One of the hardest parts about growing up is breaking free from what people expect from you and learning to embrace who you really are. For Humaira Ahmed, founder of Locelle, growing up in a heavily male-dominated culture in Pakistan, was an especially challenging process.
“I was always told what I could do and what I couldn’t do,” says Humaira. “I was such a rebel though and I just couldn’t conform.”
Humaira grew up in a Muslim family in Karachi, Pakistan. Although her family was not overly religious, the culture affected her upbringing.
Humaira (left) with her siblings and father in Pakistan in 1987.
From a young age, Humaira loved the competitive nature of math and her favorite sport cricket. She excelled at both and was asked to join the national cricket team. When she shared the news with her mother she was told she wouldn’t be able to play cricket anymore because sports were not appropriate for girls.
“It wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t my mother’s fault, it was just the culture. “I didn’t see those restrictions upon my brothers so I knew it was a man’s world.”
It didn’t get any easier for Humaira in her teenage years either. A pre-arranged marriage was determined for her at the age of 15, to an older man who she had never met. Fortunately her parents called it off. “I remember being that 15 year old girl, crying every night and being like God please help me escape this and I will do amazing things with my life.” Two years later there was another proposal that her parents called off again out of fear she would be in a controlling relationship. This time she made a deal with her father that if she got into the best school they would wait to arrange her marriage till after she graduated.
Following her interests in math and problem solving, Humaira decided to pursue a degree in software engineering, a respectable profession for women in Pakistan. She was enjoying school when her parents decided to move the family to Toronto for better opportunities.
Eager to gain work experience like other young people in Canada, Humaira got a job at an IT Company. Once she was able to apply back to school, she transferred her credits into a computer science program at York University and continued working part-time. “I realized I was the only girl in a class of a 160. It was a shock. I was coming from around 40% women in my program to none. All my female friends in Pakistan are either doctors, engineers or lawyers. Even for a submissive society women are really qualified professionals there.”
She also noticed while working all the engineers were male. After months of switching classes and trying to fit in, she decided to go a different direction and switched into communications. “That was really hard because I’d never done anything in communications,” says Humaira. “It was brand new to me.” Humaira’s father didn’t understand her choice to pursue communications as a profession but she credits her communication skills to giving her an advantage. “It really helped me because coming to a new culture I was able to write better and present better,” says Humaira. “For somebody that was an immigrant it was such a valuable skill.”
After five years of living and working in Toronto, she met her husband who lived in Vancouver. She decided to move across the country to be with him.
Humaira with her husband and two daughters at Island View Beach in 2017.
They lived in Vancouver for a year and spent a lot of time visiting the island. Humaira always loved Victoria and suggested they move to be closer to his family. Her husband found a job in tech right away but Humaira didn’t have as much luck. She decided to start her own marketing business for tech companies. One of her first clients was VIATEC, where she worked on the Mustard Seed Food Bank Challenge and helped launch the VAP program.
Although Humaira was doing well in her business and enjoying being a new mom, she was struggling with feelings of isolation. “I was spending time online but I wasn’t making meaningful connections. I was constantly scrolling through social media and feeling depressed. I seemingly had it all but inside I was suffering.”
It was through these really difficult times Humaira was inspired to start Locelle - a platform for women to connect with like-minded women in their area.
“I wanted to easily be able to talk to women that were like me and have a tribe to support me in making good decisions.”
After going through VIATEC’s Accelerator program, Locelle launched its beta in October 2018. Although she had lots of passion, Humaira faced the challenges of most start-ups in securing financing to grow her initiative.
Locelle’s soft launch in Vancouver, October 2018.
“There’s been so many ups and downs. It’s ridiculous how much rejection I’ve faced but to me it’s all a part of the journey. It doesn’t phase me anymore.”
Locelle has been getting lots of attention including being a VIATEC Awards Start-Up of the Year Finalist and featured at Collision, a global tech conference in Toronto. With over 1100 members on its beta and launched in 3 major cities, Humaira has big plans to make Locelle a global community that can help women overcome the stereotypes they often get boxed into.
“We need to break stereotypes from a very young age and acknowledge people for who they are. We all bring our unique strengths and perspectives and we just need to be open to them and not box people up so early on.”
Humaira with her two daughters in Tofino in May 2019.
Humaira believes it starts with setting an example for future generations. She sees Locelle as a way for women to support each other in a safe place, creating opportunities for women to tackle challenges like isolation, self-doubt and gender inequality.
“When other women empower you, you truly feel the sense that I can do this. I’ve been able to overcome so much. I feel empowered in my own life and I want every woman in the world to feel that way.”