Movers and Shakers | Rashida Abdulai | Founder, Strand Sahara
Rashida Abdulai is the founder and CEO of Strand Sahara, an online legal services for startups and SMEs in the UK and across Africa. The company empowers entrepreneurs in the UK and across Africa with the legal support they need to go global.
What drove you to start your own business?
To the outside world, I had hit the jackpot. Against the odds I had made it into one of the world’s largest law firms in one of the most elitist professions in the UK. I was quickly rising through the ranks, becoming a recognised expert in my field of international arbitration law, winning numerous “Rising Star” awards and became the most senior black lawyer in my department and region.
It was having my first child and using that time out to assess my career and whether I was still on the right path that prompted me to make a change. I knew that I was capable of much more than my corporate role allowed and that I needed to do more to support economic empowerment in the black community.
My work at the firm had exposed me to the crucial role that legal services play in the growth and success of businesses and I felt compelled to use the skills and expertise I had gained over the previous decade to make world-class legal services more affordable, accessible and relevant to the black entrepreneurs in the UK and across Africa building the corporate giants of tomorrow. Strand Sahara was born.
What was your career path prior to starting your business?
After completing law degrees at King’s College London and New York University, I was called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2008 and, after struggling to secure a role at the Commercial Bar, was offered a role at the global law firm Hogan Lovells in 2009.
My area of specialisation was international arbitration and I would represent household name corporations in international disputes worth billions of dollars. It was a privilege to work on such challenging cases and to travel the world. My work often took me to sub-Saharan Africa where I was able to contribute my time and expertise to non-profit organisations which work to build legal excellence and foster sustainable development across Africa.
As a black woman, I was often the ‘only one in the room’ and was painfully aware of the acute underrepresentation of black men and women in the legal profession, especially in commercial law practice. I have long been a champion for diversity and inclusion in City law firms, being a founding Co-Chair of the inter-law firm diversity network, NOTICED and a committee member of the Law Society’s Ethnic Minority Lawyers Division. I was therefore not surprised to learn from UK Government reports that many black business owners and would-be entrepreneurs feel disconnected from professional service providers and daunted by the prospect of working with commercial lawyers they perceive as not understanding them, another reason behind my decision to leave the corporate world in order to start Strand Sahara in 2018.
Tell us about the business planning stage (for example: did you write a business plan? did you contact any business support agencies?)?
I joined a comprehensive 10-month business accelerator program (the Key Person of Influence Accelerator) to help me to define the value proposition for my new business and develop the product and launch plans.
I also enlisted the support of an executive coach (Reena Dayal) who helped me to define my values and find the clarity I needed to take action and prepare for my new life as an entrepreneur. This combination of personal coaching and formal business training proved invaluable, ensuring my limited time and energy was used to address the right issues at the right time.
How far ahead do you plan and what keeps you on track and motivated?
I like to think about the future and always have a clear vision of where I want the business to go and what I want it to achieve. I like to plan short-term and long-term (10+ year) goals and chart my progress against them regularly to keep me motivated.
Can you describe a typical working day?
The majority of my working days so far have been during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has somewhat turned the ‘typical working day’ on its head! Juggling childcare and education as well as running a business has been tough and has meant having to work through the night when work has demanded it.
What has been the most amazing day in your entrepreneurial life so far?
I was awarded BSN (Black Solicitors Network) Lawyer of the Year for my work at Strand Sahara in November 2019, which was an amazing moment.
Also, way up there, was speaking at my former firm’s annual conference about Strand Sahara and our vision alongside industry leaders from some of the world’s largest companies, and being selected to attend the UK Trade Mission to Nigeria in April 2019 alongside some of the world’s largest law firms.
What has been your scariest moment?
Before embarking on this journey, I would have thought that handing in my resignation would hands down be the scariest moment. But actually, the scariest moment (so far!) was putting my service out in the market and asking for my first sale. I felt incredibly exposed and uncomfortable, having had the prestige of a large brand and the support of an entire team of business development and marketing professionals behind me for so long in my previous career.
I had to dig deep and embark on personal as well as professional growth in order to push through those doubts. I am a much better person for it.
How do you work on making your business grow?
Collaborating and partnering with others wherever possible to multiply our reach and improve our offering.
What is the best thing about being your own boss?
Being able to build and run my business in alignment with my own values and vision. If I don’t like it, we don’t do it. Simple!
What are the challenges of working for yourself and how do you tackle them?
I have found that entrepreneurship can be a lonely and isolating journey. On top of that there are lots of unknowns and no rulebook. Finding a support network of entrepreneurs who I can relate to has been vitally important as well as investing in personal and professional development and external experts to move forward.
Who do you admire or look to for inspiration as a business owner?
I am inspired by individuals and organisations that are highly innovative and purpose driven. Shaking up the status quo and having the courage of their convictions to do things that have not been done before and lead by example.
What piece of advice has had the most impact on your business? And who was it from?
One piece of advice that stands outs is, “start now, where you are and with what you have”.
I heard this first from Simon Paine of the PopUp Business School. For those of us with perfectionist tendencies, it can be tempting to spend lots of time planning, researching, trying to make things perfect or waiting for the right time before getting started. But the truth is that the only test that matters is the market, and the sooner you enter it with your offering, the sooner you will learn what you need to do to improve it and move closer to the levels of success you crave.
What are the three books, websites or resources (professional or personal) that you would recommend to other business owners?
What other passions do you have away from your business? How do you relax?
I love to spend time with my family, immersed in a delicious combination of reminiscing, laughing, eating, dancing and just being with each other.