Natasha Bank is a talented Persian entrepreneur in Sweden. She successfully founded Serotonin AB, and is currently doing a Ph.d. It was very interesting to read her thoughts on entrepreneurship and read her story of great success..
I am not a Superwoman, but I know what I want so I find a way to get whatever I want and I never give up! Even when I’m a mess I still put on a big smile not because of what others might think about me but just because deep inside I truly believe somehow I will fix it!
As the director of Serotonin, what are your main duties?
I am collaborating with four universities in Sweden as an international recruiter and work as International Student Counsellor for Iranian students who want to study abroad. We are two main people, me and my brother. He takes care of all the parts in Iran, communication with our agents, recruiting directly, contracts etc. I am responsible with all parts in Sweden. I help students in application procedures, registering the clients for language examinations (such as IELTS, TOEFLS, GRE, etc) organizing classes, following the clients’ applications after being submitted and trying to resolve problems (if persistant – such as completion of applications in case of any lacking documents), communications and contracts with universities, all payments and accounting etc.
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
When I was 22 I started my own business in Iran together with my classmate from university. It was pretty natural to me to have my own company and to be my own boss coming from an entrepreneurial family and being a leader my whole life. It was not an easy path to follow being a girl, considering special laws for women in my country. After moving to Sweden I built up my firm and learned how to run a business here in Sweden.
What are your characteristics, which have made you successful?
I am goal-oriented, self-confident, creative, open to new adventures, positive and I have a desire to work hard. I have made mistakes but even in the worst situations I believed in myself! I knew deep in my heart that I will survive through it. My positive energy spreads around me & makes people happy.
If you advised an aspiring entrepreneur, what key advice would you give them?
Never give up! And remember nothing is everlasting! Put your and your family’s health priority as number one!
When employing somebody, what characteristics do you look for in them?
Beside the proficiency and skills required for the position the most important thing for me is loyalty and trustworthiness
In your opinion, what is the best way to motivate an employee?
Mutual interest and feeling of belonging to a bigger family.
You also have a great career in media, how do you balance your time?
It is actually very difficult to do your PhD, running your business, taking care of a 3-year-old child & have hobbies like singing, dancing etc. I have had problems in slowing down and relaxing! In my world I have to use every second of my life. Fortunately, I have the possibility of doing things in parallel. Even watching a movie should have a meaningful aspect to it. So I try to watch movies in other languages to improve my language skills or train on cross trainer at the same time! Listen to audio books while travelling, practice singing while doing house work. I should tell you honestly that it is not easy to live with me ( ask my husband )! I do my best to be a good mother but it took me a while to accept the perfect mother does not exist!
What is your motto in life?
My goal in life is best illustrated in 4 Ls , to live your life fully, to love ( not just your partner but people, nature, animals and even things), to learn and to leave a legacy.
Munia El Harti Alonso is a very talented international lawyer currently based in Paris. She has worked in large organizations, such as the EU council, EU delegation to the UN and more. She has played an important role by assisting and advising in the legal process of free trade agreements and investment treaties.
She very kindly agreed to an interview with Eurobizweekly.
When part of the EU delegation to the UN, what were your main roles and objectives?
When you join the European External Action Service (EEAS) just as when you join a Ministry of Foreign Affairs your main roles are to represent the entity you work for in my case it was towards the UN System and UN member states, and secondly to report back to the Head Quarters. You are the liaison. In the EU Delegation to the UN we are dealing with multilateral diplomacy, your objectives are to mainly negotiate resolutions as the European Union, while coordinating before with our 28 member states. We aim for consensus on all UN Resolutions.
From a legal perspective, what is most important when negotiating trade agreements?
Nowadays most agreements come in the form of combined trade and investment agreements, such as the well known TTIP, from a legal perspective the most important thing is to maintain a balance between regulation and liberalism, the way each article is written will determine the life of the Treaty with implications such as who can be protected by the Treaty and claim it falls under its protection rationae personae so the scope has to be carefully determined.
