Work with what you got (and don’t stop).
Interview with Tatsiana Zaretskaya.
|Interview by:||Pricilla Weixler||Edited by:||Valeria Pinto|
|Reading Time:||19 Min.||Date:||31.10.2019|
In this interview, Tatsiana enriches us with her honesty and straightforwardness regarding the Startup scene, her work ethic, and the working environment. As the CEO and founder of LaavaTech she managed to decrease the energy consumption of lighting systems for indoor farmers to an extent of between 75 percent and 90 percent. Having moved from Belarus to Estonia 5 ½ years ago she fiercely followed her goals to pursue her studies in a foreign country.
Constantly thriving, working and improving herself as well as her company she stands her ground in a man dominated field. She uses being a woman as an asset and has found strategies in which she is able to hold against prejudice. Further, having won several Startup competitions she gives us examples of how to evolve and improve your work and pitches. Tatsiana values networking and the sharing of experiences between founders highly and explains to us why and how to trust one another. She also gives us an insight into the roots of her idea for LaavaTech and lets us in on her secrets – it turns out hard work and perseverance do pay off.
Q: Where did you see yourself today when you were 20 years old?
A: Definitely not where I am right now. I was a completely different person back then. I had very different goals. I was thinking that I was going to become a lawyer and I definitely didn’t think that I will have a family of my own or that I will have a child and that I will have my own successful company. I think I have overachieved by over 500 percent.
Q: What made you change?
A: I was lucky enough that my parents were bringing me to Estonia very often. When you live in Belarus your mind is quite closed. Plus, even though I studied English for many years before moving to Estonia, when I attended the first lecture I didn’t understand a single word. We were supposed to read 200 pages for the following week. I remember walking out of class almost crying because I wondered how I was going to make it. Finally, I managed. People here were very supportive and very open. Whenever you need any kind of support they are there for you.
Q: How did you manage to improve your language proficiency?
A: I just had no other choice. To go back to Belarus was no choice because I got a scholarship here. I was also working because I needed to provide for my family and I also needed to cover some of my expenses. I had no other option if I would’ve moved it would’ve been a very different life. I just received so much support from others. I also help whenever I can because I don’t think it is just my personal accomplishment that I was able to learn so much and so quickly. Of course, I was working hard but I don’t think I would’ve been able to pull it off without any support.
Q: What would you consider the biggest challenge you had to face throughout your career?
A: Being a foreigner and being a woman. I can’t (or don’t want to) change any of it, so you just take it as a given. The government in Finland and Estonia gives you so much support to finish your studies when you’re an Estonian citizen. Then, there you are from Belarus and you’re just sitting there trying to make it. Being a woman is not a problem if you don’t have very high goals. On a day to day level, you don’t notice it is a disadvantage but it is once you start talking about big money, getting into the world of business.
Q: Could you elaborate on that?
A: When I was a student I had no problems but now, if you talk to an investor about huge amounts of money it is an issue. They don’t directly tell you but imply that my young age and my mothership might hinder my decision making. Things they wouldn’t consider while speaking to men. The other thing is that most of the investors are men – I would say like 95 percent of what I’ve seen. They start making you work-unrelated offers that they would not suggest to a guy. If it happens more than once you start questioning whether you’re actually smart enough to sit at a table with these people or if being a woman is the only thing you can offer.
You start questioning whether you’re actually smart enough to sit at a table with these people or if being a woman is the only thing you can offer.
Q: How do you cope with that?
A: I’ve been thinking about it and asking a lot of questions about it. However, if you start thinking about it and start feeling sorry for yourself and how unjust the work world is then that’ll be it. You can’t change anyone else’s mind so you just need to start with yourself. With small steps, you can do it.
Q: What keeps you motivated throughout setbacks?
A: I get that question a lot. I personally don’t really believe in motivation. I think it’s a matter of responsibility in my case. I think responsibility drives me. When you have a company you have everything to be responsible for. You’re responsible for your performance, you’re responsible if you win something, and you’re responsible that you can actually pull things off. I wouldn’t say that I have some inner motivation, I am just very responsible with what I do, I can’t drop it. I have goals that I want to achieve, such as I wouldn’t want my daughter to deal with these kinds of issues in the future. I don’t want my daughter to receive comments on her looks when she’s at a business meeting. Let’s see if the world can be changed by then!
