Posts Tagged ‘interview’

Silvia Lepiarczyk: One Woman, Thousand Opportunities

Imagine that you run your first business at the age of 18. At the age of 32, as a young blonde woman, you become CEO of Autohaus Verlag, the biggest publisher for the automotive industry in Germany. By the age of 40, you achieve the position of CEO for Central and Eastern Europe at Ringier publishing, being responsible for 96 magazines in seven countries, a dream position at the corporate level for many.  You remember the promise you made to yourself and to your friends and decide to leave the corporate world by the age of 40. After a sabbatical, you use this new beginning to follow your dreams and you return to university studies. In addition to running a consulting business, which might not be a surprising career trajectory, you pursue your passion and support new start up projects, in the emerging field which combines Artificial Intelligence and Alzheimer disease. She has chosen Prague as her hometown, however, she could rank herself to the millennial generation, as her businesses are connected to both Berlin and Vienna.

Meeting with Silvia Lepiarczyk was like meeting a kindred soul. It was one of those meetings that based on facts, you have known the person for less than an hour but based on feelings, you have known someone in another lifetime.

Despite the geographical distance, as she was born in “the West”, and I was from the “East”, we both experienced being exposed to leadership positions at quite a young age, in an industry not traditionally associated with women. We both gave up corporate careers to pursue our dreams and we both are passionate about new forms in learning and development. As a social cause, we both strongly care about Alzheimer disease and I was glad to connect Silvia to the Seňorina center, the leading care institution for Alzheimer in Prague.

Silvia started her introduction by saying that she was born in the last millennium which defines her to a great extent. Despite her interest in artificial intelligence, big data and technology, she was truly pleased to receive a hard copy of our magazine, as she claims she loves to touch and experience “the real stuff”, not the virtual ones. The second thing she mentioned, was the value of hard work and physical work, which she learned to appreciate during her childhood, being born in the industrial Essen area and her ancestors being coal miners.   

Source: Czech&Slovak Leaders

Silvia, your career seems to be proof that the German “dual education system”, combining apprenticeship and formal education is working. In your case, you got your first job in management at the age of 18 while studying a university degree in psychology.  

My father died when I was young. Luckily, I was able to receive some funding from the owners of the dancing school I attended. As a high school student, I tried to reciprocate, and I was giving dancing lessons. Suddenly, the owner of the school fell very sick and she asked me to take care of the place. Simultaneously, I managed to graduate from the high school and to enter the university to study psychology. However, being connected to the business, I was not interested in becoming a therapist, instead I was interested in applied psychology, particularly diagnostics and creating a suitable working environment. As to my first real job after the university, I became a headhunter for a prestigious company in Cologne and for two years I specialized in the areas of banking and science. I was 23 years old, and I found myself facing men two times older than me and asking them challenging questions while doing diagnostics or career advising.

Year 1989 marked the history. I was living the Velvet Revolution, Germany celebrated the fall of the Wall and on a personal level, that is when your career in publishing and media started.

I was 25 when I got the offer to join the Bertelsmann international media enterprise in Munich, joining the HR department and being responsible for its development. I truly loved the job and, at that time, Bertelsmann already had quite an elaborate system of educating and training young talents. I also had a great mentor who helped me a great deal. As the company was acquiring another publishing house in the USA, I was sent to New York to oversee the acquisition from the company culture point of view. You can imagine the clash of a small-town Germany culture of acquiring firm versus the New York style culture of the company to be acquired. So, I found myself living in New York at the age of 27 and, needless to say, I enjoyed it.

The following promotion led to the HR Director of Bertelsmann with the responsibility for professional magazines.

What was it like to be the HR Director under 30? I became the acting director of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the age of 27 and I remember how many times I was asked to take the minutes, to prepare a coffee or to wait for a “male director”.

At Bertelsmann, we were all quite young and we were given the responsibilities but also the trust and freedom. At first, I oversaw HR, but later I had to restructure the whole company and downsize the staff, including firing people, by no means an easy task in Germany. Apart from HR, I was also in charge of operations, overseeing the internal infrastructure as well as the construction of the new premises. In addition to HR disciplines, I was again challenged to get closer to business, to negotiate with third parties and so on. I proved my management skills and another acquisition came. I was asked whether I would like to be the CEO of this company.

Let me guess…Was it Autohaus Verlag? 32, blonde and in charge of car publishing magazines.

Luckily, my psychology background has helped me to deal with this challenge. I was responsible not only for the magazines, but also for a training academy and a printing company. I learned everything about traditional publishing from beginning to end, with some on-line content slowly emerging. Just to remind you, we are talking about 1994 with heavy Nokia communicators. As the publishing house was expanding, the company became international as well as the nature of my job, we had branches in most countries of the Western Europe, but all that travelling happened while enjoying my life style in the gorgeous town of Munich.

Now, I am expecting the shift that brought you “Eastward”.   

Some juicy stories are coming. My partner and I separated, my former boss also left, and he started to work for Ringier. I was in Munich alone, not enjoying being by myself anymore. I got the offer to come to Prague. I did not speak Czech, I was still rather young, and I knew it was going to be another big challenge. I had nine months leaving period from Bertelsmann, as they were not willing to let me go. This time, it played to my cards. The first position I was offered was the publisher of the magazines. During the nine months, the former CEO left and so eventually I became the CEO of Ringier, Czech Republic, with the responsibility for 1200 people, combined business of both magazines and newspapers (Týdeník televize, ABC and Blesk to name the most prominent), all this in a foreign country still having the former eastern bloc mentality. In 1997, people were still not leaving toilet paper in the company restrooms as it was stolen, most staff were wearing funny slippers and everyone was working from 6 am until 2 pm and then leaving sharply. I restructured the whole company and made many changes regarding the company culture. I remember constantly reminding most of the staff that the salary is not paid for one’s coming to the office but for getting the work done. I was working from 7 am until 10 pm every day. Slowly but surely, I gained the confidence of Czech people, as they saw my ability to make decisions, bring changes and get the results.  Nevertheless, I did not get the best publicity from our competitors, calling me “German cruel lady not having a pity on people”, which was not true. Most people who left did so with relevant packages at the time of almost zero unemployment and they thanked me.

I am proud that with the help of my team, we became the no. 1 on the market, Blesk circulation at that time was 700 000 copies per day. We sold Lidové Noviny. At the verge of the millennium, I also became responsible for Slovakia.

Then you got the promotion to the regional role in Zurich, Switzerland. In many cases, this is the decisive factor, as the nature of the work changes completely and not everyone enjoys the shift.

As I enjoyed living in Prague, I accepted the offer based on the condition that I will fly to Switzerland. But as to the nature of the job, in my country role, I was used to the freedom and ability to make decisions. In Switzerland, at headquarters, everybody was telling me what to do. The first day I was asked, are you the trainee coming from Slovakia? My reply was: No, I am your boss. Being a female manager in the Czech Republic even not speaking the language was much easier that being a female manager in Switzerland. After I had the job for nine months I was considering leaving, because I was not happy, another shift came. I was appointed the CEO of Ringier CEE. I was not sure about accepting the position, but my colleagues also supported me to get this role as they knew me, and they preferred to work with me than with someone coming from outside. I had the position for five years, sometimes being on the airplane three times per day. I was travelling not only to get the staff, the partners but also the competitors and last but not least, the politicians.

Being a journalist myself, I will not press you to reveal sources or details. But how was the relationship between you, representing the media and the politicians, often resisting them?

One politician stood out from the crowd and I admired him. Václav Havel.  As to the rest, I had no illusions, so I could not be disappointed and there were no pleasant surprises either. Unfortunately, I faced one of the most difficult personal and professional decisions, in an issue related to Václav Havel. The tabloid Blesk got the story of a scandal around Dagmar Havlová. To publish it or not to publish it? Well, for the type of the magazine, it was a good story and it was true. I gave permission to publish it, with a special edition on Sunday. Dagmar Havlová then invited me for a cup of tea, accusing me of being a horrible person. I tried to explain to her what I have done many times to others: it was not the press that created the problems, at least at that time, it was the improper behavior that got exposed and subsequently caused the problems.

It seems that you have seen it and you have lived it all, at least with regards to the publishing business. What made you to leave it?

At the age of 35, I made a promise with a group of friends to retire by the age of 40 to pursue our dreams. When the time was coming, I was 43 and I told the owner of Ringier that it was my dream. He tried to stop me, he offered so many incentives to keep me. I made a deal.  If the company would reach 25 % ROI, I would leave for a one-year sabbatical. I surpassed the figure and my boss kept the promise. In 2007, I went to Myanmar for one month. It is a beautiful country, I was alone with a local guide and as there was no phone connection, only land faxes between the hotels, I truly could disconnect. This was important not only for me but also for my team members, as they truly had to realize I left and they had new leadership.

