Passion. Feminine energy is entirely different from masculine energy and we can embrace the level of passion with compassion, nurturing nature, and connection. I think that if you have a strong passion and belief in what you are looking to accomplish the sky is the limit.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anastasia Ovtchinnikova.
Founder and Design Director of Ana Kova Atelier, Anastasia Ovtchinnikova, runs a multi-disciplinary interior design practice that specializes in residential, hospitality, workplace and retail design. Our goal is to elevate the quality of life through interior space by ultimate functionality within a timeless aesthetic. The former SCAD alumni prides her practice by creatively communicating a conceptually driven narrative into each carefully curated project.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Absolutely, thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story. I would say that I come from a colorful past. I am a first-generation Russian immigrant from Saint Petersburg. My family moved to America while I was a child to escape the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as to pursue the vision of the “American Dream.” This is not always the case, however, in my story I see a direct connection of talents and traits from my ancestors. For example, my grandfather and father are both men who wore and wear many hats. Careers and hobbies ranged from the fine arts (photography and painting), carpentry, military engineering, and even to acrobatics and martial arts. You could say this jack of all trades gene was passed down through my stream of “Ruskey” bluebloods. Growing up, I colored. And when I say I colored, it was all day, every day and everywhere. I would say my parents weren’t so thrilled to find pencil markings all over their walls as a toddler. But I think the ability to see color and shape was my form of meditation early on. Eventually I painted images on my bedroom ceiling and turned my basement into an art studio in my teenage years. I had always expressed a natural talent and passion for the art world. I became best friends with my high school art teachers, which eventually led me to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design. Art school was where I decided to professionally pursue the field of interior design. What drove me to the field was the fact I could still juggle all things creative within one robust field. I could cohesively practice and piece all my interests (photography, painting, design, furniture, fabric, architecture, creative writing, etc.) into one cohesive physical space. It was like I hit the jackpot. After college, I moved to the Hamptons in New York for my first real job in interior design, and the rest was history. I was hooked on design and everything it had to offer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I always had the intention of starting my own brand and design practice but when and how were the biggest questions. I was living back in New York City, and working for an architectural design firm specializing in workplace, retail and innovation spaces. It was early 2020, and the world watched the COVID-19 pandemic spread from China to Italy. Our office would anxiously watch the development of the virus on the John Hopkins map. Day by day the red dot would get larger and larger as it spread from China to Italy and further West.
Suddenly, a COVID case was detected in Manhattan and the office chatter began. I remember our principal saying, “It’s New York, we will never shut down.” Then BOOM, the COVID pandemic hit the city with full force. New Yorkers were put on an executive order mandatory lock down in March 2020. I remember walking down Madison Avenue that last Friday in the office. It was like a movie, a darkness of gloom, fog and drizzle enveloped the city’s skyline. Finance guys were frantically running around the block with monitors in hand and eyes filled with fear. Little did I know I would soon experience the same fear when I was furloughed and laid off from my design position.
I think it is rather interesting that in times of struggle and uncertainty, great things can emerge. This was a perfect opportunity to start what I had aspired to do. So yes, I pulled the trigger, and launched my company and brand during the 2020 COVID pandemic.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It was my first or second week on the job in the Hamptons. I had finished up a call with someone over the phone and as I hung up, I whispered, “What a ****,” under my breath. My boss at the time turned around with the shocked serious look on his face and shouted, “What did you just say?” I was absolutely mortified as if I was about to get in scolded by my mother and have my mouth washed out with soap. I hesitated and quietly said the derogatory word I whispered behind a shield of shame and guilt. As soon as I said the word out loud, my boss abruptly said, “Oh my goodness, THANK GOD!!! I’ve been trying so hard to hold my potty mouth for weeks thinking it would be completely inappropriate in front of a new employee. You are one of us now!” He wasn’t completely wrong, but it was a pretty funny story. I think you should definitely be yourself, however one should be conscious and aware of what is deemed appropriate, and the kind of language used within the workplace. It also depends on the people and culture of the office in which you work in.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people I have been grateful for along the way, my father being my biggest inspiration and mentor. When one mentions success, I always remember one specific story. My father and a series of businessmen were all having a conversation. The billionaire says, what are the three keys to success? They all guess wrong answer after wrong answer. He finally folds and says here are the 3 keys to success. With 2/3 you will be successful, but with 3/3 you will be very successful. The keys to success are. 1. A mentor, a teacher, knowledge, someone to show you the ropes and take initiate to learn as much as possible. 2. Talent, you can’t buy talent, you are born with it. 3. Drive, hard work and determination to take action and implement your dreams.