How did you successfully help to achieve EU objectives, as an advisor?
First off I had great guidance from the lead negotiator from the Macro-economic section of the EU Delegation, as a junior it is key to have a mentor, especially in diplomacy when it is not only your technical knowledge but also your knowledge of the savoir faire of diplomacy that will allow you to achieve your objectives. My technical skills in business law and trade allowed me to report back to Brussels with exactitude, but it was my previous experience at the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Minister Counsellors mentorship at the EUDEL that helped to construct a strategy for the EU 28 member states in macroeconomic resolutions, as well as to maintain consensus among all UN Member States.
In basic terms, how can legal framework protect against corruption?
Laws are inefficient if not combined with political will, and the equation is synallagmatic, both go hand in hand. Some governments have the will, but not the legal framework which is essential. You cannot act against illegality if it is not considered illegal either because there is no law or no law enforcement. Transparency International in that regard works on the ground with national chapters so that countries can develop capacity building, it achieved tremendous advancements especially in North Africa. At an international level, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption and the OECD Anti Bribery Convention have helped to foster political will at an international scale.
You have worked for many international organizations, how did you successfully adapt to the different international legal frameworks?
In the future, what are your biggest ambitions?
I think I adapted because of my international background: I studied international law, and international law as one of my Professors Judge Bennouna said is something you have to live, so I got out of my comfort zone very young, left my household in Brussels when I was 18 to study in France, then I saved some money and decided to spend a semester at UCLA. Sacrifice is something inherent to an international career, and you have to integrate soon and make a choice. I also believe the fact that I acknowledge with pride that my diversity, as half Moroccan half Spanish, allowed me to connect with people from very different horizons.
As to my biggest ambition, younger I said to myself I want to be a lawyer, a diplomat and an entrepreneur at the same time, I want to have an impact on the world in a meaningful way and those are three ways. I mentioned Judge Bennouna earlier because I had him as a Professor during a course at the Peace Palace, and he is the person that touched me the most professionally speaking. He was a lawyer, he started his career in France and reconnected with Morocco after, he then became the Ambassador for Morocco to the United Nations, he was also the Director to the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, and now Judge at the International Court of Justice. Envisaging law practice with diplomacy and social entrepreneurship by promoting the Arab World and the EU: building bridges, I would say is my biggest ambition.
Do you have a motto in life/career?
Bożena Głowacka is a partner and legal counsel at Aria Legal, previously Head of Legal and Compliance at Pramerica Poland (part of Prudential Insurance Company of America), currently is a supervisory board member at Glob Polska S.A., previously also at ATM Next S.A. and SARE S.A., board member at Monger One Sp. z o.o. Pro publico bono in human rights cases, supports small and medium organizations within ZPP. She has a vast knowledge of financial and corporate law, and is a proven success. It was very interesting to read her insight into her legal career.
At Aria Legal, what are your regular duties?
Being a partner in a law firm requires not only excellent knowledge of law, but also entrepreneurial skills, business experience and excellent management skills. From building and retaining a Client base (sales), through managing the operation and it’s day to day affairs, whilst making sure you motivate and hire the best people, your duties are demanding and a wide range composed of the above. It’s a regular business.
From your experience, what are the largest regulatory risks facing financiers and bankers?
The financial sector in general is a huge responsibility laying on the regulators, so the list is very long and growing with time and new products. Making sure people who save their money, sometimes throughout a lifetime are not deprived of their funds by being too trustworthy and yet allowing them to make profit on their assets by taking cautious risks (if this contradiction is at all possible) is a thin line of assessing all shades of grey. How do you regulate what is a good investment that can turn into high profits, the projects, companies and businesses deciding through rules and regulations between the good, bad and ugly. Regulators hypothetically are not there to ruin an honest business, but to protect the unexperienced investor so in my opinion cooperation is the solution between regulators and the financial industry, learning from each other and understanding the business, not only overregulating the sector. I think also education is key, you need to learn before you drive a car, you should also learn before you start investing your hard earned money.
