Karla Stephens-Tolstoy is the co-founder of Stand Up Speak Up, a brand devoted to healing and giving back. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer in October of 2018 and decided to journal with her husband from their international career. This Travel Series came out of those journals, which we hope to one day make into a book to be shared with future generations. We hope that you enjoy these stories!
We started this series in June with Karla’s experiences in China. If you would like to catch up, you can read all the entries on our blog.
The operation in China was developing slowly, due to our local partner’s frequent and purposeful obstacles, or to put it nicely, they were uncomfortable with this new venture and would not agree to anything lest they offend the ‘powers’ in Beijing. At the time, the Internet was in its infancy so dial up was the only option. I had limited ways to connect to my own family or culture. We had TV but it was all Chinese propaganda. I felt I was slowly going into a depression along with worry over losing my job because I had made so little progress. Originally my contract was for 2 years, and I was only 10 months in.
This was when I heard our company (TIW) was negotiating for, and eventually won, a similar contract in Rajasthan, India in partnership with a New-Delhi-based firm. I was so excited to get the chance to be involved. This was a country and culture that I felt more connected to. I already loved the food and was interested in its loving spiritual people. Al was appointed the CEO of that team as well (to placate the local partner we referred to Al as Advisor to their CEO), making him the head of operations in both cities all at once. For that year, it seemed that he spent more time in planes and airports than he did on the ground!
Al’s typical flight circuit consisted of flying from Montreal (where TIW was based) to Changsha or Beijing, via Hong Kong, then onto New Delhi, to connect to Jaipur, Rajasthan. After that, he would head to either Montreal or Toronto and start all over again. Once we began the bid process for Romania, he added Amsterdam and The Hague to his itinerary to meet Airtouch executives (a large California-based mobile operator and our bid partner in Romania.) So, he would then fly east from Canada to Europe and then onto Hong Kong! There were also times when he would fly west via Vancouver or Alaska to Hong Kong. All in all, he circled the globe eight times in 15 months and had a total of 44 stops in Hong Kong during the two years he was managing both operations!
Thankfully, this was pre-9/11 and security was more relaxed. When TIW became a publicly traded company, he added flights to the USA (mostly New York), London, and Paris to the list. He went from loving the life of travel to hating it!
I was asked by TIW to go to our India operation for a few weeks to help structure the organization (departments, hierarchy etc.) and identify the type of talent needed.
Where I lived in China, only one plane per week flew to Hong Kong, where all international flights departed. When I was first asked to fly out to India, the flight to Hong Kong was luckily the very next day. I had not booked a flight to India, as I knew it would be much easier to do that once I was in Hong Kong. I must confess that I secretly packed my bags in the hope that I would be selected to stay on and join the India team, as I was desperate to go someplace where I could have some management control.
I arrived in Hong Kong but soon discovered all flights to India were not available until the next day, so I started to look for a hotel room only to discover all the rooms were booked for the World Rugby Seven tournament. I finally found one room and it was a Holiday Inn suite for $700 US. I was so stressed to book the hotel and get in trouble with Head Office!
I had no choice but to call my dad for advice. He calmly asked me, if I did not book it, where would I sleep that night? I said I would wander the streets, as the airport was closed. But he assured me that my bosses would rather have their 26-year-old employee in a hotel room than sleeping on the streets of Hong Kong. So, I booked the room but did not sleep a wink as I kept thinking maybe I should pay for the room myself. Luckily, no one cared when I submitted my expense report.
I flew Cathay Pacific to India and felt like I was the luckiest person in the world to have an international career and I still feel that way today. It was hard and frustrating in China but India was going to be an amazing experience. Or so I thought…
As with China, and all the other countries we worked in establishing cellular networks, in India we needed to have an in-country Indian partner. This partner ideally would contribute capital (money) in proportion to their ownership stake to buy the technology, build the operations and support the operating expenses until the company was self-sufficient. For instance, if we needed $100 million to get started and they owned, for example, 20% of the business, they would need to contribute $20 million.
The problems started because the Indian laws required that the domestic partner hold 51% of the company. Building a cellular operation can take billions depending on the size of the country. And most available Indian partner companies were not in a position to offer anywhere close to what would equal over half of the share. So, you can see how this would be a problem!
This same problematic scenario happened in most emerging countries, and so creative organizational and financial structures needed to be set up to comply with the regulations. This usually meant finding other avenues rather than simply capital for the partner companies to contribute. This might come in the form of offering their expertise and network within the country.
Our partner in India had good government contacts and influence, but minimal funds on the scale an operation start-up requires. This meant that virtually every time we made a call for capital (money) to build the business, we encountered objections, obstacles, and foot dragging. That’s not a good way to start a business against a better funded competitor and we paid the price!
I hope I am not boring you too much with all of this information about the corporate structure! But it was a relatively high stakes and unique experience to be parachuted into emerging markets like China, India or Eastern Europe to set up potentially billion-dollar businesses from scratch. Challenging? You bet. Rewarding? Yes. But, easy? Never! In my next article, I will reminisce about some of the anecdotes we collected about our time in India in 1996-7.
Where we would typically parachute in 15-30 experienced expats (people from other countries who are experts in building cellular business) to build and launch the business, hire, and train locals, our partner only allowed us to bring in three people. And they made their lives miserable. I did not end up getting selected for this team but something very exciting lay around the corner for me.
Our senior expat in-country head was a very experienced and competent woman. India had previously had a successful female national leader, Indira Gandhi, as well as many females heading up successful enterprises. But I guess our India partner’s CEO had opposing views. He made life exceedingly difficult for her team of three! Regardless, they trudged on.
Just before our female head of operations arrived in India, Al had several meetings with the Indian partners to design the organizational structure. They understood the technology but not necessarily the intricacies of a duopoly wherein we would compete head-on for a very pent-up demand for mobile services. This is where I came in to present a company structure that was modelled on North American operators and to provide ideas and insights on how we might promote the business.
On the day of the presentation, as I was standing at the white board, I concluded my organizational proposal and the Indian CEO said, “Thanks, that was great, but you missed one important position.” He then went to the white board and added the position of ‘Director of Bribes’. While we had anticipated challenges in getting the business operational with only three members from our side living in the country full time, this made something abundantly clear to me. “Toto, we are no longer in Kansas!”
As time marched on, our three-person team hired some very sharp young Indian men and women for the operation. They were eager to learn and saw this as a tremendous opportunity to be in at the early stages of the company with amazing chances for advancement. That was quickly quashed when a couple of the new hires confessed that our Indian partner had cornered them after hours and informed them that they should report on the Canadians’ activities and not follow the Canadians’ instructions. As those hired by our Canadian team, they were told they would soon be gone and so they had better understand where their allegiances must be!
Not only were they disappointed but once we were ‘bought out’ of the business (which was a similar experience as the one we had in China) 99% of those loyal employees to the ‘Canadians’ were terminated and the CEO partner’s family and friends were inserted into the senior roles. Not too long thereafter, the owner sold the company to a competitor.
One of our Indian employees who was badly bullied by our Indian partner came to work with us in Europe and today he travels the world as a senior executive in telecom. This makes me proud, as I think one of our greatest strengths was in the caliber of people we were able to find and hire. Many of the employees our partner terminated went on to have senior roles with other businesses across India.
In my next writing, I will provide some anecdotes about my own experiences of spending time working in India!
~ Karla xoxo
Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC. She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills. Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach. Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre.