I basically told my parents that it was either going to be him or nobody.
And so they just had to let me do it.
Mike: How did that go?
Humaira: It went really well surprisingly. He's a good man and at the essence of it, it's about being a good person. So he lived in Vancouver at the time we met online, and somebody had to make the move and I wanted to be with him. And the condition was that I would have to be married. I just couldn't move. So hey, I came from Pakistan. I did so much in my life that I was like, "You know, this is peanuts. this is nothing. Walk in the park, I'll get married and move to Vancouver," which is what I did actually.
So I quit my job. I moved to Vancouver. We Lived together there for a year. So this was 2010 to 2011, and then I just realized Vancouver wasn't for me, just experiences. And so we used to come to Victoria so much that I fell in love and we moved here, just took a leap of faith. My husband got a job and I actually started my marketing company because at that time in 2011 there were no marketing jobs, like none.
And I was like, "Well, this is all I want to do. I'm not going to get into operations." So yeah, I founded my company and that's also ... I mean, if there's nothing out there for me, I'll just build it. I'll just create it. Yeah, so I actually worked with Viatec. I've worked with Camosun College, Starfish Medical. I worked with a lot of well-known companies here. And I did that for five or six years until I had my second daughter. That's when it started to hit me. I wanted to do meaningful work, work that if I'm leaving my daughters at home with a nanny or at preschool or daycare, the word better be amazing. It has to be worth it. But yeah. Also, just all of my life experiences, when I founded Locelle too one of the reasons was also that I realized that at time, social isolation, like every time I moved, because I moved around a lot, that was the biggest piece.
And I'm actually an ambivert. I'm not-
Mike: A which?
Humaira: Ambivert, so kind of a mixture of extrovert, introvert. So, it's not easy for me to get out there and make friends. And so I realized because I moved, that was a challenge, different careers, different sectors. It was always a challenge. So I decided I have a background in software engineering. I understand this software lifecycle enough to be able to start a tech company, and I'd done marketing for over 10 years as a job. So I just took that leap of faith and I founded my company.
Gabe: Yeah. So, you had built those skillset for both marketing and the software engineering on both sides, right?
Gabe: So I'm sure that helped a lot as well.
Humaira: Oh my gosh. Every day I'm so thankful, because I've had to do an MBA every week on a different topic since I founded my company. And even that was isolating, and you guys probably know this, but being an entrepreneur, it's such an isolating journey, because you look at social media and you go, "Wow, this person is doing fantastic. Oh my gosh, they're trailblazing," and you don't know the challenges they go through. And I've been through so many, but people still come up to me, like both women and men. They go, "Wow, you're amazing and you're inspiring."
And I go, "Well, yeah," but there's so much that happens behind the scenes-
... and you can relate, right? Like, even my husband, he's my number one fan and is super supportive, but a lot of times he just goes, "Why are you so worried about this? It'll be fine." And it's not. I mean, it will be if I work at it or work on it, but there's challenges that nobody understands but you or other entrepreneurs and founders who go through the same challenges. So, that's also been really, really isolating. And now actually through my journey, I really found my tribe. It's amazing how many people can relate, and they're supportive for that very reason too.
Mike: So, how many people work at Locelle?
Humaira: There's three right now.
Mike: Three. And then when you talk about your tribe, is that a team plus a network of people?
Humaira: It's more network of like-minded women around me. A lot of my mentors are male, a lot of advisors are male, which is fantastic, which is great because they have been supportive enough that I feel confident in what I'm doing. But also finding like-minded women, which is the premise of my platform ... For instance, even Nicole Smith of Flytographer or these amazing women from Microsoft in Vancouver, you know, Plenty of Fish's VP of Marketing and Product there. She's their employee number three actually. She's amazing. And just other women like me who are really ambitious and on a mission, right? So, just connecting with those women and yeah, that's what I meant by finding my tribe.
Mike: That's your tribe.
Mike: Very cool.
Gabe: For Locelle, are you guys starting in Victoria, Vancouver area?
Humaira: Yeah, we have user base in Victoria and Vancouver actually. We've had a few downloads from Mountain View, California.
Mike: Oh, cool.
Humaira: We're not there yet, because it's a location based platform. So just doing region by region just makes sense until, of course, we raise capital and can really support that global growth. So Victoria, Vancouver, but our business model is B2B2C, so I'm working with a lot of corporations. Thank you for RingPartner, but working with a lot of corporations to offer my platform to their women staff. So working with a lot of tech companies because tech companies, at the end of the day, they want to hire more women and they want an inclusive culture. But at large it's still very male dominant and not as inclusive. With my platform, not only can they say, "Well this is a social health benefit. You join our company, find a tribe within the company or outside."
