One Woman, Thousand Opportunities
Imagine that you run your first business at the age of 18. At the age of 32, as a young blonde woman, you become CEO of Autohaus Verlag, the biggest publisher for the automotive industry in Germany. By the age of 40, you achieve the position of CEO for Central and Eastern Europe at Ringier publishing, being responsible for 96 magazines in seven countries, a dream position at the corporate level for many. You remember the promise you made to yourself and to your friends and decide to leave the corporate world by the age of 40. After a sabbatical, you use this new beginning to follow your dreams and you return to university studies. In addition to running a consulting business, which might not be a surprising career trajectory, you pursue your passion and support new start up projects, in the emerging field which combines Artificial Intelligence and Alzheimer disease. She has chosen Prague as her hometown, however, she could rank herself to the millennial generation, as her businesses are connected to both Berlin and Vienna.
Meeting with Silvia Lepiarczyk was like meeting a kindred soul. It was one of those meetings that based on facts, you have known the person for less than an hour but based on feelings, you have known someone in another lifetime.
Despite the geographical distance, as she was born in “the West”, and I was from the “East”, we both experienced being exposed to leadership positions at quite a young age, in an industry not traditionally associated with women. We both gave up corporate careers to pursue our dreams and we both are passionate about new forms in learning and development. As a social cause, we both strongly care about Alzheimer disease and I was glad to connect Silvia to the Seňorina center, the leading care institution for Alzheimer in Prague.
Silvia started her introduction by saying that she was born in the last millennium which defines her to a great extent. Despite her interest in artificial intelligence, big data and technology, she was truly pleased to receive a hard copy of our magazine, as she claims she loves to touch and experience “the real stuff”, not the virtual ones. The second thing she mentioned, was the value of hard work and physical work, which she learned to appreciate during her childhood, being born in the industrial Essen area and her ancestors being coal miners.
Silvia, your career seems to be proof that the German “dual education system”, combining apprenticeship and formal education is working. In your case, you got your first job in management at the age of 18 while studying a university degree in psychology.
My father died when I was young. Luckily, I was able to receive some funding from the owners of the dancing school I attended. As a high school student, I tried to reciprocate, and I was giving dancing lessons. Suddenly, the owner of the school fell very sick and she asked me to take care of the place. Simultaneously, I managed to graduate from the high school and to enter the university to study psychology. However, being connected to the business, I was not interested in becoming a therapist, instead I was interested in applied psychology, particularly diagnostics and creating a suitable working environment. As to my first real job after the university, I became a headhunter for a prestigious company in Cologne and for two years I specialized in the areas of banking and science. I was 23 years old, and I found myself facing men two times older than me and asking them challenging questions while doing diagnostics or career advising.
Year 1989 marked the history. I was living the Velvet Revolution, Germany celebrated the fall of the Wall and on a personal level, that is when your career in publishing and media started.
I was 25 when I got the offer to join the Bertelsmann international media enterprise in Munich, joining the HR department and being responsible for its development. I truly loved the job and, at that time, Bertelsmann already had quite an elaborate system of educating and training young talents. I also had a great mentor who helped me a great deal. As the company was acquiring another publishing house in the USA, I was sent to New York to oversee the acquisition from the company culture point of view. You can imagine the clash of a small-town Germany culture of acquiring firm versus the New York style culture of the company to be acquired. So, I found myself living in New York at the age of 27 and, needless to say, I enjoyed it.
The following promotion led to the HR Director of Bertelsmann with the responsibility for professional magazines.
What was it like to be the HR Director under 30? I became the acting director of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the age of 27 and I remember how many times I was asked to take the minutes, to prepare a coffee or to wait for a “male director”.
At Bertelsmann, we were all quite young and we were given the responsibilities but also the trust and freedom. At first, I oversaw HR, but later I had to restructure the whole company and downsize the staff, including firing people, by no means an easy task in Germany. Apart from HR, I was also in charge of operations, overseeing the internal infrastructure as well as the construction of the new premises. In addition to HR disciplines, I was again challenged to get closer to business, to negotiate with third parties and so on. I proved my management skills and another acquisition came. I was asked whether I would like to be the CEO of this company.
Let me guess…Was it Autohaus Verlag? 32, blonde and in charge of car publishing magazines.
Luckily, my psychology background has helped me to deal with this challenge. I was responsible not only for the magazines, but also for a training academy and a printing company. I learned everything about traditional publishing from beginning to end, with some on-line content slowly emerging. Just to remind you, we are talking about 1994 with heavy Nokia communicators. As the publishing house was expanding, the company became international as well as the nature of my job, we had branches in most countries of the Western Europe, but all that travelling happened while enjoying my life style in the gorgeous town of Munich.
Now, I am expecting the shift that brought you “Eastward”.
