When I walked into Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali’s apartment in San Francisco, the couple looked straight at my feet. “Your shoes are 12.5?” Ali asked. I nodded. “He’s very good at that,” Qasim, his wife, said, a smile tugging at the sides of her mouth. The couple have been designing shoes for nearly a decade, but they never intended to be shoemakers. They were just looking for a way to leverage the power they saw in the internet.
Qasim and Ali grew up in small towns in Pakistan, 30 miles apart. Qasim’s aunt, who was Ali’s teacher, introduced them, and for years they were just friends, dog-earing sections of philosophy books to share with each other and talking about the world outside their small Muslim communities. Eventually they got married.
In 2011, when they started their first shoe company together—an online retailer called Markhor for handcrafted leather shoes—national bank regulations made it very difficult for Pakistanis to accept online payments. (Services such as PayPal and Alipay are still not available in Pakistan.) So, in 2014, Ali applied for and received a B-1 visa, reserved for short-term business trips, to travel to the United States and open a bank account there. Today, as the couple starts their second business, an online retailer for minimalist sneakers, the market is changing in ways that would seem to favor entrepreneurs from the developing world. The low cost of essential business services such as cloud computing has made online entrepreneurship possible from almost anywhere. At the same time, inexpensive smartphones and a growing middle class have created demand for new products and services in developing countries such as Pakistan.