The Woman I Am
Seven years ago, on the 8th of March 2014, I moved to a city that was going to teach me that maybe I’m not that weird after all and that I can fit in. It’s always been hard for me to reconcile my interests and people’s expectations with a career path. What is it like to have a clear goal or one obvious passion?
After picking the most generic studies, Business Management and Entrepreneurship, studies that wouldn’t narrow down my options and after a couple more years of trying and failing, I start in a London start-up called YPlan.
I went from Googling Deliveroo and knowing nobody, a Belgian lost in the big city, to finding a career in ops surrounded by incredible people. My constant need to learn new things, be at the forefront of knowledge and discovering people with exciting stories was met. My quirks were starting to pay off and were useful in my new role. My education never told me about operations, but on day one, I realised I found my true calling as part of the ops team in a startup.
I can be successful as a person who can learn on the fly and isn’t afraid of a challenge. Creating order in chaos is a skill, and getting shit done while being empathetic is a talent.
Seven years later, operations is my obvious passion and goal because it allows me to stay curious and be who I am.
The Reason Why I Co-Founded ON
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. There was always an expectation of being independent or joining the family business. For the longest time, I saw the COO role as the lesser CEO. Now I’m convinced that successful and sustainable companies can only happen with a good COO driving the activities. We’re hiding in the other teams’ shadows because we like it, it’s comfortable, but also because people don’t usually understand what we do.
The power of our input is often invisible. However, one shouldn’t underestimate a strong ops team. I’ve been lucky to work alongside Aušrinė and Charlene, to learn from other Ops professionals what it means to have what it takes. I’m fortunate to have found the right crowd, but not everyone is this lucky. Not everyone can connect with likeminded people, and not everyone has access to the right resources without spending hours of research because it’s buried somewhere on the world wide web. We can create an ecosystem where ops professionals thrive and shine brighter in their roles. I want Operations Nation to be a place for people to learn and where we demystify the role once and for all.
The Woman I’d Like to Honour
Today I want to talk about Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, who I discovered a couple of months ago on Masterclass. Her story and message came at the right time. I’ve been struggling with my confidence and self-esteem. It’s been hard to keep believing in myself as an independent ops consultant when the successes aren’t following each other regularly. It’s also hard to see how people do business and not identify with it. “Is this how I should be working?”
Then Sara tells her story and explains how she can always fall back on her sales skills. People tell me often, “You’d be great at sales”, and I never connected with the role before. However, Sara explains that she loves it because she can solve a person’s problem with a product they didn’t know existed. Or, she can offer solutions to people who need them. When you look at it like that, heck yes, I’m down to do more selling of my own. The whole Masterclass has been an eye-opening moment. It’s told me that I shouldn’t second guess myself as a professional, an ops person and a woman. I can contribute in an impactful way, but on my terms, the feminine way. I want to thank Sara for taking the time to communicate her vision and how she’s built her business, and I hope that it will inspire many others as it did me.
The Woman I Am
Growing up, I wanted to be so many things that didn’t relate much with one another. Making up my mind was difficult and picking a single study and career path seemed, for some reason, too limiting.
I majored in Japanese Studies at uni for a few years (in Lithuania, where I’m from), then moved to London and dropped out deciding it wasn’t for me.
Eventually, I graduated from a Fine Arts degree, and went on to get a Masters in Business. Throughout my studies I worked at a recruitment agency, temped at a number of strange but eye opening short-term jobs, occasionally busked on the London underground, and constantly wondered if I should just pick one thing and stick with it.
At some point though, by a total chance, I got a taste of the tech startup world. For the first time in a very long time, something finally felt like home. The chaos and energy of an early stage hustle and the challenges that needed to be solved no-matter-what have unveiled the person I didn’t know I ever had an option to be.
And yet I already was her. The generalist, the un-specialist, the expert of being a jill-of-all trades, the operator.
Shaped by all the decisions and indecisions, experiences I had and will have, people I met and will meet, embracing change and uncertainty, trying out new things with ample of curiosity and no judgement, I am the living proof that getting lost is not a waste of time. But it’s often uncomfortable. It requires patience, resilience, creativity, being okay with failure, willingness to look at things from multiple different perspectives, a developing sense of purpose, and last but not least, an imagination of how it will all come together in the end.
The Reason Why I Co-Founded ON
My operations journey started 9 years ago. I joined a seed stage tech startup as an Operations Executive and have quickly risen through the ranks to lead a sizeable international operations team. I’ve learnt an absolute ton in those 4.5 years — mostly by being thrown into the deep end, baptism by fire, many a time reinventing the wheel. I loved my job — it was challenging, super interesting, no single day was the same. But I often wished I had an ear of someone who’s done it all before and could advise me on which approach to take, empathise with my challenges and day-to-day, and guide me on how to grow as an operations leader.
Back then, my professional development strategy consisted of pulling together a matrix of all the skills I’d find in random COO job descriptions so I could identify on what to focus on next. I was craving operations resources specific to startup operations but there wasn’t much. Likeminded people in similar roles were also very tricky to find. Moreover, it felt unfair that all the operations roles were usually classified as “Other”, whilst all other areas (Marketing, Engineering, Sales) enjoyed their own place under the sun. Finally, as a manager, I wanted to be able to guide my own operations team better, but I barely had resources to guide myself. It was a problem, and I couldn’t call myself a true ops person if I wasn’t able to solve it.