But also it gives these women a safe space to connect with and talk about issues that they face and hopefully good stuff will come out of it. So with B2B it's great because then I get the user base as well as the economic buyer, right? Because I don't want to sell data, I don't want to go through this ad support model and the infrastructure of that. So, it just works really well. And we're working with Microsoft, also talking to SAP, Plenty of Fish, and a lot of women are basically, they're using our app right now. RingPartner in Victoria. There's Flytographer. I'm working with a lot of other companies, so both big and small.
Mike: When you mention issues, what are those issues that a white male like myself probably wouldn't understand or how do I be more supportive of that?
Humaira: Yeah, so it's a topic that I'm really passionate about based on just the experience. It's very topical, this whole like MeToo, Time's Up, He For She. It's so important about this gender equity piece and we know we have all these stats, right? Only 4% of female tech founders, only 13% of them have executive positions. So, it's still very male dominant and topical in that what's happening right now with the MeToo movements. Women are more than ever coming together to talk about the issues they face at work because you may be a very progressive tech company, but it's still very much a bro culture. And it's interesting because-
Mike: Did you say bro culture?
Humaira: Bro culture. it is.
Mike: Bro. it sounded like broke, or bro.
Humaira: Oh, bro, B-R-O, like a brother. Bro culture, yeah. Yeah, and it's kind of broke culture. And it's a lot of unconscious bias. It's just a lot of women can't do this because there's not enough role models, right? And so this whole gender equity piece is close to my heart, and tech companies ... I mean, you think of Uber, what they've gone through with the whole scandal thing and they've hired this person on the gender equity and diversity inclusion on the inclusion team. And if you notice now more and more companies are hiring for those positions, for gender equity and diversity inclusion because it's important. It's not about just gender, it's all about cognitive inclusion and bias.
So, it's this whole piece around making others, apart from a white male, making everybody else feel comfortable and you matter, your opinions matter, and not be shut off. I mean, that's kind of what I want to change even with my company. I mean, I have two women working with me. They're great people, but at the end of the day we've had many conversations around what the culture is going to be and how inclusive it's going to be. Even a little thing that you say could affect the other person, and I'm not going to be around forever, right? If I'm not at the office and you say something even small that's part of the bro culture, like for instance ... I don't know, like a small example is not talking to women about a text issue and just going straight to men, like, "Hey, you might be interested in learning this."
Like, but what about women? They're into HR and marketing. Like. no. So just changing that whole conversation and because I feel passionate, I want to start with my company. We're three right now, but we'll be over 10 next year.
Mike: Yeah, so you can really define those core values in the process.
Humaira: Yes, and just asking people, right? Like what is a good company culture mean to you? And it's a comfortable space, a positive space where everybody feels welcomed and that means gender, cognitive, and your experiences.
Mike: Did you read Sheryl Sandberg’s book?
Humaira: I skimmed through it, but yeah.
Mike: What did you think? Because as a guy there were some things in there that were, I thought, really enlightening, but I heard different things from women.
Humaira: Yeah, so I haven't fully read the book, but overall I definitely do agree with a lot of saying things like women leave before they actually have to leave. And I resonated with that because just two years ago I was coming off of mat leave and I was thinking, oh my gosh, maybe I should just get a job that just pays the bills. That's, again, very stereotypical, right? Like just get a job that pays the bills.
At the end of the day, if my daughter's sick she'ss want mommy and not daddy, because we spent that year together. I really thought about that. There were opportunities that I actually wanted to apply for, but they were, not progressive, but they were more like director of marketing in a tech company. And it would be really fitting, but I wasn't sure if I could do it because of the commitments I had at home and didn't want to do that full time job. So that did stop me. So I'm not going to lie about it. That was part of the reason why I kind of decided to ... I took this job for a short amount of time. It was just part time, not as challenging, but it quickly got boring and that's when it was more like, well, at the end of the day, who do I want to be?
You know, I want to be this woman, a good role model, who does good work, meaningful work, and can inspire my girls. Today, my daughter, four year old, she asked me, she's like, "Mom, what do you do?" And I just go, "I'm a CEO." It's a three people company, but sure, I'm the CEO. She's starting to talk about that stuff now. She wants to be a leader and it shows. She's so fearless and I just let her be because I don't want to stop her and be like, "No, don't talk like that." Anyway, that book has a lot of truth. But I feel like for women like myself, it's definitely more like you can still be that CEO. You can still define what your home life balance looks like, because my husband, he has an amazing job, but if I have to be away for work, he parents, and read the language, right? He's parenting, so just making sure that women are encouraged to take on those positions. Maybe it's part time, maybe you have flex time, whatever that may be. But let's not motherhood or any other life circumstances stop us.
