Posted on August 05 2015
This week's Wednesday Woman is serial entrepreneur Sahar Hashemi OBE. Sahar co-founded Coffee Republic with her brother in 1995, one of the first US-style coffee bars in the UK. After building it up to a chain of 110 bars and a turnover of £30m, Sahar left the day-to-day management in 2001 and published bestselling book Anyone Can Do It – Building Coffee Republic from Our Kitchen Table, the second highest-selling book on entrepreneurship after Richard Branson's.
In 2005, Sahar founded Skinny Candy, a brand of sugar free sweets which was sold to confectionery conglomerate Glisten PLC in 2007.
Sahar's latest book is Switched On which focuses on eight habits that foster a more entrepreneurial mindset for employees (based on her experience of the transformation in culture when a small entrepreneurial company becomes big and bureaucracy take over).
Newnham: What were you like as a young girl? At what point did your entrepreneurial spirit become apparent?
Hashemi: I think I was a very normal typical young girl; from what I remember I think I just wanted to be an air hostess. I definitely didn’t manifest any entrepreneurial trait, in fact I became an entrepreneur truly by accident in the end.
Newnham: Tell us about that ~ what was your vision for Coffee Republic and did you ever anticipate what it would eventually become?
Hashemi: When I started my working life, as a lawyer, I believed creativity was for special people like Richard Branson but, after five years, I became disillusioned with being a lawyer and realised that what I was doing didn’t suit my personality.
Then the idea behind Coffee Republic came after a trip to New York ~ I just wanted to be able to drink skinny lattes in the UK in the type of coffee bars I had seen and fallen in love with over there. I did some market research and realised that we (UK) were taking on a lot of European habits, due to the increase in foreign travel and I believed the market was heading that way, so I made a gut instinct decision (the high street wasn't flooded with coffee shops now as it was back then). I was encouraged by my brother Bobby to bring the US concept to the UK and thus, by accident, I became an entrepreneur.
In the beginning of course, I had no idea about marketing, branding, customer service or retail, but I soon learnt that when you genuinely believe in what you sell – i.e. when you are your own best customer - then all the answers and solutions are there. Your creativity is there. You don’t need expert knowledge; in fact you’re better off without it.
In terms of vision ~ I think there was an overall long term vision for it to become a nationwide chain, but what really mattered were the day-to-day goals, the small manageable goals like opening the first store, getting the details right like the quality of the coffee, getting service right. What people forget is that it's the small mundane tasks that get you to your destination - a big vision by itself is not enough.
Newnham: You ended up leacving the day-to-day running of the business 2001. Why did you do this and what lessons did you learn from the experience of building such a successful business?
Hashemi: My brother and I had soon transformed Coffee Republic into a big company, with all the processes and disciplines that go with that, and I saw first-hand how the entrepreneurial spirit gets stifled in bigger companies
We left thinking large successful companies don’t need entrepreneurs. We thought that, as entrepreneurs, our expiration date was up. We wrongly believed companies that size should be run by ‘professionals’ and that there was no room for passion in such a big company. I have since understood that although bigger companies need disciplines and structure, and that there is no reason to lose entrepreneurial habits - the behaviours and habits that got the company there in the first place. In fact, I believe it's those entrepreneurial habits which are increasingly important to (re)-adopt, at every level of a big organisation.
Even the largest multinationals need to keep the entrepreneurial spirit and passion alive so my biggest lesson in my early entrepreneurial journey is that it is all about passion; passion for your product or service, and passion for how the customer interacts with every detail of the business. In the world we live in, which is all about innovation and constant change, there is no replacement for passion.
Newnham: You are a woman of many talents and ambitions and have won numerous awards for your work. What drives you and what are you most proud of?
Hashemi: What drives me is waking up every morning and being stimulated and fulfilled. People call that a hobby but, for me, my work is my hobby. Work is what we do most of our lives, most of our waking hours, so we better be doing something we love.
What I’m most proud of is that I love what I do every day and I have found work in an area that I enjoy and therefore can do well in. As I said earlier, I started my life as a lawyer ~ I didn’t love it and I was a mediocre lawyer compared to my peers so I'm glad and proud I didn’t continue the rest of my life doing something that I was mediocre at, and that didn’t play to my strengths
Newnham: And finally, if you could offer one piece of advice to a younger Sahar, what would it be?
Hashemi: I would just say, "Just do your best, and let God to the rest."