Inspirational Woman Interview: Sara Haq

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Sara Haq is the Founder and Principal of SH International LLC, which helps entrepreneurs build profitable multinational businesses. She has extensive on-the-ground business and finance experience across Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. She is a sharp negotiator and takes pride in being both business savvy and street smart. She speaks French, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, Hindi/Urdu, and native English. Sara previously worked for the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group. She studied Finance and Business at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently Entrepreneur in Residence at Wharton, and the International Chair of the Wharton Club of DC. She also studied Organizational Leadership at Georgetown. She was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, and currently lives in Washington, DC.

What is your background?

Sara Haq: I studied finance at Wharton, and leadership at Georgetown. Most of my work experience before SH International is with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, where I worked on investments across Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and Eastern Europe.

I love cooking for my friends, learning languages (I’m trying to stay focused on the six that I’m proficient in, although part of me really wants to learn another), and hiking.

You are the Founder and Principal of SH International, a LLC that helps entrepreneurs build profitable multinational businesses. What motivated you to found SH International?

Sara Haq: When I started SH International, I wanted to understand what a person with limited resources could do in terms of global business. Of course, if you work for the World Bank or for a large multinational like Proctor & Gamble, you will have access to a lot of resources, and together can achieve some awesome things. But what can one person, or a small team with limited resources accomplish?

When I started SH International, I was that one person, leveraging relationships with others I had met to push my own boundaries and do business overseas. I realized that entrepreneurs can accomplish quite a bit, with the advantages of agility, a very lean overhead, and with the motivation that ownership provides.

Now SH International is all about helping other entrepreneurs build multinational businesses – and realizing their own global potential as well as that of their ventures.

Can you tell us about some of the support systems SH International makes available to nascent multinational businesses and some of the businesses you have supported in the past?

Sara Haq: We provide three levels of service. The first level is training, helping others learn the tools that they need in order to build a profitable multinational business.

For multinational entrepreneurs that need extra support, we offer an on-call advisory program so that they can get situation specific feedback right when they need it the most- because they will definitely face new and challenging situations on a continuous basis. We have seen that providing support on an on-call basis really empowers multinational entrepreneurs to work faster and with greater confidence and success.

Finally, we also offer an implementation service. This is our most expensive service, as it involves the most resource investment on our part. This is where we actually go and actively build the entrepreneur’s business for them in other countries.

With these services, we have worked with a number of promising entrepreneurs. Interestingly, a lot of our natural demand for these services is from overseas, while we are a lot more particular about which foreign clients we will take on. We have worked with clients from the US, India, Turkey, and Sweden, in technology, education, communications, food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical sectors.

Previously, you also worked as an Investment Analyst at the International Finance Corporation. Can you tell us about some of your experiences with the IFC, and some of your most valuable takeaways from your time there?

Sara Haq: IFC is a wonderful place to work, especially as a young professional eager to see the world and actively engage with other professionals from a wide range of backgrounds. Not only did I work on transactions across the globe, I got the opportunity to live abroad on a full-time basis during an assignment in Istanbul. It’s hard to pinpoint the most valuable takeaways, because the experience was immensely educational in every aspect. Here are a few lessons in any case:

  • Do your due diligence, and dig behind the given facts to look at how reality may differ. It does not mean that you are not trusting, it just means that you are being thorough in your approach as a professional. Do not expect companies to be fully forthcoming and look out for your company’s interests.
  • Cultures vary widely in their interpretation of events. In times of conflict, be very liberal in giving others – on a PERSONAL level- the benefit of the doubt.
  • Making sure two parties have a meeting of the minds in regards to what is in a contract, can be just as important – and sometimes more important – than what is ACTUALLY in the contract

You are also a Member of the Advisory Board of Sote Tunaweza Initiative, which seeks to empower women in emerging markets through entrepreneurship and leadership institutes. Can you tell us more about the Sote Tunaweza Initiative, and some of the programs you’ve worked on there?

Sara Haq: The Sote Tunaweza Iniative was created by two young women – Guadalupe Barajas and Priscilla Makundi – with a global vision. In their early twenties, they are perfect examples of what I mentioned before- young entrepreneurs with limited resources out to make a HUGE impact. And they did. The highlight of my experience working with this client was the 2015 institute in Tanzania where we delivered entrepreneurship and leadership training to young women at the University of Dar es Salaam. These women astonished and inspired me with the incredible depth of their vision and their commitment to making an impact on their societies.

In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge as well as opportunity you see facing businesses aiming to scale in emerging markets?

Sara Haq: The challenges are many – but I think the biggest one is that you cannot standardize your approach. Especially in emerging markets, each market has its own challenges that will need to be handled proactively and dynamically on a local level. As an entrepreneur, trying to be on top of all of these details in multiple countries would lead to quick exhaustion of resources and failure. It is really critical to be able to manage relationships with foreign partners that can handle local details for you.

The biggest opportunity is the rapidly increasing spending power of the emerging markets consumer. This is fueling an incredible demand for all sorts of consumer goods and services. We have seen US based products and services see incredible success in emerging markets, even if their success in the US has been relatively limited. There is a myth that you must be successful in your home country before becoming international- in many cases, a company’s entire success can be built on international activity.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Sara Haq: My answer to this question has stayed the same since I was about seven years old. My grandmother remains an ongoing inspiration in my life, even after her passing away. She is my role model for how a powerful woman presents herself- strong, wise, not afraid to use her influence to help others, not afraid to take care of her family AND have a global impact through her career. This description is not even the tip of the iceberg of the incredible person and professional that she was.

When I feel incapable of success, I remind myself that she is part of me. My ability to draw strength from her inspiration also reminds me of the importance of role models, and providing opportunities to younger people to get exposure and experience. This is one reason why I am really proud of our internship program, through which I have worked one on one with several outstanding young professionals, both men and women, to explore the world of multinational entrepreneurship together.

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