I mean I have two girls and we've done a lot in the last 10 months alone. So, I'm so proud and I think if I can do it, other women can too.
Mike: Right. And before we started recording, you talked a little bit more about where that fearlessness comes from. Do you mind sharing that with everyone?
Humaira: Absolutely. So I was born and raised in Pakistan, Karachi. I was always told what I could do, what I couldn't do because women ... Things are changing though now, but this is a long time ago, over a decade ago or more. As a little girl it was this, "Well, Humaira, you can only be a doctor, a lawyer, scientist, or engineer. You can't be in media, you can't do anything else because you won't be respected." And it's such a suppressive male dominant culture that if you are in media you're going to be harassed. If you do get harassed, you basically asked for it because you knew that that was going to happen.
Humaira: So this is part of the deal, right? So this scares you so much. You're like, "Okay well these are good professions anyway. They pay well, so I'll just do that."
I was good at math and I'm actually going to touch on something, which I wasn't sure about, but I'll just go for it. I was 15 when I got engaged. It was an arranged kind of situation, engaged to a guy who was 12 years older, didn't like him. I'd barely seen him. But it was because the younger you are, the more adaptable you are. And here I am, super smart, aiming for software engineering, but I was going to get married, and I would cry every night, like every single night because I just wanted to escape that. And I was a child, 15 year old and the guy was 27 and so it was interesting because I would cry every night and I would just pray one thing, "God just let me escape this. I will do amazing things with my life," and we all talk about those things, right?
Like just get me out of this and I'll do this. So it's interesting. I went through, and then there was another round of engagement when I was 17. That was also a 12 year old to a guy, didn't like him, had barely seen him, and just in the idea of getting married, because hey, I am on my way to do software engineering. Like what? Anyways. So it was just going through all that stuff. I've had to just really fight back and stand up for myself even to my parents. And the reason, I guess, we didn't proceed with the marriage was the different reasons, but I did escape those, right? So, now even after going through those challenges, the roller coaster, I just go back to that 15 year old and be, "Humaira, you could be stuck with a man you didn't even like, have five kids, because that's what you do, and just be home."
Humaira: Here I am. The world is my freaking oyster. I can just do whatever I want and I'm in charge of my situation, which is also why I am so fearless. I could be that bad girl, stuck. And here I am. I really can do anything I want. And so that fearlessness definitely comes from my childhood. We mentioned about cricket. I used to play cricket and that was taken away from me when I was 13 just because girls don't play cricket. It's a boys game. Because I was the only girl, it was always like, well, it just doesn't look good as a society. So just trying to fight that and yeah. I just want to do things that are right and be a good role model for not just my girls, but other girls and women. If I can, after all this, do what I've been able to do, anybody can.
Mike: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. I've gotten to know you a little bit over the last six months or so, and I didn't know where that drive came from, but after hearing that story, it makes a lot of sense. It's like you have this opportunity to just remind yourself of it could be somewhere else, but I'm here, so take advantage and ——
Humaira: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
Mike: That's awesome.
Humaira: Thank you.
Gabe: You mentioned something about balancing how your husband can help with parenting as well.
Gabe: So are there aspects of your life that you find help you and your team in the day to day find that balance working and having those two young kids, a young family?
Humaira: Yeah, so we as a team, my husband and I, we're a team. We're in survival mode. We don't have a lot of family here. And the family that we do have, they're amazing when they're around, but they're traveling. Even right now, they're gone for seven weeks, so we don't really have lots of family, right? So we decided if I were to go on this journey with Locelle, we would have to be 50/50, you know? I would have to be away. I actually am in Ottawa next month. I've been in Vancouver a lot back and forth, and I'm gone for days at a time. So, having that support of my husband, he does have flexibility to work from home. But just being able to also take time off and just be present, and more than anything, we decided we wanted quality time, not quantity time.
So when we are with our kids we are really present and take the phones away. We have to do that, you know? And it's harder right now because startup grind, but just having those boundaries set. They're both in preschool, which is fantastic. So four full days, but Fridays are my days off with them. So, of course, periodically it'll do a little bit of work. But having that focused quality time with our kids, it means the world to us, both my husband and I. I actually say if you talk about stereotypical moms, like moms are usually more involved. He's their second mom. He just just is. And he enjoys his time. So yeah, just having a good partner I guess and just good role models around you. Yeah, you can be a woman, but you can also break all these stereotypes and be bad ass and run a tech company and actually do good things and be a good mom.
