Hoya Highlight: Hailey Woldt (F'08)

Hailey Woldt

Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer, BeConnections

Describe your current position and what led you to take your job.

At a startup, most people do everything at one time until you are able to hire more staff. It is great getting to be involved in so many sides of the business, from pitching to investors to sales and customer recruitment to PR and marketing. I had previously been working on the investment side of tech startups with the Office of the Governor in Texas at the Emerging Technology Fund. It was great being a part of nurturing a venture capital and technology ecosystem in the state, but seeing the entrepreneurs come in with their great ideas and seeing their passion led me to want to start a business of my own. When my good friend from American University, Carlota Pico, told me about her idea to develop an international networking and community platform for small and medium sized businesses (SMBs), I knew it was the right business at the right time and I jumped at the chance.

What has been the most rewarding moment in your career?

When I was still at Georgetown, I participated in a research project with the Brookings Institution, the Pew Forum and American University, travelling to eight Muslim countries to research how people in the Islamic world really viewed America and Americans. It was an incredible experience that helped to break down barriers and understand what real people thought beyond the lens of the media or the wars. At one point during fieldwork, I visited an important mosque in India where the conservative thinking is closely aligned with the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia or Taliban in Afghanistan. I was one of the first, if not the first, American woman to visit. It was daunting being at a madrassah in 2006 at the height of tensions with the United States, but so much good came out of that meeting. We had a warm reception and in-depth debates with students and school leaders alike. I spent some time with the women there, learning about their daily lives and girls' ambitious career plans. Even years later, I received emails from some of the professors I met there telling me that the day changed the way they saw Americans and had started a movement to bring about more understanding in their curriculum. Being a part of long-lasting change for the better is an invaluable feeling and one that I strive to replicate in my present career path.

Describe the launch of your company, BeConnections. What was the most surprising aspect of the startup process?

BeConnections is a really creative and innovative company that works with some older, traditional institutions in the international trade space. We are working with often century-old organizations or government authorities, which are not known for their embrace of innovation, but the advantages of technology and the impact it can have for SMBs are impossible for them to ignore. The communication and messaging has been surprising as well because generationally and culture-wise, describing what BeConnections is to a younger versus older generation or a smaller versus larger company or organization is very different, and yet it is the same thing. Another surprising aspect is the antiquated policies and regulations for international trade and how it is done. When you look at the current structure, it is very 20th century. We need to use the strengths of these institutions but get them moving faster and nimbler to help SMBs and connect developing with developed nations to increase trade not just for the big players, but for all businesses that want more opportunity and exposure. "Red tape" is also painfully real, and we need to find ways to keep regulations in place while simplifying the process.

What was the most useful advice you have received?

It is very easy to second-guess yourself and to agonize over decisions, especially when starting your career. The best advice I have received was from my mother who told me that no decision will ever be perfect. It is an obvious fact, but easily overlooked in the "hindsight is 20/20" kind of mindset. Along with that was advice I received from one of my Jesuit professors at Georgetown who talked about the liberation found in commitment. It is a paradox, but once you really think about a decision and then choose something, commit and don't second guess yourself too much. It wastes too much time and frees you to really explore that path.

Describe the most challenging moment in your professional development.

The most challenging but also the most exciting is definitely starting a company. My first job was sink or swim, where I was dealing with heads of state and internationally known academics with almost no guidance on what to do or how to do it. However, building the ship and then sinking or swimming with it is even more challenging and develops all aspects of your professional abilities; you also learn as you go. One of the hardest things so far has been trying to keep everything organized and not let the million things I have to do slip through the cracks. There is no one moment that's challenging—everyday is a new challenge and life would be way too boring without them!

You're in the process of moving to London, England, full time. What would you recommend to an aspiring expatriate?

I say go for it! The practical advice I would give is to plan well in advance for visa and job considerations if you want to go to the EU or Asia. Packing your bags one day and moving is usually not an option, but some countries do allow you to do that. I was able to go to New Zealand for a few months on a work holiday visa. I bought a one-way ticket and got my yearlong work visa in 24 hours online. You can do the same for Australia as well. Common ways to move abroad are through existing jobs, but there are tons of technology and entrepreneur visas here in the UK as well as Chile and others. Figure out what you want out of the experience job wise, where you want to be in the world, do the research and then find out the ways of getting there. It's not always easy but it is definitely possible.

What education or skills prepared you the most for your career?

Although I was not a huge fan at the time, my four required SFS courses in economics have proven to be incredibly useful. Being able to understand the high-level workings of the global economy is important not only to your career but as a citizen in today's modern economy. Aside from academics, though, the city of Washington itself was a great preparation; interning, going to networking events, participating in various societies and getting to be involved in world affairs was far more important for my future in the real world. Washington is an epicenter for economics, foreign policy and politics and it is incredibly important not to waste that resource right outside the gates on O Street.

What resources have aided in your professional development?

Georgetown's faculty and staff were really supportive in my early career. Cynthia Schneider, distinguished professor in the SFS and former ambassador to the Netherlands, was an incredible mentor and continues to be a close friend. She always took a genuine interest in her students and I even had the chance to work with her on a project researching culture and diplomacy for the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. Similarly, Melody Fox Ahmed and Professor Tom Banchoff at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs supported my early research by giving me a fellowship at the center. Mentors and trusted professionals who care and can help have by far been the most important resources, you could say, of my career. I am truly grateful to them for their help and guidance.

Describe why you started BeConnections and what you see for it in the future.

Small- and medium-sized businesses make up 96 percent of the total number of enterprises in the world and employ 60 percent of the workforce, but often are neglected and restricted by their size and resources. There is huge potential for them economically and in terms of contributions they can make to innovations worldwide. When I then began working with startups and small businesses in Texas, I saw how difficult it was for them to trade internationally, to understand government regulations and to network with other businesses in their local area or anywhere in the world. These should all be easy and BeConnections tries to solve these problems.

BeConnections already has companies, organizations and government authorities from 35 countries and 25 industry sectors signed up. I see BeConnections becoming a global ecosystem for trade that works on local and international levels. It connects the players essential for trade and gives companies access to global markets that they have never had before. We believe in helping SMBs all over the world, not through charity but through their own merit, by giving them the platform to trade on the global stage. I am excited to see what the future brings for BeConnections and for the SMBs that use it.

What aspect of the Georgetown University experience had the greatest influence on your professional aspirations?

The students coming to Georgetown often are ambitious to begin with and I was no exception. Georgetown gave me the platform and environment to think on the world stage. Oftentimes we can be limited by what we aspire to create or achieve. Georgetown gave me the global viewpoint to be able to know what could be possible and then the training to go out and achieve it.