My initial answer to this was creating Ops Stories, a community for operations leaders that started with 10 of us sharing a pizza in a London office and, three years later, has become a thriving international community of several hundred Operations Managers, Directors and COOs who show up for each other every day. However, all this knowledge and advice is being shared behind a closed door, which is key to maintain the sense of community and a high level of trust between the community members. So a few years ago, Astrid (who’s also my Ops Stories co-founder) and I started dreaming about a much more open space for operations people. We were incredibly fortunate to meet Charlene very early on in our journey who shared with us not only the same passion about operations, but also the core value upon which we are now building ON: collaboration over competition. And so the biggest reason why I co-founded Operations Nation is so that everyone in operations has a place under the sun that is truly theirs, where all the doors are unhinged, and where everyone is welcome. I want the future operations leaders to have everything within their reach so they can thrive in their careers, and a space to shine and inspire the next operations generations to come.
The Woman I’d Like to Honour
A true force of nature, with energy so contagious and mind extremely sharp, Michaela is warm, kind and giving. She founded Red Club three years ago to unite all the women worldwide, strengthen and consolidate their position in achieving equality, and become a place where women empower one another and lift each other up so that together, they can change the world.
The Red Club’s motto is “There is a special place in heaven for women who support other women”, but Michaela has created that special place on earth. I am incredibly grateful to have met her, and I hope to contribute to all the work that she’s doing to create a more feminine world.
The Woman I Am
According to a study from NPR, the percentage of women in computer science was at its highest in the early 1980s, but there was a sharp decline in the mid to late 1980s. When personal computers became a household item in the ’90s, PCs were widely advertised as “toys for boys”.
Luckily, my father was an early adopter of IBM PCs, so I grew up installing computer games one floppy disk at a time, learning command line prompts, and reformatting disk drives.
This early exposure inspired me to take my first C++ programming class in high school and gave me the courage to obtain a university degree in Computer Science, but note that I was one of 5 women out of 240 students who graduated alongside me in 2003. Even though I never became a software engineer, I’m so incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to build my career in tech, first as a CRM consultant at Deloitte followed by a few years in ICTD (Information and Communication Technology for Development) in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Reason Why I Co-Founded ON:I have spent the past 7 years as a Tech for Good operations leader, first as Co-Founder and COO of pan-African fintech AZA Finance, and now as COO of health tech company Lantum.
I didn’t grow up wanting to be Chief Operating Officer one day, partly because I didn’t believe anyone would ever trust me to run a company, but mainly because no one ever talked about COOs, much less what they did.
I spent the first few years Googling and fumbling my way through building both customer-facing teams like Sales, Customer Success, and Customer Support, as well as support functions like People Operations & Administration and Legal & Compliance. After years of trials and successes, but also errors & failures, I finally had the sense to look around for other startup COOs who were going through the same types of challenges. What began as a WhatsApp group of around 10 incredibly supportive operational leaders who met for monthly dinners (aka group therapy) in Nairobi became the inspiration for founding COOhort, a global community of 150+ startup/scaleup COOs and Heads of Operations across 20 countries. But I’ve realised that as valuable as ops communities are for countless reasons, they are limited by how willing members are to share their collective experiences, and depending on the structure, those precious pearls of wisdom never see the light of day beyond the metaphysical walls of the community.
So, my dream, and the reason why I started Operations Nation with Aušrinė and Astrid, is because I want the next generation of operations professionals to have decentralised access to all the information and tools they want to become the most effective ops-minded managers, leaders and founders that the world of entrepreneurship so desperately needs. So maybe one day, little girls and boys around the world will dream of becoming COOs of organisations as small as early-stage startups, and as large as Fortune 500 companies.
The Woman I’d Like to Honour
This year, I’d like to honour Catherine Wines, the Co-Founder and Former COO of global remittance company WorldRemit, who passed away of late-stage pancreatic cancer this past November.
Over the past few years, I would frequently run into Catherine at various events and conferences related to money transfer, which turned into informal mentorship and if I may dare say, friendship, grown over coffee dates in the year before the COVID pandemic.
Catherine was incredibly generous with her time and her words of wisdom. When expressing my concern for her health, I’ll never forget her telling me that it gave her energy and a sense of purpose to give advice to and mentor entrepreneurs. Even when Catherine’s cancer took a turn for the worse, she taught entrepreneurship classes at Cambridge Judge Business School, advocated for Pancreatic Cancer UK, and served alongside me on the Advisory Board of JBM Scaleup Ops Solutions. She cared so deeply for others when all logical reason suggested we should have been focused on caring for her.
My hope is to make even a fraction of the positive impact on the operations community that Catherine made during her lifetime.
Three Women, One Vision
As you can see, we are three incredibly different individuals with unique journeys through our careers and lives, but we are united by one vision: to create a world where operational best practices are just as readily accessible as any other business information, where operations is just as respected a discipline as strategy, and where young men and women are as likely to aspire to become COOs and operational leaders as CEOs.
If you share our vision, we invite you to join us on our mission to create and curate a digital platform filled with ops-specific content, tools, frameworks, and resources to help operations professionals not only survive, but thrive, at every stage of their ops career.