Business thinking is a method. You can learn it literally everywhere, first, by using it. Think about how a nearby café works, why a college costs so much, how a shopping mall or your favorite game app makes money. Doing it every day will help to ingrain it as an ability to think of opportunities quickly, compare costs and profits, look for applicable business models, see entirely new markets and so on.
As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Olga Duka, CEO Zeus Exchange bio: Olga is an infinitely curious serial entrepreneur with strong product vision backed by 15 years of expertise in stock markets and creative industries. Her professional experience includes working as a trader and portfolio manager at international markets, producing unique events and products in culture and education, and developing fintech startups. This experience gave her a blend of financial, art & business skills needed to find talents, and imagine and execute a good product together. www.zeus.exchange
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?
Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity!
I have a wonderful family who are engineers, supporting my natural curiosity. I’ve received a superb mathematical education from an early age, and I have passion for building simple solutions for real problems.
Eventually, I decided to apply my education to economics, specifically, to trading and asset management, because it was still high mathematics, but applied to a tangible field. Otherwise, I would most likely have gone into science.
Then my curiosity and my passion led me to work at the crossroads of emerging technologies, entrepreneurship and education, learning to build startups and analyzing how emerging technologies can be applied to scalable solutions. This led me to blockchain and back to finance, to produce a scalable platform for traders instead of being a trader myself.
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far?
Back in 2008 I went to William Parker Quartet gig and listening to musicians made me feel that I have a potential I’ve never even tapped into, being so obsessed with finance and mathematics. It took me sometime to figure things out, but afterwards, I decided to quit finance and go into event management industry.
That was my very first company, and my first experience of being an entrepreneur, and of course it didn’t go smoothly, and I made a ton of important mistakes. The first year was frightening, because I had no idea what I was getting into. The second year was terrifying because I started to understand it better while we started to grow and faced our first liquidity gap. On a 3rd year we’ve organized a festival for several thousand people, and I am still grateful to my production partners who have agreed to work with a small company with no previous experience in such an enormous endeavor and didn’t question that we can deliver it.
Eventually we’ve grown from an avant-garde jazz gig for 100 people to producing nationwide forums and exhibitions and managing art cluster territories, and this journey took us about 6 years.
Surely, I was not able to foresee what we are doing today, or that I will eventually go building startups and then go back to finance. But I clearly understand now, that it’s because of all this previous experience that I am here today, working in a highly uncertain blockchain industry, and building an innovative product with the best team anyone can dream of.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am a true believer in scalable and simple financial services. My trading experience showed, that investment markets are not really open for everyday people. It’s difficult to manage and grow wealth unless you have at least $50k stored for this purpose or if you have a sophisticated financial background. At the same time, modern technology can already provide multiple options to create simple and affordable investment instruments, even if a legal framework is not there yet.
Right now, I am working on our startup Zeus Exchange. We tokenize public stocks and indices, offering cheap alternative for traders, and a gateway to the markets that have not been available before (for example, access to European markets from Asia).
Our idea stands on a premise, that if we combine financial technology and experience with the power of blockchain, then we can build an institutional grade trading platform, that will bring valid & liquid digital investment instruments. A bigger vision behind this premise is that such an approach will allow us to truly cater to retail investors, offering “investing from a spare cash” model in the future.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
First and foremost, we stand out as a collaborative, highly independent and joyful team that has a vision and can masterfully execute it, whatever the challenges are, our team is able to ask proper questions and find practical answers, and can attract the best providers and partners in the field. Being a professional equal, being alive, curious, and possess integrity, being open to learn and express opinions is a part of our team chemistry.
And I think, everything that we do, and how we do it transcends team’s quality and spirit — practical and ironic consideration of ideas, sophisticated approach to development, meticulous attention to legal framework, careful consideration of partnerships, product & relations quality.
As many blockchain startups out there, we’ve had our fair share of setbacks. 2018 was a thrilling and a terrifying year — for us, and for everyone. Crypto crash was brutal, regulatory environment was uncertain, technology was in early adoption phase, and there were not that many survivors. We’ve lost our banking for a few months, which meant a huge liquidity gap, and an operational halt. And I think, it’s the team’s effort that we were able to withstand it, continue working, not to lose precious momentum and connections. That was a force of will and camaraderie factor, and this is something, that make any company stand out.
Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all-white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?
I’d say, it’s a snowball effect of multiple efforts by many people over the past decades, and I truly admire the sheer force of will of people who made it all happen. People fighting for equality, diversity and integrity helped form a new society that wants equal opportunities, open access to finance, creating a new world that is not ruled by a select 1%. It has also brought a culture of the diversity of minds and experiences, which in turn helps create better and more effective solutions for local and global problems.
