Today, we have the pleasure of sitting down with Olga Wendling, a seasoned business strategist and entrepreneur. Her story is a tapestry of intriguing experiences, so let’s unravel the threads.
Q: Olga, your life began behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet Russia. Could you share pivotal experiences from your early years that continue to shape your approach to life and work today?
A: Surprisingly, my childhood memories are filled with peace and joy. During the communist times, everybody had a job. It was actually illegal not to have one. People knew that after graduating from universities, they would find a job to support themselves and their families, go on with their lives, and then retire with a guaranteed pension. Today, it sounds like a fantasy world. But I grew up surrounded by a general sense of security and confidence that the future would be bright.
Then came Perestroika. We went from total security to complete insecurity and the law of the jungle. The climax was, of course, Ruble devaluation in 1998. For example, my grandfather had savings to buy a car, and overnight he lost it all. That was a real shock.
That kind of experience teaches you that security is just an illusion. You have to adapt constantly to changing circumstances. This mindset has helped me to take risks both in life and in business.
Q: Your post-Iron Curtain life was a whirlwind of international experiences.
A: Indeed. When the curtain fell, I was like a kid in a candy store! I took every opportunity to travel abroad. As I needed a visa to travel anywhere, I would attend conferences and events that could provide me with invitations. Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and the US were the first countries I visited. I also applied for jobs abroad, albeit unsuccessfully. But I never stopped dreaming about having the freedom to live the life I wanted.
In the end, it was not my work, but my heart that brought me to move and stay abroad. I had the privilege to live in Colombia, Venezuela, France, Switzerland, and the US. Each time, I immersed myself in different cultures and languages. For example, I learned that time was a very abstract category in Latin America, and that in France you would discuss business when dessert is served. I now live in Switzerland, which has four national languages for a population of 9 million, and that is working just fine.
All those experiences helped me to understand that “one size fits all” does not exist. People have different perceptions, and they are all valid. I learned to recognize and respect that.
Finally, I was very lucky to meet incredibly smart, fun, and supportive people in all parts of the world. We connected over the same values, despite cultural differences. For example, our MBA class at HEC, Paris was composed of over 60 nationalities. It was a melting pot of diverse views, approaches, backgrounds, and tempers. And that’s exactly what made the experience so unique!
Q: It seems that you are fond of variety. In your career, you also worked for a wide range of companies, from Fortune 500 multinationals to startups, across several industries. What was your secret to constantly reinvent yourself?
A: I’d say: I really wanted it and believed it was possible. Mindset is key to navigate changes. As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
- Henry Ford transformed the automobile industry with his innovative approach to business. You are no stranger to innovation yourself. How do you apply innovation principles in your work?
A: There are four major types of innovation. The first one is product innovation, which is the most straightforward. Behind every successful product, there is an important problem or an enchanted opportunity. For me, it is clearly a dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire to change it. From strategy setting to unlocking new business opportunities, I have always been passionate about creating a better version of the world, at different scales.
The second type is process innovation. Total Quality Management is one of the best examples here. Talking about myself, I find inefficiency deeply disturbing. Maybe because my father was an engineer (smile). So I have a knack for developing systems and tools that ease the workflow and make business interactions seamless. You can find my favorite tools on ex-change.space, a hybrid business coaching platform I’ve developed (link: https://ex-change.space/free-resources-for-business-growth/ )
Next is positioning innovation. It helps to attract clients that are different from your original target market. Airbnb started as an alternative accommodation provider for conference participants, before re-positioning for a mass market in the travel and leisure industry. I believe that each business will have to go through such innovation at least once, as the original customer segment is usually quite narrow. During the strategy sessions, I challenge my coaching clients and business partners to imagine how their products could be used by a completely unrelated group of customers. That often ignites creative out-of-the-box thinking that is a major ingredient of innovation.
And finally, there is a paradigm innovation that involves a mental shift about the way businesses operate. Internet, ecommerce, sharing economy, AI are all examples of such innovation. At the same time, the current money-centered economic model was designed centuries ago. Just look at how much industry, technology, and society have progressed. But the model remains unchanged, despite clearly showing the signs of « wear and tear ». That is why we have developed a Shared Social Economy model, that brings together collective goodwill, excess production capacity, and modern technology to create a new source of wealth for everybody. My new company, Global Social Enterprise, is a vehicle to implement this model.
