Travel Stories Intro – Al & Karla’s Love Story

We are about to get started with a series that is all about my career of working internationally in telecommunications. I was lucky enough to do this alongside my incredible husband, Al Tolstoy. So, before we head to China, Romania and the Czech Republic, I thought I would tell you the story of Al and me.

We met in Canada in 1992. More accurately, that was the first time I noticed him across a meeting room. I had just started to work for Bell Mobility in Customer Care and was in the middle of my training class when this man walked into the room and casually took a seat. In that moment the world stood still and all I could see was the most handsome man I had ever witnessed. He had black dark curls and narrow eyes that I swear twinkled. He wore a suit and Bugs Bunny tie, showing me he was different from the other men in suits I had met.

All of a sudden, the world made sense. I felt this deep connection to him. I just knew we were meant to find one another.

He introduced himself but I did not understand or hear his last name properly. I just knew it didn’t sound like the usual WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) names I was used to hearing growing up in a neighborhood of Etobicoke . Most of the names back home were things like Smith or Rogers, while his name was new to me and sounded like it might be Russian. I did not hear a word he said at my training. I was busy already planning my life with him.

Over the next year, I tried to get as much information about him as possible. I found out that he was an executive with the company and was a little discouraged that we didn’t exactly have reasons to bump into each other or talk. After all, I was just an *811 girl (customer care).

But I did keep watching him from afar. I was impressed he was a Vice President at such a young age. I was 24 and was a little concerned he could be in his early 30s and might consider me too young. I convinced myself that anything under 10 years would be socially acceptable and continued my fantasy love story.

It took that whole year for him to notice me and learn my name. About five months after that, a business opportunity within his division of the company came up and I got the chance to pitch for it. And I would be presenting my pitch to Mr. Al Tolstoy!

The meeting was set far in advance, so it gave me plenty of time to try on the outfits of friends to find the perfect one. I picked a really subtle suit: a magenta pink jacket with a matching mini skirt. On the day of the pitch, I remember waiting outside and whispering to myself, “I will go to the ends of the earth for you.” It was hard to focus on the pitch as I was constantly getting into a love trance where I envisioned him throwing me across his desk to tell me he also had loved me from afar.

The good news is that the pitch went well, and I got a job! I was moving into a Sales Promotions role. (It has a story of its own, as I was not very good at following protocols or playing only in my sandbox, so the pitch idea was unorthodox. I guess that ended up being what helped me stand out.)

The not-so-great news was that he did not pay me much attention, except for saying things like “hello”, “thanks for your effort”, and “I look forward to seeing how the project progresses”. I quickly offered to give him personal updates, but he told me not to worry about it and that was what my manager was for.

From the moment I laid eyes on him I never dated anyone again. I had this feeling we were meant to be together, and he was my soulmate. Instead of dating and partying, this gave me plenty of time to focus on my career and start the first ever all girls talk show that mixed in a reality TV format for a local television station with three of my friends. But that story is for another time.

I was never much of a partier or very social, so work was a nice distraction from my mind being filled with Al. Another year went by and no headway with Al, but he was impressed with my work effort. I took on any extra projects and did it without pay as I loved working and for the first time in my life. I found something I loved, and it loved me back.

Al left Bell Mobility in 1995 and went to work for an international telecommunications company called TIW  (Telesystem International Wireless) , based out of Montreal.  They worked in emerging markets, where startup operations were the norm. This was slightly before the Internet boom of the late 90s and was just as we were starting to move from car phones to mostly handheld cell phones here in Canada.

The process of setting up a new network in a country is not an easy one. You secure a license, parachute in a team, and start to build a business from scratch. This company’s first project was to build a mobile network in China. Al needed a team. I managed to make my way onto this team and things unfolded from there. This was exciting work that allowed us to travel to different corners of the world that we never would have otherwise been able to experience.

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I initially met Al at age 22 and married him at 30. We had Zach almost 16 months later. We have now been married for 22 years and I still call him my soulmate.

The work we did was challenging on several different levels. As someone with a lifetime of experience with imposter’s syndrome, I had more moments than I can count when I was completely sure that I (and even our team) was in over my head. And sometimes I was completely right!

But this career and the adventures that came with it, alongside my amazing husband, are the biggest experiences that shaped me as an entrepreneur and businessperson. They have also influenced many elements of how I have lived my life and the values that I have held.

Through battling and living with cancer, some of those values have shifted and I have begun looking at my career and the years that I spent living and working abroad in a whole new way. Some of my opinions have changed. But I still look so incredibly fondly at this time and will cherish it for the rest of my life.

Last year, Al helped me compile a group of memories and experiences that I could share with friends and former colleagues on my LinkedIn. This was the first spark of blogging about my life and sharing my thoughts on the world on a regular schedule and I fell in love with it (though I do still find writing to be quite difficult).

Over the next several weeks, I have expanded on these stories and am excited at the idea of further connecting them to learning I have done over the past three years. I am amazed at some of the things we were brave enough to do. I am astounded by some of the naive and stupid things we did as well! I hope you will enjoy coming along with me on this ride.

~ Karla xoxo

*FYI When I did finally learn Al’s age, I could not act like I cared because he would have thought that was odd. Internally, I wrestled with it when we started dating and I realized he was not only more than a decade older than me, but also had been married before and had children. But, in the end, our love was too strong, and we agreed age is just a number.

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. 

Check out her blog,  and her podcast Stand Up Speak Up which ranks in the top 10% for most listened to podcast.

You can find her at @standupspeakup, LinkedInKarla’s Korner Facebook group.

The Empowerment Scarf
You are most powerful when you believe in yourself, let this scarf give you an extra boost of confidence and comfort.

The Healing Scarf  this talisman was inspired by our founder, Karla’s own path to healing. Let it be a shield to protect you and an emblem to empower you.

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