Create financial independence
Support unlimited growth opportunities
Influence society by creating jobs
Establish a strong feeling of social responsibility
Empower future generations by creating an example for others to follow
Become a catalyst of change for your community
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Claudia Mirza, CEO and co-founder of Akorbi, the largest woman-owned language service provider in the United States. What started as a simple translation business is today a global provider of multilingual business solutions, including interpretation, staffing, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), and localization in over 170 languages.
Her vision has led Akorbi to be ranked #29, #34, and #27 in the world by the Common Sense Advisory (CSA), Nimdzi Insights, and Slator respectively in the LSP industry. Akorbi has maintained a top 100 ranking for 4 years in a row by the CSA; and for two consecutive years, the company has ranked #11 on their North American list. Adding to this impressive track record in 2020, Akorbi was also listed as the fastest-growing Language Service Provider based on the Women Presidents’ Organization’s (WPO’s) “50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led Companies” rankings.
Claudia is a published author in key industry publications, a sought-after speaker, an inventor with patents-pending, a mother of two, a mentor, daughter and a philanthropist. She has been featured in Forbes, Inc. Magazine, TIME, Fortune and by Google as an advocate for small and women-owned businesses.
As the 2016 US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s Woman of the Year, Claudia was invited to the White House to meet with the current administration representing small and women-owned businesses. Claudia is a Harvard Business School Alumni of Class 52 from the prestigious Owner/President Management (OPM) Program and has a passion for advocating on behalf of female business owners and the global economy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
In 2002, I lost my job during the dotcom crash. Losing my job was traumatizing, and I was disappointed in the job options that were available to me at that time. I had big ideas, and the job offers were not aligned with my vision for the future or the career I wanted to have. While looking for a new job, a contact from the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce suggested I consider opening my own business instead of working for someone else. Becoming an entrepreneur was the only option that would allow me to carve out the path and future that I wanted for myself and my family.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting thing that has happened to me was getting to visit The White House and meet the President of the United States. I was given the opportunity to discuss issues and policies impacting small businesses and provide ideas to the country’s leader, all while journalists filled the room broadcasting this discussion to the world. It was a surreal and remarkable experience.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In our very early years of the business, we had the opportunity to present in person to one of the largest insurance companies in the country. When we arrived in town to present, we realized our dress shoes were not polished, and we didn’t remember to bring shoe polish with us. We ended up getting tire shine as a quick fix, but the problem was our shoes were then covered in product that kept leaving black prints all over the floor of the elegant office building. The shoes were ultimately destroyed, but 18 years later, we still have that client.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful for the kindness of our clients who have had the compassion to support and take a chance on us when we were still small and just starting out. Many times, it is easier for a large company to select large vendors with an army of employees who can satisfy any of their business needs quickly. However, we were blessed with remarkable people who have believed in us from the beginning and are the reason Akorbi is what it is today.
I also want to recognize the women who have provided immense support to me throughout my entrepreneurial journey. Carmen Castillo, Nina Vaca, Phyllis Newhouse, and Dr. Marsha Firestone have been role models for me and have shaped many female leaders. These women are all founders of their own successful businesses and have remained committed to the success and mentorship of many women in the United States. They have set the example of what all successful female entrepreneurs should be.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
A book that resonated with me was “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss. This book taught me how to effectively deal with manipulative tactics used in business that are detrimental to the success of women in the workplace. Voss also discusses negotiation skills, which are perhaps the most important tool that any aspiring professional should hone to have an advantage in any endeavor. From a requesting a salary increase to closing a business deal, negotiation skills are crucial to get ahead in life.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Narrow Focus, Narrow Opportunities.”
Dr. Lynda Applegate from Harvard Business School shared that quote with me. I’m not certain who the author of this quote is, but it changed my perspective on how I approach my business as well as my personal life.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
What I love about leading a business is you can impact so many people around you. By opening a business, you can influence a community, and that community can grow to influence society and an entire country. For example, early on at Akorbi, we offered a maintenance job to a mother looking for work. While working with us, we helped pay for her to obtain two associate degrees in business management and accounting. When she graduated and was promoted, another mother went to work in maintenance and was sent to school and the cycle began again. Now, all these years later, she is one of the most trusted team members and mentoring several others within the organization herself.
I love seeing our professionals working for advanced degrees and move into executive positions. I really hope that our team members stay with us for a long time, but even if they don’t, I want to contribute to society by shaping these professionals so they can be an asset to the global economy.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
In general, I believe education should start from early childhood by teaching negotiation, communication, entrepreneurship and financial skills. As a collective society, we need to expose our girls to successful female founder role models so, regardless of social classes, they can aspire to become successful founders themselves. The empowerment of women should begin from an early age.
To create more female founders, we must start promoting and mentoring women in corporate America to obtain leadership positions with equality. It is important to have gender balance on corporate boards to create policies and decisions with more inclusive career development. Women who advance professionally will feel empowered to start their own businesses.
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
Basically, I am paying it forward. Many women have helped and influenced me over the years, and I want to continue that positive cycle of mentorship. Anyone who knows me, will tell you that I spend a great deal of my time mentoring other women both inside my company and outside to achieve their full potential. Whether they are dealing with a business on the brink of collapse after catastrophic events or figuring out how to navigate life after a divorce, I am a cheerleader for my fellow women founders.
Consistent mentoring and a strong support system is crucial to women founders who might now find themselves in a very lonely job. I believe women founders should remain in a position of power within their business until they can create a successful exit or successfully transfer ownership. I want to see women founders become the “rainmakers” or visionaries instead of getting bogged down in the daily business operations. I want to help them transition into strategic thinkers with complete control of their own destinies. I want the women around me to feel empowered, satisfied and fulfilled.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
- Create financial independence
- Support unlimited growth opportunities
- Influence society by creating jobs
- Establish a strong feeling of social responsibility
- Empower future generations by creating an example for others to follow
- Become a catalyst of change for your community
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.
- Promote women in corporate America to obtain leadership positions.
- Mentor women to create the careers of their dreams.
- Create gender balance on corporate boards.
- Create policies and decisions with more inclusive career development.
- Provide support however you can to encourage women to start their own businesses.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to become a politician, an ambassador, a cabinet member, or perhaps even become president someday. I would love to focus my time on empowering societies to believe in themselves and prosper. I would enjoy spreading the message of financial empowerment to transform a country. A great example of this is India’s educational system. By emphasizing the importance of education, India has produced some of the wealthiest individuals on earth. I would love to lead and influence a country-wide transformation like that.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to have a private breakfast with Angela Merkel. She is a woman of such simplicity with a remarkable leadership style, and she fills a room with her presence. Her strong values, morals, courage and ability to connect with others is inspiring. Her authenticity and simple style allows her personality to be the center of attention — what you see is what you get. She understands the purpose of long-term sustainability for a society. She knows who she is, what she stands for, and as a result, the world listens.
George Packer once said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette, “She [Merkel] doesn’t need to win every argument. She doesn’t have to get in the last word. She quietly assesses the different factors involved in a given situation and then decides which way she wants to go and does it quietly and without fanfare.”
I love how she stays quiet without taking the spotlight. She prefers to work quietly without making noise, and I find that to be an extremely admirable quality in a leader.
I would be interested to understand how she acquired those skills that took her to the level of leadership she is at today. I want to find out which academic courses, leaders, and routines empowered her to start her political career and become so successful.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.