I don’t want my daughter to receive comments on her looks when she’s at a business meeting.
Q: What inspired you to found the company?
A: Actually, that was pure luck. I wasn’t planning to found my own company. During my master’s degree, we had this Startup competition at university. You were able to join a team that already has an idea. I didn’t like any of the ideas so I did my own. I just thought of it as a school project and it has grown into something bigger. The idea I had pitched almost two years ago is completely different from what we are doing now because when I was pitching back then – I had no clue about the market and the clients and their problems and I just pitched whatever was in my head. Now it shifted completely.
Q: How did you get to your idea?
A: In Belarus, we all live with our grandmothers and everyone has a datcha, a small house in the countryside. There, everyone grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and so on. Every spring the grandmothers start planting tomatoes inside of the apartment in small plastic cups and those would be situated everywhere. On the window shells, on the table, on the floor, they would literally cover everything. The smell is quite strong because tomatoes smell quite strongly. Then, for a few months, you need to go to the datcha every weekend and take care of those tomatoes. It’s hot and it’s a lot of work. It didn’t make sense to me and it still doesn’t. I just wanted to see how I can grow tomatoes more effectively. Just to give it more sense. Thus, the first idea was to get more yield. Then we discovered that our technology while increasing yield is decreasing energy consumption so much more and that this part is actually far more important for big indoor farmers than increasing yield. It was a problem that no one was solving on the market.
Q: How did your family react once you decided to found your own company?
A: I didn’t tell them. I told them like half a year ago. I didn’t tell them earlier because I was working as a lawyer and half a year later I quit. I couldn’t tell my parents because remember I’ve been telling you that I’ve been supporting them. I didn’t want to make them worry. Thus, I just told them a couple of months ago that this is what I am doing.
Q: How did your family react when you told them?
A: They were happy because by then they knew that I could figure it out. They are supporting and helping whenever they can.
Q: How did your husband and your friends react?
A: When I went to university to do the Startup project my husband wondered what I was doing. I had my master’s degree, a day job and a one-year-old daughter. So we agreed that I’d just do this project and that’s it. Then my team and I won the competition and then there was another Startup competition in Finland and we won that one as well – that was when I was convinced that it might be worth it. He wasn’t too happy that I was away that much but he was super supportive and helping and taking care of my stuff when I was away.
Q: What does it take to be the founder and CEO of Laava Tech?
A: A lot of work, responsibility, and not giving up. I remember I was quite angry about half a year ago because whenever I win something some people say: ‘Oh you’re so lucky! What’s the magic behind it?’ But the whole point is that there is no magic, it’s not luck that brings you there but hard work that nobody sees. They don’t know how many things you’ve applied for and how many times you didn’t get in. It’s not only about winning something but about not giving up.
People say: ‘Oh you’re so lucky! What’s the magic behind it?’ But the whole point is that there is no magic, it’s not luck that brings you there but hard work that nobody sees.
Q: Do you think not giving up is something you can teach or learn?
A: You can practice it – push yourself each time something is not going the way you want it to. It helped a lot when I was talking to other founders and heard these stories from Taxify and Pipedrive, for instance. It seems like they’ve grown so fast and then you talk to the founders and they tell you that this took them many years. This encourages you to keep doing what you’re doing. Here, the Startup community is very small and people actually talk to each other and share their experiences. If Startups in other countries would generally be more transparent and share their knowledge and experience it would improve each and everyone’s economic situation. Generally, I think corporating is very significant.
Q: Why are Startups you collaborate with not afraid that you might be taking something from them?
A: Well, because you don’t. I mean, there might be dishonest people and of course, you need to pick wisely with whom you’re working with. There will be people that try to steal something from you. You find your own circle of people with whom you can actually share things with and ask advice from. Just take the big companies, Tesla, Amazon, and Facebook – they all knew each other from the beginning. It is just a matter of how they worked out their relationship. I really believe that if you have successful people around you that you will be successful yourself – and the other way around.
I really believe that if you have successful people around you that you will be successful yourself
Q: Do you think you would be in another position if you were a man?