After one-year sabbatical, they tried to lure me back to work, but I declined. I enjoyed slower travelling, being able to stay at one place for several weeks. I went to see my friends and I was so glad to be able to keep so many relationships. I also wanted to support social causes, so I joined the CARE supervisory board. During my second-year sabbatical, I started to invest in start-up companies, on-line businesses etc. I also met my current partner, the perfect match for me, as it was impossible for me to have a relationship while working for Ringier. I accompanied my partner to Vienna and we lived there for three years. I was working for CARE and travelling to Uganda, Burundi, Zambia, Ethiopia, Nepal, India and other places.

Silvia, your life story could easily become a book. However, I have the feeling that the next chapter brings it full circle.

My partner also quit his job and spent three months in Berlin. We became familiar with the start-up scenes, particularly with the artificial intelligence (AI). Now, I am interested in solutions that AI can provide for Alzheimer and dementia related diseases. I hope that dialogue toys and other IT solutions will be providing stimulus for the patients and at the same time relief to the families. I am looking forward to collaborating with interested institutions and companies. Finally, I can truly pursue my mission by bringing all my life experience as well as my expertise from university studies together. I am excited about it.

Published in: Czech & Slovak Leaders magazine.

Vivienne Ming: How to Robot-Proof (Not Only Kids but also Ourselves)

Dr. Ming was named one of 10 Women to Watch in Tech in 2013 by Inc. Magazine. She is a theoretical neuroscientist, technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded Socos company, where machine learning and cognitive neuroscience combine to maximize students’ life outcomes. She sits on the boards of StartOut, The Palm Center, Emozia, Engender, and Genderis Inc., and is a Chief Science Advisor to Cornerstone Capital, Platypus Institute, Shiftgig, and Bayes Impact. She is an author of the upcoming “How to Robot-Proof Your Kids” and “The Tax on Being Different”.

zdroj: Czech&Slovak Leaders

“The Best Way to Predict the Future Is to Create It” was the opening quote of Singularity University, made by its co-founder Peter Diamandis and being such, summarizes the unique approach of this two-day conference that took place at the Prague Žofín Palace from March 5-6, 2018. Singularity University has been called an Ivy League university from the future and described as a conference like no other. Imagine an event that in two days covers highly scientific expert subjects from artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, the latest development in medicine and biotechnology, the future of finance and blockchain, alongside the wider societal concerns like future of work, future of education or exponential growth and abundance.

Perhaps there is no coincidence, only synchronicity, as to the venue. The Knights Hall at Žofín Palace in Prague used to be a very special place for the Czech elite in the middle of the 19th century and played a significant role during the Czech nationalist revival. Based on historic accounts, it was believed that had the heavy chandelier fallen from the ceiling, no one speaking Czech would be left, as most of the Czech educated largely male group taking part in the national revival movement, used to always be together.

At first, it seemed almost impossible to choose one conference speaker for our interview. On the other hand, it does not come as a surprise, that I chose Dr. Vivienne Ming who was giving a keynote speech on How to Robot-Proof Your Kids. Not only is the subject of education, learning and development based on talents and passion important for me professionally, but also personally. I am a mother of a ten-year old boy, who is extroverted, communicative and soft-skills advanced. By the way, we usually tend to associate these skills with girls in our society. I was glad to hear that my son is good at five general cognitive abilities such as social skills, self-regulated learning, emotional intelligence and creativity, since these skills were singled out by Dr. Ming as necessary for the future. Unfortunately, I was brought back to the present by my son’s private tutor, who called me right after Dr. Ming’s presentation to let me know that my son is unlikely to pass the exam for the eight-year high school. His five-year primary language school program partly co-financed by the EU is coming to an end. Given the competitiveness of the eight-year high school system in the Czech Republic, like many Czech parents, we have gone through the ordeal in investing large amounts of time, energy and money during the last eight months trying to improve his weak spots in mathematics, analytical thinking and information-based learning. The contrast between what is needed for the future and what is the status quo could not be any starker.

Dr. Ming is also a great example of a leader. Her life journey was not easy. She failed out of university and almost took her own life. She then discovered her life purpose: to make the lives of other people better. This discovery gave her the drive to complete a BA in neuroscience in only one year! She had undergone gender transition. Since then, she has had amazing success in her field, is a mother of two kids and specializes in the future of human potential. She has worked on applications to help patients with diabetes, bipolar disorders and learning.

Dr. Ming started her conference speech with a short statement,“The problem with the education system is that everyone has an opinion about it. Everyone is different, yet we develop systems meant for one type person”. I wondered whether she was aware of the fact that in the Czech Republic, the educational system has become prey for politicians and a panacea to many societal problems. The economy is currently suffering from the lack of manual workers? Let us introduce both manual skills classes and even agriculture lessons to primary school curriculum. The population is afraid of terrorism? Let us also include civic defense classes. Many students are choosing humanities instead of STEM studies? Let us introduce obligatory high-school graduation from mathematics. All of these implemented, without any deeper debate, without following latest expert debates and successful trends in education.

Dr. Ming then continued “Role modelling is absolutely essential for parenthood. Be the person you want your kids to be”. Wow, another challenging notion in a country, where the majority of parents still believe that it is up to school to provide both education and also upbringing and they are not ready to take part.

Dr. Ming, your talk was fascinating. Let us start with your conclusion. Find your talent and grow it. But how? On one hand, there are numerous possibilities, on the other hand, many young people do not know how to navigate themselves in today’s complex world.

Recently, I had the privilege to give a convocation at the school where I once failed and subsequently, after my amazing success, I gave my talk on three lessons I would do differently.

The first lesson states whatever you do right now, go all in. You are right about many young people receiving various contradictory advice from their surroundings but if they do not invest time and energy, if they do not try hard, how can they find out if they are going to love and succeed in an area? You are unlikely to be an expert at anything from the day one. I love what I do, but I had to struggle so many times to find the answer.

The second lesson says construct your purpose. There is not one thing you are meant to do in this world. You get to build your purpose yourself. You have to search for it, look for the clues.

The last lesson is about having the courage to “die” and start all over again. It takes about seven years to truly master something, therefore starting at the age of 11 and living up to 88 years, you have seven opportunities to become truly great at something. This notion is wonderful because it frees you from the pressure that one decision will influence the rest of your life. Your purpose will guide you, but on each journey, you will go deeper. Look at my life-story. As a man, my life was a massive failure. On my journey I became a scientist, an entrepreneur, and then a mum. There is no wrong choice if you are honest about it. Listen to what others say, but at the end it is your choice and again, go all in. Every time I have had an invention, it was thanks to these transition moments. From a neuroscientist into an educational company, to inventing treatments for diabetes and bipolar disease.

Your latest research is about maximizing human potential and you have become a strong advocate of soft-skills that you do not like to be called soft-skills, as they are measurable. The Czech educational system has witnessed the latest attempts to introduce farming lessons, manual workshops and civic defense classes to respond to pressure from the industry rather than to prepare kids for the future. What do you think about the future of education?

I am not criticizing specific policy choice but rather the broad policy choice about training people to do specific things. If you told me that the government is introducing programming, STEM only education and intellectual skills, I would be also worried. I can build an AI system that can do all of the above better. Therefore, the most disrupted careers will be in advising – whether financial, legal or medical. Economically speaking, earthly skills, such as agriculture will be more economically resilient than professional skills. Perhaps the labor cost is still cheap in the Czech Republic, but we should not forget that the labor cost runs downhill and ends in Rwanda. But governmental policy also affects the discussion in the US. As we will not allow Mexican immigrants to do low wage manual jobs, we might be constructing robots to do them, since no US worker is willing to pick food anymore.

What are the main points that governments are missing?

It is very simple policy trap in the form of solving the last problem. It is not about forward thinking – what the problem is going to look like in ten to twenty years. I am not a futurist but I knowthat a small number of people will be writing codes in twenty years. You need to look at the broader picture. You need to watch where the economy is moving. What is the US shifting towards, what is China shifting towards, what is happening in India and elsewhere?

Our 15 minutes is up. You have been quite disruptive also in regards to the future of universities. You research proved that university diplomas are not predictive as to the successful future. Charles University in Prague is celebrating 650 years of existence. What future do you see for classical universities?

University is a great place once you have all the meta learning skills. However, universities themselves have succumbed to the idea of building people for work-life rather than building better people to explore ideas. If I hire graduate students, I do not care whether they know neuroscience. I care about them being creative and adaptive. Universities will need to change themselves. But the bottom two-thirds will need to disappear as our AI has identified these as negative predictors. The top one-third will need to restructure. Let us discuss how to create interdisciplinary curricula instead of trapping people into degrees. How do we retrain people, how do we build resilience and growth mindset, and creative thinking? Let us invent something that will make the world better together. And I will not lead the project, being a scientific expert, but rather the students themselves will lead the experiments. How does that sound?

