Sara Haq on Working Internationally

Editor's Key Takeaways
  1. Experience/pre-reqs count a lot less than you might think. Don't let the posted "requirements" scare you.
  2. You can integrate some of your small interests into everything you do.
  3. Make lots of friends in undergrad. You’ll meet them everywhere doing really interesting things.

Sara graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2006. 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. For the past four years, Sara Haq has been building her own company, SH International LLC, which helps entrepreneurs build profitable multinational businesses.

Editor: I signed up for a session with the Experts in Residence, a part of Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship that provides advice for budding student entrepreneurs. I didn't even have an idea, but there's this one expert that had some experience in environmental policy in Cambodia, whom I requested; however, who also decided that Miami was a better way to spend her Tuesday. Fair enough. Instead, I got the pleasant experience of sitting down with Sara Haq, who was on a trip to Wharton to meet with students. After chatting about random topics, it was really clear that Sara had very extensive advice for anybody considering an international career. I decided request to interview her and here's what we learned.

Before we start, would you like to share one cool thing that you think is important about you that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else?

Actually, you can find a LOT about me online, especially on my blog on my company website. On a personal level, I really love to cook, and I really like to meet people. It's interesting how as an entrepreneur, you can work a little bit of your personal interests into everything that you do. Here's a funny story. I used to have a lot of food companies as clients, because I am really passionate about food and have a good sense of what types of foods will be popular in specific overseas markets. But a lot of their foods were really high calorie. So, with all of food samples I was evaluating, I started to gain weight, so I eventually stopped actively looking for new food companies to work with. So as an entrepreneur, your personal interests and preferences will start to intertwine with your business.

Can you talk broadly about your international experience?

When I worked for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), I had the opportunity to work with investments across Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Central Asia and South Asia. I thought leaving the IFC meant that I would not have these opportunities anymore, but have been relieved to find out that this is not the case!

Since leaving, I have had the chance to support women entrepreneurs and leaders in Tanzania, share insights at a food investment conference in Uzbekistan, help US companies get partnerships in the United Arab Emirates and in Turkey, and even help foreign companies, like an Indian ICT company we helped position for entry into Central Asia. I helped a technology start-up build its presence in the Philippines. I even have a Swedish entrepreneur who is an enthusiastic client of our training programs. I love my job.

The only thing that is missing is that I need to support more entrepreneurs building a presence in Latin America, because that is my favorite region of the world to do business in. I feel like I just confessed a secret. I am not supposed to have favorites. I do have a Mexican-American entrepreneur on our advisory board, and have just started exploring leveraging the resources that he brings to the table to support an Ecuadorian entrepreneur living in the US, who wants to build a business involving “both of his countries.”

Can you tell us about SH International? What is it? What do you enjoy about it?

SH International helps entrepreneurs build profitable multinational businesses. With access to the right expertise, deals, and relationships, entrepreneurs do not need to join the Fortune 500 before achieving profitable multinational business growth. These individuals are driven by passion and vision to build amazing global businesses outside of their current comfort zones and abilities. They do this by taking tangible steps towards achieving their goals, by attracting the resources that they need to survive and thrive, and by taking advantage of educational opportunities that fill critical gaps in their skill set. We support them in these endeavors.

I enjoy almost everything about my business. Maybe what I enjoy the most is serving others of a kindred spirit. I love meeting entrepreneurs whose hunger for life and for experiencing the world compels them, over time, to push their comfort zones out to infinite.

Can you talk a bit about the difference between working abroad versus working in the US?

In the US, people have a very systematic way of viewing the world. There are rules that you follow, and there are systems that you go through. There are regulations and guidelines. When you start doing international work, especially in emerging markets, there is not as much structure. A lot of people from the US struggle with the level of flexibility, and so-called out-of-the-box thinking necessary to survive and thrive. It can be a lot of fun to do international work with the right mind-set. In many situations, you can create your own structure, and be very creative and innovative, a perfect situation for the entrepreneurial type!

