Saba Karim (SK): I understand you and your business partner worked at corporate firms in the UK and Australia before this. How did you wind up returning to Pakistan to set up The Buzzing Beez?
Junaid Khan (JK): At school, I bore this reputation of an Economics and Finance guru (or geek rather!). I’ve known little else for most of my life, my professional training, too, has been in Banking. I did reasonably well at university and landed a decent job once I’d graduated from the London School of Economics (LSE). I’d like to say I was steadily progressing in the financial services industry and it didn’t feel like such a terrible thing, each time I told someone I’d bagged a job at EY or Barclays and watch their reaction, but here’s the catch – it took time to eventually understand that the fulfilling of social desirability isn’t enough to sustain personal happiness. I’m fairly certain I was never fully invested in the field; something felt constantly amiss and that feeling refused to go away.
At first, I couldn’t place my finger on it so I kept going with whatever was happening. Everyone’s always telling you how you need to be more grateful, count your blessings. I was working at a well-known multinational, drawing a fair salary, leading a Londoner’s first-world life, yet there was a lingering dissatisfaction, surges of anxiety, unhappiness even. People would scoff it away as “first world problems” but no, this didn’t feel like the fleeting tantrums of a discontent mind. A much more existential crisis was gnawing at me – a void, stemming from the question of figuring out what my calling really was, of whether I would contribute, leave any sort of legacy, consequential, inconsequential, or if each day would just routinize, pass by sleep-walking – after so many years of living in the West, it was finally time to confront the elephant in the room!
Let me rephrase so I don’t sound thankless; coasting through life in London wasn’t exactly agonizing (well, except on those winter days and nights!) but Pakistan offered possibilities – to strive, struggle, even fail perhaps but resurge and eventually make a significant dent – we’re 200 million people, for God’s sake and so many of those are youngsters! I had this enviable education, competencies and skills and I suppose it became a case of, what am I good at and what is my country asking of me, and working out a way to marry those two things. If I could do it whilst being next to my parents, even better, which is exactly how it happened!
SK: What inspired the name, The Buzzing Beez? And the setting-up of The Buzzing Beez; what made you want to open up shop here in Karachi? Is it the wide opportunity chasm?
NJ/JK: The name had to have a positive connotation, draw up a vivid image in one’s head, immediately exude happiness. When you hear “The Buzzing Beez”, it’s hard not to smile, to start buzzing somehow! But then, intellectualizing the philosophy behind the name and café more generally, we did some research on what stands out about bees – and to our surprise, there was a stash of stuff – some amazing attributes of how bees work collectively in teams, make honey, socialize. But above all, they’re just super cute and compelling! We thought the name also holds potential to catch on, gain virality, be applied to other children’s initiatives e.g. story characters etc. that we plan on pursuing later.
When we lived in Sydney and London, our primary family entertainment was taking our kids to play cafes. In Pakistan, perhaps because of family structures and support systems, one struggles to think of creative social places where the children can spend time constructively. Spaces that combine education and entertainment, where they must have fun but also feel stimulated, cognitively challenged, without relying on screen-time. Karachi offers that sort of opportunity and so, we grabbed it! The plan is to eventually expand to Lahore, Islamabad and other cities but Karachi has been a terrific starting point.
There’s three of us behind The Buzzing Beez: Nadir Junaid, Ayesha Nadir and Junaid Khan. We met at a family event early last year; that’s where it all began, the play cafe concept, what we could do with it and fortunately, there’s been no looking back!
(SK) Describe The Buzzing Beez in three words …
(JK/NJ): Vibrant, intimate, imaginative
(SK): What’s a typical day like at The Buzzing Beez? But first, is there a typical day?
JK/ NJ: I think what we love about this venture is that there is no typical day! We get an assortment of people walking through our doors daily – sometimes they’re familiar faces, sometimes entirely new. The sound of the shutter opening in the morning and closing at night (which we do ourselves!), the children’s laughter at the top-of-their voices and the sound of the coffee machine whizzing are the only constants!
(SK): There’s such a rat race in raising kids in today’s hyper-parenting world; do play cafes offer a foil to counter that? Do they provide a creative space that combines education and entertainment, letting children learn through play instead of constantly being on a competitive treadmill?