Immediately after the interview I downloaded the application Muse Dr. Ming developed. It is designed for parents to develop their children by spending quality time with them while enhancing children’s learning with fun daily activities. Based on your answers describing your child’s character and behavior, you start receiving tips for activities, so eventually your kid can become “a creative, adaptive problem solver”,as this is the only robot-proof category for the future. It proves that when the government is failing, businesses and start-ups can lead the way. And that was my positive take away from the two-day conference as a whole.

The interview was published in Czech & Slovak Leaders magazine.

Kateřina Bečková: I wanted to secure the best possible education for my children

The story of the International Montessori School of Prague brings together a number of fascinating worldwide trends. The first of these trends is glocalisation – a combination of globalisation and localisation, with the American Montessori Society global accreditation creating a framework, while the school is also adjusted to the Czech environment and conditions. Kateřina Bečková, founder and executive director says: “We have to, and we want to, meet not just the American accreditation standards, but also take into account the Czech environment and its distinctiveness. Children from 27 different nationalities attend IMSP, but half of our children are from the Czech Republic. As such, our curriculum must not just accommodate the European metric system, but also the method of teaching mathematics, for example the method of multiplication and division which is specific to us.”

The second trend I would like to note is that Kateřina is an example of what one could term a “self-made female entrepreneur”. Female entrepreneurs offer something specific. In contrast to men, who focus on doing business in fields which are perceived as economically beneficial such as construction, electronics and IT, women more frequently focus on doing business in social services or small retail. This female type of enterprise is often at a disadvantage in terms of access to funding and technologies, while it is also highly regulated by complex laws.

A third major trend is the issue of leadership and education. At the start of the new school year, the Czech Management Association published a report stating that the Czech Republic could become more competitive if it had more self-confident leaders. The standard Czech education system does not consider working with leaders, despite research which suggests that the key characteristics of future leaders can be developed mainly up until a child’s 10th birthday!

Kateřina Bečková founded the private International Montessori School of Prague in 2002. The spark for doing so was an endeavour to secure high quality education for her own three children. Over 15 years, IMSP has become one of the best schools in the Czech Republic with places for 110 pupils aged from 15 months to 13 years. Today, the school employs 16 full-time teachers and 4 part-time teachers. As well as preschool and school education, IMSP also provides after school play and other clubs. The teaching staff includes specialists in art, Spanish, drama, music, physical education and library science amongst other fields.

Kateřina put her energy, vision and herself into building the school. When you meet her, you would hardly believe that this naturally shy woman is the director of a major educational institution and her mission is to bring an integrated and holistic approach to education to prepare children for the future. Kateřina is one of the greatest Czech experts in education and the Montessori method, having achieved the necessary training while running the school. She originally studied economics, and subsequently completed a master’s degree in Special Education. She has completed the Montessori Leadership programme and continues to learn about leadership in the Czech Republic and abroad.


Kateřina, IMSP celebrated its 15th birthday in spring 2017. How do you look back on this time?

I take stock. As you noted, my kids were my main drive for founding the school. But they’ve already finished school and I am pleased that they are so well prepared for further studies and for life in general. I still love working with kids, which gives me great satisfaction and I am proud of our school and the stable and professional team I have managed to build up. I think we have achieved the optimum in terms of size and operation. I don’t plan to expand the school with additional branches, nor do I want to increase the number of pupils in our classes, or increase the number of classes. I think we have gone through the difficult phase of building up the school, and we have constructed a solid foundation. Now, we want to focus on further increasing quality. We enjoy continuing to work on communication, focusing on increased effectiveness, and achieving sustainable results. I think that this kind of work is a great reward for me. Most recently, we have been focusing on defining a new mission, the values linked with that mission, and how to put them into practice.

What are you most proud of in relation with IMSP?

Of all the accreditations we have achieved, because we are the only American Montessori Society fully accredited school in Europe. Our most recent accreditations, both American and Czech, gave us top marks. The fact we are full to capacity demonstrates our quality and popularity. I couldn’t achieve that alone; I rely on a stable, professional team of accredited colleagues. I am also proud of our premises; our school has a large garden over 4000 m2 in size next to a wood. We have an aviary in the garden, fruit bushes and trees and a vegetable patch, and looking after our plants and animals is an integral part of our teaching. Last but not least, we are successfully building a community of parents and school advocates who are spreading Montessori education principles further throughout Czech society.

There remains great interest in Montessori in the Czech Republic. The method is suitable not just for children, but also for older people. In July this year, Prague hosted the International Montessori Congress. For those who didn’t take part, it was a prestigious event which takes place once every four years, with 2000 participants and more than 100 experts from around the world visiting the Prague congress. What makes Montessori different?

It’s important to realise that the Montessori method is not just about tools, but above all about the approach. One pitfall here is the fact that the Montessori method is not a copyrighted patent so, often, schools purchase the tools and immediately put “Montessori method” into their name. The Montessori method is about the philosophy and putting it into practice, about the ability of the teacher to manage to work with both the whole class and with individuals and about seeing the unique potential of each child. The tools themselves are secondary. Another challenge is the fact that many Czechs advocate traditional educational methods and it is difficult for them to entirely trust a new approach based on free choice. There is a general prejudice that the Montessori method means chaos, but actually the opposite is true. We have to work to balance the expectations and boundaries while offering free choice.

IMSP is a leader in bringing new trends to education. Which trends do you think are fundamental?

I think there are three fundamental trends: recognising your own unique talent, the ability to cooperate and a love for education. When interacting with children, we focus on holistic child development, helping them to grasp and also express their uniqueness. We teach children not just to solve problems, but also to cooperate effectively. Today, individual development and assertion is often stressed, but without interaction and effective cooperation with other individuals you cannot do anything on your own in society. Montessori is based on the principle of “help me to do it myself” from an early age. Even the youngest children take part in cleaning and tidying and the preparation of snacks; they are much more independent in communication, and also hygiene habits and the ability to look after themselves compared to their peers. We focus on the different components of intelligence – social intelligence, emotional intelligence, bodily/kinaesthetic intelligence and moral intelligence. We work with four key values – respect, consideration, responsibility and kindness, and we place great stress on overall integrity. Last but not least, we make appropriate use of technology which is going to play an even greater role in education.

How do you see yourself as a leader?

We use the Talent Dynamic profile tests at school, meaning we build on the natural talent of individuals, not on acquired skills. Using this approach, my profile is “Trader,” and my leadership is based on long-term relationships, care for others and building a community. My approach is to undertake individual actions together with a team. People can rely on me; my door is always open both to my team and to parents. And now I’m learning to delegate more; I want to focus more on strategic decisions and spend less time on day-to-day operations. As I said, I’m looking forward to sharing everything we have managed to build with the wider community which we are helping to build.

What advice do you have for parents of school children in relation to the start of the new school year?

I’m an advocate of good routines which can save time and energy. Take enough time to sleep and then for your morning, your breakfast, journey, so you aren’t stressed every morning. Trust your school and children and make enough time for them. Especially at the beginning, don’t just speak to your children, but also the teachers and school management. You are our partners and we are here for you.

What are your plans and vision for the future?

My mission is to bring a holistic approach to education in which every child can express their uniqueness. Specifically, I am trying to bring the above discussed Montessori methods of education to our country so that we can truly activate the uniqueness of each one of us. I have already spoken about the community of parents and advocates we are building, and we are preparing a series of educational workshops for them. We want to focus more on working with our youngest children, where we see the greatest potential. We want to provide parents with a detailed guide for creating a Montessori home environment. And, of course, we will continue to evaluate and improve all our approaches within our holistic approach to education. One of the problems of Czech education is not just its focus on knowledge, but also how rigid it is.


The interview was published in Czech & Slovak magazine.

Jiří Kůs: Nanotechnology represents a promising industry

Jiří Kůs, Chairman of the Czech Association of Nanotechnology Industry, Photo: Archive


You are the Chairman of the Czech Association of Nanotechnology Industry and also an evangelist of the 3rd Industrial Revolution concept.  After completing university studies in industrial technology, you also studied sociology and psychology.  Having the background in all the above mentioned disciplines, how do you perceive the today’s world and society?

It is clear that we are on the verge of many great changes.  As these are linked to technologies, we can label them as the 3rd Industrial Revolution.   At the same time, such a change will influence the social system, politics and eventually each and every aspect of a human life on the planet.  On one side of the imaginary chessboard we will find technological miracles in the form of the nano-thin invisible layer bringing about energies at no cost.  The price of solar panels has been declining exponentially.  In Australia, there is already technology that enables industrial printing of solar panels on a pliant sheet/ bendable foil.  Each device and each object, including our clothing, will be possible to manufacture own energy.  Energy will be derived from the sun, from the movement and from the interaction of advanced biomaterials.

