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As we were leaving Changsha, I had hope for what our next adventure would bring, but had no idea how different it would all be. Before moving overseas, I went into this job knowing very little about what to expect. When I first heard about the opportunity to relocate, I must confess that I had to look at a world map to even find Romania!

Once our company was on the shortlist for one of two GSM mobile licenses in Romania, Al and I met the senior representative of AirTouch (the USA telecom company with international assets who was our bidding partner, later bought by Vodafone) in The Hague, Netherlands.   The three of us set off for Bucharest to join our bid team. The intrigue was breathtaking as 5-6 bidders jockeyed for positions.

Our bid team was concerned that our rooms at the hotel were bugged. So, we developed code names using the Montreal Canadiens hockey player jersey numbers as substitutes for the names of key Romanian officials. For example, Guy LaFleur (number 10) would mean we were speaking about a certain Romanian official. Larry Robinson (number 19) was another official, and so on.  As these numbers were being tossed around on a conference call, one of the bid team members said, “I’m confused, I’m familiar with a different generation of hockey players. Who are we talking about?” Without hesitation, a call participant said the actual Romanian name and from that point on the code made little sense.

Some nicknames had been previously used but when the person referred to as ‘the little guy’ told our bid team leader that he knew about his nickname, we came to believe that rooms did indeed have listening devices!   From then on, we assumed nothing was private.

Romania at one point had seven levels of intelligence departments spying on people as well as each other.  In those days, in order for a person to get a travel visa to leave the country, they had to agree to write up reports on their family members and friends. In the last 20 years, those reports have been made public and have caused a lot of strife.  We own a book (that I cannot remember the name of) that was the story of a gigolo who, in the 1980s, was hired by the Romanian dictator Ceausescu to bed the wives of the ambassadors to glean information from them!  We also once heard from a senior government official that during Ceasescu’s rule people were gifted TVs with unbeknownst secret listening devices.

Our bid commitments for the mobile license had to be overly aggressive in order to win. We had to promise so many things that we had to set up a small team to keep weekly track of all deliverables.  In late November 1996, we were declared the winner of one license and France Telecom won the second. We had unimaginable deliverables, and if we failed, we’d forfeit our license to the runner-up. We had to be operational within four months, offering cellular coverage of 60% of the country. (At the time, Romania was a country where you still shared the roads with horse-pulled carts within one kilometer of leaving Bucharest and it was a harsh winter to boot.)

I was super excited about the challenge, even though many days it seemed next to impossible that we would actually succeed in all of our goals. I could hardly wait to go to work each morning and tackle it all. I felt that I had been given the opportunity of a lifetime and I wanted to do a good job and make everyone proud. I wanted everyone to believe that I was the right person for the job.

I was young and lacked the years of working in telecom that most of my colleagues had. But I was ambitious, a quick learner and knew the key to success was hiring the right talent to counteract my age. I would hire people more senior to me in age and experience. It came naturally for me to think out of box, but it was sometimes hard to sell my senior experienced team on my vision. I never wanted to be stuck to how traditional business models did things, and as time wore on, I earned their respect.

But it was a bumpy road. I had one of my senior people assure me I was worthy of this job and my strategic acumen was more important at this time than management skills. Those would develop and improve over time. Her conversation with me gave me the confidence to speak up about my ideas and plow through to meet even our most ambitious goals. Over time, I leaned on those whom I trusted I could be vulnerable with and they helped me to grow. Those who most appreciated my unorthodox ideas and my unique management style even later came with me to Czech Republic.

To build the towers across the country, we recruited a Canadian company, Trylon, who were experienced in erecting towers in the winter. We brought in as many expats as required, hired sharp and keen Romanians, and quickly began building the operations. AirTouch focused on the technology build (through a contract with Ericsson). Our TIW team focused on the disciplines of HR, finance, marketing, customer care, and sales. I started as the Vice President of Marketing, and later Sales was added to my portfolio.

We needed offices right away and luckily one of the shareholders offered his Flora Hotel, which was closed and was going through a massive renovation to rebuild it as a Crowne Plaza. We moved in the next day. This was truly the cold days of January, so the fact that it was not fully operational was not ideal, but would have to do to start. The elevators did not work. There was construction debris scattered throughout and the water was on and off! The heat—what heat? The walls were a blood red color and some of the staff referred to the place as a brothel.