For start-ups, which legal problems regularly arise?
The most common problem for startups is their legal structure. Many of them run their operation initially without a formal entity. Once they start making money startups usually tend to look for the cheapest solution available – most often a sole proprietorship or a limited liability company. This is understandable, but if they will be looking at finding an investor in the near future, setting up a stock company is amongst the best solution but at the same time one of the more expensive. This form of company allows startup partners keep a big chunk of their business while gaining access to financing. They do not have to go to the stock market to access capital, but in most legal environments allows them to keep control of the company at the same time infusing it with capital. The stock market comes with time and business expansion. So if your company is starting to grow and you need investors, this is the way to go. Remember to hire an experienced lawyer to make sure the investment secures your position in the deal and last, but certainly not least, hire a good accountant. Knowledge in this field and flexibility will make your business thrive, bad accounting will limit your options, make you miss opportunities and add extra work to your day to day operations, which already is demanding on your schedule.
What has made you successful when negotiating contracts with major companies?
Certainly the answer depends on what the contract is for. Assuming it is your business, don’t be afraid to negotiate, that is the fundament of success in business. The fact that you are negotiating with a major company doesn’t change the fact that you need to articulate clearly what your expectations are in return for what you will be supplying. Start with defining your goals for the cooperation, what is the minimum you expect to be satisfied with the deal, make sure you communicate clearly to the other party what you are willing to accept and what is a deal breaker. Better to leave the table early in the negotiation than waste time to find in the end you cannot meet in the middle. Unless you want the contract no matter what for some reason (the deal will give you a boost in your business reputation, good pr etc.). Make sure you know what you want from the cooperation and stand firm by it, assess what you can compromise and what parts of the deal you can’t budge on. Assure the contract protects your interests. The other party will respect you for that and see you are competent and mean business. At the same time make sure you are flexible with your demand, some things are not worth fighting for in the bigger picture. Remember, business is about two sides achieving their goals.
In your career so far, what has been your proudest achievement?
I have several, but the top 3 would be: One – Heading the Polish Legal Department of one of the largest global financial institutions without any regulatory fines. Second – participating in the successful lobbying and passing through the government legislation a ZUS (social security) abolition for small entrepreneurs (caused by different interpretation of the law through the years); and Third – lobbying a beneficial change in the polish civil code (insurance).
How did your legal and finance knowledge make you successful as a board member?
Apart from knowing your business, the basics of success is law and finance. Well, that is if you are running a legitimate business and by the books. Knowing what legal grounds you are treading on in your operations as well as making the project work financially is essential. It’s a lot about common sense, having the background means I do not need to hire so much outside counsel for support. If you have a mixture of the above knowledge and experience, you can assess projects and risks much faster mostly with high rates of success.
Speaking in general about your personal characteristics, what has made you successful?
Hard work, determination and most important, believing in what I do and believing in myself. No one is perfect, no one knows everything, but success is about trying, failing, getting up and working hard to achieve goals, learning from mistakes. I always look to work with people who are better, smarter and/or more experienced than me. At the same time, I had several very successful projects come out of working with young graduates with no experience, with a fresh approach who turned my attention to opportunities which I would have never seen myself. Being open minded is a huge attribute in business. I also make sure I find balance in my life, time to do things that make me happy and drive my motivation.
Do you have a motto in life?
Small steps bring you to achieve big goals. Don’t rush things.