The other side of the chessboard is the global digital network.  The number of internet users has been skyrocketing.  Each object will have not only its physical shape, but also a digital shape.  At the same time, life will become more local, given the possibilities of 3D or 4D printing, as we will be able to print objects needed for our daily life; food production will also become more local, as well as energy production.   Political discussions will not revolve around the right vs. left but rather centralization vs. decentralization, control and censorship of data vs. freedom.


Nanotechnologies represent a fast growing industry that covers areas from energy, textiles, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and many others…What else will be nano?

In 1949, the prestigious magazine Popular Mechanics forecast that in the future computers might weight less than 1,5 tons.  Well, they were wrong and nowadays we might consider it a good joke.  However, we need to realize that some key technologies which will significantly impact people’s lives in the next 20 years, so rather near future, have not yet been discovered.  Nowadays, there already exist certain outcomes of research with all possible consequence so hard to imagine when put in practice.  Just to name one example.  What about discovering that the substance bringing energy to cells of a human body can be also used to supply energy to the next generation of supercomputers. Will we have living biological supercomputers with no need of an external energy supply like batteries or electrical network?  Recently, there was a certain technology developed that can detect a DNA molecule with the help of a mobile and a small module with a nanochip.  Does it sound like an episode from Startrek series?


How successful is the Czech Republic in the sphere of nanotechnologies compared to the world?

Let me go back in history, to 1963, and ‘I have a dream’ speech by Martin Luther King.  I believe there is synchronicity, since I was born in 1963.  I have my dream just now, in 2017. A dream about a small country in the heart of Europe where I have lived for 50 years.  I am not a politician; I doubt that Czech politicians have ever dreamt or that they even know how to dream.  My dream is to see the small Czech Republic perceived in the world of technologies like a pearl.  Czech is nano is a slogan that each journalist, politician and businessman is familiar with.  Czech nanofibers from Liberec are spread all over the world.  The air on the planet is being cleaned by the Czech discovery of fotocatalyctic nanocoating.  Some developing countries no more suffer from water shortage, since it is provided thanks to unique Czech mobile hydroplants based on solar energy and nano-membrane filtration.  Moreover, it is able to provide clean water free from E.coli bacteria, which is considered close to a miracle.

The Czech Republic has also become a symbol for post-modern eco-urbanism and local energetics of the 21st century.  There is much more to explore than the Prague Castle panorama or the medieval Castle of Karlštejn.  Tourists are looking for a lifestyle inspiration in the Czech Republic, the so-called localization principle.  Each house is capable of generating all energy needed for its own consumption, storage in 3D nanobateries, being the Czech patent are obviously helping.  Each village and each town has community gardens and the principle of localization has been applied with regards to the food.  Try to supply yourself with everything you consume.  We have fewer roads in desperate need to repair and healthier population.  Mobility in cities is provided by autonomous electrocars.  There is a perfect lifestyle.  The world just envies us.

Concerning nanotechnology, in nanofibre technology we are much further than Israel or the US.  We have many patents. And as I travelled all over the world, I was also pleased that most advanced laboratories use the microscopes from Brno!  In addition to several expert laboratories dedicated to the research in nanotechnologies, we have several dozen companies producing nanotechnology-based products.  We have nanofibre filters and membranes, antiallergic beddings, nanocoating cleaning the air, protection of goods and documents thanks to the nanodots, nano water filters, nano structures used in medicine etc.  The Czech Republic proudly holds several patents in the whole industry.  However, these companies lack means for stronger marketing.  Therefore, we have established The Association of Czech Nanotechnology Industry.


But you have already started to fulfil your nano dream…

One should fulfil one’s own dreams.  Some years ago I managed to persuade one of my friends to jointly establish a nano company.  At the beginning there was a vague idea to set up a trading company but at the end by coincidence we became the manufacturer of anti dust-mite beddings with the Czech nanofiber membrane.  After researching the market, we realized that we are the first and only company having such goods in the  market worldwide.  We were happy about our innovative idea and we started developing products, which we finalized in 2015. At the same time we launched sales and marketing campaigns.  The Czech Republic is going to be nano!


Well, having done several interviews with representatives of SMEs, I know the continuation is unlikely to be a bed of roses…

The reality is that there is little awareness on various levels – public, state and investor levels – about nanotechnology.  The same is true about assistance with marketing abroad.  It is important to change that.  I also regard crucial to start with education of pupils and students so we have a new upcoming generation of nanoscientists.  Let us visit schools and show teachers how the latest technologies are working. Let us hold conferences for both experts and the public and launch nanodays in big cities.  Let us live up to the slogan that appeared in the New York Times a couple years ago:  The Czech Republic is NANO!

There is often a mention of projects which should apply to receive either state or EU funding, however, these are not designed for start-ups.  They require at least three years of proven existence.  Therefore, I support the view that such projects rather tend to help bigger, already established companies.  When it comes to banks, the conditions are similar.  By the way, such situation is the same all over Europe.  In the US, there is a much higher availability of joint venture capital or business angels funds which are not afraid to invest in projects that might appear a bit risky in the beginning.  In the Czech Republic, the main interest is to invest into real estate or IT.  Nevertheless, nanotechnology represents a promising industry and it yields high return on investment, but one needs 5-7 years’ horizon.


What are your final words to Czech and Slovak Leaders readers?

Technology revolution is a big chance for small countries that have a bunch of creative people and we should use this opportunity.  My appeal also goes to potential investors – do not be afraid to invest into technological companies.  Material technologies are the key drivers for other industries and you will certainly get your money back, and multiplied.

Last but not least, let us be proud of what we have and what we have achieved in the Czech Republic.  I was a bit sadden to see Czech newspapers speculate immediately with great enthusiasm about a possible Tesla investment in our country but a Czech invention, a unique 3D nanotech battery, has not been interesting enough for them for a very long time.

Let us not only admire things from abroad, and let us not underestimate ourselves.  In the Czech Republic we have so much to be proud of! The Czech Republic is NANO!

Luděk Sekyra: On Values, Both Material and Spiritual Ones

I met Mr. Sekyra for the first time at the colloquia dedicated to John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, however little known and appreciated in the Czech environment. The Sekyra Group that supports the Centre for Political Philosophy, Ethics and Religion (CPPER) has also supported organising the colloquia. Despite the fact that Mr. Sekyra is still actively involved in his property development company, he presented a paper discussing Rawls’s principles of justice and their relationship towards reciprocity and altruism. The extent and the quality of Mr. Sekyra’s paper received appreciation from theoretical scientists and inspired a stimulating discussion. Mr. Sekyra is also working on a book addressing this theme and later this year, he is planning to present his research at the Conference at the Harvard University. Mr. Sekyra is concerned about the polarization of liberal societies and he sees the need to formulate moral and political principles that would strengthen the cohesion of plural and multicultural public space.

One week later, I came to interview Mr. Sekyra at his office at the Sun Tower building in Prague. I had a chance to admire not only a beautiful view but also visualization of future development projects, also in the surrounding neighbourhood of Rohan City. Mr. Sekyra apologized for being late due to a teleconference held with the representatives of New York Times, as he is busy preparing a panel for the prestige global conference, the Athens Democratic Forum. The panel will be dedicated to problems democracy is facing in Central Europe, threats of populism and xenophobia nationalism. The aim is to present a fact that such tendencies threatening the concept of open liberal democracy do not represent a regional issue, but truly the global one. 

Our third (unplanned) meeting took place at the launch of the book published by the Centre of Independent Journalism, also supported by Mr. Sekyra. I could see that Mr. Sekyra fully lives his life purpose that not only buildings, but also thoughts, should be left as a legacy. And it is such purpose that we discussed during the interview, together with philosophy and thinking, however the business world was not left aside, as it often intersected our conversation.

Mr. Sekyra, you being part of two worlds – academic and entrepreneurial – is quite rare for the Czech environment, contrary to the world where such interconnection happens more often. How do you manage bridging the two spheres? And how were you received by the academics?

You are right, the intersection of both worlds is more frequent there and it brings various benefits to both sides. Someone who comes from the entrepreneurial world transfers a wide range of empirical experience which can be subsequently generalised upon. And such generalization then allows to present a universal dimension that is possible to address in theoretical discussion, in theory. As far as me being accepted by scientists, on one hand they consider me to a certain extent a visitor in their environment, on the other hand the most respected specialist in the fields of political or moral philosophy are very helpful and support my work on my upcoming book. I have the feeling that they enjoy debating with me and they consider it beneficial with regards to my specific experience and point of view. I studied philosophy of law and I have been actively involved in this field. I am engaged not only with the Czech environment, but also at Oxford and Harvard. I also recommend such open attitude to Czech universities. Being open to thoughts of people outside the academic sphere, who combine certain theoretic knowledge with empirical experience, is stimulating for the academic debate.

What is the reaction of your colleague entrepreneurs and competitors with regards to your academic activities? Are they looking forward to you leaving the real estate business? Or are they supportive and appreciative of your activities? 

