Breaking down the barriers

Many female foreigners supplement the ranks of women in the local business sphere, either as entrepreneurs or in leading managerial positions. Why did they decide to build their careers in this country, and what challenges did they face?

THERE ARE MANY REASONS for the influx of successful female foreigners into the Czech Republic: some followed their husbands, who were sent here to work; some came because of the economic situations in their native countries; some came to fill certain positions for their own international firms; others came out of mere curiosity. Whatever their reasons, the fact is that for most of them this country, or Prague, became their home, not simply a way-station in life. This is a place that has had a basic influence on their lives and careers, and they have no intention of leaving, according to Marie Borenstein, the owner of the No Stress café and exclusive representative of Illy coffee. She became famous mainly for building the chain of Le Patio shops, which she later sold for a good profit.
Although there is often talk of chauvinism and discrimination in Czech society, most of the women we contacted for this article agree that these issues do not pose any big problem for them. Sometimes the opposite is true. “I get the impression that being a foreign female is advantageous in some business circles,” says Christine Heyting, human resources regional director for Ernst & Young. “I think that Czech men are open to my opinions, and that they expect me as a foreigner to bring new views and experiences from abroad.” Filiz Mit, general director of Xerox in the Czech and Slovak Republics, claims that many of her business partners were rather curious about her. Conversely, Karla Stephens, CEO of Český mobil, is convinced that those around her are better behaved towards female foreign managers (in the Czech Republic).
Succeeding in this environment has not been simple, particularly for female entrepreneurs. The language barrier, bureaucracy, different behavioral habits – but even so they say it is not much more complicated than anywhere else in the world. “I don’t get the feeling that for foreign females it is harder to do business in the Czech Republic than it is in their native countries, in many of which business is also the domain of men,” opines Heyting. More than anything else, the issue is that no matter where, women often have to work harder than men do, because they typically manage families as well as jobs. “All over the world, we face many of the same challenges, mainly how to achieve harmony between our professional and private lives. We have to find enough time during the day to be successful managers, successful wives, successful mothers, and still have a bit of time to ourselves,” says Stephens, the mother of an eighteeen-month-old boy. Lucie Pilipová, an entrepreneur and mother of three who chairs the board of directors of the Women’s Forum, an organization that brings together female professionals (30% of whom are foreigners), says, “present times allow women who have the education and skills to work. A woman can choose, and the route she travels is entirely up to her.” But when she immerses herself in her career she must either forget about her family or, conversely, have a very strong family background. Christine Lagarde, a Frenchwoman who chairs the executive board of Baker & McKenzie, an international law firm, is one of the few women in the world to hold such a high position. She has two boys and said in a recent interview with The Prague Tribune that women in top positions can have both career and family only if their families tolerate their hard work and support them.
Many female foreigners have discovered that it is easier to combine the two parts of their lives here than it is in western countries. Czech society, which places ever greater emphasis on the quality of life, puts less pressure on them. “Prague gave me a chance to find a balance between family and work. I can fulfill my ambitions and still have time for my family, as the pace of life is slower here,” says Anne Feeley, the owner of the popular and unique Bakeshop Praha. “It is a very idyllic way of life that we enjoy here.”

Photo: V&V

Woman in the world of men

Nationality: German
Age: 35
Profession: Technical director for Siemens Czech Republic

Although Kerstin Straube is the personification of femininity, she has succeeded in a field thought to be the domain of men. She is the technical director of the Czech branch of the global electronics concern Siemens, and 40 employees, only five of whom are women, report directly to her.

A GRADUATE OF the College of Electrical Technology in Leipzig, she joined Siemens shortly after graduation, climbing the corporate ladder. In 1997 she was given an opportunity to build a team of 20 in Berlin that would be responsible for Europe and Asia. Two years ago she signed a contract to work in the Czech Republic for three years. Her Czech colleagues accepted her without reservation. “At Siemens you don’t get the feeling of being second-rate. You are judged solely according to your results,” she says with conviction. “On the other hand, it’s important for women working in large companies to be able to build certain communication networks within their firms.”
She sees competency as the most important factor for women managers who want to be respected. “Women certainly shouldn’t use typical feminine behavior in order to succeed. Crying, hysterical reactions, or even mixing private and working lives are definitely not good for one’s career.” Kerstin doesn’t feel that she has to work harder than men do to prove her worth. She averages ten hours at work a day, and she rejects the argument that a sixteen-hour work day is more productive. “As a department manager I have to set an example for my subordinates, and if I worked lots of overtime they’d feel like they had to follow suit, or else that I’m not up to doing my job,” she explains.
But even this successful manager makes no effort to hide the obstacles encountered in her career. For example, it is general knowledge that women in high positions have a hard time finding partners, and Kerstin could tell you a lot about that. “The best situation is if the partners work in different fields. Then they don’t compare their careers, and they bring satisfaction from their work into their relationship,” she explains, and she knows whereof she speaks. Her current boyfriend is a film producer, and he fits her definition of a rewarding partner. She claims that a balance between one’s work and private life is paramount, and she definitely has no intention of sacrificing motherhood for her career. “When nature calls, I’ll listen,” she concludes with a smile.

