Dr Rob Sobhani of Sparo On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Wealth isn’t everything: A lot of people put wealth on a pedestal. This reminds me of Shania Twain — “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” It’s not just about wealth. It’s about what you do with it. Realizing wealth isn’t everything because you can have all the money in the world and not use it to drive impact. It does not get you the loyalty of others. Money is money unless you apply it to something impactful.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Rob Sobhani, founder and CEO of Sparo. Rob is a leading international expert on energy, domestic policies and international relations. Formerly a professor at Georgetown University where he taught foreign policy and energy security, he now serves as Chairman and CEO of the Caspian Group, a multi-disciplinary firm with business interests in cyber-security, communications technology, as well as projects in the Middle East and former Soviet Union. Rob has advised both multinationals and state oil companies on billion-dollar energy projects since the 1990s. An accomplished author of several books and frequent lecturer, Rob is quoted regularly on domestic and international issues in top-tier national and international print and broadcast media. Born in the United States, Rob graduated from Georgetown University with a Ph.D. in Political Economy and spent many years abroad advising senior business and government leaders on good governance. A member of the bi-partisan Committee on the Present Danger, he has been a tireless advocate of democracy in Iran and other countries. Most recently, Rob is the founder and CEO of Sparo Corporation.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I consider myself a scholar entrepreneur. On the scholar side, I have a background in academia as I got my undergraduate, graduate, and Ph.D. from Georgetown. My Ph.D. focused on the economics of how countries with natural resources monetize them. That focus took me to countries that very few people knew about, helping bridge the gap between countries with resources and companies with capital to develop resources. That experience paved the way for how I’ve navigated my career following my formal education. I learned from this process that the key to a successful agreement is a fair exchange. I’m proud to say I was part of a negotiation that resulted in a production sharing agreement signed in 1994 that is still going on today. And that’s just one aspect of my background.
My academic pursuits have undoubtedly influenced my philosophy on the entrepreneurial side. For example, back in 2000, I realized that the world was going in the direction of new paradigms. That prompted me to become an investor and subsequently founded Z Advanced Computing, Inc. (ZAC), an Artificial Intelligence company focused on 3D image recognition.
Additionally , I serve on the board of Sienza Energy, which produces next generation lithium batteries that could address the world’s need for more efficient energy through a high powered, rechargeable battery for electric vehicles and consumer electronics. In short, Sienza Energy looks to provide the world with the best green batteries.
In 2012 I was instrumental in the launch of a project in Bahrain for “Smart Solar” energy. Partnering with Petra Solar, The National Oil and Gas Authority (NOGA) and The Bahrain Petroleum Company the landmark project brought both solar power and smart grid technology to the region. The project leveraged smart solar technology developed in the U.S. to generate electricity in a reliable way and to stabilize the current grid, all while creating jobs in Bahrain.
I consider myself someone that thinks a few years ahead, which was the catalyst behind why I started Sparo in 2014 — to fulfill the mission to revolutionize corporate social responsibility, starting with retailers and online merchants.
In my free time, I love to write, having authored several books and penned numerous articles on a wide variety of topics ranging from foreign policy to renewable energy.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career, I learned the necessity of keeping things simple. I was overcomplicating things with unnecessary bells and whistles. The first lesson that clicked was you need to have a product that is easy to navigate, easy to implement, and easy to put in front of a customer. Do not overthink — come up with an idea that gains traction with the investors.
A funny example proving my point is when I challenged the CTO of Staples that I could do a better job than Katy Perry getting attention and raising donations for Staples. So it was Rob Sobhani versus Katy Perry. We proved to them in 20 days that we could raise $50,000 and essentially won the bet. The lesson here was that bells and whistles are not always the best route, such as tapping a celebrity — keep it simple.
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?