Well, I am definitely not leaving the real estate business. Sekyra Groups is currently preparing projects in the total amount of 1 000 000 square kilometres, consisting of office, commercial and residential properties. We are currently developing four projects in the larger centre of Prague where new quarters will be built. At Smíchov, Žižkov, Rohan Island and in Dejvice, we are going to build modern and green Prague centres which will represent a true alternative to the historical part of the metropolis. There will be parks, schools and public buildings. As it was mentioned, I dedicate considerable amount of time to philosophy and studying in libraries, but managing the Group still takes the largest portion of my management time.  I concentrate on new opportunities, growing efficiency of existing projects and on co-operation with new clients. Some colleagues and even business partners still consider my passion a bit strange but as someone enjoys golf, yachts, or airplanes, I enjoy philosophical books. I believe that not only should we leave buildings as a legacy, but also thoughts. Particularly ideas, if they are original enough, might have longer life span when compared to buildings.

We have met at the colloquia dedicated to John Rawls who is not well known in the Czech Republic. What particularly do you find inspiring?

I am interested in the relationship between morale and politics. The notion of justice and interpretation of justice represents the central theme of political philosophy. I personally believe that it is important to interpret justice as reciprocity. I consider the notion of reciprocity as the most relevant one. In order to be able to fulfil the key criteria of the cohesion principle or homogeneity that a society needs to survive, we need, in addition to the principle of justice (as John Rawls addressed), two other principles: reciprocity and altruism. Only the combination of the three normative principles paves way to creating a cohesive society. I am a supporter of moral universalism and so I tend to believe that the majority of the society should identify with such principles, in order to create an environment where we would feel freedom and which will offer what Aristoteles used to call a good life. The fact that this is not happening nowadays and therefore we see populism spread not only across Europe but also in the US. Societies are ethnocentrically shutting down, they are being integrated by negative rather than positive factors, the most visible being xenophobic nationalism. I consider such development truly alarming.

For John Rawls, the biggest political thinker of the 20th century, the key principle was justice in the sense of fairness in public space. Justice should not be understood as a mere decision of an authority in power, but I maintain that justice should be a reciprocal relationship between people themselves as well as between citizens and an authority. Only such approach can guarantee harmonic development of a liberal society. Rawls also tended to place a big emphasis on the principle of freedom equality and on equal access to rights that are linked to freedom. Rawls maintained that if inequality was to happen, then it should be in favour of those who are the least advantaged, so in favour of those reaching the so-called bottom.

Current period is often characterized as an era suffering from the lack of leaders. How do you perceive it? 

Many politicians perceive politics as power and deeds, in terms of gaining and holding on to power. Recently, I have read an interview with Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Mr. Kaczynski revealed that he admires Carl Schmitt and his realism, Mr. Schmitt was an influential German political philosopher in 1930s and also a main critic of liberal democracy. The very fact that Schmitt’s realism is mentioned as “exemplary” politics is very disconcerting to me. I consider the main deficit the fact that morals and its principles have fallen out of the perception of politics as such. Without the transfer of moral principles into political principles politics becomes empty and only a fight for power. If the public sees that many politicians make their own personal interest instead of public interest a priority, then they tend to lose faith in politics. Let us not forget that the representation of public interest is the main task of politics and politicians.

It seems to me that such thoughts used to be openly presented by Václav Havel…

Yes, under the influence of philosophers of Patočka and Levinas…Nowadays, we are experiencing something that I would characterise “an ordinary democratic day” or being tired of normal democratic politics that does not represent any larger vision or values but only concentrates on specific voting or budgetary priorities. People are lacking any cross-over and if politics is lacking a cross-over than it ceases to be something to believe in. This can be seen on the European Union project where it is much more difficult to identify with the European idea. The United States is much more successful, as “the American idea” is not only much more appealing but also more tangible. An idea is, given its very own notion, a transcendental issue; it surpasses the ordinary politics and has the ability to inspire, but when it is missing, disillusion is inevitable. I do not wish politics to be reduced to power and deeds as such notion is narrowly a pragmatic one. The task of political philosophy is to stress and formulate principles allowing to introduce both content as well as cross-over. I have a more and more intensive feeling that modern, particularly continental philosophy of the 20th century, suffers from deficit of ethical thinking, because the most important representatives such as Heidegger or Wittgenstein in fact had pushed ethics out of philosophy. We need to foster authentic ethical theories based on universal principles, and that is what I call reciprocity ethics in my texts.

As we are discussing difficult moments, which difficult moments do you consider formative ones for yourself?

Real estate business is a cyclical business and so in 2007 we experienced one of the deepest financial and real estate crises in modern history. We benefitted from a quality management team and from quality risk management. We witnessed some of our big competitors not being able to make it. Today, we pay more attention than in the past not only to the return of invested capital but also to risk profile of every project. The second lesson learned thanks to the crisis was the finding that there are additional values side by side to the material ones. It was the very philosophy that brought a cross-over and authenticity to my life and that is why I dedicate more time to it than in the past.

What are your future visions?

I wish to dedicate energy to both my life priorities and to big development projects that will change the way Prague looks. I personally very much care about the best notion of architecture. At Smíchov, we have launched a big architectonic competition for the first time in Prague and involved more than 10 international architects. The new quarter should be a pride of the 21st century Prague. The second challenge is thinking about philosophy and working on my book that should be a result of my reflections. I hope to publish it within the next two years.

Luděk Sekyra is a leading Czech businessman. He has been working with Oxford University for many years. He is a Foundation Fellow and a member of the Board of Regents of Harris Manchester College. He is also a member of the Vice Chancellor Circle. Luděk Sekyra is also a member of the American Political Science Association (APSA).

In 2014, he opened the Sekyra House student center and the Tomáš Halík Room lecture hall at Oxford University. The same year, he supported the installation of Havel’s Place in Oxford University park. Together with Tomáš Halík, he initiated the creation of the Center for the Study of Political Philosophy, Ethics and Religion at the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University, where he is the Chairman of the Academic Council. He actively supports the collaboration of the Center with the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University and the Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

Sekyra has been interested in the field of political and moral philosophy for a long time. He is a frequently published author and is currently working on a book about reciprocal fairness. He also significantly supports interfaith dialogues at the academic level (for example the Public Sphere, Ethics and Religious Diversity global conference that will take place in 2017), as well as practical projects in leading European cities (for example the Foyer youth center in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels

Dominika Kolowrat – Krakowská: On the origins and traditions, duties and pleasures

Your life story is really interesting. You graduated from a Law University, became an advocate and then got engaged in fashion business. You met Tomáš Kolowrat and after he died, you turned to asset management. I wonder to what extent it was your choice and how big the influence of your call of duty, and the responsibility toward family traditions and your origins, were. I know that life is not an “if game”; however, if you had got the chance, would you have decided differently? 


JUDr. Dominika Kolowrat-Krakowská

You are absolutely correct, life does not play “if game” and I approach all the obstacles that destiny puts across my way as challenges which I have to humbly accept and try to deal with as best as I can, so that “at the end of the day” I can stop, look behind and tell myself: you did the best you could.

Some events really were not my choice. I am not the type who cries over her destiny adversity. I am rather grateful for the fact that nothing is decided in advance and all unexpected occasions taught me something new. I would have never imagined that one day I would be dealing with a forest business plan, beaver protection, asset management or palace insurance, and a number of charity projects. And this is just a little part of the real scope of my activities.

So, the saying “noblesse oblige” or origins obliges is still valid in the 21st century? How do you fulfil this obligation? 

Let me amend that saying a bit to “promise obliges”. I promised to my life partner, František Tomáš Kolowrat-Krakowský, on his last day that I would take care of everything: of our under-aged children, family assets, restitution claims, charity, there were many things to deal with. And I kept that promise and believe that Tomáš is satisfied…

I often notice that nothing stands nowadays; a word given has no value. I personally strive to meet all my obligations, to behave so that I fully meet the trust bestowed on me by Tomáš and our children. I would be really glad if such terms like “honour” and “decency” which are perceived rather as a weakness than a strength or natural trait would rehabilitate again.

Traditional noble families, besides bringing innovations, paid attention to asset management and its aggrandizing like good economists, put in today’s terms. How do you personally perceive this life mission and overall social context and conditions under which you fulfil the task? 

I perceive this tradition mainly as a responsibility to my ancestors, to the “roots”, my children, and society in which I live and act. Tradition is not an obsolete thing at all, it is not fossilised and dysfunctional. On the contrary, after all these years I have been managing family assets, I again experience concluding agreements by a “handshake”.

This is truly the right tradition showing not being ashamed of my behaviour, enjoying trust from people around me and prospering as well as increasing wealth under these conditions. Not by deception, by making quick profit at the cost of disappointing a business partner because I have, simply put, “fleeced him out of his money”. If this model was adopted by the majority in our society, our little country would enjoy really good times.

