On the 6th of May we had the pleasure of having Sahar Hashemi as our speaker, founder of Coffee Republic and Skinny Candy. Sahar spoke about the challenges she faced as an entrepreneur and her journey, and expressed her optimism for the next generation of women entrepreneurs
The idea of Coffee Republic was inspired by a trip to New York to visit Sahar’s brother, then an investment banker. Sahar had just left her job at a prestigious law firm in London after 5 years, feeling that the training had been invaluable but that she did not want to sacrifice her fun and passion for 9-7 hour days. In the 80s, there was a general idea that work and fun did not go hand-in-hand; the mentality was that these big corporations were “not paying you to enjoy it”. Sahar refused this, but initially decided to start interviewing to become an in-house lawyer.
The trip to New York sowed the seeds for what would become Coffee Republic. Sahar describes falling in love with the American coffee shops, so different from the sandwich bars in the UK. She went to a coffee shop in NY expecting the same awful, congealed coffee she found back home, and was amazed at the variety that coffee shops offered, at the possibility of having a skinny or soy latte, with cinnamon or vanilla or syrups on it.
The catalyst for Coffee Republic was a conversation at a Thai restaurant with her family. She was innocently remarking on how much she had enjoyed the American coffee when her brother suggested that they partner up and bring in a coffee brand like Starbucks to the UK, which had yet to see the arrival of such coffee shops. After much deliberation, she decided to go for it. Coffee Republic was eventually valued at 50 million in April 2001, 6 years after opening its first shop.
After selling Coffee Republic, she went on to write her own book, “Anyone Can do It”, which became a cult book in entrepreneurship. Later, missing the thrill of having a start-up, she started a brand of sugar-free candy, Skinny Candy.
On Entrepreneurship and How it has Changed –
In the 80s, when Sahar grew up, there was only one entrepreneur to compare yourself to – Richard Branson. The idea seemed to be that unless you have made your first million in the playground or, ironically, dropped out of university, then you couldn’t really be an entrepreneur. She would never have thought someone like her would have been able to do it.
Entrepreneurship, back then, was not “cool”; and Sahar talks about how at the beginning she felt like it was below her to open a coffee shop after working for a law firm. This is a great contrast to how she sees the world today. Our generation is lucky – there’s talk of equality and women do not have to emulate men to succeed. For Sahar, the future is about admitting our differences, not just to do with gender but in all respects, and embracing an authentic workplace.
The challenge for us is that we have more options, and more freedom. The key is to try as much as you can until you find something you love, so that work never feels like work, it feels like a treat.
On How to Start-Up –
Initially, Sahar wanted to go to business school before starting her own coffee shop, but her brother gave her inspiring advice, saying that actually doing it was the best business school anyone could have. She advises anyone considering being an entrepreneur to start young, perhaps after a few years at a corporate job. The advantages are that when we are young we take risks, and are ignorant about most industries and it is helpful to have an uncluttered mind. Sahar emphasised the importance of being clueless at the beginning.
Starting up a business is about taking a leap; both siblings left amazing jobs to go live back with their parents in order to have enough money to start their first coffee shop. They learnt on the job, going into other shops and cafes to see what they were doing and try to make something better and different. Neither had experience but they managed to make a business plan, and, after contacting 40 bank managers, finally secure a loan.
The key when starting is perseverance. Sahar was told many times that she would fail, with 18 bank managers telling her that her plan would never work because the UK was a “nation of tea drinkers.”
Once you gain momentum, it’s about doing everything you can to promote your product, whether that is having loyalty cards and deliveries or standing outside London Fashion weeks for hours. There is no formula, you just have to put yourself out there and believe in your product; she could not imagine that someone would prefer the sandwich bar to her nice coffee and American-style muffins.
Sahar’s final piece of advice – entrepreneurship is about doing the things you love; find what you are passionate about and believe in it.