Battling Misconceptions: HMSHost’s Sarah Naqvi on faith and career

Sarah Naqvi is the executive vice president and Chief Information Officer for airport and highway food service company HMSHost, where she is responsible for managing all IT resource planning, budgeting and operational initiatives. Since 2000, she has worked at the Bethesda, Maryland-based firm in various IT roles and was recently named as one of Computerworld magazine’s Premier 100 Technology Leaders for 2017.

Naqvi speaks to Runway Girl Network about being a woman in a male-dominated industry, navigating her career as a Muslim and overcoming work challenges.

The technology sector is still very male dominated. Why did you want to get into this industry?

SN:  The excitement. Technology is at a place where it really impacts businesses and its strategies, and that is what excites me. No time has been as exciting as today when we talk about Internet of things and how technology has been embedded in our lives. I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of using technology to its full potential to drive this transformation.

I think it’s an excellent time for women to be a part of the industry. I have been in this country for 28 years and have never felt my gender to be a factor either in my progression or in my treatment in my career.

How did you end up working for HMSHost?

SN: I jumped around a bit, moving from large organizations like GE and Verizon. At the time, HMSHost was transitioning away from [former owner] Marriott, and several of my Verizon colleagues left to work there. They talked a lot about the changes, the opportunities and what the company had to offer. So I went there and started as a program analyst and it’s now been 15 years.

HMSHost is nearly a $3 billion company and boasts locations in 120 airports and 99 motorways. What does your typical day look like?

SN: Every day is different. In general, the first part of my day is looking at what’s happening in IT as far as how we are servicing customers and whether there are any major crises or issues.

For the rest of the day, it’s always a variety. There’s ongoing engagement with different parts of the business, tracking different projects and looking at the financials. Customers and vendors are a big part of an IT organization, so there’s a level of investment in my position that I need to make with them.

Give me an example of a big challenge that you’ve had during your career at HMSHost.

SN: The big challenge was that although I came from a programming background, I also became responsible for the hardcore technology, the infrastructure and the network. There are parts of the IT fabric that I have not been exposed to as much in my career. When you have several billion-dollar decisions to make over a discipline that you don’t feel equipped to handle, I had to work on gaining industry expertise so I could better drive the decision-making process. I also hired the best team to help, so between a combination of those two things, we make excellent decisions.

As a Muslim woman, how have you navigated your work career?

SN: Women in America are often judged based on their physical appearances. As a practicing Muslim who dresses differently, with a head scarf, it has been somewhat of a difficult journey as I have faced perceived notions of being oppressed, unintelligent and passive. These perceptions had a profound effect on me as I progressed through the ranks at HMSHost.

I had to work harder, fighting the battle of these perceptions, to prove myself. In my current role, I am often facing vendors, making product choices and negotiating key contracts. Being an assertive leader who can negotiate hard is not always what they are expecting when they first meet with me; only to be surprised.

From a personal standpoint, I don’t think I could have made it this far without the support of my family. My husband had to compromise on a number of fronts to support my professional growth. However, I was driven to be a CIO, and it was a journey that was made much easier at HMSHost, as the company fosters an environment that values diversity and recognizes talent irrespective of an individual’s background, faith or sex.

What advice would you give for women who want to embark on a career that’s similar to yours?

SN: The first thing is to build your relationships and confidence. Know that you have the ability to gain maturity with the foundation of your skills. I’ve enjoyed great partnerships and relationships with many individuals within this organization. But when you’re moving through the ranks, having that sounding board that you can trust to give you real feedback is very important. Seeking and receiving feedback can be difficult for females because we tend to get defensive and sometimes emotional, so that makes it harder.

Your success depends on your ability to interact with people in a way that takes professionalism and learning. In the early phases of my career, I interacted with a lot of senior managers and executives who became a source of learning for me. And being a member of different organizations in  your network is a great way to not only learn new things, but also serve as a mechanism where you can gain confidence.

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