At the same time, women are still generally overlooked, underrepresented and under supported in any industry, though the contemporary trend looks promising. We must understand that female strength is something very valuable because it helps building new kind of solutions and brings a new team dynamic — I’d say holistic, multiverse, accepting and self-aware.
Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and /or c) society to support this movement going forward?
I think, as society, we should encourage kids to support diversity from an early age, we should encourage diversity in our own minds — to keep learning, thinking and doing differently, and learn to collaborate with one another.
On a company level, we should look past gender and ethnicity and focus on experience and skills a person brings to the table.
On the individual level, we should understand and accept, that there are as many pathways as we can possibly imagine. Whatever we choose to do, we should go ahead, own it and fight for it, and never restrict or diminish ourselves or never allow anyone else to do it. The world needs every one of us, our difference, our integrity, personality, unique edge, and we have every right to achieve success on our own terms.
And that’s exactly what we need to properly answer XXI century challenges — to come together as different as we are, be versatile, and be inventive.
What’s important, is that all these changes start on a personal level, in everyday life. Talk to a girl who is getting unequal treatment in school, support a colleague, encourage an entrepreneur, be a part of female communities in business and in science, go talk to the local university, it’s not complicated, but it will have a massive roots effect.
You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each?
To explain it simply, being financially literate means being able to estimate your costs and constantly open new opportunities to grow your resources (sounds like a game, I know). Besides, being financially literate is not a thing-in-itself, it’s a set of practical instruments and methods of thinking, combined. And there are a few things that may help get that and have fun.
▪ Value of time is incalculable. Or, rather, it can be calculated in finance comparing of getting the money today or tomorrow, but overall, time is the most precious resource that we have.
▪ Curiosity is a force of nature. Our brains encapsulate infinite possibilities, and ability to playfully ask questions help to expand it, intertwine and enrich what you already know, get a perspective and a context, widen your horizons, be able to see and generate new ideas.
▪ Life-long learning does wonders. It’s not just practical learning that’s important, but your brain capacity to develop new methods of thinking, understanding how different areas of life operate, and how it all is connected. Eventually, it will help you build a long-term vision, which is an ability to see a much bigger picture, see the place of current processes in this picture, and see the gaps, that you may fill in with your ideas.
▪ Mathematics is amazing. It’s also not at all so complicated as it appears to be, at least for the first 10 years of school and college or so. It builds a systemic thinking, and it gives practical instruments for an everyday life, say, to calculate a correct change in a shop, or how much should you save to get that special toy, or how to compare job offers, or how to calculate resources you need to deliver on your idea, or how to choose an investment instrument or calculate credit rates properly.
▪ Business thinking is a method. You can learn it literally everywhere, first, by using it. Think about how a nearby café works, why a college costs so much, how a shopping mall or your favorite game app makes money. Doing it every day will help to ingrain it as an ability to think of opportunities quickly, compare costs and profits, look for applicable business models, see entirely new markets and so on.
It’s not the idea that matters, but the ability to see a bigger picture and keep learning, generate a lot of ideas, quickly pinpoint the one worth doing long-term, narrow it down to practical solution, calculate the resources needed and then go ahead and just do it. Whatever an idea is — getting a financial education, saving up for a bike, building a startup or getting into space.
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?
I think, I’ve always been very lucky to have so many people around who support me, one way or another, by being who they are and teaching me do just that — my family, colleagues, friends, close social circles and distant ones.
For example, my parents have always supported my natural curiosity, and our house was filled with literature, design kits, astronomy toolboxes, archeology and anatomy albums, soldering gun (making a radio!), whatever my attention was drawn to at a time. One of my bosses many years ago had shown me an art of negotiations, and another one — how to apply the most sophisticate mathematics to financial markets and have fun while doing it. My colleague is fantastic in getting-things-done, a well of venture and financial knowledge, and a master of irony, and it’s an everyday pleasure to work with her. A friend of mine who is launching a startup in the US and demonstrating a miracle of perseverance.
I think, grand ideas, opportunities we decided to pursue, education and experience that we get, challenges and failures we encounter do matter, but people matter the most, and I cherish every single encounter.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Pablo Casals was once asked why, at the age of ninety and widely regarded as the finest cellist in the world, he was still practicing every day. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘I think I’m making progress.’
My parents told me this story, when I was a kid, and it always inspired me to keep learning and keep getting better at what I do, and never consider thinking that I’m done, and I know it all.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d call for funding collaborations between science labs and schools, for supporting engineering education, for financing science and education, especially in areas, where access to education is limited to some social groups.
We live in a very turbulent and exciting times, facing multiple challenges as a humanity, and I think, that we need more scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs, teachers from all walks of life.
Thank you for all of these great insights!