Kubair Shirazee is the founder and CEO at AgiliTea, an Agile transformation company

Kubair Shirazee is the founder and CEO at Agilitea, an Agile transformation company that works with startups, global corporations, and NGOs implementing agile business practices.

Kubair has successfully built and sold three high profile companies, including Ikonami Ltd whose digital products were used by the Department of Health to implement its Agenda for Change framework across the NHS. He is also the co-founder of not-for-profit Peace Through Prosperity, a social innovation lab that empowers marginalised communities out of poverty and away from the threat of radicalisation.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role?

My childhood was spent across Britain, Pakistan and UAE, so I had a rich and culturally diverse youth! As a teenager I developed a passion for politics, a passion that has absorbed me throughout my life, however I also focused on academic success and entrepreneurialism and by the age of 23 I had graduated from City University and launched and sold my first startup –  UKGunindex.com – an outdoor sport online portal.

I then founded Ikonami Ltd – a healthcare-focused company that brought a number of successful digital products to market in the UK. Ikonami played a significant part in the implementation of NHS’s Agenda for Change, by introducing Agile principles, values and frameworks to the Department of Health and the NHS.

My business success continued, but in 2010 a personal tragedy struck, and my life – and reasons for living – changed forever. My brother Abid was murdered by extremists and it shook me to the core.

My brother’s death reawakened in me my commitment to social justice, and prompted a desire to understand the motives behind the appalling attack. I set about researching the motives and causes of extremism and terrorism through primary and secondary research including interviews with individuals holding extremist views/positions as well as designing and orchestrating the largest survey – 500 interviews – of marginalised trades in Pakistan that act as a recruitment grounds for extremist organisations. It was this experience which prompted me to co-found Peace Through Prosperity (PTP) with my wife Sahar Zaidi-Shirazee. PTP is a not-for-profit innovation lab designed to empower micro entrepreneurs from marginalised groups, to bring about social transformation.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No! I never had a plan and would never have thought I would end up doing what I am doing. My life has been shaped by the consequences of events around me. But while I may not have been able to control outside events, I have learned to react to them positively, and this is what drew me to Agile. With Agile you must sense and respond to the environment that surrounds you, and work to adapt according to people, time and events. My move into Agile may have been accidental, but I can see it was always my destiny!

In 2011, a year after my brother was murdered, I returned to work as a co-director of Ikonami, a thriving software business used by the Department of Health as part of their Agenda for Change framework. However, upon return I realised that my environment was not agile, it was not fulfilling its very ethic. I was grieving but was expected to attend sales meetings, I had to stick to someone else’s idea of how I should act, that got in the way of being authentic. So with one of my co-directors I took the decision to sell the business, together with members who were not catering for agile ways of being in their own business. It was one of the bravest business decisions I have made, to sell a successful and growing company and start from scratch, but it is one I have never regretted. I went on to advise colleagues, connections and networks on agile ways of working and being, and realised this was my raison d’etre, to facilitate others in their journey of continuous improvement. I have been told that my training, mentorship and coaching has transformed lives. I realised I must make it my life to bring Agility to as many people and communities as possible – so I founded Agilitea. Sometimes the hardest, and what seem the most crazy, decisions, can be the best of your life. Don’t ever be afraid to follow your instinct!

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Challenges we face, overcome, get beat by, are what shapes and crafts us into who we are and how we bring ourselves to the world. I have had to face several challenges, some miniscule in the grand scheme of things, but challenges nonetheless, such as being diagnosed as dyslexic later in life. There have also been more existential ones. Growing up as a member of a minoritised and marginalised community in Karachi, for example. It’s less about the challenges and more about who we have around us, with us, behind us, watching out for us and enabling, empowering and coaching us to overcome those challenges.

At times I’ve been fortunate to have that someone. Growing up it was my brother Kumail, and my sister Shabsz, and for the past two decades I am fortunate to have had Sahar there through thick and thin, to keep me grounded, focused and stoic. Over time I have learned that the magic sauce is to build a community of a few trusted people you can turn to when faced with adversity and challenge.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Without doubt, it is Peace Through Prosperity, a not-for-profit project that provides low cost, immediate impact social transformation programmes that help alleviate poverty and improve the livelihood of vulnerable people in marginalised communities. We started in Karachi, Pakistan, and have grown to also work in Yemen and Egypt.

