As the former head of global outsourcing at AOL Time Warner, Imran Aftab saw firsthand how job creation around the world could change the lives of the underprivileged. This was the impetus for 10Pearls, an application development company he co-founded with brother Zeeshan Aftab in 2004 to help businesses build products and technology solutions while also creating job opportunities to those who could use a leg up in life — particularly those in Pakistan, where he was born.
10Pearls, named to symbolize perfection, is today based in Herndon, Va., with offices in Karachi, Dubai, Toronto, New York City and San Francisco. Clients range from small to large, including AARP, MedStar Health, National Geographic, PayPal and Time Warner Cable.
The company works with clients to develop software applications that provide more intuitive experiences for users.
“Customers interact with companies that inspire and engage them in a much more intelligent fashion,” Aftab said. “We help companies morph and change to meet those expectations.”
Aftab said the company has been profitable “since day one,” with no help from outside funding.
On the social good side, 10Pearls has helped hundreds of employees make a better life for themselves. Most recently, it’s been trying make a more significant impact on the lives of its Karachi-based female employees.
In addition to providing onsite daycare and allowing for more flexibility in their schedules, 10Pearls recently hosted a hackathon and testathon in March that invited women from across the tech industry to grow their coding skills with some friendly competition. The idea was to highlight the work of women in the tech industry, give them the opportunity to network, and challenge stigmas.
“It’s important to celebrate that there are women here who think differently, who are great engineers, and want to change their lives for the better,” Aftab said.
Crain’s Washington, D.C., spoke with Aftab to learn more about 10Pearls, the hackathon, and women in tech.
Q: What led you to start 10Pearls?
Before I started my company, when I was director of global outsourcing at AOL Time Warner, I saw how job creation around the world helped create opportunities for the underprivileged. I come from a pretty humble background, myself, and was helped by a number of folks and scholarships in my early school days that ultimately allowed me the chance to work for the betterment of my life and my family's life. I wanted to do the same for others — to change the world for the better by creating job opportunities.
Q: 10Pearls has changed over time; what kind of services did it initially offer?
When I started the company, I wanted to be the Walmart of marketing, so that small businesses with smaller budgets could hire a firm like us to help them build a marketing presence and sophisticated digital software products. But we quickly pivoted to the more sophisticated product development side.
Q: What does that sophisticated product development side entail?
In the future, all businesses will be digital businesses, so companies are currently going through a transformation. There is constant disruption happening in various industries — healthcare, finance, retail, education, and so on — and we help companies redefine themselves in this competitive landscape by helping them think through how this new digital age will behave, and how they should formulate themselves to survive and thrive. We are the problem solvers who can help them understand how millennials and others wish to interact with products, and how data can be used to make those interactions that much more intelligent and valuable for the customer.
Q: Can you give an example of how you helped a client in a significant way?
We helped AARP develop a digital experience that would engage millennials. Contrary to popular belief, not all caregivers are females who are 50 years old and up. About 25 percent or more are millennials. But we found that millennials didn’t have the patience to hold on the phone, and couldn’t be engaged with the AARP brand because it came across as the place you call when you’re old. Millennials are always Googling and trying to connect emotionally with others.
For example, if your uncle or granddad refuses to take a shower for whatever reason — maybe he has Alzheimer's or dementia — you need to be able to talk to someone else who has your problem. And right now, on the internet, you’ll find forums on this stuff that’s all across the board. So AARP Services Inc., or ASI, decided they needed a digital strategy. We came in and helped them create and build out this digital experience where millennial caregivers could connect and more easily find solutions to their problems, rather than waiting on hold for the information.
Q: What’s a common mistake your clients tend to make, with regards to their online presence?
Hubris. I think Einstein said that expecting a different result when you are doing the same thing again and again is insanity. There is no harm in taking risks, but you should also be able to recognize when you are making the same mistakes. Fail and learn. Get out of your comfort zone. Be open to listening.
Q: Can you talk a bit about the hackathon and diversity initiative 10Pearls recently hosted in Karachi?
We wanted to have women from the industry and various companies be focused on creating applications that would help solve problems. It was a way for them to get together, bond, demonstrate their expertise, and be recognized for that. They don’t always get to express their creativity in this way.
Q: What inspired you to launch this initiative?
My mother and sisters played a big role in my life. My mother didn’t have the privilege of an education, but she was instrumental in making sure that we were educated and worked hard.
When you are trying to change the world for the better, it’s very important that you focus on the upcoming generation. The people who are enabling and helping that generation are the women, and when women have opportunities to grow and be financially free, they will continue to make the best decisions for their children.
Q: How did you reach that conclusion?
Talk to psychologists or any early education expert, and they’ll tell you that the first few years of a child’s life is very important. Studies show that sometimes it’s more about the love and care received during childhood, rather than education level, that drives a person to do well and help others around them. When that love is missing, you have different motivations. I believe that to intrinsically change a person, they need to feel loved. That way, they can grow up to be better people.
Women who contribute and experience success help that ecosystem grow. If you can elevate the status of a woman in a corporation, the hope is that they will feel inspired and help others who are coming up, too. I think it’s important for women to see and be inspired by examples of other successful women leaders. That way, they can build up that ecosystem and be self-sufficient.
Q: Why did you decide to name your company 10Pearls?
Pearls are the symbol of perfection. In many cultures, it’s a sign of good fortune. In reality, it takes years and years to form a perfect pearl. That’s what we wanted to symbolize: hard work and perfection.
Q: What’s the 10 for?
10 is a perfect score...and was the available domain name.