A Conversation with Sharon T. Freeman
Dr. Sharon T. Freeman, recipient of Walden’s 2005 Outstanding Alumni Award, is an entrepreneur, author, and global change agent who works to promote growth and export development for small, minority and women-owned enterprises throughout the world.
WALDEN: What inspired you to get into global trade?
FREEMAN: I was motivated at a very young age by a desire to expand my horizons; to be defined as a global citizen, not just as a black American woman. I wanted to understand how the world worked, to be a part of it, and to leave a mark.
WALDEN: How did you get started?
FREEMAN: When I first began doing international work in 1975, it was virtually unprecedented for a black American woman to work in this domain. If the old adage of “It is not what you know, but who you know” held true, I never would have been able to gain a foothold.
My ace in the hole was the work experience I had gained as a senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton. I knew that it was prestigious to have worked there, and I also knew, with its many connections to people in high places, I would be able to identify someone in a government agency who would value my former employment. Sure enough, when the director of personnel at the International Development Cooperation Agency (IDCA) saw Booz Allen on my resume, she moved my application to the top of the heap. When she phoned my former boss, who was the head of Booz Allen’s consulting practice in Washington, D.C.—and, incidentally, her neighbor—and he spoke highly of me, it clinched the deal. In this case, both parts of the adage were true: It was whom I knew and what I knew.
The job I landed was as a private-sector advisor to a number of development agencies under the umbrella of the IDCA. This gave me an aerial view of the U.S. government’s international development initiatives and helped me learn about development from the top down.
WALDEN: How did you gain the “bottom-up” in-the-field perspective of development?
FREEMAN: My first foray into the development world was a trip that my sister Elaine and I took to Africa. We wanted to go to the poverty and underdevelopment, a situation that was crying out for change. From that moment forward, I dedicated myself to becoming an agent for change.
WALDEN: For more than 20 years before you entered Walden University, you had been a change agent in more than 100 countries. Given your vast experience, what did you hope to gain from Walden?
FREEMAN: By the time I arrived at Walden in 1996, I had experienced much of the world and had gained a lot of knowledge. I came to the conclusion that I wanted to share what I had learned, but that—to be heard—it was important to signal to the world that I had the discipline to be properly socialized within the academic community.
WALDEN: Why did you choose Walden?
FREEMAN: Two reasons: It was accredited, and its mission to prepare social change agents spoke to me in a very personal way. Furthermore, given that I needed to continue my active global consulting practice while pursuing my PhD, Walden and I were a perfect match.
I first learned about Walden from a colleague who was Chase Manhattan’s representative for Asia. When she began a teaching career after retiring from banking and needed a terminal degree, her provost recommended Walden to her, and she recommended it to me.
WALDEN: You will soon celebrate the 10-year anniversary of earning your PhD How has what you learned at Walden made a difference in your work?
FREEMAN: Let me give you an example of a day in the life of a small, independent global consulting firm. A project I’m working on now for a Central American country entails creating a Web portal that contains information about importing, exporting, and investing. To create this Web portal, I compiled a team that consists of Argentinian, Indian, and Mexican IT specialists; a Uruguayan project assistant; an Argentinian graphic artist; an Ethiopian researcher (my husband, Peter Gebre); and translators and additional IT specialists from the Central American country. Talk about “applied management.”
WALDEN: Lark-Horton was recently named a subcontractor on a $2.4 billion Booz Allen contract with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers foreign aid to expand democracy and free markets. Tell us about your role in the contract.
FREEMAN: It is very rewarding that, almost 30 years to the day, I am reunited with Booz Allen. My firm is one of five subcontractors selected to provide consultation and services in commercial, legal, and institutional reform. A primary goal of the project is to help developing and transitioning countries overcome the kinds of constraints to development that my sister and I first saw 30 years ago when we visited Mali.
WALDEN: There is a very popular book out now called The World Is Flat, which describes the challenges of competing in the 21st century, including outsourcing. What are your views on this subject?
FREEMAN: The project I am doing in Central America provides one example of how a small firm is trying to compete in the 21st century. It is not only the Wal-Marts, with over 16,000 suppliers in China, that have to look for comparative price advantages through outsourcing; even small firms like mine need to have partners anywhere in the world that can provide the right price, quality, and delivery of goods and services.
What the Booz Allen contract is about, and indeed what Lark-Horton’s work is about, is trying to help countries develop their private sectors so that their firms can provide goods and services at the right price, quality, and delivery—so the world will not leave them out.
WALDEN: One of the things you do to help small firms compete is link them with each other and larger firms. What is the importance of these linkages?
FREEMAN: In the 21st century, it is all about linkages. Small and large firms alike have to carve out competitive advantages by saving costs through linking with the lowest cost goods and service providers. For instance, my association, the All American Small Business Exporters Association, has printed six books in the U.S.; from now on, our books will be printed in Pakistan, India, and Mexico, where the prices are cheaper. My next book, which is being outsourced to printers in Pakistan, is titled How to Sell Into the U.S. Market From Pakistan.
WALDEN: You founded the All American Small Business Exporters Association in 1998. What did you hope to achieve, and why is membership free?
FREEMAN: It’s a community service. I had import and export knowledge and experience, and I wanted to share it with economically and socially disadvantaged minorities and women. At the time, there were no import/export organizations that exclusively focused on minorities, women, and immigrants. I invite Walden students and alumni to join our association and to begin to get connected with future partners around the world.
WALDEN: Given your experience in all regions of the world, what opportunities do you see for the Walden community to act on its mission by promoting development?
FREEMAN: Women, minorities, and immigrants could benefit from Walden’s distance-learning programs—and expand their links and networks with potential partners among the Walden alumni. I would love to be involved in an endeavor to create a distance-learning program for women in developing countries. Women have special needs, gaps, and network failures that distance learning can address.
As they say in China, “Women hold up half of the world.” My book Conversations With African Women Leaders demonstrates how they are doing this. One example is Luisa Diogo—then the minister of finance of Mozambique— who is now the country’s prime minister—and the only female prime minister in all of Africa. I found one quote from Luisa Diogo so inspiring that I put it in my book: “Money is a verb … it does things. It is not just something to have; it must build houses, schools, hospitals … and it must feed the people.”
WALDEN: What advice would you offer to Walden alumni and students who want to make a career change like yours and become a consultant?
FREEMAN: My advice is for them to be sure that they have a base of knowledge, skills, and resources that are in demand and that constitute a niche. They should prepare themselves for the ups and downs of the business and know that it is a very competitive world. Knowledge alone, even superior knowledge, is not the only factor that makes a client hire someone. The bottom line is the client has to want to know you, so you must be special in your entire being. I also advise them to start getting linked and networked now, because their future competitors are doing so as we speak.
Read an interview (PDF) with Luisa Diogo from Dr. Freeman’s book Conversations With Powerful African Women Leaders. For more information about the All American Small Business Exporters Association, go to http://www.aasbea.com/ or email [email protected].
For more information about the All American Small Business Exporters Association, go to http://www.aasbea.com/ or email [email protected].