Let’s move from the profit-making activities to the sponsoring ones. The list of your charity projects is unbelievably long and almost took me back to medieval times when aristocracy supported art, music, and theatre. In your case, it is the support of artists through the project Young Czechoslovak Artists, support of a theatre and cooperation with the Prague Shakespeare Company, support of children and disadvantaged people through the Endowment Fund Kolowrátek, a horse riding project… How do you select the projects and is there a new one you would like to include? 

I was always interested in the lives of concrete people; we have never contributed – no, it is not plural majestatis and I am speaking about “our” Endowment Fund Kolowrátek – in a blanket manner, without a concrete “receiver”. Gradually (besides the partners who have been supported by Kolowrat-Krakowská family already for hundreds of years, like the National Theatre) we have focused on young people, partly those who are disadvantaged at the starting line, especially disabled children from socially disadvantaged families, and partly those who on the contrary received a lot, they are exceptionally gifted, but they do not have means to be able to develop their talents appropriately.

I perceive you as a very brave woman with a great inner strength. Taking over the asset management after your partner’s death, bringing up two little children. Where did your inner strength come from?

My children and mum were the biggest help. They, as well as my friends and colleagues, were giving me energy. I am a life optimist and of course I also believe that Tomáš is still with me and keeps his fingers crossed…

Endowment Fund Kolowrátek

Endowment Fund Kolowrátek

How do you generally perceive the situation of women and widowed women at present?

First of all, it is of paramount importance at what age or what life situation a woman becomes a widow or what the reasons for her living without a partner are. However, I generally believe in the saying “He who does not strive after his happiness shall have none”. So, if I have healthy hands and head, I can manage practically anything. I always find amusing to hear some women, or rather their self-proclaimed speakers from the political field, crying: we want more rights, more possibilities, more leading positions and chairs on the boards. But this is not the case. On the other hand, I would be offended if I received – by strange quotas – some advantage or priority at the expense of somebody who is more capable than me. Yes, the Bible has always emphasised protection of orphans and widows because they had no support at all. But fortunately, it is not this way anymore. Life simply goes on and I can’t freeze in the moment when I (and my children) lost the closest person 12 years ago…

What makes you happy and what are you looking forward to? 

I have reasons to be happy every day and I am looking forward to every new positive challenge. It is very important to find something nice every day, be it just the smallest thing which somebody else wouldn’t think it’s even worth mentioning…

Photo By Michal Linhart

The interview was published in Czech & Slovak Leaders magazine.

Silvia Gavorníková: Authentic leadership has changed my attitude to life

It is a pleasure and privilege to introduce you Mrs. Silvia Gavorníková, who is not only the Head of International Relations Department at Slovak Export Credit Agency EXIMBANKA SR (Export-Import Bank of the Slovak Republic) but also the Chairwoman of the OECD Working Party on Export Credits and Credit Guarantees. In addition, Mrs. Gavorníková finds time for self-development activities dedicated to authentic leadership and last but not least, her passion in horse-riding resulted in organising top-level equestrian events in Slovakia.

Silvia, can you share with our readers more about important milestones on your career journey that took you from Bratislava all the way to Paris?

I have been working in EXIMBANKA SR for 18 years. During this time I have managed to develop knowledge and understanding of the export credit environment and international regulations which are very complex and strict. When Slovakia joined OECD and EU we had to fully comply with these rules, what was sometimes a very challenging process.

On the other hand, this environment is very dynamic as some regulations are being continuously updated and new ones are being adopted. Just like any other international environment, export credits are also about advocating national interests. So I quickly understood that if I wanted to support our national interests, as a national delegate, I needed to speak out, yet our counterparts had to learn to listen to our opinions, i.e. opinions of small countries. To understand national interests correctly, it is very important to communicate effectively, either with my colleagues who are in touch with Slovak businesses or with exporters directly.

The journey took a while as I have been participating at the meeting of the Export Credit Group in Brussels, where only EU Member States are involved, since 2008. During this time I have gained experiences in international negotiating, learned how to support national positions, as mentioned above, national interests, and also our preferences. All international negotiations are based on personal contacts and if you are a respected negotiator, then you can seek support for becoming the Chair. I am very grateful to gain the possibility to run for the Chairman of the Group. I believe that I can be trusted by my colleagues to fulfil the task of the Chairman as an honest broker working to the benefit of the entire Group. Therefore, the EU Council Working Group endorsed me as an EU candidate for the position of the Chairman in OECD as well as a member of the OECD Export Credit Bureau in autumn 2014. I was elected into this position by all Members of the WP ECG during the OECD autumn plenary meeting in November 2014 and re-elected for 2016 in November 2015. On 1st of July 2016, the Slovak Republic took over the first ever Presidency of the Council of the European Union (SK PRES), so I have become also the Chairman of the EU Council Working Group for Export Credits for the 6 months of the Slovak Presidency. The main challenge for Slovakia as part of these important responsibilities and opportunities is to find the way among the Member States to compromise to be able achieve a consensus on difficult issues on the EU agenda and to best represent our country. In this regard we will be hosting a Presidency meeting for all ECG members (EU Member States) in Bratislava in October, so I will be very proud to also welcome my colleagues at the Informal Presidency Meeting in Bratislava, the town where I was born and raised.

Paris, OECD and the world of finances – the three elements evoke the verse “it is a man’s world”. Did you perceive it the same way? Did it feel like you were breaking a glass ceiling or was it more difficult to overcome some stereotypes due to the fact that you were coming from “the East”?

I would say that our Working Group is very well gender balanced thanks to the deep respect for professional qualities of each other and great work of my female colleagues. I definitely was not the first woman to chair the OECD meetings (which started in 1978) or EU; however, it is true that in our OECD working group I am the first representative coming from the former “East block” who was elected to the Export Credit Bureau. I have to admit it would not be feasible without the support of my colleagues from the European Union and other OECD members, and of course my Slovak supporters.

Once I have earned the trust of the group, I am trying to do my job properly and in the most professional way. My main task as the Chair is to move the negotiation process forward. To achieve this I have to listen to the delegations carefully and understand the background very well. One of the most important features of the Chair in such an international environment is being impartial, loyal to the Group and I believe that in this sense my origin is an advantage.

Our interview is for the Leaders magazine. How do you define yourself as a leader and your leadership style?

I heard once, that “leadership” cannot be taught like management, but can be learned and enhanced. I believe that authentic leadership has opened my eyes in the area of self-development and improved the quality of my life not only in my professional career. I became familiar with the Talent Dynamics Profile Test which I find quite useful, because it is based on natural talent and not on skills. My personal talent dynamic profile is “Supporter” and based on this result I realised why I had always needed to work with people and lead them to achieve the best outcome of their work. This has confirmed my role in which I always felt the best – activities relating to people, organising teams, motivating, communicating, people-focused leadership, learning through conversations and teams, communicating through one-to-one discussion. Together with my team we create a great team and our work is very well accepted within our institution as well as in international meetings. My favourite sentence corresponds with my profile: “It wasn’t just me, it was the team”.

You dedicate quite a lot of time to self-development. What are some key findings you can share and pass forward?

I got in touch with the authentic leadership programme through my great coach Eva Štefanková in spring 2015, with the main aim to prepare for the historically first ever Slovak Presidency in the EU Council.

What I value most out of this self-development approach is the attitude towards myself, ability to look at myself and starting to know myself. This goes hand in hand with the ability to understand my strengths and weaknesses and take all the knowledge to achieve the best performance in my work. I consider myself blessed because I like my work very much; if I should describe my job I would say a “dream job”, so to improve myself in self-development is very natural to me as I want to improve all the time.

Do you see enough leaders able to address the current complex issues, be it on the local, regional and European level? What are the biggest challenges they face?

An authentic leader is in my view a person who makes his/her decision naturally as a free human being with the full responsibility and best intention to achieve his/her goal. In my opinion, these days are very challenging because thanks to social media many “leaders” pop up and quickly disappear. I believe that to become a leader is a sustainable process of learning, listening, communicating and expressing oneself. I think one of the biggest challenges for every leader is to understand where their role is and know well available room for manoeuvre, which can be used effectively to achieve their goals.

Horse-riding is your passion but you do not do it merely to relax but also used this opportunity in the past to promote Slovakia abroad. Besides horse-riding, can you comment on your overall approach to work-life balance, how do you find time and where do you find energy?

I’ve always dreamt about riding horses, and since my parents didn’t like this idea I had to wait till I was 14 to find my way to start riding on my own. After a short adventure in racing stables I found a riding stable of show jumpers, with the No.1 Slovak rider at that time and I’ve been riding show jumpers/hunters ever since. I have competed on the national level and my favourite part is riding young horses at the time when you can teach them how to like to be ridden and influence their personality.

No matter how much I like my work, it is absolutely crucial to have balance in my life. My work includes a lot of traveling, which is time consuming and especially long negotiations could be exhausting, so I need to be focused and concentrate at all times. Horses are the generator of my energy, the moment I sit on a horse back all the problems disappear, the head clears up and I am able to rethink and re-evaluate all I have in my mind.