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Mārīte Bokta, originally from Latvia, is the CEO of Good-House, and Harvard Swiss Trading. She has been very successful, and has a wealth of business knowledge. Today she shared her story with EuroBizWeekly…
Please describe the companies: “Good-House” and “Harvard Swiss Trading”
1) The Latvian company – Good House is a creative, mobile and modern company whose main functions include the acquisition of the real estate market in European countries. In cooperation with our manufacturers, we offer safe, high quality and standards-compliant wood frame house manufacturing, construction and brokerage services. Today it’s very important to get the most environmental, energoeconomic and cost-effective solution. Our offer is important to the group of consumers who use the leverage from banks to realize their projects. Because construction time is two to four times shorter than traditional buildings, the loan repayment terms are abbreviated to save the expense of a large amount of money. The design of these buildings isn’t much different from traditional buildings. In this case, we aren’t talking about high-rise buildings. The main ideas of my fundamental principle of launching this business wasto help people. You may ask – how? Very simply, I imagine a new family with young children, which could possibly (due to the low price) buy themselves a house. Environmental, energoeconomic and nice house or apartment. Iimagine these people satisfied with our product.
2) The Swiss company – Harvard Swiss Trading is a Food & Beverage Trading Company. The main line of business is the integration of new products in the market. One of the primary ideas are soft drinks, the lounge and the establishment of the franchise. In cooperation with our partners from the UAE, we started the development of the project in Dubai.
In our assortment are alcohol-free analogues to sparkling wine, whiskey, beer, cocktails etc.
The main idea is to offer an alternative to traditional alcoholic beverage bars in Europe. It is important to understand and build a new group of consumers. Knowing alcoholic beverages negative impacts and consequences on people, the idea was to offer an alternative.
The main consumer groups would be:
With these products can participate in presentations, celebrations. They can be used safely and drive a car.
As CEO, what are your main day-to-day duties?
As the CEO I have various responsibilites. I am mostly engaged in marketing, market research and analysis. My responsibility is to look for new ideas, products and potential consumer groups. I’m always travelling much, taking part in exhibitions and polls. Thanks to communicattion with people, it’s possible to understand feed- back about our products. Our company motto is “The best products for the best price”. It’s very important that our customers receive the highest quality products.
How do you manage your employees?
We mostly have cooperation with distributors and sales agents. Each worker performs his specific function. Each employee’s work can be seen in the results. Further cooperation is evaluated after the first results.
What impresses you about an employee?
Employees are different. Employees mostly are interested in social guarantees.
There are also many creative people, but after natural selection occurs by results.
In business, what is the most difficult decision you had to make?
There is a presumption that the most difficult decisions are related to disputes with employees or failed ideas. Eg. To fire or penalize workers, halt the realization of the idea in a timely manner. It is very important to take a step back in case the idea is not viable. Many entrepreneurs make mistakes, going forward despite all indications. But firstly, you need to preserve capital, and only secondly you need to earn. Because stopping at the right time can help escape bankruptcy or other unpleasant situations and make rotations.
You are very successful, what has been they key to your success?
I do not think about luck, only about results of hard work. Butyou must believe in what you’re doing. When you execute the project, of course, the figures are one of the most important indicators, but the main objective is the idea to create and accomplish.
What is your life motto?
Peace. Due to the ongoing political situation, peace makes people happy. I wish everyone peace, harmony, happiness, strong family and true friends!
Sincerly, Marite Bokta
Maria Kozyrnaya is the Managing Partner of Protege group, a Ukrainian marketing and promotion company. It has hosted many luxury high class events throughout Eastern Europe. She runs the company along with Anna Gvozdiar. Protege Group has been very successful, and it was very interesting to read Maria’s thoughts.
What has been your favorite event that you have organized so far?
One of the biggest and most profitable projects for Protege Group was the organization of shooting for the Final part of the 3rd season of the Ukrainian “Bachelor” reality show as part of the Mauritius island promotion campaign. We put all our efforts to make this project possible: 6 months of negotiations, 40 days on the island and a fruitful work of more than 50 people, led to a top rating show with a beautiful product placement for the best hotels of Mauritius, DMC Company and the island itself.