Some juicy stories are coming. My partner and I separated, my former boss also left, and he started to work for Ringier. I was in Munich alone, not enjoying being by myself anymore. I got the offer to come to Prague. I did not speak Czech, I was still rather young, and I knew it was going to be another big challenge. I had nine months leaving period from Bertelsmann, as they were not willing to let me go. This time, it played to my cards. The first position I was offered was the publisher of the magazines. During the nine months, the former CEO left and so eventually I became the CEO of Ringier, Czech Republic, with the responsibility for 1200 people, combined business of both magazines and newspapers (Týdeník televize, ABC and Blesk to name the most prominent), all this in a foreign country still having the former eastern bloc mentality. In 1997, people were still not leaving toilet paper in the company restrooms as it was stolen, most staff were wearing funny slippers and everyone was working from 6 am until 2 pm and then leaving sharply. I restructured the whole company and made many changes regarding the company culture. I remember constantly reminding most of the staff that the salary is not paid for one’s coming to the office but for getting the work done. I was working from 7 am until 10 pm every day. Slowly but surely, I gained the confidence of Czech people, as they saw my ability to make decisions, bring changes and get the results. Nevertheless, I did not get the best publicity from our competitors, calling me “German cruel lady not having a pity on people”, which was not true. Most people who left did so with relevant packages at the time of almost zero unemployment and they thanked me.
I am proud that with the help of my team, we became the no. 1 on the market, Blesk circulation at that time was 700 000 copies per day. We sold Lidové Noviny. At the verge of the millennium, I also became responsible for Slovakia.
Then you got the promotion to the regional role in Zurich, Switzerland. In many cases, this is the decisive factor, as the nature of the work changes completely and not everyone enjoys the shift.
As I enjoyed living in Prague, I accepted the offer based on the condition that I will fly to Switzerland. But as to the nature of the job, in my country role, I was used to the freedom and ability to make decisions. In Switzerland, at headquarters, everybody was telling me what to do. The first day I was asked, are you the trainee coming from Slovakia? My reply was: No, I am your boss. Being a female manager in the Czech Republic even not speaking the language was much easier that being a female manager in Switzerland. After I had the job for nine months I was considering leaving, because I was not happy, another shift came. I was appointed the CEO of Ringier CEE. I was not sure about accepting the position, but my colleagues also supported me to get this role as they knew me, and they preferred to work with me than with someone coming from outside. I had the position for five years, sometimes being on the airplane three times per day. I was travelling not only to get the staff, the partners but also the competitors and last but not least, the politicians.
Being a journalist myself, I will not press you to reveal sources or details. But how was the relationship between you, representing the media and the politicians, often resisting them?
One politician stood out from the crowd and I admired him. Václav Havel. As to the rest, I had no illusions, so I could not be disappointed and there were no pleasant surprises either. Unfortunately, I faced one of the most difficult personal and professional decisions, in an issue related to Václav Havel. The tabloid Blesk got the story of a scandal around Dagmar Havlová. To publish it or not to publish it? Well, for the type of the magazine, it was a good story and it was true. I gave permission to publish it, with a special edition on Sunday. Dagmar Havlová then invited me for a cup of tea, accusing me of being a horrible person. I tried to explain to her what I have done many times to others: it was not the press that created the problems, at least at that time, it was the improper behavior that got exposed and subsequently caused the problems.
It seems that you have seen it and you have lived it all, at least with regards to the publishing business. What made you to leave it?
At the age of 35, I made a promise with a group of friends to retire by the age of 40 to pursue our dreams. When the time was coming, I was 43 and I told the owner of Ringier that it was my dream. He tried to stop me, he offered so many incentives to keep me. I made a deal. If the company would reach 25 % ROI, I would leave for a one-year sabbatical. I surpassed the figure and my boss kept the promise. In 2007, I went to Myanmar for one month. It is a beautiful country, I was alone with a local guide and as there was no phone connection, only land faxes between the hotels, I truly could disconnect. This was important not only for me but also for my team members, as they truly had to realize I left and they had new leadership.
After one-year sabbatical, they tried to lure me back to work, but I declined. I enjoyed slower travelling, being able to stay at one place for several weeks. I went to see my friends and I was so glad to be able to keep so many relationships. I also wanted to support social causes, so I joined the CARE supervisory board. During my second-year sabbatical, I started to invest in start-up companies, on-line businesses etc. I also met my current partner, the perfect match for me, as it was impossible for me to have a relationship while working for Ringier. I accompanied my partner to Vienna and we lived there for three years. I was working for CARE and travelling to Uganda, Burundi, Zambia, Ethiopia, Nepal, India and other places.
Silvia, your life story could easily become a book. However, I have the feeling that the next chapter brings it full circle.
My partner also quit his job and spent three months in Berlin. We became familiar with the start-up scenes, particularly with the artificial intelligence (AI). Now, I am interested in solutions that AI can provide for Alzheimer and dementia related diseases. I hope that dialogue toys and other IT solutions will be providing stimulus for the patients and at the same time relief to the families. I am looking forward to collaborating with interested institutions and companies. Finally, I can truly pursue my mission by bringing all my life experience as well as my expertise from university studies together. I am excited about it.
By Linda Štucbartová