Natalia Bout: “Plan, and plan again”

All over the world we have seen heartwarming acts of solidarity and kindness. My hope is that COVID-19 will teach us to tackle future problems with a community-first mindset. We are learning that this journey called life is not about “me” but “we”. If we can stay anchored to this truth we can work toward […]

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All over the world we have seen heartwarming acts of solidarity and kindness. My hope is that COVID-19 will teach us to tackle future problems with a community-first mindset. We are learning that this journey called life is not about “me” but “we”. If we can stay anchored to this truth we can work toward the greater good — for the greater good. In our global community, our lives are intertwined — we are only one part of a giant ecosystem. We can no longer ignore the need for collaboration across multiple boundaries, including geographical, political, and economical.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.

As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalia Bout, Cultural enthusiast, an anthropologist at heart and a founder of multiple educational initiatives designed to help young minds “go global”. In 2013 Natalia founded UbuntuMail, an offline social network that connected more than 80,000 students from radically different cultural backgrounds to share stories and create community projects. In 2018 the project transformed into a community-centred remote learning ecosystem iDialogue that effectively supports virtual learning environments and empowers students from 138 countries through collaborative STEM education, cross-cultural communication, and language practice.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I have always been fascinated — perhaps obsessed — with travelling. After receiving my degree in Journalism I began to broaden my horizon; I lived and worked in five countries — Argentina, Spain, England, Russia and the US. Each one had its own distinct culture. While the experiences of exploring the world were mesmerizing, they also came with enormous challenges; I struggled to adapt to other cultures and environments. I didn’t know it at the time, but these challenges awakened a desire within me to help students become “world citizens”.

With the rise of globalisation, our private worlds are on a constant collision course; we can no longer live as isolationists. I want to help people unlock the value of living in this interconnected world compassionately — to celebrate and be enriched by diversity and most importantly, contribute to sustainable globalisation. The predominant goal of iDialogue is to help students develop intercultural communication skills and embrace global citizenship.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Once COVID-19 began its march across the globe, we immediately altered our strategies — while remaining true to our values. We pivoted from being a simple platform for collaboration to a full-blown ecosystem that supports virtual learning. We offered unique tools for immersive learning across geographical and cultural boundaries. Obviously, Zoom and Google Classroom became an imperative in any learning environment. But we explored a new dimension of teaching remotely, eliminating the need to switch between multiple digital tools. Our teachers and students benefit from this educational odyssey and have fun via virtual tours, video calls with classrooms from anywhere across the globe. Students feel more engaged by ‘fireside chats’ with experts, from Calcutta to Silicon Valley.

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?

Without question, my greatest support comes from my co-founder Olesia; we became best friends in our childhood. A mom of two little ones, Olesia understands the challenges of combining parenthood and leadership. We are fortunate in that our collaboration is nearly always seamless, allowing us to build a team of exceptional professionals, who are also beautiful human beings. Years ago, we introduced a practice that encourages everyone to share a “silly moment” daily. It may be something funny or totally random. It’s been a remarkable way to build and nurture relationships.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

Running a fast-growing company and raising a toddler has kept me extremely busy and I am constantly juggling my responsibilities. So many opportunities were emerging on the EdTech market, but I struggled with guilt if I didn’t spend enough time with my son and husband. I wanted to be a successful owner but didn’t want to neglect those I loved. On my son’s first birthday party, I had eight back-to-back Zoom calls. I remember feeling defeated by the situation: It seemed like I had to choose between being the mom I wanted to be and being a successful business owner, leveraging opportunities that came up out of the pandemic. I grew weary trying to establish boundary lines between my professional and personal life. And, of course, I was completely sleep-deprived. I was afraid I was on the verge of emotional and physical burnout. I could not recall the last time I functioned outside of any particular role (“a CEO”, “a mom”, “a wife”…) and that’s when I realised something needed to change.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I have started baking more cookies — does that count? Joking, sort of.

