Ashianna Esmail – Flexport
It’s an industry ripe for disruption, the age-old process of moving goods from one locale to another.
Yet despite the technological revolutions happening around it, international shipping and logistics haven’t changed as much as one might expect, says Ashianna Esmail, who is in a position to effect some long-overdue modernization at Flexport.
A fast-growing global freight forwarding and customs brokerage based in San Francisco that also provides trade finance and insurance products to its customers, Flexport has taken a tech-centric approach to the international movement of cargo across all modes of transport – whether it be ocean, air, rail or truck.
Since joining Flexport in 2017, Esmail has built a global legal team to help the company navigate the complex regulatory landscape of international trade that has grown exponentially over time. As the world becomes more interconnected and e-commerce continues to grow, it’s mind-boggling, she says, how so much of global trade is still concluded via fax, email, phone, unwieldly spreadsheets and paper shipping documents when software has simplified and optimized practically every other industry.
Having joined Flexport with a background in international payments and having witnessed the way fintech companies revolutionized the international payments industry, Esmail opines how exciting it is to be in an international business that is at the forefront of digitizing antiquated practices.
“We are making participation in global commerce accessible to companies of all sizes across the world,” she says. “Our technology is democratizing participation in the international movement of goods in the same way that fintech democratizes access to the international movement of money. Technology is at the center of opening up global commerce to people in both the developing and developed world.”
Flexing its strength
The era in which any company – large or small – is completely in the dark on the status of its goods once its inventory is in motion from its origin to its final destination should be obsolete by now, she says, extolling Flexport’s revolutionary online dashboard and its means of providing customers with visibility and control, low and predictable supply-chain costs, and faster and more reliable transit times.
Flexport’s popularity should only grow, she says, as even under the best of circumstances global commerce can’t help but be vexed by downtime. A ship takes days or weeks to cross the ocean, just as it takes time for multiple customs authorities to inspect and clear cargo for export and import across borders.
The freight forwarder that a company entrusts should be laser-focused on speeding up that process in a regulatorily compliant fashion. What sets Flexport apart is its tech-forward approach, she says.
“The visibility, data and analytics available to our customers empowers them to run their businesses more efficiently and make high-stakes decisions on their supply chain with the real-time information they need,” she says. “And we have a dedicated team of experts at Flexport who understand their business, are committed to its success, and available to consult with them in order to make those decisions.”
With the rise of factors outside of a customer’s control—international trade wars, tariffs, civil unrest and diseases—companies need a freight forwarder who is agile amid an era of growing uncertainty.
“Our agility enables our customers to react quickly to changing circumstances,” she says. “That is the power of combining technology and expertise in international trade. Flexport’s agility is thanks in no small part to a legal staff that has the same customer obsession as every team across the business. All of our products and services are novel – which means every attorney on the legal team must be an innovative thinker, armed with the regulatory expertise that make each one of them a strategic partner to the business. That is what I hire for – that is what we need.”
According to her, confidentiality and compliance are top priorities for customers, and therefore a company priority. It’s a highly regulated industry, as customers entrust Flexport with vital data and with the transportation of their inventory across multiple jurisdictions and carriers.
A startup on the go
Hired in August 2017, Esmail was immediately tasked and entrusted by the chief legal officer to build a global team to support the rapidly growing company. Today, Esmail runs a 15-member staff of lawyers and paralegals throughout North America, Europe and Asia.
She also weighs in on business matters, contributing to Flexport being among the nation’s fastest growing startups since its 2013 launch, primed by investors that include the Founders Fund, Google Ventures, DST and most recently a $1 billion financing round from Softbank Vision Fund in early 2019—deals that Esmail helped enable.
Now boasting a growing corporate clientele, Flexport has more than 10,000 clients and suppliers in over 100 countries, and offices on three continents.
Yet Esmail likes to think there’s something more than just cargo in the thousands of containers shipped every month.
“For every shipper, participation in the global economy uplifts lives and increases human dignity,” she says. “Commerce brings nations and peoples together and breaks down cultural barriers.”
Where values are shared
The youngest of three daughters of East African immigrant parents, Esmail believes she’s found a perfect landing at Flexport. After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 2008, Esmail was grooming herself for a position at a socially progressive company where she could best spread her wings.
Though her university-graduate parents prospered in the United States—her father as a CPA, her mother as a small business owner—their daughters had heard stories of how just a little capital could help people start businesses in economically distressed countries.
Esmail would develop a passion for democratizing financial services through technology, building a resume that included a clerkship for the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, private practice at Latham and Watkins, and in-house positions with Telecom Development Co. of Afghanistan Ltd. in Kabul, Afghanistan, Xoom Corp., and the company that preceded her move to Flexport, PayPal.
Even by San Francisco’s heralded standards, Esmail says Flexport stands out as environmentally and socially conscious.
For social responsibility
The shipping industry being among the world’s largest sources of pollution, Flexport has partnered with Carbonfund.org, a nonprofit 501(c) that invests in CO2 offsets including renewable energies and deforestation prevention in order to empower companies to reduce their carbon footprint.
Through its flexport.org program, the company also offers significant discounts on shipping services to non-governmental organizations and nonprofits, and has been lauded for facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid to disaster relief efforts and communities in need globally. A member of the LGBTQ community, Esmail participates in the Flexport Pride Alliance employee resource group, as well as Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, a community geared to bring attention to and celebrate the many diverse demographics so essential to the tech industry.
Also a person of color, Esmail considers herself a needed diverse voice in Silicon Valley, particularly at companies that have an international footprint—her Islamic ethical values governing her personal and professional life.
As an Ismaili Muslim, Esmail’s faith promotes education, intellectual pursuits and individual success for the broader purpose of improving the communities in which one lives. She describes how she is acutely aware of the privilege of being born in the United States with access to education, civil society infrastructure and opportunities to which the vast majority of Muslims globally do not.
“Working for mission-driven companies that promote global financial inclusion has guided my in-house career,” she says. “Access to trade and commerce can be a powerful tool for financial inclusion for otherwise vulnerable communities worldwide.”
In a macro way, Esmail says the company is doing what she’s always believed in, and that’s empowering people worldwide to share in economic progress. Diversity is vital for companies serving a global customer base, she reminds. Senior leaders with diverse backgrounds take their seats at the table seriously – and she is thrilled to have worked at firms and companies that value those voices. Building a global legal team that provides a high-growth global company with commercially-minded legal advice in a complex industry has been a critical career experience.
“A young company likes ours is hitting all the right notes on how to grow a successful business with corporate social responsibility at its core,” she says proudly. “It’s a mission-driven company that’s also disrupting an antiquated industry with an exciting digital platform.”
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