Sava Lelcaj Farah, the local entrepreneur who founded Sava’s, Aventura and Babo Market, spoke to around 55 students in the Rackham Amphitheatre on Wednesday about challenges she has had to overcome to achieve success in her business ventures.
The event was sponsored by Lean In, a student organization focused on empowering women in business.
During the talk, Farah pulled from her past experiences to provide lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs. Farah said she and her family moved to the United States from Albania in 1983. She knew from an early age that to get what she wanted, she would have to go out and get it herself. From bussing restaurants as a teenager to opening the doors to her namesake restaurant on State Street, Farah said she has always pursued her passion for the art of hospitality and food.
“Don’t shy away from opportunity,” Farah said. “If you feel like you can do something, you can do it. Challenges are going to happen, and the question is are they going to knock you down, or move you forward. Let them pick you up, let them strengthen you.”
Farah described her experiences having to overcome cultural obstacles and discrimination as a young immigrant woman working in the restaurant industry. Contractors and investors have oftentimes ignored her proposals for leasing space for a restaurant because of her young age, she said. However, she said always being underestimated has allowed her to exceed the expectations of her business partners.
“My protective shield was my suit because I wanted to appear composed,” she said. “I had gone through my late teens and early 20s protecting myself from age discrimination, not realizing that I was probably even protecting myself from gender discrimination.”
After dropping out of college, Farah said she had to learn her way around the business world on her own. Though at first she thought she was at a disadvantage, Farah said lacking formal business training has led her to make bold decisions, like pursuing the lease for the current location of Sava’s, which she said is Ann Arbor’s largest restaurant space.
“When I was looking at the space, I had two restaurateur neighbors who heard that I was looking at the Zanzabar space, and they said, ‘You’re never going to get that space. Why are you wasting your time? Why don’t you look on South U?’ ” Farah said. “When they found out I got the space, the exact words were ‘Yeah if I could shake my booty like you could in that presentation, we would’ve gotten it too.’ It was your typical ignorant comment.”
Farah said it also pays off to invest in customer needs.
“I think that authenticity and connecting with consumers has helped us build a sense of community,” she said. “This has been the foundation of the growth of our company."
Farah said she strives to achieve a transparent and welcoming atmosphere at her restaurants.
“What I’m trying to invoke when I’m designing a restaurant is a feeling,” Farah said. “There’s something more than the dining, more than the service, and it’s really about the way that my locations are supposed to make you feel.”
Farah concluded her talk with a final lesson: know your business.
“If you don’t know your business, you’re facing (experts) who know the business all the way down to the dishwashing procedures,” Farah said. “It’s important to be accountable and own your actions.”
Business senior Angela Huang, a member of Lean In, said she was inspired by Farah’s story.
“She is the perfect example of a female businesswoman, entrepreneur, a trailblazer,” Huang said. “Seeing people like that, I think, is really important for students at the University of Michigan who are thinking about pursuing a track that’s male dominant.”