There have been many influential figures in my life, considering I have had the privilege of taking classes at Georgetown with iconic figures such as Madeleine Albright, Henry Kissinger, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. However, the most impactful was my professor Jan Karski, a hero who risked his life to smuggle information to western leaders about the extermination of Jews in Polish territories in WWII. His message was to never quit. Always fight the fight, never say never, and do not turn your back on injustice.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My guiding principle is that a business needs to have a conscience baked into its DNA because a company with a moral compass has the power to touch more lives. With Sparo, we started with a vision to be the resource of the shopping cart of any merchant anywhere in the world so that every hour of each day, we create an impact. Granted, we are a business and need to monetize that, but we are consistently helping generate a positive impact where every time you are shopping, something good is happening. It gives everyone the ability to be the Warren Buffett and Bill Gates of the world — just from shopping.
My wife has always reminded me that there is a joy to giving. A spiritual benefit to giving. Why should it only be Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Mike Bloomberg — why can’t it be me, why can’t it be you? It is also about democratizing philanthropy. Giving the joy to each and every one of us to be for that moment. The purpose of Sparo is to help retailers worldwide — and their socially-conscious shoppers — do good in the world more efficiently and effectively. Sparo also helps retailers increase their customer bases, deepen customer loyalties, and improve their bottom lines by doing good in the world.
Whether it’s saving a child’s heart, addressing climate change or fighting human trafficking, Sparo’s e-commerce model makes it easier for merchants to listen to customers and support the causes they believe in. Close your eyes and imagine a world where every time you’re shopping, something good happens in the world. Capitalism can be practiced with a conscience, and the very nature of Sparo brings that concept to life.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Amid the confluence of economic, public health, and humanitarian crises unfolding around the world, there is no question everyone globally has been touched by uncertain or difficult times.
In 2019 we learned of a 3-year-old girl named Arwa from Palestine living in a refugee camp in Syria. She was in desperate need of an operation. We at Sparo were able to raise funds to send her to Israel for the life-saving procedure through Save a Child’s Heart.
I told my team, “there are millions of other little girls out there that we can save. We cannot stop.”
When things are hard, it is even more important to remind people why they are here.Everyone has a job and needs to work, but you can still be a successful business while doing good in the world. This all connects back to the double bottom line — practicing capitalism with a conscience.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Of course. When you are in a situation where investor after investor is saying no — no, you’re too early, no, we need a victory, etc. — my motivating factor is showing these investors they are wrong, we are right. You need to stay grounded because there is always more good that can be done at the end of the day. That is what sustains my drive.
I am making a broader point here. It is unjust and democratic for startups to need to go to Silicon Valley to be successful. How many people have access to Silicon Valley and Wall Street? Not many. What I am trying to do with Sparo is be an example of how it is possible to be successful without begging the powerful individuals in Silicon Valley.
There are other pathways to success. But the fact that the system is unfortunately set up in a way that makes it very difficult. The access to equity capital and the lack of democratic institutions to access that capital is one of the fundamental challenges for capitalism. How many good ideas get destroyed or do not see the light of day because someone could not acquire capital? Too many, and that is just not fair.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
As a former academic, libraries and books have always been my refuge. And as the years have gone by, and I reflect on the books I have read, they remind me of this very wise saying: “Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”
So let’s start with a book relevant to what we are all facing across the globe: the coronavirus pandemic. “Polio: An American Story: The Crusade That Mobilized the Nation Against the 20th Century’s Most Feared Disease.” The author, David Oshinsky won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2006 for this wonderful story of how brilliant minds conquered the deadly polio pandemic. One of the key lessons I learned from reading this book was the role philanthropy played in launching the research into both the origins of and cure for polio. The Rockefeller Institute became the hub for innovation where brilliant minds could gather under one roof and without petty worries and distractions.
We also can’t forget the philanthropy that launched the “March of Dimes”, and turned this non-profit into the leading advocate for supporting victims of polio and research for a cure. It was started at the height of the Great Depression in 1938. Thousands of Americans were suffering financially but we asked to send in a dime, the idea being that small contributions to a cause from many could have a huge impact. The March of Dimes went on to collect seven billion dimes, most from school children.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
While you need to lead boldly, you also need to lead humbly. When leading during challenging times, humility is key because everyone involved contributes to overcoming challenges, and no idea is solely yours. To do this, you need to remind people why they are doing what they are doing, the mission, and what you are trying to collectively accomplish and overcome.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Again, remind your staff and stakeholders of why we are here. We all need to have jobs to make a living, pay bills, but the time you spend doing your job can also be done while doing good for the world.