Looking 20 years ahead, what would you like to see?

I am grateful for all opportunities that I have got in my life and I believe that all this would not be possible without a great support of my family, my husband and my parents.

So even in 20 years from now I would like to be surrounded by people I love, can rely on and trust at the same time and I still would like to work in a position which would also be my hobby and passion.

Your final words…

Authentic leadership has changed my attitude to life, opened my eyes in many ways and made me realise how much my reaction can influence the outcomes which then have the major impact on my decisions. When I look back I understand my reactions in the past much better and I believe that for the future many more circumstances will lead to a different outcome, because of my current knowledge.

I would like to wish your readers successful decisions and satisfaction in their life, which brings all the joy and delight.

This article was published in Czech&Slovak Leaders Magazine.

Rostislav Jirkal: On Beauty and Challenges of SMEs

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are often referred to as the backbone of the European economy, providing a potential source for jobs and economic growth. In fact, they represent 99% of all businesses in the EU. In the Asia-Pacific region, these businesses are the engines for growth and innovation. It is a great opportunity for the Czech and Slovak Leaders magazine to present Mr. Rostislav Jirkal, a former CEO of Servodata, who after 25 years in ICT family business is leaving the company to join another SME, consulting company QED Group. He shares with us his journey, important milestones, experiences gained and difficult moments. What is it like for an owner of an SME to negotiate with a multinational Goliath? And what is he looking forward to in his new consulting career at QED Group?

What does it feel like to hand over originally a small Czech family business to the international consulting group BDO, currently ranking among the top five largest consulting companies?

It feels special. I’d compare it to wearing the same coat for 25 years, then taking it off and being able to wear any style jacket I choose. I realised that after a certain time spent at the top as CEO, more and more tasks and assignments kept piling on, and at the expense of activities I found energising and more fulfilling. So right now, I am looking forward to the new beginning, launching new projects and feeling a renewed sense of excitement, passion and purpose.

Let us now discuss the three phases that each family business has to go through in order to develop and grow successfully, and eventually become a part of the global market. These phases can be divided into: 1) the early phase, dedicated to the development of an enterprise and its brand; 2) the middle phase, devoted to attraction of customers and development of a team; and 3) the final phase, focused on systems, processes and finance in order to prepare for an acquisition. So, let us go back 25 years, just after the Velvet Revolution, when you and your brother founded the Servodata company.

Only a handful of people realise how unprecedented the period of early 1990s was. The market was hungry to get new technologies. But the way to reach the customer was not straightforward. There were many administrative barriers, including an embargo on importing the latest technology from Western countries. We were launching unknown products, trying to explain their benefits to the market. I recall difficult negotiations with the top representatives of the Seagate company who found it hard to believe that someone in Czechoslovakia could be interested in a 20 MB disc! My career was made by my ability to identify new directions and trends and then evangelising them to the often doubtful market to become more receptive. Using some current entrepreneurial language, I was totally “in the flow”; that is, I was doing what came most naturally to me, and that served my company well. And so with our growing reputation, we attracted partnerships with top global brands, such as EMC, Compaq, IBM and many others. Thanks to these powerful partnerships, Servodata’s brand became very strong. The innovation stage came back later when I built a team dedicated to technology training at the Datascript company, and also started to develop the overall market by introducing open source tools.

What did the second phase, which was dedicated to the team development, look like? Servodata was known as a talent incubator for multinational companies, with many of its former employees working nowadays at global companies such as DHL, Avnet, HP and Red Hat, among others.

I believe in the rule saying you should always hire people who are smarter than you. Since the beginning, we created a distinct culture to ensure that all our colleagues, both men and women, could show off their skills, as well as receive the support and encouragement to become better experts than us, the owners. So we applied two trends in practice, succession planning and talent management, which were heavily debated. The challenge was, since we were bringing totally new technologies, that we could not find anyone familiar with these on the market. I remember hiring an academic expert who did not speak English. We provided intensive language training and after three months this guy was ready to pass an extremely demanding certification process in the United States. As we could not compete with multinational companies with respect to salaries and benefits, we instead created a company culture that was open, innovative and creative – an environment very much today sought after by top talent. I was very pleased to hear the reaction of potential candidates during interviews who heard that Servodata was a company where “life is good”.

Let us move to the last phase, where a company prepares to be acquired. This phase is usually unknown and occurs behind scenes. How difficult was it for you to concentrate on processes and systems and also lead negotiations for the hand over? Did you feel like you were a small David facing an international Goliath?

This phase is extremely demanding, but thanks to the fact that we have been a partner to various global companies since the beginning, we had to adjust to their structures and processes. We had at our disposal not only the latest information systems, but also internal communication processes and overall systems of training and development. As far as negotiations with investors were concerned, these were thrilling and full of creative energy. A small Czech company, represented by a small team of three or four individuals, facing a global corporation with a team of thirty people! I had to be familiar with all aspects of negotiations, beginning with financial terms, all the way to final negotiations when we were examining each word in the contract. I’ve always relied on a strong team, this time being composed of external advisors, so we were neither surprised, nor taken advantage of. I am truly proud of the value that we have left to our foreign partners when handing over parts of the company, not only the financial value, but the value in its ability to remain healthy and grow under new conditions. The same was true for the process of acquiring new companies, such as M.S.D. or Abakus Distribution; the value of those companies was later multiplied thanks to successful integration into the structure of Servodata Group.

What is the most profound message you would like to pass on to other owners of SMEs?

As I said, I’ve been able to successfully complete the life cycle of an enterprise: defining a vision, building a structure, building a team, proving a viable concept of a repeatable business model, up until the final phase of monetisation for owners and shareholders. Thanks to being an expert partner in advisory bodies of several global corporations, I was able to become familiar with global organisational structures, including top management, knowing both the pros and cons of how these corporations work on a daily basis. On top of that, as I learned to understand and see the world from an investor’s point of view, I gained valuable experience in both the acquisition and divestments processes. So naturally, I learned to deal with different company cultures. I think there are only a few issues left out there that might surprise me! I want to use this experience and knowledge to help business owners to identify the best development path for a particular defining moment in their development. I am aware of many paths and cul-de-sacs which could lead them astray from their desired end-game, and how to avoid these, saving headaches, and well as time and money, which of course is totally essential for the health of an enterprise itself during this journey.

What are you looking forward to in your future consulting career?

I am looking forward to drawing upon my first hand experience to co-create new visions for inspiring companies, and to help solve situations, from a consultant point of view, which appear unsolvable from the perspective of those involved in it on daily basis. Succession planning in SMEs is an issue that has become very pressing in the Czech Republic. It was not by chance that I was able to successfully complete the enterprise life-cycle with Servodata Group. There is a measurable process and proven methods. That said, anyone trying to solve the puzzle of succession planning should start to think about the team, internally and externally. Despite the so-called war on talent being mentioned in media headlines, I see many talented people around who are not given a chance. The feeling that “I am the only one to be able to solve that” is an illusion and does not serve anyone

And why did you decide to join QED Group?

I perceive QED Group as a company of enthusiastic professionals, led by Radvan Bahbouh, a leading Czech coach, a psychologist, a psychiatrist and also a mathematician, who has unique, proven and long-time expertise in building high performance teams. There is a vast range of products QED Group offers, and I find that all of these reflect the latest scientific work which combines mathematics, psychology and other disciplines. For example, “sociomapping” is one of those unique tools, which became famous also thanks to the MARS 500 project. Unfortunately, there is a myth that only the richest multinational corporations can afford the best products with regards to learning and development. Based on my direct experience, I know that SMEs are vitally dependent on finding maximum efficiency in how they function. And, I should mention again, it is the SMEs who are disrupting current dogmas, and are taking the lead to contribute to the growth of economy and bring innovation. I see my new mission to assist and help them.


Radvan Bahbouh

Nikos Balamotis, a managing partner of QED Group was featured in Leaders in 2014; the interview can be accessed here

Radvan Bahbouh, founder of QED Group on Rostislav Jirkal…

In almost ten years I’ve known and interacted with Rostislav, I’ve never found him in the same place as the previous time. Rostislav has this tendency to put things in motion, and in the midst of all that he is able to discover new roads, while doing it thoughtfully. From my perspective, it seems that he was able to transform his passion for paragliding into his profession. Unlike his untidy office desk, his inner world is very orderly, but not static. I have a feeling he’ll still keep evolving and rearranging it in new ways, and so developing himself and his surroundings in ever more beneficial ways.


This article was published in Czech&Slovak Leaders Magazine.

