Virtual Secretary Puts New Face on Pakistan

Saadia Musa, on a big screen in the District, works from Pakistan as a receptionist for the Resource Group, a call-center company founded by Zia Chishti.
Saadia Musa, on a big screen in the District, works from Pakistan as a receptionist for the Resource Group, a call-center company founded by Zia Chishti. (By Jessica Tefft -- The Washington Post)

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By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

In a chic downtown lobby across the street from the Old Executive Office Building, Saadia Musa answers phones, orders sandwiches and lets in the FedEx guy.

And she does it all from Karachi, Pakistan.

As receptionist for the Resource Group, Musa greets employees and visitors via a flat screen hanging on the lobby's wall. Although they are nine hours behind and nearly 7,500 miles away, her U.S.-based bosses rely on her to keep order during the traffic of calls and meetings.

The Resource Group, a call-center company, represents a model that might sound familiar: U.S. companies save money by offshoring certain tasks to developing countries with cheaper workers who can telemarket, integrate data and program computer code. These "back-office" functions have created a booming, multibillion-dollar industry in countries such as India, Ireland and the Philippines.

Now, companies such as the Resource Group hope to replicate that success in Pakistan. But because of regular State Department travel advisories, news footage of militants chanting in the streets and rumors that Osama bin Laden might be hiding in the western region's cavernous mountains, some American businesses remain skeptical.

Zia Chishti, the Resource Group's founder, parrots clients' initial reaction: "Pakistan, are you crazy? No way."

Zia Chishti, chief executive of the Resource Group, says he tries to avoid political issues at work but wonders if the firm will help shape Pakistan's future.
Zia Chishti, chief executive of the Resource Group, says he tries to avoid political issues at work but wonders if the firm will help shape Pakistan's future.
And that's how a virtual secretary (toiling in the front office, no less) became a concrete example of offshoring, an answer to skeptics' questions: How exactly does offshoring work? Is Pakistan safe? Do workers speak intelligible English?

"We present Saadia, and the debate ends right there," said Hasnain Aslam, head of investments. "We're able to show that we practice what we preach."

Chishti and Aslam are part of a small entrepreneurial group of Pakistan's expatriates who have returned -- at least for part of the year -- to their homeland, even as Western businesses plotted their exodus in a post-Sept. 11 world.

"You have to look for other opportunities that people haven't seen," Chishti said.

Born and educated in the United States, Chishti co-founded the Resource Group three years ago after selling his shares in a California dental-imaging company he had also founded. That company, Align Technology Inc., left its operations in Lahore, Pakistan, after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and Chishti took the abandoned office filled with laid-off workers and asked them to trust his vision for a call-center empire. "Pakistan was very late to this game," he said. "India had already been at it for a decade or more."

Comparisons to India are inevitable yet somehow impossible. Pakistan remains just a blip in the offshoring industry, generating an estimated $150 million in revenue from software and related services last year, according to the Pakistan Software Houses Association. India, meanwhile, generated $12.8 billion. Most of the estimated 100 call centers in Pakistan were set up in the past two years, according to a report by the Pakistan Software Export Board.


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