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Thursday, 21 March 2019

Sandra Farid, founding partner, Acumen Consulting

Sandra Farid, founding partner of Acumen Consulting: My Morning Routine looks each week at how a successful member of the community starts their day — and then throws in a couple of random business questions just for fun. This week: Meet Sandra Farid, founding partner of Acumen Consulting, an SME-focused management consulting and economic advisory firm.

I’m Sandra Farid. I’m a 31-year-old Alexandria native. I grew up playing basketball professionally at Alexandria Sporting Club, and I attended the German school in Alexandria, but I moved to Cairo to attend AUC, where I graduated with a double bachelor’s degree in business administration and economics. I earned my master’s degree in Germany on the economics of the Arab world directly thereafter. I’m passionate about different things, so in addition to being an athlete and an entrepreneur, I play different musical instruments and perform from time to time. I also write and, recently, I started acting. My first appearance was last Ramadan, in the series Eugenie Nights, where I played the role of a conservative Jewish girl called Sarah.

I’m the founding partner of Acumen Consulting, a boutique consulting company specialized in providing policy and economic advisory services as well as management consulting for SMEs and training for start-ups. Our company just entered its fourth year. My day job includes everything from meeting clients, producing reports and deliverables, writing proposals, and mentoring the employees, to watering the plants and securing our coffee needs. We intentionally don’t have an office boy, but we have an office dishwasher and a strict clean desk policy. We want to enforce a collaborative, responsible culture that is present in both the small and the big things. I also enjoy taking care of the small things (whether it’s art selection or something as minute as making sure the automatic air fresheners are working) at the office. I don't do these things because I have to, but because I actually enjoy it.

I don't really have a morning routine as such. I usually open my eyes around 6:30 am and the first thing I do is skim through Enterprise as soon as it arrives in my inbox. Then I read in bed or watch videos or doze off again until 8:30 am if I don't have an 8 am meeting. I don’t eat or drink right away, but usually have my first snack around 11 am. I hate routine in all its shapes and forms. I don't have fixed timings for anything, nor do I have something specific that I eat or drink every day. Not even my sleeping times and hours are fixed.

The nature of consulting entails having many meetings with the clients both before and during the execution of projects. So on any given day, I’m either meeting a client at our office, meeting at the client's office, teaching at an incubator, or I’m at the office doing back-end work and strategizing. I spend a minimum of an hour, and usually more, of my day strategizing and planning ahead, thinking of new service lines and approaches, exploring new tools and new business ventures. These are often the happiest hours of my day, when I can zoom out of the operational details and think ahead, focusing on the big picture.

The best film I’ve seen recently is Netflix’s Bird Box. I’m not usually a big fan of Netflix productions, but to me, this movie was so full of raw emotion and showed the relationship between love and fear in the context of motherhood as I’d never seen on screen before. It was intense and cruel, yet utterly beautiful.

Recently I also read the five books of Brené Brown, an American professor who is mostly known for her research about the power of vulnerability. I’ve used her material to develop a curriculum that I teach to entrepreneurs about the power of vulnerability in running a business, while being sensitive to the target market and its needs. Being a woman in business, I always used the “Iron Woman” approach out of necessity. Now I’ve discovered that being who I am in all its forms — strong, vulnerable, confused, and tired — makes me more credible, and it makes my client and employee relationships more real and alive.

The origin story of Acumen Consulting actually stems from when I was five years old. I dreamed of starting my own thing even at that age. I showed entrepreneurial traits since my early childhood, and I derive meaning and value from helping to solve problems and making people's lives better. Inji Borai, my business partner, and I were both working at competing consulting companies before starting Acumen Consulting. At some point in time I really felt ready÷ to start my own thing, and I had known Inji since university. Since then, I hadn’t come across anybody I would trust technically and personally to this extent. There is no one else I could have done this with. We chose to call it Acumen Consulting because during our brainstorming, we listed our personal features and qualities that people attribute to us, and we felt that the word “Acumen” embodies attributes like wit, speed, and being well-equipped, which we believe we have and are the main requirements for business consulting.

Most of the time, when I say I have a consulting company, people come back with questions about what that actually means. There is a general notion that consulting depends on a gut feeling or an ability to tell good stories, which we think is a total myth. We use scientific tools and methods, we crunch numbers, and we do a lot of benchmarking before we come up with our consulting protocol. It is also hard to explain our policy advisory practice. We write strategies for the government, and for quasi-governmental institutions, such as the chambers of commerce and export councils. We also work on implementing policy agreements between the government and international development partners, and this line of business is usually the hardest to explain.

The business of consulting is really, genuinely, fun. Every client is different. Although many may have similar problems, each client is a case of their own and each requires a tailored solution. So every day looks different, and for every client we need to find the approach that best suits him or her. I get bored easily, which is why I can hardly imagine myself working in another industry with monotonous work dynamics and routines.

Digital disruption in SMEs will definitely change the way SME consulting is done, as many local SMEs still operate in an almost manual way. Documenting the results of consulting engagements is something that is lacking in the market. A consulting company rarely goes back to a client to actually test and document whether the approach recommended was actually implemented and whether or not it brought about tangible results. Documenting impact will help in creating more evidence-based literature, and would also encourage more businesses to seek consulting services they may benefit from.

In my down time, I enjoy sports, music, acting and going out with friends. I also read a lot. I read the news, novels, poetry, and articles and papers on economics. I also enjoy babysitting my friends’ kids, which helps me to unwind and makes me genuinely happy.

The best piece of business advice I’ve ever been given? In everything that you do at work and in life, you need to set the right intention. This is what sets the tone for what lies ahead.

I have a pretty solid memory. I use Google calendar to keep track of my meetings and deliverables, but other than that I rarely write anything down. My life appears messy appearance if my room, desk, kitchen, or car are your indicators. But my head is very compartmentalized and organized. I need a lot of organizational assistance with everything in my life, with the exception of work.

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