I learned to be kind to myself. Instead of blaming myself for failing to do something better I congratulate myself on my accomplishments — and maintaining my sanity! I am also constantly reminding myself how blessed I am to live this amazing life. After all, I dreamed of running an impactful organisation and having a family. I was living the life I had envisioned! I now rely more on my team to keep me grounded and focused on what truly matters. When I am approaching burnout, I redirect my thoughts to my little boy — and my husband. Just being in their presence reminds me how blessed I am to have all these “puzzles” in place. Next, I reevaluated my schedule to look for ways to increase productivity. I forced myself to become a morning person. I like to take the time before the world begins to stir to do some exercise outside to clear my head and still make it back in time to have coffee and breakfast with my son. Only after that do I scan emails or hop on a call. I’ve become pretty adept at multitasking — I can change a diaper while talking on an audio Zoom call! I try to organise my workday to dedicate the first few hours to important tasks and calls. After lunch, I dive into other duties. At 7 p.m. I logoff. I typically take my son outdoors to the playground, park or riverside. After everyone is in bed, I may take another peek at my laptop.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

iDialogue has always been a fully remote, distributed team. It allowed us to avoid many COVID-19 crisis shockwaves. We took advantage of our head start to transition into this “new now” scenario. It is fair to say that my work style hasn’t changed much because of the pandemic — it’s mostly just changed in the last two years since I had my son (meaning I just have a lot less time to procrastinate than before!)

In the business realm, I knew I had to be results-driven. After raising our first round of investment funds, hiring a team, and acquiring users that span the globe, things got real very quickly. Since my working window has tightened, I had to become even more laser focused when I get to work. I had to learn to delegate and to prioritise like never before. Learning to breathe through pressure so I can apply myself effectively takes enormous will and presence of mind.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

It’s easy to fall into bad habits when you work from home, and following a set routine is key to being an effective remote worker. Here’s some advice I wish I’d been told when getting into the game:

Plan, and plan again
I’ve discovered that discipline is critical to being productive while working from home. Since my goal is to always perform at my best, I must stay organised and plan (and plan again!) for the week ahead. I have allocated a certain amount of time for working out, internal team meetings, etc. I also strive to do meal prep on weekends, so it doesn’t carve time out of my workday. You’d be surprised how much time lunch can take up if you’re rummaging through your fridge looking for something to cook. I stick to a routine, take breaks when I need to, and keep my mind and health in check through meditation.

Prioritise ruthlessly 
Being a CEO Mom during COVID-19 has taught me how to ruthlessly prioritize so that I’m maximizing the impact of my time for both my family and my business. I became more time-efficient and have learned to hustle even harder. When I’m at work, I’m hyper focused and resourceful. I don’t waste time with emails or Zoom meetings if they don’t have a clear objective and conclude with a beneficial result.

Embrace asynchronous communication
Our team relies much more on written documentation and memos, and we have a lot of leeway for asynchronous communication. This added flexibility allows me to stay on top of things even if I miss a group call…or two.

Determine “non-negotiables”
I am making grand strides in being a better communicator and self-advocate; I set rigid boundaries. No matter how busy my day gets, there are two non-negotiables: I set aside 60 minutes for just myself (exercises, meditation, beauty rituals), and each night we sit down and eat dinner as a family. No compromises. No excuses.

Dress for success …even when stuck at home!
Never underestimate the power of perfume, red lipstick and a high tail. Put yourself together. Don’t do it for anyone else — do it for yourself. And trust me, you will feel an amazingly wonderful difference.

Write things down into lists
I operate almost exclusively from my lists and notes; my memory may fail me but not my lists! I highly recommend that everyone uses some type of system: Bullet Journal, Evernote or simply Notes.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

The ever elusive work-life balance! For me, it’s not about balance but ensuring you aren’t burning time on ineffective pursuits. I plough through my to do list and if my emails are a distraction, I turn them off. Certain family things are always at the top of my list. I learned how to say ‘no’ to trifling things so I can channel my energy to achieve something greater. I believe the highest form of finding balance in your life is when you feel like the balance is natural.

When the rhythm is right, you will get a sense of fulfillment in your work, have energy to be present and enjoy time with your family — while feeling a sense of purpose in everything. Understand that to benefit others you must first take excellent care of yourself. Remember the drill we hear on airplanes — “Put your own oxygen mask on first”? This is a golden nugget of truth that applies to your everyday life, especially as you navigate to the end of this marvelous year of 2020. To avoid running on empty, invest in your own well-being. If I am overworked, unhappy, or exhausted I’m not benefitting anyone. This is why I block out time to exercise, connect with family and friends, or take an occasional mid-day bike ride.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

Turn off the news
I cannot overstate this: a constant diet of negative news feeds stress and anxiety. Stop your obsessive habit of following the news, social media, and listening to quick-to-produce podcasts. Instead, switch to audiobooks. Note: most of the time it isn’t news; it’s just someone’s opinion. Once you learn to avoid the media noise, you will think more clearly. Positive new thoughts and bright ideas will permeate your mind — instead of mind-numbing chatter.