Monika Mudranincová

Taming the wild East

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Nationality: British
Age: 40
Profession: Owner and director of JWA Prague and Pegasus

Jo Weaver has taken advantage of all that fate has offered her. From an ordinary law firm employee, she has become the successful owner of two prospering Prague firms. But she knows from her own experience that women in the Czech Republic still have to face many prejudices.

ORIGINALLY she didn’t want to go to Prague at all. She was working in London for a large law firm that decided to open a branch here immediately after the revolution, and was sent here to set it up. She recalls her early period here as that of the “Wild West” – a time very difficult, particularly for a single, young and foreign woman. “I worked from morning to night, because I had nothing else to do. I was very lonely,” she recalls. None of the things she was used to in England worked here – there was a shortage of phone lines, office equipment, and furniture, and the work force was not of a very high quality. These adverse conditions helped to hone Jo’s skills, so that when the first wave of foreigners came to what was then Czechoslovakia to engage in business, she was able to handle nearly everything. “I was the jack of all trades,” she says with a laugh. This led her to believe that she herself could provide certain services that were missing here. “I didn’t have any specific plan, I just knew that I was a good businesswoman and that I had organizational abilities,” she says. And so in 1992, JWA, a PR, marketing, and event organization company, was founded. A couple of years later Pegasus, a payroll bureau, followed.
Although she is well established on the market and arranges many large events, Jo still faces many prejudices towards herself as a woman and a foreigner. “Not a day goes by without someone making a chauvinistic remark to me,” she claims, adding that foreigners who know how they should behave nevertheless do chauvinistic things they couldn’t get away with at home. She believes this is due to their taking advantage of living in a more traditional society here. “Parents still assume that their daughters will just get married and have children at a young age. It’s very hard to escape this way of thinking.” All of Jo’s employees are women, which she says was not intentional, but rather occurred by chance. “99% of the time only women met the required criteria,” she claims.
Jo has no children. “I never had very strong maternal instincts. I probably like my life as it is too much,” she says, admitting, however, there was a period in her life when she could have started a family – but she doesn’t regret her choices. Jo works twelve hours a day, and works out often in her free time. As she says, when you have your own business, you can never avoid pressures – which is sometimes difficult to understand for her partner (an attorney who also has a demanding job, yet gets home from work before Jo does).

Klára Smolová

Living her dream

Photo: V&V

Nationality: American
Age: 41
Profession: Owner of Bakeshop Praha bakery

She has everything she wanted. A husband, two children, and a prospering business. Anne Feeley is one of those women who can manage both her own business and a family, all in an unfamiliar environment.

WHEN Anne Feeley and her family left North Carolina nine years ago, and set out for Prague, her husband started working as an attorney. Anne stayed at home with their two little daughters, until the younger turned seven. Her family always came first. “It was important for me to see them get used to living here,” she says. When the girls started going to grammar school, she began to think about what she would do with the new-found time on her hands. Although Anne has a college degree and is a specialist in literature, her hobby is cooking. She has taken many classes, and had a catering firm in the US. She missed certain products on the Czech market that had been favorites at home, such as home-made nut or date bread, so she decided to fill that market niche. After some difficult beginnings, her first shop opened near Old Town Square in 1998. “I wanted to make baked goods that I liked to eat but couldn’t buy here,” remarks Feeley. Her bakery soon became a well known spot for morning croissants, as well for being a popular meeting place for coffee drinkers. In addition to the successful shop, which now has 26 employees, she currently delivers her goods to hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets.
But it wasn’t easy to assert herself in a foreign country. “I had to succeed not only as a professional, but also as a foreigner in an alien environment,” she recalls. “When I called a supplier for 100 liters of milk one day, it was problematic. When my colleague called, everything was fine… I learned not to take incidents like that personally. Doing business requires courage and the ability not to crack over details,” says this strong personality. On the other hand, she appreciates being a businesswoman who need not compare herself with men, as she makes all of the important decisions herself. “It’s an indisputable advantage of doing business – I’m my own boss, and I try give the other women in the company a chance.”
Anne manages to merge work and family life, but emphasizes that her husband’s emotional support is crucial. “He’s glad I’m doing what I enjoy, and my neglecting the family because of my work has never entered his mind.” Of course this requires some organization and help from outside. Anne has a cleaning woman, which makes her situation at home easier. And what about her daughters? “They’re very proud of me, especially since they know they can come to me for a treat anytime,” she laughs. The slower tempo of life than she had been accustomed to in the US, and the better balance between work and private life in the Czech Republic, both suit her perfectly. This is one of the reasons she is opening an additional shop in Dejvice and a restaurant in Malá Strana, and has no plans to return back across the ocean.