JK/NJ: Yes, parenting is unrecognizable today, especially with technology becoming as ubiquitous as it is. We are all guilty of plugging screens in our kids’ faces, sometimes it’s the easiest option! We’re also guilty of never getting off the competitive, hyper-parenting treadmill, it’s as if we are thinking of our kids as accessories – as things to adorn, broadcast, constantly compare, accumulate brag points.
Our research and experience indicate that children are happiest when learning through play and that sort of lies at the heart of The Buzzing Beez. In fact, recently, we heard of an initiative that showcases effective learning through play even among adults. So, we’ve tried to build play-based learning into our philosophy. We’ve got a regular slate of events, some of which offer outright fun – Lego competitions, role play, drama, music, arts and crafts, but we’re also mindful of incorporating initiatives that offer a subliminal take-away – Grandparents Day, celebrating the spirit of sacrifice on Defence Day, nurturing love for one’s homeland through the Quaid’s birth anniversary, instilling awareness on environmental hazards through Green Week.
Here’s what is key: despite all the problems in Pakistan, we are keen for The Buzzing Beez to play a role in inculcating a sense of rootedness among “millennials” – rootedness to Pakistan, to aspects of our culture, our people, that are shed off too quickly. Everyone seems to be rushing westward, desperate to erase their starting points. We want to play a small part in reversing this trend – to sort of create global citizens, fully aware of modern tools and techniques, but who are comfortable in their own skin and unashamed of their identity! If we want to bring about that change, we’ve got to start whilst they are young.
(SK): Young people today are gravitating towards entrepreneurial ventures instead of conventional career paths. Is a conventional degree, education still important in order to follow this route? What advice might you offer to aspiring entrepreneurs?
NJ/JK: Is education still important? Certainly. Is it still relevant, effective in the way it is disseminated? That is perhaps less certain. Irrespective of whether one goes down the entrepreneurial route or a typical 9-5-day job, the need to acquire a foundational set of skills and knowledge remains imperative but curricula and pedagogical techniques, at least in Pakistan, need to catch up. These should ideally span across funds of knowledge – in other words, whilst specialization matters, learning is likely to be far more powerful if it encompasses areas that extend beyond the needs of one’s job. Sort of the liberal arts way. This base is crucial to generating ideas, sparking change and even aid character building. Now whether that happens through a structured college degree or through the myriad modes of learning available at people’s fingertips today, or a combination of both, is up for debate.
About giving advice, young people have far greater exposure through social media and the internet today than they did earlier. Online aids, YouTube are rife with learning options. I mean, just look at Khan Academy as one example. Opportunities to set up micro business ventures, often digital ones, are also gaining traction – this is a great starting point; it can help young people pick up tricks of the trade, not overstretch themselves and start saving for an expanded venture subsequently.
There’s one more thing; it took me a while to understand that financial upside should not be the driving force in any professional decision – it’s a bi-product of what one does, but the key ambition should be to become the best at whatever it is that you choose to do. Once the pursuit of excellence is underway, monetary rewards usually follow.
SK: The edutainment field is constantly changing. Where do you see this industry going? What does the future for The Buzzing Beez look like?
NJ/ JK: It’s definitely an industry in constant flux, evolving globally, so it’s keeping us on our toes too. It’s all mighty exciting, the prospects. In Pakistan, however, an initiative such as The Buzzing Beez is the tip of the iceberg. There’s a long way to go and a massive market gap exists, which needs to be met.
We’ve got large dreams, ideas, that’s how all great things begin! The eventual goal is to morph into a full-fledged edutainment center, developing in-house STEM and STEAM learning programs, which we can deliver ourselves. The current place was chosen more as a pilot; our totalizing vision is of a much more expansive physical space, with play areas earmarked according to age-groups and varied interests.
Above all, we want to be a part of this edutainment evolution, or shall we say revolution, in our home-country. It should be a readily accepted fact – that developing, prospering, equipping ourselves for tomorrow, without investing in young people, seems counter-intuitive – yet, Pakistan is undeniably lagging behind. At The Buzzing Beez, we’re keeping our eyes on the prize though – we are determined to see this as a case of “in adversity lies opportunity” and continue forging forward!
Come, visit us, witness the wonders of childhood again…