Find a mentor
Until you have one, you won’t realise their intrinsic value. I highly suggest your mentor is someone outside of your home and office. A true mentor is someone who can help you align your thoughts and doesn’t need to be an expert in your vocation. Set up a recurring Zoom wine and dine call. Discuss the latest Bachelor episode. Allow your imagination to whisk you and your gal pals away to a faraway tropical island, where cellulite is banned. Tip: keep it light, avoid any negative bantering. If doom and gloom is what you want, you can turn on the news.

Give yourself some love

Sleep and eat well. For me, quality sleep is crucial if I am going to work effectively. Food is also a major driver of long-term health. Don’t forget to move! During this pandemic, many are learning the hard way that working in an enclosed environment and being stationary all day has many detrimental mental and physical effects.

Find enjoyment in the smallest things each day and take time to reflect on all your blessings.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

This pandemic created some vicious undercurrents that have left many exhausted and confused. However, I always try to unwrap problems to see if I can locate opportunities — I like to find beauty amid the ashes. True, Coronavirus has been devastating for many people, but I have seen some good emerge from it.

1) Growing closer to our loved ones. While in isolation, our family dynamics have been profoundly enhanced. We are more inclined to function as a team and are enjoying living in these new circumstances. We also require less “entertainment”; the frivolous waste of time and money has ended.

2) Another positive out of COVID-19 is that it has removed a great deal of stigma from flexible and remote working. I’m confident many businesses will embrace this working style moving forward. Thankfully, technology allows us to perform our jobs from anywhere; we no longer need to be confined to a cubicle farm in the same office to be effective. I think it’s proof that flexible work, works! Another bonus is that it eliminates commuting, giving people back these hours lost on the road.

3) Sometimes it can take your life being turned upside down to realise what it is that you really value (at work and beyond). Multitudes of people and businesses have had to pivot and change the way they work to adjust to the New Normal. Unless we adjust our perspective, we will be unable to scatter the darkness that wants to envelop us. By being flexible, we can bend without being broken; we can welcome these times as ways to reinvent ourselves — and our business. As entrepreneurs — at work or at heart — you just have to be open to welcoming change and seek to learn from it.

4) The virus has brought out a trait that is one of the most important qualities for individuals and communities — resilience. As a community, we come to believe wholeheartedly that if we can get through these twists and turns, we can surmount any obstacle on the road ahead.

5) All over the world we have seen heartwarming acts of solidarity and kindness. My hope is that COVID-19 will teach us to tackle future problems with a community-first mindset. We are learning that this journey called life is not about “me” but “we”. If we can stay anchored to this truth we can work toward the greater good — for the greater good. In our global community, our lives are intertwined — we are only one part of a giant ecosystem. We can no longer ignore the need for collaboration across multiple boundaries, including geographical, political, and economical.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Be present: Quality always trumps quantity. Once you are together be present. Put your phone away. Listen. Be empathetic. Robust relationships have the power to buffer stress and distress within our families. Being in such close proximity, things may get under your skin. Remember that you are not the only one experiencing anxiety. Encourage your loved ones to stay socially connected. You can help by coordinating phone calls/ Zoom-parties/ Playing games in HouseParty app, etc. Take the initiative to make sure no one feels lonely or isolated. Small acts of love and kindness are priceless — so brighten someone’s day as often as you can. Keep healthy routines and exercise together. And remember: Taking care of your family and loved ones can be a stress reliever, but it should be balanced with care for yourself.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are two mottos rather than “life lesson quotes” that I abide by:

Persistence is key. Show up. Show up when it’s hard. Show up when you’re scared. Just keep showing up and don’t back down.” As an entrepreneur, a mom and a wife, all wrapped into one, one of the most critical things I can do is to ‘show up’ every time for my duties, embrace them with stakeholders — whether it is a customer, my team or investors.

Flex and flow. I was introduced to this concept while living in Latin America. It is beautiful in its simplicity. In moments of distress, I repeat: “It’s alright. You’ve got this. Just flex and flow….flex…and flow…”

I came to realise that in most jobs, including mine, the decisions you make aren’t life or death. The same goes for mistakes; very few are career-ending. If you sweat the small stuff, you’ll be consumed with stress. You’ll awaken to a new day feeling like you’re already hours behind. If you can learn to focus on the long-term, you’ll find it easier to accept mistakes and bad days every now and then. Plan, plan, plan — then review and adjust as needed.

Also, it means there are times to flex. Sometimes you’re working on the weekend, and at times you’re going for a long bike ride on Tuesday afternoon. Schedules don’t need to be exact. But with a flexible attitude and a willingness to work at obscure hours, anything can be done.

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