A: Yes, definitely. In being a woman there are some advantages – you can get easier into some events because they need to secure the balance of men and women attending. Of course, it’s easier to start a conversation with people because they might be just interested in you. Each time in the first 15 to 20 minutes I need to prove myself, I need to prove that I know the technical side and I need to prove that everything that happened before with LaavaTech is not just some magic and that it is actually well-deserved. If there’d be a man in my position with that track record I don’t think it would be that hard for him to take it to the next step and be taken seriously.
Q: Is there one thing explicitly that helps you in these situations?
A: Just use the fact that you’re a woman. If you can’t change it then take it and turn it into your advantage. Now, if I can make it very clear that I am a woman and that’s why I deserve to be here I am doing so. When I was going to these different competitions during pitch training a lot of people gave me the feedback that I am really aggressive when I am pitching and even more aggressive when I am answering the questions. It’s not because I am an aggressive person, it is just that I always need to protect my company. You need to be more aggressive and push it because if you’re shy no one is going to notice you.
Q: Have you always been like that?
A: I’ve been taking part in competitions since middle school and then, during high school, too. Of course, I wasn’t as good at pitching as I am now. I think you can just learn it. An advice that I always give when people ask me how to pitch better: pitch trainings are good but mostly help people that have never pitched themselves or their Startup. Sometimes they tell you to follow specific steps that will guarantee your success – they won’t. What makes you a good pitcher is you and you must develop your own way to present yourself and your own company. That’s the only way that will work.
Q: Have you always had that aggressiveness in your responses or did you develop that trait?
A: I think I developed it over time. I always knew how to answer questions and how to react. I never stay silent but I think I developed that trait over time. Of course, it’s not always a good thing and I try to keep it together and only use it when it’s appropriate.
Q: Why do you think there are so few women working as tech entrepreneurs?
A: I think it’s rooted in family systems. At events the speakers on the stage often say that their wife is a stay-home mom or only working day jobs in order for him to work on the company – but how many women can say that compared to men? I know I can, but I know that most can’t. Literally, every week the following questions come up: how I get my husband to LET me travel that much –what do they mean by “lets me”? We’re in equal relations, I follow my dreams and he follows his. Further, one needs to rethink how women are approached and asked questions. I get asked a lot about how I manage to spend time with my child and why I wouldn’t take my child to the events. The point is, you wouldn’t ask a man these questions. Women get more pressure from women because they need to justify themselves. Nobody asks men who is taking care of their children. If women would be treated more professionally during interviews, by the public and by other women, it would help career-oriented women to feel less like they were doing something wrong by having a career.
Nobody asks men who is taking care of their children.
Q: Is there anything the tech field can do to make it more supportive?
A: Definitely, there are a lot of things. Firstly, again, if women would just support women a bit more and share their experiences. Plus, to create events for women at which they can share their knowledge. I think it will also change throughout time because there are still a lot of old-fashioned people in high positions. I had situations in which some men wouldn’t even talk to me because I was too young and a woman. Change will happen, it will just take time.
Q: What would be your advice to young women who go into that field?
A: Not to be afraid and to keep doing it.
Q: Describe the tech field with three words.
A: Future. Sustainability. Responsibility.
Future. Sustainability. Responsibility.
Q: Where do you see yourself next year?
A: I imagine that we have clients on four continents for instance and of course there are things that I can’t say. Of course, everything might fail as well and LaavaTech will be closed but I still think that this experience was worth all the trouble. There’s no other way to learn how to build a Startup. It doesn’t matter how many workshops you take or to how many mentors you speak to, as long as you don’t live through these moments. If LaavaTech fails I would be 100 percent certain that I would start another company and then, that one is going to be successful.
If LaavaTech fails I would be 100 percent certain that I would start another company and then, that one is going to be successful.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: For female founders, it’s basically 90 percent harder to raise funds because female founders raise 90 percent less than male founders. I would like to add this because people should not be afraid to give women money. Women can figure it out, sometimes also better than men. The other thing is that sometimes people are afraid of my multitasking and they think it’s a bad thing – just acknowledge that for some people it is easier to do one thing at a time and some people do two or three things at the same time effectively. It just really depends on the person.