We all worked in open spaces as the hotel rooms had been mostly demolished. So, privacy was out of the question. When I needed a good cry, I found a free closet on our floor to hide in and, if the timezone worked, I would usually call my dad. I used him as a listening board throughout my whole career and looking back I realize he was both my therapist and my greatest cheerleader.  I have great admiration and respect for my dad and I wish I could have copied his leadership style. But I am my mother’s daughter — eccentric, unorthodox, and direct — and her genes got to me first. I like to think, as years went on, I became a combination of them both. I did not realize at the time that it was my mom’s gene pool that gave me the ability to think and be open to out of the box ideas and hire people who may not have fit into the Bell Mobility or Rogers mold of management, but did exceedingly well with us.

Each department had one room within the hotel, and since we added staff quickly, we began to do the big squeeze. We were able to get our shareholder to extend our stay a few days past our original exit date but then the power went off. We moved to a new temporary building under construction on Nerva Traian Street, which had been part of our bid commitment as a headquarters. It was a building owned by one of the richest men in the country at the time and the owner of The Nova Group, but it too was far from ready.  We had a lot of bid commitments that likely benefited Romania’s rich and powerful but that did not make our lives any easier.

The “new” building was located in a neighbourhood southeast of Old Town and the area known as the Jewish Neighbourhood and north of the more picturesque Tineretului. It was the site of former communist president (from 1965-1989) Ceausescu’s equally unfinished dream of demolishing the homes and churches in the area to build huge ministerial buildings.

We had essentially moved from one construction site to another. By now, it was the end of February, still unusually cold, and the heat in the building was virtually nonexistent. There were numerous construction cranes in the area, deceiving everyone to think this was a hub of activity. The cranes were totally rusted and unsafe and had been dormant even before the 1989 revolution that finally ousted Ceausescu.

Nearby was the Dambovita River, which was heavily polluted and added a putrid odor to the whole setting. When it rained, we were even flooded indoors! This happened several times. The first time, we had major damage to our computers, carpets, and furniture, as well as many of our documents. We learned to not keep anything of value on the top floor. We worked hard to keep spirits up as regardless of these conditions, we had bid deadlines to meet and we were not going to forgo our license commitments no matter what.

Some members of our expatriate team from our China operation came over later to fill out our executive team in Romania. We also added a few new people from the offices back in Canada. For all of the team, it was work that fueled us and I was definitely at home in this sort of environment. We barely left the office, so it only made sense to have relationships with other people within the company. Al and I became a couple. So did the VP of Technology with the VP of Customer Care, and an Operations manager married the VP of HR. We even had some babies added into the mix! We hired spouses who had the right skills to fill vacancies as it was easier if both people worked long hours, so neither could become bitter about the long work hours.

Most of the expatriate contracts were for 3-5 years and we were well paid to make the company successes our top priority. There were a few people who left due to burnout and some arrived and were sent home almost immediately. It was such a fast-paced and intense environment that you needed to add value on Day One, or this wasn’t the place for you.

There was no time for on-boarding or even really any training for the foreigners. And we definitely didn’t have time to make sure we were properly managing our mental health. When I was feeling overwhelmed, I would sometimes go into my secret closet to cry, take a breather outside, or find a chocolate bar or cookies by any means necessary (including taking a taxi to the closest hotel to buy several). Then, I would just pull myself together and head back to work.

The executives each had their own ways of coping and it was fine, as long as you didn’t let the Romanians on the team see it. They depended on us to know what we were doing and if we broke down, it would have spread panic across the office within an hour. Having grown up in a Communist regime, they were skeptical of leaders and I felt like they were always assessing whether or not we deserved their respect. Being a young female did not help the skepticism.

Self-starters and people who could adapt to anything thrived in that environment despite how difficult it was, and I knew that it was the right place for me. It was full of invigorating energy and I loved it. By nature, I am an introvert so putting my whole self into my job was easy. I never felt like I was missing a more balanced life I might have experienced back home. It was my dream job, until I moved to Prague and realized I could dream even bigger! But that came later as there were lots of adventures to live through in Romania in the meantime.

Part 2 of Romania, where we reach Launch Day,  next week!

~ Karla xoxo

Our time in china!

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We said goodbye to China!

To the Province of Hunan and the city of Changsha where I lived!

And Hello India!

The State of Rajasthan and the capital city of Jaipur.

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We say goodbye to India and Hello to Romania!

Bucuresti - Bucharest

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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