Were you entrepreneurial during your undergrad years?

Not entrepreneurial in the strict sense. I never took the entrepreneurship classes. I guess my tendency towards entrepreneurship shone through in the things that I did. For example, I was one of the five co-founders of Phi Gamma Nu (PGN). I think I always had a streak of liking to get things done, to create something out of nothing. I liked executing so I would say yes to opportunities to be involved in something innovative or new, but I didn't take entrepreneurship courses, and I didn't do any business competitions.

Do you have any advice for college students on career paths?

At the very beginning, my mentality was that there must be only one right answer to what I should do with my life. I used to think that you can calculate the path to take, and I searched for the right answer in investment banking or consulting. Within those, you do further soul searching to pick whether you are going to be a trader or serve in other specific functions.

I used to study a lot of math. In elementary math, there was only one right answer. Either you got it right or you did not. However, as I dove into the more advanced math, sometimes there were multiple right answers to the problem. Or sometimes, there were no solutions. So, when considering what future route to take, I try to remind myself that life decisions are just like these math equations, and try not to put so much pressure on finding the one right answer. Just because you choose one answer does not necessary mean that you are right or wrong. You just made that specific decision.

How did you stay informed as to your opportunities along the way?

I interviewed with a lot of companies, not by choice, but because I needed to do that to get my first job. This experience gave me a lot of exposure to the type of work out there. I definitely encourage you to do a lot of interviewing, if for no other reason than the practice is helpful.

I think at a place like Wharton, you are definitely busy. There are one million opportunities that all seem really important. You do not have the luxury to pursue every interesting opportunity, or to rigorously compare them. Following your curiosity and your strengths will allow you to naturally look at things that you are the most likely to be successful in.

You have to understand that you can spend a million hours, months, years, beating yourself up about the career decisions that you will have to make. And you will not find that one answer, because there are multiple answers. You can better use that psychological energy to get, for example, better grades, and meet more people.

One thing I wish is that I had met more people as an undergrad. It’s such a gift to be in Wharton undergrad. You can build many genuine, sincere relationships with amazing people.

Whereas, in MBA programs, people are more intentionally there for the networking and connections. I believe that you get many more sincere friendships in undergrad. And now that I think back, all of those people are doing great things. And each of those can be a unique connection that can support you in the future, and whom you can support.

What is one specific project that really stuck in your mind all these years?

One of my first projects was helping an Indian information and communication technology client, called Karvy Data Management Services, position themselves to enter Central Asia.

So there were a couple of really cool things about this project. One, the client was Adhiraj Parthasarathy, who was also one of my friends from Penn undergrad. It was just really, really fun reconnecting with a friend from college, doing a really cool project for him and with him. I think the take-away from this is that if you do the things that you are interested in at Penn, you will be surrounded by people who are likely interested in the same things, and when you leave you will have a great community to share fun opportunities with. The project itself was really fun as well. I was involved in introducing them to a lot of partners in Central Asia. From an American point of view, that was an exceptionally challenging project.

I have learned to hold onto people who are supportive, like Adhiraj, and to find ways to further engage with them. This project was many years ago. However, we still work together. Adhiraj currently sits on the advisory board for SH International, and has helped me out with a number of strategic initiatives.

Anything else that you want to share?

I have learned a lot in the last few years working with multinational entrepreneurs.

I came into this game thinking that experience counted a lot more than it actually does. What I found out was that the desire to take action and get things done counts a lot more.

I have worked with so many entrepreneurs, all of whom have performed extraordinary feats without a ton of experience. If you allow a lack of experience to scare you, it is difficult to get much done.


Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent the International Finance Corporation (IFC) or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.

Bill He

Aspiring Engineer, Product Builder, and Traveler. Likes to resonate at his own frequency and sometimes at that of his Ukulele. Strong sustainability advocate. Works on The Sign.al's servers.

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