Stay focused. While in business, it’s easy to get discouraged by looking at how advanced your competitor is. Being focused on what you do best builds your strength.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lilia Stoyanov.
Lilia Stoyanov is a chief executive officer and angel investor at Transformify. A fintech and digital transformation expert, she is also a professor at Zigurat Business School and expert evaluator Horizon 2020 at the European Commission.
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?
I graduated from Oxford University with a major in Financial Strategy. I am a professor at Zigurat Business School, Barcelona, Spain teaching blockchain, fintech, fundraising ,and Digital Transformation FI/CO and serve as an Expert Evaluator Horizon 2020 of the EU Commission.
So it all started in 2013 when I was the director at a Fortune 500 company and was involved in the business transformation process. During my time there I saw how lots of people lost their jobs due to automation and it was clear that everyone would benefit from a solution that provides equal access to jobs and secure payment no matter what the location. And that’s why Transformify was born. It started as a Freelance Management Platform offering remote jobs and soon became the recruiter’s one-stop-shop. From Employer Branding to candidate sourcing to ATS to Diversity Hiring to billing and payments, it’s all that a hiring manager may need.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When we started Transformify, everyone was telling us that it would be impossible to expand globally on a very tiny marketing budget. Still, we took the risk and bootstrapped the company. 4 years later, I can say that it is your strategy that is more important than several funding rounds. As an angel investor, I witnessed the collapse of a number of well-funded companies. It’s contra intuitive, but in reality, raising lots of money provides a dangerous level of comfort.
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?
Yes, so after we released a public beta for transformify, we realized that our clients want a one-stop-shop for recruiters, not just a Freelance Platform. At that point in time, there were two ways to go — to continue with product development to add the features that the existing clients were looking for or simply change our marketing and sales strategy to attract only clients who were looking to hire freelancers. Back then, I failed to realize that we could do both in parallel.
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?
It’s my dad. A senior executive himself, he was always there when I needed advice. 2 years ago, we faced a major technological challenge. The situation looked helpless and I was about to give up, write off the losses and move on. On top of everything, at the time, I was in Seoul alone, miles away from my family. As usual, I had a Skype call with my dad telling him how helpless the situation was in my eyes. He just smiled and said “Try one more time, you’ll have better ideas tomorrow. If it doesn’t work, move on.’’ It was his smile that brought me back up to speed and saved Transformify.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision?Can you share a story or some examples?
I would usually read some blogs or motivational quotes that instantly picks me up and puts me in the right frame of mind. And I always try to see the bigger picture, and understand that if this does not work out, there are going to be other opportunities out there. But at the same time I fight my best for every meeting with clients or while taking key decisions. It’s always important to take learning from every experience and implement that in future.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Encouraging diversity of thought leads to innovation and it must be initiated at the top level. It is our job to seek diverse candidates and accept and appreciate those who have different life experiences, world views or act, speak and think in a different way. These candidates are the people who can challenge the product or strategy of the company and raise awareness of its potential risks. Having difficult conversations may not be appealing to lots of leaders but that’s the right way forward.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As a leader, it is imperative that one embraces diversity and builds an inclusive, welcoming culture. And to create an inclusive society the leader has to take some initiatives to build a relationship with the employees. As the first step, one should listen and understand what is working for employees, what could improve, and what is required that is currently lacking. After listening, implement the changes, I have seen many people do the talk but take no action, and it does not work that way. It will ultimately lead to decreased employee engagement. Thus to build this culture, it is important to build a two way communication channel and implement the changes to build trust.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
One of the most important roles of an executive is Team Management. I have often heard from people who oppose remote work state lack of communication and motivation as major disadvantages. But I refuse to buy that. Our team is on three continents and I started the company as a truly remote company with a team that has never met to prove to the world that this is possible. As a leader, I have built open communication among my team members. And the corporate culture is not related to the location, its more about how the executive communicates with his or her people, how he or she encourages them and how he or she establishes the right report lines so everyone is on track. At the same time, being ready to see someone else’s point of view that contradicts with your own understanding is what distinguishes a leader from a manager. That’s what is important — for both remote and internal teams.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