I shared on my Facebook, and you may have seen that, my four year old, she wants to go to space and she wants to be an engineer, which is amazing. And she knows ... Oh my gosh. Actually I, two days ago on the weekend, recorded ... She talked about going to space, what she was going to do there. And she knows the names of moons on Jupiter. I don't remember them. She knows them, which is fantastic, but it's just the fact that my husband and I, we spend so much quality time with them that yes, we struggle a little bit in terms of our time, but we're also very proud of how we're raising our family. So yeah, it's busy. It's what it is, survival, but it's good. It's really good. It feels good when our daughters talk to us. Even my two year old, she wants to be a leader too. And I think it just comes from the fact that when I'm gone, mommy's gone because she's a leader and she's doing good things and they take that in, right? So if mommy's gone, she's gone because she's doing good stuff. yeah.
Mike: It's awesome.
Gabe: Yeah. Like being raised in that environment, of course encourages her and helps her see what she can do as well.
Humaira: Yeah. And it's interesting actually. I'll just quickly mention this. When I was growing up, I didn't have those role models growing up because my mom never worked. She still doesn't work. A lot of my aunts, like nobody worked, right? So, it was just like I was going to be a housewife and just entertain a man and raise kids. And I just never liked that, because I looked at my dad. He was a banker, and he would come home after a long day at work. Food would be ready for him. We had three maids growing up, so my mom had it pretty good, but it was just like everything revolved around him. We all had to sit at dinner table nine o'clock, watch the news with him, and just be quiet and just eat.
Not that I wanted that kind of presence like my dad did, but if I had a choice, even as a kid, I was like, "I want to be like my dad and not like my mom."
So I think just even knowing that without having those role models, here's who I want to be and just persevering, and now I am kind of where I want to be. And just being that role model. That's what I hear, you know? If you don't have those role models growing up, it's even harder because you can't relate. So I've had to do a lot. I've had to work harder, but also just look at people who have done it and not people who haven't.
Gabe: And for Locelle right now, you guys have started, you guys are growing. What's your main challenge that you find or that you have overcome since you've started?
Humaira: I think my biggest fear was will women actually use it. You know when you do customer discovery it was ... I was doing customer discovery, because I've done two VAP programs on the biotech. I'm still part of it and the other New Ventures BC, and I was all about customer discovery and I wanted to make sure that what I'm building and the women who are saying that they needed this, they would actually use it because we live in this time where customers will tell you all sorts of things, but the reality, you face the music when the time comes to use it, whether they use it or not in the ways that they've said that they would.
And it's been amazing. So, the biggest challenge for me was just that fear of whether women would use it. The fact that we have women from SAP, Microsoft, Facebook using our platform speaks volumes. And so that was the biggest kind of challenge that I had to make sure that I'm ... Because I'm spending so much time, right? There's tons of sweat equity and no salary. So just making sure that we were good there on the customer discovery side and actually product market, product market validation, and we've overcome that. And it's growing every single day and I haven't been focused on that right now. Also, the fact that our user base is growing every day, it's just referral.
Gabe: Yeah, and there is a great point there. A lot of people, they say, "Don't look at what people say, look at what they do."
Gabe: And that goes double for user behavior.
Gabe: You send a survey to say, "Oh yes, I'll do this, this and this." Then, when the time comes, then you know.
Humaira: Absolutely, yeah. So, it's pretty exciting.
So, if you were to start, well let’s go with Locelle today, what would you change?
Humaira: Can't say ... what would I change? Oh gosh, I would, I would have more of a runway
Gabe: Where the runway? Did you guys raise money or are you bootstrapping right now?
Humaira: Actually, I've decided to raise money.
Humaira: We're going to do our seed rounds the end of this year. So I'm now focused on fundraising most of my time, but I would make sure that I had worked enough with my marketing company to have an extra runway. Now, I'm fine, like my runway, I'm fine for at least another quarter. But just to even bootstrap it, just a little bit of planning there would've been good, because I've had months where I've worked 70 hours a week just because I had to make sure that we have the cashflow that we needed. So yeah, just a little bit of planning. That would be the biggest thing that I would do.
Gabe: All right.
Mike: All right, well that kind of wraps it up. I just want to take time to thank Humaira for your time today.
Humaira: Thank you.
Mike: It was really great to sharing your experience and really going deep with a lot of your story, which I think will be great for the listeners to hear. So, we'd like to thank the listeners for tuning in. Be sure to check out our website at 20mile.co and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Instagram @20Mileco. Until then, keep marching on.