Monika Mudranincová

Successful in every aspect

Photo: V&V

Nationality: Bulgarian
Age: 38
Profession: Financial director, GE Capital Czech and Slovak Republics

“When I said at an interview that I had a small child, 90% of the time the interview was over in five minutes and I didn’t get the job,” recalls Sonia Slavtcheva of 1993, when she began looking for work in Prague.

IN 1990, this college educated economist left Bulgaria with her husband and one-year-old baby, because the economic and political situation in their homeland was so complicated. Although she had worked for only eight months before leaving Bulgaria, she had noticed that the ratio of women managers, entrepreneurs, and politicians to men was relatively high, and that society saw women in high positions as a normal phenomenon. “I was surprised that there were so few women in such positions in the Czech Republic,” she says.
Slavtcheva decided to aid the development of her professional career by earning an MBA. “Then, when I said I had an MBA and experience in the US, no one asked me if I had any children,” she recalls. She feels there’s no doubt that women usually have to work harder and have great results to win out over a male competitor. “It’s logical. Because most managers are men, men are chosen more often,” says Sonia, adding that she has better relationships with women. “Women understand partnership relationships, they like teamwork. Men are raised from the beginning to believe in the importance of hierarchies. They want to compete and win.”
For women to keep up with men, they must be strong and willing to sacrifice a lot, particularly time spent with their families. Before she started working for GE, Slavtcheva was employed by Heildeberger Cement as a financial controller for central Europe. She spent four days a week on the road, and fell ill due to exhaustion and stress, which led to a key turning point in her life – she decided to put up a firm border between her work and her family. As financial director for GE Capital, she travels no more than one month out of the year, and her work day usually doesn’t exceed eleven hours. She manages 90 people, 70% of whom are women. She’s a passionate advocate of the GE Women Network, a program in which women managers for GE provide mentoring to those aspiring to the same level.
Looking over her entire career, she admits that her husband, a freelance photographer, plays a key role in her personal and professional life. Besides his work, he fully devotes his time to the family and gives his wife strong support. Although Sonia earns more than her husband does, she sees no problem with this. “We married out of love, at a time when we had nothing at all, and at that time it never occurred to me that I would reach the position I now enjoy. Furthermore, we both know that money isn’t the key to happiness.”

Monika Mudranincová

Tailoring inspired lifestyles

Photo: V&V

Nationality: Belgian
Age: 53
Profession: Owner of the No Stress Café Gallery, owner of the Illy coffee franchise in the Czech Republic

The ever-smiling Marie Borenstein, famous for having created Le Patio shops, has been successful in business thanks mainly to her ability to not succumb to obstacles.

