After our opening days of launching the first cellular phone plans in Romania, we did our best to celebrate with our team and reward our local colleagues for all of their hard work and success. I wanted a memorable event to celebrate our official launch. We hosted a Gala event at the People’s Palace, which involved prominent Romanians, government officials, and local and international dignitaries. In attendance were Ambassadors of Canada and the USA (Mr. Gilles Duguay and Mr. Alfred Moses, respectively), the President of Deutsche Bank and more. It was a grand time and really put Connex on the map as a progressive force for positive change.
The People’s Palace, the second largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, is an exclusive location even by today’s standards. In 1997, it was beyond belief. Connex was the first company that had the privilege to use it for a corporate party. The palace itself is part of another story to come.
This party was a real production. We wanted Connex to be seen as an international player and a company that connected Romania to the outside world, which is a big deal for a country coming out of communism and a dictatorship-style government. We decided to give our guests a tour of the world, representing the scope of where we had set up partner roaming agreements with. We set the party up so that each guest could experience food and traditions of all six continents: Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania in a single night. We planned to have so many guests that we needed a mix of international and local party planners. I remember how exquisite the food stands looked, each representing one continent and its special cuisine.
Around 1200 people participated in this event, and each received a passport at the entrance. Everybody tried to look as elegant as possible, as the invitation required “formal attire”. Some guests came from all over Romania, just to take part in this exquisite event not seen by the public in Romania for decades. As they visited the food stands, people had to get their passports stamped as proof they had traveled through all six continents.
To organize something like this in post-communist Romania was a logistical nightmare. Amazingly enough, a sense of community brought everybody together, as the country was excited to see an event of this scale and celebrate the changing tides in the country.
Issues we faced:
- No catering company could rent us a large enough set of plates, glasses, cutlery. So, we had to use multiple vendors.
- We are extremely spoiled when it comes to experiencing the food of different cultures here in Toronto. In Romania at the time, there were nearly no chefs or caterers who were experienced in cooking cuisines outside of European or a few North American dishes. Instead of just being able to hire different caterers for each section of the party, we needed to give potential caterers the chance to learn how to cook the meals and needed to hire experts to come in and advise them.
We ended up with multiple caterers for some continents. Selecting which foods we would offer was an endless challenge. This resembled the pre-tasting for a wedding but with one thousand times the stress! There were so many things to consider. Thank God we weren’t expected to also offer allergy free, gluten free, or vegan options! I do not think, as a team, we could have handled that extra layer.
North America was easy, as hotdogs, hamburgers, fries, and tacos did the trick, with pies and ice cream for dessert. Oceania was slightly easier, as the party planner’s boyfriend was Australian and became our local expert to approve decisions.
Xenophobia, racism, and classism are all intrinsically laced with communism. And while Romanians were eager to welcome the advances of countries outside of their own, there was still a lot of prejudice towards people of color and their cultures. Without sugar coating it, they were raised to believe that “white was best” and the undercurrent of that remained throughout our time there.
The evening entertainment was a show that would represent each continent. Finding African representation in a racist country was far from easy. I think we ended up needing to bring in the entertainment from the closest country that had the expertise.
While Canada is not free of systemic racism and bias, planning this party was one of the first times that I saw how deep that sentiment went and how our expat experiences in the country would have been very different, and likely impossible, if we were not white and coming from a western country. I don’t know whether or not Romania is more diverse today. I hope that it is. But I imagine this is not an issue that has disappeared within the country, as it is something we are still dealing with throughout the world.
I still have wonderful memories of our employees, who had worked so hard, letting loose and dancing away without a care. One of the most famous Romanian young actors and singers, Ștefan Bănică Jr., was my cohost of the event. The show that followed the official speeches offered dancing and singing acts, specific to different countries: China, India, Romania, etc.
Nevertheless, there was no time to take a vacation, or even take the weekend off work. There was endless work still to be done. Once the hurdle of getting the product launched, we were right back at it creating advertising campaigns , developing new strategies to get more customers and produce higher revenues.
We did end up replacing our VP Sales with a new person, but not all people can work in such an intense environment. So, by the second year in Romania, they combined that position with mine and I was promoted to the VP of Marketing & Sales. I was never happier. I loved my job, the company, and the country was starting to steal my heart.
In the early days, we lived in the Sofitel Hotel and I brought my dog, Lake, from China. With no one to take Lake for walks, it wasn’t fair to leave him cooped up in a hotel room. Thankfully, Al’s driver and the driver’s wife took Lake until we found a rental place. Since driving was insane in Romania, it was more cost effective to have drivers for key management, as accidents were plentiful.
Most of us grew attached to our drivers. My driver saw me when I was at my most vulnerable and when I would start to fall asleep he would give me a pillow and blanket, especially if traffic was bad. My assistant would work together with my driver to keep me hydrated, fed, and on time for all my meetings. They even tried to make sure those meetings didn’t go overtime, but that was an impossible feat. I was so lucky to have them both as my anchors.
