Doing Business in South Asia: A Conversation by the Penn South Asia Center on behalf of Current Penn Undergraduates
Today we are talking with Sanzar Kakar, Chairman of Afghanistan Holding Group. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from the School of Engineering and is a member of the class of 2005.
Can you tell us about your path to Penn?
Well, I was born in Seattle, Washington and lived there the first few years of my life until I was about five. When war with the Soviet Union broke out, my parents – both doctors - moved to Peshawar, Pakistan to help with the relief effort. So much of my elementary and secondary education I completed in Pakistan. And then, of course, I spent my college years in the United States where I did my undergraduate degree in engineering at Penn from 2001 to 2005 and graduated with a BSE – computer science major and economics minor.
How do your college years connect with your current work?
That is a good question because it is not necessarily in a way that could have been easily predicted. When I applied to Penn, perhaps like a lot of international students, I did not necessarily know a great deal about the school…With the thousands of course offerings, I took a wide variety of subjects – from legal studies to Pashtu/Farsi literature. However, while I was on campus I felt it became very easy to get swept up in the fervor during that time…around finance. …This led to me doing an internship at Merrill Lynch during one of my undergraduate summers and then after graduating I joined the firm full time in New York for about a year. Both my parents were working in Kabul, and they called me and said that I could contribute more to Afghanistan than to New York. So I sold everything, packed up 2 bags of clothes and flew to Kabul.
[W]hat I learned [from my earlier work experience] was that I really wanted to do something myself – so I founded Afghanistan Financial Services (which was rebranded later to Afghanistan Holding Group)…[W]e now have about 180 full-time professional employees – doubling our revenue nearly every year, still seven years on. The first five years of our existence, we were mostly doing Afghan tax-related work. In the last two years though, we have started branching out into other areas like payroll and auditing.
How would you relate the last ten years of your career since Penn to the education you got at university?
The first thing that comes to mind is that even though I found a certain footing in a career path almost by accident at Penn and even though I was in the engineering track, I always made a point to pursue a broad education. To that end, I took a lot more than just engineering and computer science courses. And in the end, I was all the better for trying to really take advantage of the many opportunities Penn had to offer to its undergraduates. Outside of my engineering classes, I was particularly enthusiastic about the possibility of language study. So I took beginning and intermediate Pashto in the Department of South Asia Studies. One can’t underestimate how important language skills are to working here in Afghanistan…I have found that I have not necessarily directly used that much of my education in computer science in my career to date…So while the work I did for the major did give me tools for sharpening my ability to think analytically, the relationship between what I learned and what I have done since is hard to capture because it has been indirect…Perhaps interestingly the opposite has been true for the classes I took outside of my major…Especially as someone coming to Penn having grown up in ‘the East,’ so to speak, one is often coming in with a whole lifetime of experience to that point where it has been culturally drilled in to one’s head that one should study to become a doctor or an engineer. And in my case, once I got to Penn, I then suddenly found a whole new set of invisible forces that seemed to be highlighting a career in finance or banking as the only path to take. From the perspective I now have 15 years later, I feel that the deeper Penn’s offerings in humanistic areas of study the easier would it have been for me to free myself from these pressures. In fact, I think from my current standpoint, were I to do it over again, I’d definitely major not in engineering but advanced language or some other kind of academic study of religion.
To learn more about the Afghanistan Holding Group and Sanzar Kakar's role there see here.
For a full transcript of our extended conversation with Sanzar Kakar please click on the following link: Sanzar Kakar Full Profile-Final.pdf.