People always believe that CEO’s are not approachable and are often hesitant to share their ideas with them. At transformify, I have built a culture of constant communication between all our team members and give them a channel to provide their ideas into the work. And trust me, that’s how a company can truly grow and identify new opportunities.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think the expectation that women may not be able to give the commitment and time towards work as compared to their male counterparts, is one of the biggest challenges. And this is the conception that needs to be changed. I believe that men and women are equally responsible for their home care, personal life etc. And this differentiation should not be made in the workplace.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I feel that the challenges that come up along the way would be a real differentiator. You can never expect what challenges might come, so it’s always best to stay prepared for every scenario.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the most important trait is to be confident while making decisions and then sticking up to them. These decisions might have to be made with limited information and quickly, which could be vital to the success of the company. With these types of decisions, there comes in a lot of stress, so one should be resilient to it. And at the same time, one should be able to face the consequences of their decisions and take responsibility. No one is right all the time; it takes courage to accept the results and take appropriate action.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
It is very important to have a clear set of values, culture, goals for your company and you need to follow it from day one. And do not get distracted by the things that people say, believe in your idea and achieve that. It does take a lot of time, energy and compromises with personal life but the end result is all going to be worth it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Yes, as a member of the Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition of the EU Commission, Transformify is dedicated to providing information about the skills the business needs and helping people in need to master those skills even if they can’t afford formal education. There is a very interesting program in Peru jointly with ViaCodigo empowering the labor reintegration of vulnerable youth in conviction centers.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Stay focused. While in business, it’s easy to get discouraged by looking at how advanced your competitor is. Being focused on what you do best builds your strength.
2. Control your thoughts. We often fail in our thoughts long before we fail for real. We give up. However, thoughts are completely under our control. It’s our choice to see the glass half-full or half -empty. If you believe that your product is not good enough, you will present it as such, cutting your chances for success.
3. Control your emotions. It’s okay to feel angry, tired or inexperienced. But letting these emotions drive your decisions is not. Get out, speak with an expert, whatever that will help you find your peace, and make an informed decision once you are calm and sound.
4. See the big picture. Often an obstacle is tiny if you look at it as part of the big picture. You lost a key client. Fine. It’s unpleasant and there are lessons learnt but will you survive having other hundreds of clients in your portfolio? Of course, you will.
5. Ask for help. This was one of the hardest lessons for me. Initially, I was too proud to seek help and admit that I can’t do it on my own. It took years to master this skill, but now, I pick up the phone immediately knowing that it saves time and effort to everyone. On top of that, my big problems are likely to be negligible in the eyes of an expert.
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.
Affordable access to education and jobs. Being financially independent will help millions of people who are currently victims of the grey economy, of domestic abuse or modern-day slavery. Even though lots of enterprises point out to their diversity and inclusion initiatives, it is still common for candidates to be asked if they went to a public or private school, what the occupation of their parents was, etc. People need to be given a chance even if they are the first generation that went to college or the first generation that can lend a white color job.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Learn to rest, not to quit.’’ I am a workaholic and can reach a level of complete exhaustion when everything looks impossible. 1 year ago, I was so tired, I was ready to just let it go, when my mentor said that it is time to learn how to rest and this was the best piece of advice I could receive.
“Life is unfair, do your best and keep moving.’’ We were ranking in Top 3 in a competition until the last round. Out of a sudden, another company nobody had heard of took our place. I could hardly hide my disappointment but my dad said that it is not a random jury that matters, it is the respect of our clients and rivals that’s important.
“It is not the fear that should drive your decisions, but your inner confidence.’’ It was a situation that appeared helpless but one of my best friends simply said ‘’Look around. Everybody in this room will stand behind you no matter what. Do what you feel is right’’.
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
Melinda Gates’s charitable work is remarkable. Many of the initiatives providing access to education or jobs to vulnerable people Transformify is engaged with will benefit from her expertise and support. Moreover, Microsoft is among the employers providing jobs to people on the autism spectrum which is also among our objectives.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.