They were both also very outspoken and were not afraid to tell me when they noticed an issue within the company they thought needed to be fixed. I would try to get out of dealing with many of their concerns by saying that I do not run the company, and to bring it up with Al. But Al was seen as a demigod, not to be troubled with petty problems. Troubling me didn’t seem to be an issue for them.
I think people assumed I had more influence on Al then I really did. Al is not someone who you can tell what to do or pressure into a decision. He would often say, “Is this you talking to your boss or boyfriend?” If I said boss, he would half-joking, half-serious tell me to book a meeting. I was also not keen to show him all my insecurities and fears. He had a big job and trusted me to do my job and not be needy. I kept a lot of my worries to myself. I depended on my team a great deal to be competent and in return I respected their opinions and ideas.
Al even did some commercials for our company and they scored really well with the Romanians. I believe if he spoke Romanian he could have run for office. He built a great company that took care of the employees and sponsored or started many community charitable projects. Al was loved and admired so much that a few times he was sent an escort as part of negotiations! I was lucky enough to escort them out and introduced myself as his girlfriend.
One thing Al and I have in common is our love for animals. One day, we saw a giant black dog by the Canadian Embassy. It was a Deutsche Dogge (aka a Great Dane) and, soon after that, we bought one and named her Laguna, after a favorite place in California. Laguna was gentle and loving and lived to be twelve years old.
About four weeks later, we found a house on Pushkin St. (named after the Russian poet) close to President Ceausescu’s former residence. A few months after moving in, while strolling through a Sunday open market, we bought a second Great Dane. He was sitting in the open trunk of a car with a couple of siblings. He was merle color, had a cute split nose, and the biggest paws I’d ever seen on any pup. Pushkin was named after our street and because of Al’s Russian heritage.
Lake did not like Pushkin. He picked on him and pushed him down the stairs, causing a broken leg that was in a cast for three months. As Pushkin grew, he turned the tables and started to bully Lake. As a result and for everyone’s safety, I had Lake move to Canada to live with my parents. Lake became inseparable from my dad and lived to be almost sixteen years old.
When we still had all three dogs, after coming home one night, they were each carrying one of my shoes in their mouth. I quickly ran upstairs to find our clothing closet wide open and my shoes all over the bedroom. Apparently they do not like male shoes, as Al’s were untouched. I waited for my next trip home to shoe shop.
Another time, we came home to find them covered in eggs, powder, and rice. They looked so happy! Somehow, they had got themselves into our pantry. It ended up being a long night spent cleaning up. It took many more things to happen before we realized the danes had learned how to open doors by pressing their large heavy paws on the handles and using them as levers. It forced us to add locks on top of some of the door handles.
For many of the members of our expat team, work came first and we did not get to experience Romania for our first year of living there. The hours were long and we worked seven days a week, usually from morning into the evening. One of the greatest joys for me was in building and working with my team, who became a mix of local Romanians from a variety of backgrounds and expats who would all come in for varying amounts of time.
I was always willing to take a chance on people because someone took a chance on me. I would hire or promote people who would not have been traditional picks for roles and some worked out and some were lessons learned. We had many speciality-based people we hired for contracts and their fees were high. So, it was tricky managing all the short to long-term expats, as well as the Romanian team, who were expected to learn from the expats and then would eventually replace them in the job as we moved on to new projects.
It was a lot of mentoring and coaching, as well as doing my own work in marketing and sales. Every day was a balancing act. You had to switch from micro to macro management all the time. Macro worked well with competent expats but micro was the more successful style with the Romanians. The Romanians were hungry to learn, but it took a while for them to trust and warm up to the expats. But once they trusted us, they were very loyal.
Women still held traditional roles at home, so it was really hard for them to balance start-up intensity and home life. We promoted more women into management roles, as they had less ego and were more open to learning and gaining knowledge. They made natural leaders and were good multitaskers, which is a must in any start up. I am proud to say our employees were 50/50 men and women, including at management levels.
This felt like a time of growth and new beginnings for everyone at Connex. Every day was different and unpredictable and now, looking back on it, I think we got through with a combination of drive, bravery, and naivety. The challenges did not stop but, as time went by, we did become more comfortable with life there.
Still more to come next week in Romania!
Al's Connex Commercial
The commercial where Al was profiled as the face of Connex. It took 2 days of filming in Milan. Al said their lunch break was a minimum of 3 hours long and after it, he felt like sleeping and not getting back into a business suit. Al said that it was torture and he would never do it again.
Karla with the three dogs: Laguna, Pushkin and Lake, in the house on Pushkin Street.
Gala Event at People's Palace
Gala event was the party held on May 10th, 1997, at the People’s Palace to celebrate the company launch.
Karla and Ștefan Bănică Jr. at the Gala event.
Singer and dancers from the Gala event.
Singers from the Gala event.
The Admin Support Team!
Karla in her office at Connex in 1997 with her admin support team around. All of these gals got promoted within Connex and went on to have exciting careers.
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.