All of Ukraine watched it, and every travel agent wanted to know the secrets of the shooting process and the location where the romance took place. So we came up with a special event where we invited the chosen couple with chosen couple and the director of the show. Our guests could address all their questions personally to the main hero and to the director. I love surprises and I always try to impress people in a pleasant way, so this surprise event was definitely my favorite!
Marketing and tourism are very competitive, how is your business unique to other companies?
Marketing in tourism is indeed a very specific business, where you need to understand every single detail of advertisement, media, travel companies and hotels. My business partner used to work as a sale director in an international hotel group and I started my career in business advertisement and media. So together we had access to all decision makers to start our business, much of whom we had already worked with. Main secret of our success is the trust of our partners, who believe in Protege Group, and of course our enthusiasm and willing to make innovative and quality travel advertising in the Ukraine.
You have organized many high class events, what is the key to success in organizing them?
Organizing high class events is not very complicated if you have the budget and know the companies you trust in (catering, sound, printing, etc.) The main complication in such events is to invite the right guests interested in your clients. Therefore, we usually organize B2B events, so we don’t need to persuade busy professionals to come after their working hours to an event where we will discuss about work again. This community of people is not big, especially in the luxury travel business which is our main focus, and it is pretty “closed”, so time is needed to become part of it. We are always trying to stay in touch with the community, to arrange meetings not only to set up invitations, but also to ask how the business is going, and sometimes even to help. That way strong business relationships are built which get stronger every year! You won’t attract such guests just with good restaurants or entertainment only; you need gourmet food, stunning venue and smart timing to make an event successful. A professional photographer for photo call is always needed, if there are no nice pictures from the party – there was no party!
Describe your idea of a perfect employee…
It may sound strange a for company owner, but I don’t like the word “employee”. I don’t like when somebody “works” for me. When we have a project – we are all inspired with one idea and we all work as a team to achieve one big goal. I can personally call to invite guests to our events, or even send invitations from my personal email, since for some guests it is important to receive personalized invitations. As for people working in our team, I want them to have strong communication skills, to be easy going and definitely to have a nice sense of humor. I also want people who I can rely on – just like I can rely on my business partner – who can handle any situation even when I am in a plane unavailable for more than 12 hours. In our business , we prefer hiring professional outsourced people for every single project, and to pay them a monthly salary even for a week long project, but to insure the best result. Our business doesn’t allow for any excuse and everything should be as perfect as possible. International Luxury brands with a long history of excellence entrust us with their image; there is therefore no place for mistakes!
How do you inspire/motivate your employees?
I guess we are lucky since our business is an attraction in itself. The most common “motivators” are found in the internet such as websites about travelling to islands, and other paradisiac places all around the planet. When I chose my profession, the hotel and restaurant business attracted me in its capability of providing a chance to help people pursuing their dreams. Motivation should come from the inside and I will never accept in my team a person who is not driven by motivation or who only dreams about money. Every job gives you a lot of opportunities, not only financial ones. When I started working as a marketing director in a tour operator, I didn’t earn the appropriate salary for such a position and level of responsibility, but I earned more: The opportunity to travel – even though on business trips – since travelling has always been the dream of my life. To conclude, my secret of motivation is to make my coworkers believe that impossible is nothing and to help them to pursuing their dreams.
In your opinion, what are the most important characteristics to become an Entrepreneur?
I’m sure their must be a “risk” gene in your DNA! You definitely have to be brave, confident and a bit crazy, since everybody around you will tell you to think twice, reminding you of stories about unsuccessful start-ups…. And for sure there will always be some of negative energy around, because none of your competitors want you to become successful; you therefore have to be strong to go through it. In my case, I would have never started my company without my soulmate and my business partner Anna. She was the first person to believe in the idea, to believe in us as a team! Through her the idea became a company.
Do you have a motto in business?
On my graduation, my teacher high school teacher said: “She sees the goal – not the obstacles” and her words become the motto of my life!