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This interview was originally published on Aman Ki Asha (Peace Destination).

“Conversations and friendships will change mindsets”

Anurag Maloo facilitating the Startup event in Lahore recently.

There is an almost palpable glow on his face as I get him to talk about Pakistan, his friends in Lahore and Islamabad, the streets, cars and autowallahs there. Meet 25-year old Anurag Maloo, Regional Manager South and Central Asia for Startup Weekend, a global organization that fosters entrepreneurship and grassroots leadership by building on the power of communities.

Anurag has successfully organised and facilitated Startup Weekends in Lahore, Islamabad, Delhi and Jaipur recently. He has visited Pakistan twice – in November 2012, and more recently in March 2015 as part of Startup Weekend Lahore at LUMS. These experiences have led him to initiate positive change in his own way. A former Teach for India Fellow, he reaffirms his love for Pakistan’s people and culture.

How did your first visit to Pakistan happen?

Anurag Maloo: I first visited Islamabad as an Indian Youth Delegate for a South Asian Youth Conference on Peace, Education and Sustainable Development in 2012, representing my initiative, The Family of Global Volunteeers. We travelled on the ‘Sada-e-Sarhad’ Delhi-Lahore Dosti (Friendship) bus and the journey was memorable. I was surrounded by much initial scepticism.

Friends advised me to travel with caution. Some remarked that I would not return safe from the land of ‘bomb-blasts’. My family was very worried, but after I called them and they talked to my friends from Pakistan, they felt quite comfortable. Of course, I also had friends who were jealous at my getting a chance to visit Pakistan. Once I crossed the border, I never had a feeling that I wasn’t home. To me, then, Pakistan was no different from India.

What memories do you hold dear from this visit?

AM: I was especially overwhelmed by the hospitality and warmth of people in Pakistan when they learnt that we had come from India. I explored much of Islamabad and fell in love with the amazing roads, the beautifully decorated trucks, the street food and old style architecture. It was all about youth, Bollywood, music, qawwalis, art and culture in our discussions with Pakistani friends.

I returned to India on the day of Diwali and was flooded with greetings from friends across the border. That day I realized, “These friendships will last forever”. Little things can make a positive difference, give joy to people on both sides resulting in stronger relationships.

With Pakistani friends

What got you to think differently about Pakistan?

A.M.: A first-hand encounter of Pakistan makes all the difference. As Indians, we tend to have negative impressions about Pakistan because all that we read and hear in the media is ‘bad’, ‘negative’ and ‘not inspiring’. It is after all, in popular imagination, an ‘enemy’, never to be trusted. A positive mindset flowers only when you actually get to visit a place you always thought is full of people who hate you. My experience proved that things were otherwise. Through my visits, I was able to challenge and defy stereotypical notions and demystify labels like ‘terrorist’ and ‘enemy’.

You recently facilitated the Startup Weekend at LUMS (March 27-29, 2015). Share your experience of the event.

A.M.: Startup Weekend is a global network of passionate leaders and entrepreneurs on a mission to inspire, educate, and empower individuals, teams and communities. Participants create working startups, collaborate with like-minded individuals and receive feedback from mentors. It offers a perfect environment to test your idea and take the first step towards launching your startup.

This was the fourth such event happening in Lahore, but the first with energy and enthusiasm of this magnitude. I got to meet aspiring young entrepreneurs and innovators. There is a well-established Pakistani startup community that is contributing towards building Pakistan 2.0, creating more entrepreneurial opportunities and a better Pakistan for one and all.

I was inspired by the passion, commitment, diversity and determination of Pakistan’s youth. With over 120 participants, 61 plus entrepreneurial pitches, 16 mentors, 13 judges and 17 final startup pitches, there was incredible energy on the floor. Pakistan’s young entrepreneurs are working out innovative solutions to everyday problems. They exude vibrancy and are upbeat about facing challenges. They speak with unparalleled conviction about Pakistan’s progress and development.

Do Startup entrepreneurs in India and Pakistan face similar challenges?

A.M.: Both India and Pakistan are blessed with an increasingly young population, a potential demographic dividend. Time is ripe for both countries to root for economic and social progress, in a bid to define a common future through meeting the needs and aspirations of their young people. India and Pakistan have immense potential to produce innovators, creators, builders and leaders of the future.