Stefan Höchbauer: In order to win in the new economy, you must digitize or become irrelevant

Having the opportunity to interview Mr. Stefan Höchbauer gave me not only a positive insight into the situation on digital transformation in the Czech Republic and its neighboring markets in Austria and Germany, but also an impulse to look at the technology from another perspective. More than ever, new technologies are becoming drivers of the business model change. The revolutionary examples of Airbnb and Uber show us how small players can grow into global ones and on the other hand, how the global ones might become smaller ones or disappear completely. In order to succeed, the IT needs to become integral part of the business to profit from the successful and long-term sustainable development.



A Design Methodology

Basically, Design Thinking is a design methodology, which differs from traditional design approaches in specific ways. For example, it is characterised as more creative and user-centered than many traditional design approaches.


A Problem-Solving Approach or Process

Design Thinking can be regarded as a problem-solving method or a process for the resolution of problems. As a solution-based approach to solving problems, Design Thinking is particularly useful for addressing the so-called “wicked” problems. Wicked means that they are ill-defined or tricky. For ill-defined problems, both the problem and the solution are unknown at the outset of the problem-solving process. Even when the general direction of the problem may be clear, considerable time and effort is spent on clarifying the requirements. Thus, in Design Thinking, a large part of the problem-solving activity is comprised of defining and shaping the problem. Much like any other problem solving process, Design Thinking consists of a number of stages or phases, which differ slightly between various Design Thinking proponents.


An Approach to Encourage Creativity

Unlike analytical thinking, which is associated with the “breaking down” of ideas, Design Thinking is a creative process based on the “building up” of ideas. While analytical approaches focus on narrowing the design choices, Design Thinking focuses on going broad, at least during the early stages of the process. In Design Thinking, designers do not make any early judgments about the quality of ideas. As a result, this minimises the fear of failure and maximises input and participation in the ideation (brainstorming) and prototype phases. “Outside the box thinking”, also called “wild ideas”, is encouraged in the earlier process stages, since this style of thinking is believed to lead to creative solutions that would not have emerged otherwise.


A User-Centered Approach That Brings Design into the Business World

Design Thinking is seen as a way to apply design methodologies to any of life situations. It is often used to explore and define business problems and to define products and services. In other words, Design Thinking brings the design approach into the business world. As a style of thinking, it combines empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality and feedback to analyze and fit solutions to the context – All this helps derive a solution that meets user needs and at the same time generates revenue, that is, drives business success.


Mr. Höchbauer, what are the main business model changes and disruption trends that SAP helps its customers to address?

The topic of digital transformation or business transformation as discussed nowadays is driven by three factors. The first one is represented by surprising competitors that have emerged and now are challenging many established players in traditional industries. Several years ago, it would seem odd to consider that BMW or VW would face competition from Google and its autonomous driving, as Google now has all the data relevant and needed. Similar disruptions are happening elsewhere: one of the biggest taxi providers Uber does not own cars, likewise Airbnb achieved its success without owning one single hotel bed. More and more, the traditional companies in traditional industries need to start thinking about new ways how to engage with customers.


The second factor is linked to the Internet of Things – taking into consideration all devices that are connected to the internet and that will be connected to the internet. According to studies, by 2020 there will be about 50 billion devices connected to the internet. We tend to think mainly about mobile phones, but there are many other devices and sensors connected, and generating enormous overall volume of data. Just imagine immense opportunity for businesses arising from combining data from devices together with corporate data, which create the backbone of the enterprise, and then enriched with the data from the social media. Now the next step comes and that is what to do with the data and how to combine them with analytics. We present to our customers the example of Digital Boardroom as the place where all information about different parts of the enterprise is available and so it enables not only access to data in real time but also decision making according to complex evaluation of the current status of an organisation as well as enhancing communication across various departments. Besides effective decision making, this approach also enables many new opportunities how to interact with customers.


The third dimension of disruption trends comes with next generation, the so-called millennials or also internet generation. They have totally different ideas about how to consume goods and services. I always present the example of my 14 year old son. He likes cars, but he has already made up his mind that he does not want to own a car in the future. He wants to have a flexibility and use it according to his needs, so he thinks about sharing cars with friends and changing models as he likes. And now this new approach to consumption is starting to be reflected in the whole automotive industry.


Having heard all this, now I understand that your statement: “In order to win in the new economy, you must digitize or become irrelevant”, should not be considered an overstatement.

To illustrate all of the changes mentioned above on one specific example, I can give you an insight from my recent discussion with a car rental company, an industry that few would consider particularly innovative. Generally, we would think the business is about maximum possible utilisation of the cars, being at the right place at the right time. However, facing the challenges, there is a need to come up with new types of shared and mobile services for their customers. Potentially, SAP as a corporate customer, will not have one company car per employee but rather service level providing a car at disposal according to needs. So from owning or renting a car, we are turning to consuming either miles or hours or any other flexible arrangement.


Individual SAP employee might thus profit from various cars for different occasions. Smaller car easy to park when driving in a city, a family car when going to the seaside for summer vacations or an offroad when going for a skiing weekend. Or perhaps would he or she like to try a convertible throughout summer? Expanding on this mobile cart, let me describe a few services that could be interesting from the user’s point of view. Just by entering the car and connecting to the GPS, there would be a welcome and the navigation system would be automatically selecting the optimal journey to the next meeting. If I go to the petrol station and I refuel, the bill would be automatically added to the right expense company account. No more diffcult and manual handling of receipts and bills into a system. By the way, this is already possible thanks to SAP technology called Concur.


So this was one example that for changing business models you need flexible and reliable, rock solid IT infrastructure with data, applications and solutions and building on these, you come up with new services and ways to engage with your customer to serve their needs better.


Digitalization is truly affecting each and every industry and each and every geography. The adoption might be different if you compare America and Western Europe to Russia and CIS but it is omnipresent. Sometimes, it comes under headline of business transformation but the ultimate aim as to how best adapt for future market is always the same.


For a long time, SAP has been associated primarily with large corporations. In reality, 80% of your customers are SMEs. In Germany, the SMEs have been traditionally considered backbone of economy, but in the Czech Republic, SMEs have been in an inferior position with regards to access to funding and innovation, when compared to multinationals. Has the situation changed?

In SAP we have the same customer base in each country where we operate. What might differ, is the definition of the SME as such, with regards to the revenue or number of employees. But the principle how we engage with SMEs, what products and solutions we offer and how we engage with them, stays the same. As you pointed out, SMEs are also a backbone of business for us. Look at our product and portfolio and you find a range scaling from small to large enterprises. In some areas the offer is the same, in some areas there are special products developed in cooperation with our partners, based on our technology and ready to solve specific solutions in particular segments.


Three particular segments – finance, media and production – have been discussed at SAP Forum held in Prague in June. Finance and production are often discussed, but what was the reason to include media?

As I mentioned, digital and business transformation is relevant for each and every industry. Some of the industries might be more adaptive than others. With media and in particular social media, the question of making use of data available becomes imminent which brings us back to the solutions we offer. This was confirmed in the keynote speech of Mr. Petr Dvořák, CEO of Czech Television, discussing new trends in TV time consumption and the effect on the transforming world of media as such.


SAP is active in both, public sector and private sector. How is the public sector, comparing to the private one, interested in digital transformation? Are there any differences, can you give an example?

It is interesting to note that with regards to the digital transformation, the often mentioned public-private sector divide is not relevant. There might be some slight concerns with regards to cloud solutions, but overall, the solutions and the responses are the same. Let us take the example of growing pressure from citizens with regards to the need of more transparency and budget spending or the pressure to be more flexible in handling administrative agenda filing on the documents and paperwork. The topic of efficient data use and data sharing can be extended to health care where I see a great advantage and potential. The potential of connectivity was demonstrated in one study done by the Heidelberg University Hospital which carried out digitizing cervical cancer screening in Kenya, in a process that helped to prevent data loss and duplication. And one last positive remark regarding adoption and readiness, I am pleased to see that the level of discussion is almost comparable between Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.


So far, we have talked about transforming businesses and technologies. Now, let us talk about people. What is your view and approach to leadership at SAP in times of transformation?

In SAP, we make sure we have the people at the right positions. We embrace the notion of all inclusive diversity, in terms of gender, age, nationalities and last but not least even different physical abilities. I am so proud not only about my diverse team and particularly about the high number of talented women managers in executive positions throughout the region.


We walk the talk on disruption and so we introduced the methodology called design thinking which is a smart way of brainstorming and engaging with our customers. But we also use it internally. We talk about potential disruptive ideas, topics, trends and influences and how to link them to the opportunities our technology enables. Therefore, the employees need to be open to learning and to adapt fast. We also experienced our transformation from turning from an enterprise resource planning system company into a cloud company based on rock solid technology SAP HANA. This way, we are able to address much bigger market potential, in terms of different industries, lines of business, different buying centers etc. Our experts are trained to be always the most relevant source for their customers as potential consultants on future disruptive trends in a particular industry or business. We invest in training, education, coaching and we are aware that this is an on-going and never ending process.

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