With the above being said I am grateful to all my design mentors and teachers along my journey. There is not a single one I could pinpoint, well maybe two, but each one comes with its own story. They have taught me the ins and outs of the industry. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I have been able to take something away both positive and negative from each one. After working with and under several influential and talented creatives, it has allowed me to understand what kind of boss I want to be and don’t want to be. It showed me how I would like and not like to run my design firm. It has also shown me how I would like to lead, build and work with my team. Prior to launching my own firm, I realized I had been selecting off the a la carte menu of creative businesses to determine the vision for my own company for many years.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. This left an unforgettable impact at the beginning of my design career. I was fresh out of college and looking for a job with the notion of New York or California in mind. I picked up this novel, entirely by chance, not knowing the content of its chapters. The novel is about Howard Roark, a young innovative modernist architect in New York, who battles against the conventions of the traditional architecture. Rand’s novel prides on the idea of individualism and non-conformists over collectivism. At the time I was in New York interviewing for my first job. I took the bus out to the Hamptons, with the novel glued to my fingertips. As I turned each page, I could somehow relate to the current design journey that had been slowly unfolding for myself. My future colleague picked me up at the small-town bus stop. I hopped into the car and we drove around this enchanting place. We toured a few of the marvelous modern in construction projects throughout my interview process. Soon enough I was an East Hampton resident, and junior designer, working under Kevin O’Sullivan, one of my greatest mentors. It was an amazing experience to learn and work on several modern masterpieces for many intriguing clients. I always thought it was incredibly ironic and far too much of a coincidence with the interview and the novel I had been reading at the time. I believe it told me I was on the right path and taught me to seek the signs and always trust your journey.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Trust your Journey. Stay Positive. If something or someone is preventing you from reaching your goals then you should take a step back, re-evaluate and realign. Starting a business is difficult, and only you are being held accountable. There are always scenarios and relationships that can prevent you from reaching the level of success you are capable of. If something isn’t going right, then you should have a closer look and make changes to your path or to those that preventing you from your path. Laying down boundaries is so important, and I still struggle with this every day. The word NO is the hardest word in the English vocabulary.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Our successful projects have elevated people’s lifestyles in different ways. We have shown people possibilities they could have never dreamed of. Not only do we transform a space with a new aesthetic and beauty, but it transforms the users. We value the integration of sustainable materials and methods into our projects with awareness to the environment. These are small examples compared to what we hope to pursue in the near future. As we continue to grow our company, we hope to have the ability to make a bigger impact on the world and the environment.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
It actually blows my mind that women founders are only 20%. I believe my perception must be swayed as I tend to surround myself with strong, independent and powerful women leaders. I believe the glass ceiling effect is a real concern in today’s work world. It prevents women from reaching higher ranks in a corporation. There are wage differences, promotion differences, and of course maternal leave that play a factor in the discrimination. I have personally experienced and seen how this is still present and relevant today. Luckily, I have been able to overcome the bigotry by holding my ground, being clear and concise, while knowing and explaining my worth.
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
We like to work and support different brands that are run by empowering women, such as Lindsey Adelman or Holly Hunt. Both are creative and brilliant women that are deemed iconic in the design industry. As a young female founder, I have helped empower, mentor and motivate younger women in my field while supporting and uplifting female powered brands. I encourage my young interns to explore, learn, ask questions and not hold back.
This might be intuitive to you, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
We live in an ever-evolving society where the roles between males and females have switched. Back in the day women were housewives and men went to work. Nowadays, plenty of men have become stay at home dads and females are the bread “makers”. I believe that if it works for you and your family to go for what feels right, without allowing the fear of judgement sink in. I think anyone that has those 3 keys to success should become a founder, male or female. Although I am all for having more awesome talented females join the club.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.
Feminine energy is entirely different from masculine energy and we can embrace the level of passion with compassion, nurturing nature, and connection. I think that if you have a strong passion and belief in what you are looking to accomplish the sky is the limit.
2. Motivation & Encouragement.
This goes hand and hand with mentorship. Positive encouragement and words of motivation can help inspire and spark a lightbulb. I am currently mentoring a bright young female in my design practice and it’s been such a pleasure to watch her grow in such a short period. It makes me smile watching her figure things out, see how things come together, and see how the encouragement has sparked an even greater talent and natural instinct in her design capabilities. It feels like you are helping unlock a treasure chest of inspiration and talent. I don’t know who’s getting more out of it, me or her!
3. Community & Support.
Creating a community where females can trust each other and speak openly. Knowing you have a trusting support group and safe space is important. Just like there is a boy’s club, there needs to be a lady’s club. I have a group of brilliant, driven females from different fields that I love spending time with. It’s like Sex and the City, but with a little less sex and more business. We constantly bounce new ideas off one another and inspire each other to take a look at different strategies. Not only do we encourage and motivate but we aren’t shy of being critical and shutting down bad ideas, with a good laugh of course. It should be fun!
4. Competition, Try, Try Again.
Women are still women, and many times can be catty like a scene straight out of the movie Mean Girls. I think it is good for us to have a competitive nature but with good sportsmanship. By maintaining a mentality that is constructive vs catty we can avoid alienating someone. When you alienate someone in a mean way it can make them shut down and second guess themselves. Or when your first pitch was disaster it doesn’t mean the whole idea was bad. Sometimes you need a little more practice, more time to develop and refine, and always give it another shot or ten. Just because you lost round 1 doesn’t mean you lost the match.
5. Elimination of Fear and Confidence
I think the elimination of fear and hesitation is one of the biggest things that hold us back from founding a company and taking action. What if I fail, what if I’m not good enough, what if they are better than me? We have to build confidence and eliminate fear. By doing this we can lead with poise and have the courage to take risks that can lead to more open doors. As they say, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement it would revolve around “Trust the Process.” Without a solid foundation and process there is no story or depth, in my opinion. The conceptual narrative is where the root of good idea lies. By understanding and researching the concept we are able to unlock and dive deeper into an idea. The process and development of a concept is what makes the final outcome more concise, profound, and beautiful.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
This a tough one, there are so many inspirational individuals that I would love to have an opportunity with to pick their brain. It would probably have to be Richard Branson, not only does he have an awesome story, he is absolutely brilliant but generates a great air of positivity around his demeanor. That alone is so captivating and inspiring.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow my Instagram @anakova_atelier which has links to other outlets such as my website and email.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.