“I was inspired by the passion, commitment, diversity
and determination of Pakistan’s youth”

We can deal with common challenges like finance, funding and mentoring if both countries decide to focus on cooperation and positive transformation instead of confrontation. Unemployment rates remain high in both countries. Faced with lack of opportunities, Indian and Pakistani youth are taking it upon themselves to create their own.

Pakistan and India will grow by leaps and bounds if they support each other in defining their destiny through technology-based innovation, social entrepreneurship and grassroots innovation that places people and community at its centre.

With Prof. Zartash Uzmi of LUMS

Trade relations between India and Pakistan are almost always hostage to strained political relations. How does one capitalize on the idea of ‘business for peace?’

A.M.: I strongly believe in the power of business and entrepreneurship in bridging the rift and bringing people closer. To me, entrepreneurship doesn’t mean earning a livelihood but generating employment. We have millions of graduates coming out of college each year in India and Pakistan. This talent requires nurturing and mentoring. We could begin by adding entrepreneurship to the academic curriculum in schools and colleges; corporate leaders could take steps to encourage startup entrepreneurial ideas; and governments could ensure that startup cross-border collaborations are excused from complex state imposed regulatory mechanisms.

My dream is to be able to organise a joint Startup Weekend for Indo-Pak Peace Innovation, letting youth and startup entrepreneurs from both sides meet, share ideas to manage common problems and use business as an opportunity to cultivate friendships. I also envision a stronger, more entrepreneurial South Asian community involving other South Asian countries, positively building on the power of youth.

One incident that makes you smile when you think of Pakistan?

A.M.: If you watch the news/media for example, you’ll be given every reason to believe that humanity is headed for the iceberg… or maybe we’ve already hit the iceberg and we’re slowly sinking. But if you look underneath the waterline, you’ll see that there are so many profound positive stories transforming this world inch-by-inch.

“I was taken aback to learn that his father had been a prisoner of war for three years in India, during one of the wars between India and Pakistan. He assured me that I had nothing to worry about, as it was his responsibility to drop me safely to my destination. What he said next was powerful…”

One late evening during my visit to Lahore, I was looking for an auto to take me to LUMS. My accompanying friends were hesitant to let me travel alone. I, though, was quite confident. As I boarded an auto, I was strictly instructed by my Pakistani friends to not reveal my Indian identity to him. He was a married young man of about twenty-two. As we got talking, I spilled the beans. He told me about his life and family in Lahore.

I was taken aback to learn that his father had been a prisoner of war for three years in India, during one of the wars between India and Pakistan. He assured me that I had nothing to worry about, as it was his responsibility to drop me safely to my destination. I asked him why he sounded so positive. What he said next was powerful: “What happened to my father is a thing of the past, why should we as young people hold up negative emotions against each other? Such hostility will come in the way of a shared bright future that we can work together to shape.”

Startup Weekend team in Lahore

I smiled and told myself, “Hope is still alive!”

This incident further reaffirmed my vision that if we start paying attention to good things happening around us, it will change our preconceived notions and biases towards each other and will bring about positive transformation.

What is your message to people who have never had the chance to meet anyone from the other side of the border?

A.M.: When we look at the state of the Indo-Pak relations today, what do you feel… Fear….Hate…? Some combination? I strongly feel… Hope… Love…. Peace….. Friendships….!

Don’t judge people just because they are Indians or Pakistanis. I have continued to experience love and warmth from Pakistan. For most Pakistanis, who were part of the Startup Weekend at LUMS, it was their first direct face-to-face interaction with me, an Indian. And yet I ended up receiving an unexpectedly surprising outpouring of love, warmth, care and respect. How can one not reciprocate it?

A trust deficit is not helpful for peace. Conversations and friendships will change mindsets and break shackles of past bitterness. I strongly believe if we’re going to heal and transform relationships, we need to DREAM BIG! We collectively need to have a positive outlook and a strong belief that it’s possible to triumph over negative stories. Together we can fight against our most pressing problems. And to achieve that, each one of us has a role to play in deepening mutual friendships and bringing about an understanding of the interconnectedness of life.

Let us create more collaborative platforms where we can learn, sing, dance, play, eat, enjoy and experience – all of this and much more without judging the ‘other’.

Nidhi Shendurnikar-Tere is an independent researcher based in Gujarat, India, interested in politics, gender, peace and popular culture. Email: mailtonidhi12@gmail.com

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Sara is the Email Marketing Manager at Techstars. Previously, Sara was the Email Marketing Manager at UPGlobal before Techstars acquired the company in 2015. Sara graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in Journalism and Business Administration from Washington State University.