Peace Through Prosperity’s approach is rooted in Agile thinking; we take what we know and continue to learn about transforming complex systems – such as large enterprises – and cross pollinate it to transforming super complex systems – such as society! We are using Agile for social transformation and I believe this is the largest experiment of its kind globally.

PTP’s most successful project to date is our mini-MBA program. We engage with microentrepreneurs, from street barbers to artisan craftswomen, through pragmatic, interactive content and exercises to bring a number of principles, values, tools and practices to life that enable them to be better owner managers of their business.

The fact that our programmes are open to women in these regions where culture has often dictated they cannot become self-sufficient, is something we are inordinately proud of. To empower women and play some small part in equalising the gender imbalance in a society is of huge importance to both me and Sahar.

Through our scheme, women can learn how to  achieve faster, managed growth, improved revenue and profitability, greater clarity over their personal goals, drivers and greater confidence in the future.

The mini-MBA enables them to build a valuable business that will be a vehicle for them to create their own narrative of social change. You cannot be what you cannot see, and by proving themselves capable and acceptable, our female participants are setting precedents for future generations of girls in their communities.

To date the program has helped more than 2100 micro-entrepreneurs from marginalised communities to increase their revenues on average by 25% and profitability on average by 68% growth in profitability. It has positively impacted more than 13,500 lives, created 265 jobs across 26 marginalised communities in Pakistan, Yemen and Egypt. And the journey continues.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I believe my determination, and sense of justice, has brought me where I am, and has kept me going when things got tough. When it comes to justice there is no grey area, it is black and white. Choose a side, plant your flag and hold the line, the values and principles, come what may. I believe there is some form of a force, and I try to be one with it! If I was to point to one thing, it would be a people-centric attitude to everything. Be kind to others and the universe will be kind to you.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Finding and convincing the right individuals to share their valuable time to mentor, coach, guide and be committed is a tall task.Whilst some mentors shied away calling me too ‘free spirited’ others have remained committed over decades and their guidance has proven to be indispensable in my journey.

A good mentor has the courage to have transparent, respectful conversations that remain focused on our continuous improvement. I have been fortunate to have a few good mentors in my corner over the years guiding and facilitating me achieve my target outcomes.

Once you’re afforded the privilege of having good mentors, it is essential that you give back as much if not more. I have been told that my mentoring has been key for many successes my peers have achieved and that makes me immensely proud and privileged to enable and facilitate others to achieve their outcomes.

What can businesses/government/allies do to help diversity and inclusion?

This is a fascinating subject for me, and one that I have spent many hours on. I am a co-founder of the Think Tank Better Governance and we investigate the workings of society and experiment with ideas to improve equality for all. What institutions can do is ask and earnestly listen to people, there is a magic sauce and it’s in the hearts and minds of our people, from all walks, and as a government, as institutions, as organisations, society, communities and individuals we need to listen to one another, and what needs to be done will become transparent.

Why do you think it’s important for men to support gender equality in the workplace?

It’s simple business sense – if you exclude women from the workplace you’re reducing your talent pool by half. Diversity is essential for the success of any business, to bring fresh ideas, differing viewpoints, and alternative theories, so that we can experiment with processes and learn from our combined experiences. My wife is my partner in Peace Through Prosperity, we are equals in authority and input. And more than half of our workforce is female. This is because we simply pick the best person for the job, and often in coaching and mentoring a woman can prove to have the stronger skillset.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

I’d advise my younger self to get started on social transformation activities and programmes sooner. To cross-pollinate learnings from enterprise transformation to societal transformation much earlier in life, to create an innovation lab for social transformation experiments, like Peace Through Prosperity is, sooner. To be people-centric rather than customer-centric, much sooner too. To reflect on our place in this infinite Universe, inspect and adapt to fulfil the responsibilities that come with the privilege of being able to and having done what little I have so far. To serve sooner and with humility.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

I recently undertook a contract for a London borough council to transform their work processes using Agile methodology, and I am keen to expand this side of my business, Agilitea. As a business transformation coach I count Vodafone, Al Jazeera, Bayer, Novartis, and Johnson & Johnson as recent happy clients, and I am always keen to help businesses, be they startups or global corporations, to use Agile methods in the workplace. I am a certified Scrum Master, and Agile Coach, and am currently in the process of qualifying as a Certified Scrum Trainer, so I can help others open this door into the Agile world, be it Agile for business success or Agile for social transformation.