Q: So what is the vision behind the new venture?
A: The vision is to create a human-centered economy. Today we operate in the old economic paradigm where money is the center of the universe. Consequently, access to money is the element that determines business success. But money is a scarce resource that has traditionally been unequally distributed in society. That’s the reason why all existing initiatives to create a more fair and sustainable world are facing scaling issues. The economic system is designed to sustain itself. Hence it will limit the resources, notably, financial ones, that could transform it.
But what if, in addition to money, we had a supplementary source of wealth? And what if this source was unlimited and accessible to everybody? The good thing is that such source of wealth already exists and can be capitalized on immediately. I invite you to read the article “Shifting the paradigm to Shared Social Economy” in this issue of the magazine.
Q: That’s definitely a fascinating read! So what brought you into the social entrepreneurship field?
A: I guess it was my passion for justice and equality. If I look behind, all my professional journey was like a roadmap to this venture.
Q: Can you give us more details?
A: Sure. I often started from scratch, be it a family business, a newly created corporate role, or my own coaching practice. So I learned how to navigate uncertainty while keeping focus on the strategic goals. At the same time, business planning provided me with the skills to effectively manage timelines, risks, and resources. And one of the most important resources for business is its partners. When I worked at Bunge, a major food and agribusiness player, I led a worldwide study on partnerships and joint ventures, conducting over 100 interviews with company executives and external partners. As a result, we were able to get unconventional insights and draw recommendations, approved by the Board.
I am convinced that in complex multi-stakeholder ventures partner relations is key to success. Throughout my career, I worked closely with suppliers, value-added resellers, customers, and even competitors. That involved constant negotiations, communication, and sometimes – dispute resolution. So I happened to have an extensive training and experience related to that.
To sum up, I have all expertise required to make Global Social Enterprise a success. But nobody succeeds alone. The idea is to build a dynamic ecosystem of partners who will collaboratively create and share social wealth.
Q: What would be required to make this ambitious vision a reality?
A: That we stop competing and start cooperating. We’ve been sold on the idea that competition is the driving force for progress, but the reality is quite the opposite. Cooperation creates more value than competition ever could.
If we look at history, human cooperation was the reason our species survived. They were able to collectively face harsh weather conditions and predators, by gaining experience and sharing knowledge. This capacity for social learning was later transformed into language skills, that were used for cooperation, not competition. In other words, our predecessors did not need to communicate if they wanted to kill each other. They would use communication to collaborate more effectively to reach common goals.
And through centuries, cooperation played a crucial role in different areas of our lives and society. For example, in the early 20th century, Black Mountain College in the US fostered an informal and collaborative spirit among its faculty and students, becoming a unique incubator for American avant-garde. In the science field, the International Space Station was a collaborative effort of 16 nations to build and operate a world-class research center in the space. In recent years, crowdfunding platforms helped to raise more than $34 billion worldwide to support innovative projects and companies.
And yet, most of the economic activity today is structured around competition. Do not get me wrong – competition could be a powerful vehicle to drive performance. But this could only happen if we have a level playing field with sufficient resources for everybody to succeed. Unfortunately, every day we witness throat-cutting competition over money that is in scarce supply. This economic game leaves many people and businesses behind. And we want to change that.
I am working on a pilot project in Geneva, Switzerland. It is a perfect location due to several reasons. First, Switzerland is a direct democracy. People do not just elect the officials who take the decisions for them. In fact, citizens vote directly on a large variety of topics, from pension reform to the type of fighter jets the country buys for its defense. Second, Geneva has a diverse ecosystem of international organizations, social initiatives, and small businesses that account for 99% of its economy. We intend to work with the NGOs, industry players, financial institutions, and public sector to design and test a new economic development model.
Once operational, the model can be replicated in other cities and geographies. Such a global network producing a complementary source of economic power can accelerate the resolution of the most pressing global issues like poverty, hunger, inequality, and climate change. It could become a basis for the paradigm shift that the world desperately needs today.