SHE HAS HAD many jobs during her life. In her native Belgium she ran the Modern studio, but she didn’t bloom in business until she came to Prague. However, her start here was far from idyllic. Twelve years ago, when her husband, Serge Borenstein, a successful real estate developer, decided to move to Prague, her peaceful life was severely roiled. She was frustrated by the general lack of goods here, and missed her family sorely, including an adult adopted son who remained in Belgium. The Czechs appeared sad to her, and almost never seeing her hard-working husband didn’t help any, either. The life of keeping a cozy home and being a fantastic cook was no longer satisfying. “I was unhappy and disappointed here,” she admits.
Marie decided to break the impasse by going into business. It was painful at first. “I didn’t know the language, I had no profession, and I couldn’t get used to my new environment. But because I was born in Africa, where I lived a hard life until I was 14, I didn’t give up,” she recalls. One year after their arrival, she opened her first Le Patio shop, selling furniture and household accessories from India and China, as well as domestic metal products. She says that the greatest obstacle to doing business in the post-revolution period was the high interest rates charged by banks, not the fact that she was a foreigner and a woman. There was a small revolution in the Borenstein household. “Our roles were reversed. Suddenly my husband started getting home before I did, and if he wanted to eat he had to do the cooking. I was completely absorbed in my work. It was like a drug,” she says. She appreciates the total support her husband gave her: “He’s patient and kind.”
Although Marie doesn’t have a modern management education, she was successful at managing 40 employees at Le Patio. When she sold her shops two and a half years ago, there was talk of a large profit. She currently owns the No Stress Café Gallery, an oasis of peace and quiet in the busy city center. The stylish interior, with fresh flowers and comfortable sofas, is a true reflection of the creative spirit of this woman, who insists that the sole recipe for success in business is a good idea and hard work. “Business is the same if you’re a man or a woman. In the end, after ten years in business I sometimes don’t know what I really am,” she says, adding that she has no plans to leave Prague. “This city gave me a chance to become myself, and it’s my home.”

Monika Mudranincová

Planning pays off

Photo: V&V

Nationality: Turkish
Age: 38
Profession: General director of Xerox for the Czech and Slovak Republics

Filiz Mit knows that even a divorced mother of two can build a career. She claims that if she had started out by developing a professional career and then formed a family, her life would have been simpler.

IMMEDIATELY AFTER completing her education in economics at the School of Political Science, she married and gave birth to two girls, staying at home to care for them. But then she divorced, and was faced with the necessity of finding a job. She didn’t have too many opportunities because of her minimal experience. “But then I found a good job as a sales representative for Xerox,” Filiz says, recalling the moment in 1991 that changed her life. Two years later her manager, also a woman, gave her a chance to prove her team leadership abilities. She was successful, and about a year later she was offered a position as documentation production manager by the Istanbul headquarters. She gradually rose through the ranks within the firm, until in 2002 she was named the sole regional general director at Xerox. Although she had already worked for a time in Central and Eastern Europe, it took her a while to get used to life in the Czech Republic. She admits that she had to prove to management as well as to her subordinates that she had what it takes. “Since I’m not from the US or the UK, I had to convince those around me that I had something to offer,” Filiz notes.
She works ten to twelve hours a day, and about seven times a month she attends business lunches or dinners, but she doesn’t go out much socially. She travels less frequently than she used to, and spends weekends exclusively with her younger daughter. “Naturally, my work affects my family, so I try to make up for spending less time together by improving the quality of the time we are together,” Filiz says. “When you reach the managerial level, you simply have to spend more time at work and travelling, whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s an ongoing struggle. But if you plan well, you can manage both family and career.

Klára Smolová

Ladies only

Photo: V&V

Nationality: American
Age: 40
Profession: Founder and director of the Central European Advisory Group

“It sometimes happened that when I went to a client to make an offer with a female colleague, he would look around a bit and ask where we were hiding the man who was our boss,” says Laurie J. Spengler.

AFTER TEN YEARS in the Czech Republic, her firm prides itself on the fact that it provides consulting services to more than 250 clients, such as the investment bank Salomon Brothers, Colgate Palmolive, and HP.
After working as an attorney for several firms in the US, she settled with the multinational firm White & Case, which sent her at the beginning of the nineties to what was then Czechoslovakia. In 1993, she went on to found her own firm in Prague. “When I was interviewing job applicants I discovered that those who completely met my requirements for intelligence, eloquence, and overall assertiveness were women,” she says, alluding to the fact that at its beginning, her company was made up exclusively of women.
Laurie doesn’t feel that she has to try harder because she is a woman (and a foreigner to boot), but she definitely had to prove her qualities as an entrepreneur. “In every business you have to earn your reputation through your group’s results whether you’re a man or a woman,” she says. “Even in the US, you don’t see too many women on boards of directors or in top management. But there are many at the middle management level. This is a global issue that can’t be solved by quotas… I think it’s important to create a work environment where men and women alike can be successful. For example, this can be done by taking an individual approach to the needs of employees who must combine their work with child care.” This particular approach has paid off very well for Laurie. Over the last ten years she hasn’t lost a single new mother, and she has been able to arrange individual, personalized working hours, or even sometimes an office at home. Although she has no experience juggling work and family, she knows that it will come. She’s engaged, and is planning on having children in the future.

Monika Mudranincová






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