The Bred Entrepreneur

Dubbed one of the most powerful women in Britain, Coffee Republic co-founder Sahar Hashemi now passes on what she learned to a new breed of entrepreneurs.

Sahar Hashemi is running late. She was hit by the creative muse that morning, she explains, and rather than fighting it she went with the flow, penning the first chapter of her new book. It will be a kind of Lean-In for entrepreneurs about “the female brain—because I think the qualities people used to make fun of are qualities that are becoming really essential in business—the empathy we naturally have, the fact we communicate and network the whole time and the fact we are shopaholics. Those are qualities that are going to set people apart now.”

British entrepreneur Hashemi, 48, is well qualified to know. Back in the 1990s, when the phenomenon of coffeeshop chains was still a novelty in the UK, she brought the concept from the US and with her brother Bobby, founded one of the first chains of coffee bars in the UK. Coffee Republic became such a runaway success with 110 outlets nationwide and a turnover of $44 million that it grew bigger than either of them had envisaged, taking them further away from the dream they originally had as entrepreneurs. Disillusioned, they both left in 2001 and within a few years, the company ran into trouble, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy and scaling back its expansion plans.

London-based Hashemi has since dabbled in other start-ups—she also founded the successful low-fat confectionery brand Skinny Candy in 2005, selling it two years later—but her main focus now is as a motivational speaker and author, running workshops for would-be entrepreneurs and, with her third book underway, teaching them that anything is possible and never to take ‘no’ for an answer. She has also accumulated a host of accolades, including an OBE from the Queen in 2012 for services to the UK economy and charity, and was named one of the top 10 original thinkers by Director magazine and one of the 20 most powerful women in Britain by the Independent on Sunday newspaper.

Her mantra—and the title of her first book, penned with Bobby and called Anyone Can Do It—must have the likes of Richard Branson and executives from Apple clasping their foreheads in horror. Hashemi argues there is nothing special about entrepreneurs and they are “bred, not born”. In Anyone Can Do It, the Hashemi’s write: “Legend and conventional wisdom have made us believe that unless you are a swashbuckling extrovert who has loved business since kindergarten (preferably making your first million selling sweets in the playground) and are somehow blessed with otherworldly skills, then starting up on your own is not an option…Rubbish. All sorts of people start businesses and all sorts of people thrive after doing so.”

Hashemi’s workshops and books—her second was called Switched On—follow the same doctrine. Her books are effectively a manual in which she distills all the lessons she learned the hard way, as well as spelling out the need for a business plan, finance and research, particularly when—as she and her brother did—venturing into a field they had no experience of. She says entrepreneurs succeed because they maintain the passion and enthusiasm for their brand many big businesses forget to nurture.

Tehran-born Hashemi, who moved to the UK with her late parents after the Iranian revolution of 1979, admits she regrets selling Coffee Republic and it was partly the invasion of a big business mentality as the company grew that left her disenchanted: “No one had time to go and have a cup of coffee. Those 10 minutes would have been so rich, full of seeing what was wrong with what we were giving customers and yet no one had time.” The old guard, she says, believed in setting up an enterprise then quickly selling it. Her businesses suffered from listening to the wrong people about how to progress, she adds.

“I thought being a start-up was a phase you grew out of and that you should get the suits in. I now see we were wrong. We thought the professionals could take care of it.” She says the entrepreneurial spirit and passion for the product is essential to keeping a company going and surviving in a competitive market—something Coffee Republic struggled to do after the Hashemis’ departure as Starbucks, Caffe Nero and Costa expanded exponentially.

“I think the founder has a special attachment to the company and by leaving, you take a lot of DNA out of the company.”

In Switched On, she condensed the lessons she had learned into eight crucial habits to maintain an entrepreneurial mindset, even as a company expands. They include the notion that entrepreneurial behaviour is for big organisations at every level, not just start-ups, stepping into customers’ shoes, getting out of the office to inspire creativity and what she calls “the importance of being clueless”—being wary of getting so set in your ways, you miss new opportunities. And she and Bobby, now aged 50, were clueless when they started Coffee Republic, shortly after their father’s death made them rethink their lives. Both turned their backs on a career in the rat race—Hashemi was a lawyer, her brother an investment banker—and the idea was born because Hashemi was opining the lack of skinny cappuccinos and fat-free muffins in the UK capital. Similarly, Skinny Candy was conceived because she was looking for low-calories sweets and chocolates and could not find anything to suit. It made the brother and sister the perfect pairing for their joint venture: she was the ideal customer and Bobby, who went on to found the London pizza chain Pizza Union, was the business brain.

“You immerse yourself as if it was a swimming pool, dig in for three months and learn everything,” says Hashemi. “Quite quickly you become an expert.”

Philanthropy plays its part in their ventures. A portion of royalties from Anyone Can Do It went to the Prince’s Trust, Prince Charles’s charity supporting young disadvantaged people in business, while Hashemi became a patron of Child Bereavement UK after her mother died seven years ago. She also fronted a Skills for Business government campaign in 2004. She hopes her next book will herald the qualities women contribute to business: “We are not shouting about it enough. There are certainly qualities innate in the female brain which lend particularly well to entrepreneurship.”