How a yoga instructor became a billionaire business founder
Nicole Sahin has pivoted from anthropologist to yoga instructor to Founder and CEO of a billion-dollar company. I talk with Nicole about the value of following your intuition, how women can muster the courage to jump to something new, and her one regret in her career.
You started your career running yoga retreats in the Caribbean. How did you start there? What did you learn?
Well — I grew up in the Midwest where the best job you could have was lawyer or doctor or professor. That was the epitome of a professional career. There was no concept that you could work for the United Nations, or go back to school to study, or start your own company. Success was limited by my imagination. And back then, the career options seemed smaller.
But then in college I got a scholarship for a study abroad program where I visited 12 countries in 100 days. It opened my eyes to how big the world was. I went to Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Japan. By the time I came home, I was a different person. I got a taste of a global world view and I wanted more of that.
After college I did an anthropology study in Guatemala. But when I came back to the US, 9/11 happened, and it was a very difficult time to find a career. That year I was bartending and teaching yoga. And honestly, I was disappointed in myself. People told me “it’s not your fault you can’t get a job,” but it was hard for me to understand as a straight A student who did everything right. I thought, if this is what I’m going to do, I might as well do it in the Caribbean. So I moved to the Caribbean and started leading yoga retreats. I was taking advantage of unused hotel occupancy and the burgeoning trend towards yoga to reposition hotels at the leading edge of yoga.
In that experience I learned a lot. I realized that I was really good at running a business. I was great at creating content and programs that would sell. But, I had no idea how to do the work like accounting and tax filings and all the infrastructure that goes along with running a business.
It was challenging for me to admit that I was a “business person.” I had always thought business was evil and I didn’t want to dedicate my life to making money. But I realized that if you run a nonprofit you spend all your time asking people for money — and it’s a lot easier just to make the money. I also believed I could run an ethical business that has a positive social impact as well as financial outcome. I decided to get my MBA.
After such a unique experience in the yoga and hotel business — how do you figure out what to pivot to next?
When I was coming out of my MBA program, I started interviewing. I was interviewing for a role at Google and networking around. I was not really sure what I wanted to do.
Then I saw a job advertisement for a role which was basically to jump on board with a man with a dream. This leader had the idea that companies were going international much faster than they ever had before. And when you expand to a foreign country, there is complexity in figuring out international legal, tax, and compliance issues. The hypothesis was that we could build a team with experience navigating those issues. As a company, if we have done it 100 times before and are experts, then companies will hire us to do the work for them.
I worked there for six years and it was an awesome ride. I was the fifth employee and we grew to over 200 employees with hundreds of clients and a lot of success.
You left to start your own company with a similar offering, Globalization Partners. How did you know it was time to leave and become a true Founder?
I left because I thought I had a better idea. Instead of setting up hundreds of companies in a country — one different company for every new client — I thought I could set up just one company and give all my clients access to it.
I saw that I would have a much more scalable business. I thought that was a better business platform. I also believed the clients wanted it. Nobody had done it yet because there were a lot of legal and regulatory issues to figure out on a country-by-country basis. But, I wanted to try.
So my husband and I both quit our jobs and traveled for a year. During that time I met with lawyers, tax advisors, and accounts in different countries. And the business began.
Today, about ten years later, we have locations all over the globe, thousands of customers, and will have over 1000 employees by the end of 2021. Our legally compliant global employment platform and AI-powered user experience makes it fast and easy for companies to hire anyone, anywhere, within minutes. We are completely revolutionizing the way companies hire employees all over the globe by putting the international workforce management at their fingertips.
It’s also important to me that we are an ethical employer. We have a triple bottom line. Our goal is to be highly profitable and successful on traditional metrics, the ones that any private equity firm would want to see. But we also do it while providing killer client service to our clients. And providing an environment where employees love to work. I’m very happy to say that we are accomplishing those metrics.
You seem to approach your career with a sense of freedom and courage to pursue your interests and what you want in your career — it’s something so many women want, but struggle with. Do you agree?
I think there is some push and pull.
You’re right that freedom is a value that is super important to me. The one thing I can’t tolerate is someone or something infringing on my freedom. For example, I never wanted to sign up for a mortgage that was going to make me feel chained to a place.
But, I was also terrified when I left my former company. It was a company I had built and become emotionally attached to. It was part of my identity and letting go was hard.
I follow my intuition very strongly. And I felt that this mission was screaming at me. I had to do it. It was time to move on. And what I’ve learned over many years is that when I have a strong intuition, the sooner I follow that intuition, the better off I am. When I was younger, I would be miserable for a while and just deal with it. The older you get, the more you learn about yourself, and the easier it is to trust that intuition.
Every founder I talk to describes being terrified before starting their company. How did you get over that fear?
I grappled with the fear. It was like leaping off a cliff and hoping I’d sprout wings. That doesn’t sound easy. And it’s not.
There comes a point where you think, I’m gonna do it or I’m not. And you just have to decide. There is nervous anticipation because you’re going to do something so monumental and overwhelming.
But the idea of standing on the edge of a cliff and looking out for the rest of my life but never doing anything — that possibility felt so much worse.
What advice do you have for other women considering a major career pivot or starting their own company?
People will come out of the woodwork to help you. When I first started Globalization Partners, it surprised me. It was not just the friends and close colleagues that I always expected would help me. It was people that I had only lightly known throughout my career. I was honored.
Another big lesson was learning to not accept for my business anything less than what I would accept for someone else’s business. So for example, late payments on invoices. It can be really hard to advocate for yourself personally and say, “No, you actually have to pay this invoice according to the agreed standards.”
Early on, when I was having trouble holding boundaries like that, I realized — I wouldn’t accept this for a company I was running on behalf of somebody else. I’m not going to accept it for my business either.
Looking back, anything you would do differently?
I would have started sooner, and faster.
Thank you, Nicole, for sharing your story! You can learn more about Nicole and Globalization Partners here.
Q&A is edited for clarity and brevity.