Personally, I keep my morale strong by reminding myself that life is not a dress rehearsal. In fact, the birth of Sparo happened the day I was born and the first drop of milk my mother gave me went to my lungs instead of my stomach. I was supposed to die. I have spent the rest of my life being thankful and wanting to give back.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Transparency is everything. Be honest and direct, but be hopeful. You can give bad news, but communicate bad news with hope, because providing a path forward is the key to overcoming adversity.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Flexibility is imperative. For example, President Eisenhower never saw combat but planned one of the world’s most important military campaigns to fight fascism. Have a game plan and prepare, but be ready to change that game plan. Until the last moment, Eisenhower wasn’t sure if he would launch this campaign on June 5 or 6th because the weather kept changing on the British Channel. But he knew what he would do once he landed those soldiers on Normandy. Leaders need to be prepared and have a game plan, but most importantly, they need to be flexible and ready to change plans quickly
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Understanding the core mission of the company. If you can understand the core mission, then you can weather the storm. Brands trying to be too many things cannot weave a consistent thread — especially when it comes to corporate giving.
For instance, many brands look for opportunities to give back, but it is so episode-driven and reactive, that it can be misguided and inconsistent. Knowing who you are and the exact causes you want to support is crucial to driving impact intentionally. That is where the Sparo e-commerce plug-in comes into play — it allows for sustainable social impact.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
In recent corporate history, we’ve seen companies make mistakes largely in terms of corporate responses to crises around the world.
- Episode-driven and performative when world crises emerge. Today’s consumers are smart — and will be able to tell when philanthropy is genuinely a core part of a brand’s ethos versus performative or self-serving in nature.
- Not thinking of the big picture when it comes to their mission.
- From a business perspective, not taking advantage of an opportunity to initiate that double bottom line of doing good, but connecting it back to a company’s bottom line. Businesses need to upscale their giving offering when people want more ways to give back during uncertain times or times of crisis. Especially when today’s young customer is quick to love — and cancel — a brand based on its social actions.
Companies need to be mindful as consumers are more frequently demanding corporations improve the authenticity and volume of their philanthropic efforts. With this new appetite for corporate accountability, it is likely we will see more and more consumers begin prioritizing or practicing more socially conscious purchasing.Companies need to respond accordingly.
That’s why platforms like Sparo make it easy for businesses — especially retailers — to add an element of altruism to their business model. Using Sparo, companies can identify any number of charities worldwide and allow their customers to pick which one their sale will benefit. While the financial responsibility is on the company, the consumer is invited to participate.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Wealth isn’t everything: A lot of people put wealth on a pedestal. This reminds me of Shania Twain — “That Don’t Impress Me Much.” It’s not just about wealth. It’s about what you do with it. Realizing wealth isn’t everything because you can have all the money in the world and not use it to drive impact. It does not get you the loyalty of others. Money is money unless you apply it to something impactful.
- Endurance: You need to have endurance. We undervalue wisdom and experience, everything being too fast or too instant. We need to look to the past to inform the future.
- While you lead boldly, you must lead humbly: Humility is a crucial characteristic of any CEO. Leaders need to understand they are not nor need to be the most intelligent person in the room. There is a reason we hire the people we do — to contribute their ideas.
- Be kind and intentional with everything that you do: During these turbulent times, leaders must be mindful of how circumstances and our actions as leaders impact everyone, from your colleagues to your customers. Being kind and intentional should be guiding forces for leaders.
- Stay focused on your mission: The mission of Sparo is to revolutionize corporate social responsibility for retailers and online merchants. That is what I came here for, and that is what I focus on at every decision point.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One quote that I like very much from Martin Luther King — one of life’s most persistent questions is this — “What are you doing for others?” I think that is a beautiful quote — simple yet powerful and inspirational.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Dr Rob Sobhani of Sparo On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.