On challenging the career status quo and well-being by design with Vladi Meško Briestenska

Vladi is an influencer by default. Always has been. Even in 2006, when we met at university, she was always the one coming up with new concepts or sharing super interesting information we had no idea about. She has an incredible sense of trends, to an extent I have rarely seen before (despite spending the last five years in the startup world where predicting the future is sort of a must). Vladi has been using her talents as a journalist in Brussels, a human rights activist in Kosovo, a public policy professional in both Brussels and Washington DC, a startup accelerator lead in Slovakia, the founder of a diversity movement, and an advisor of inclusive company culture, globally.

How do you define your profession? You and I talk often about fluidity instead of traditional career boxes that label us as this or that. Still, one has to distinguish herself somehow. Do you consider yourself a global advisor?

That’s one of the hardest questions. I do have a tendency to slide into defining myself by my current role and that’s natural. When people ask What do you do?, they want to hear an industry, a role and a company. They want to be able to distinguish who you are, a doctor or a journalist. When introduced to a new person, I often do that too, although I start with a disclaimer that it is complicated to define my work with just one term. Most people are anyhow lost within the first couple of sentences as I start talking about my career portfolio. 🙂

I do however consider important to tap into this more complex level first, as it opens people’s imagination. We sometimes even start talking about long term missions or career tendencies. By then, I end up with a bit more concrete manifestation of my current work focus, saying for instance that ‘I’m an inclusion advisor and founder of a venture’, most people then gain a clearer idea. Framing and providing context is indeed important, although I try to avoid applying the one-box model.

 

What is your mission then?

I believe the whole process of defining, or perhaps discovering, your life’s vision and mission is a long-term, self-exploration process. What I mean is that your career (and life in general) evolves, and while sometimes you are clearer about who you are and where are you going, other times you are not and that’s OK.

Taking into account what I’ve learned about myself in the past, what my strengths are, what comes naturally to me, I consider my personal mission to be ‘contributing towards the collective well-being of a global society’. As general and ambitious as that is. And doing so through providing access to practical toolkits, facilitated experiences, new mindset frameworks and a voice to all, individuals, communities and businesses, have been my drivers since I can remember.

”Knowing that both privileged and underrepresented parts of society will always exist, my goal is to contribute to diminishing such imbalance. Raising awareness around those issues and nudging the more privileged communities to consciously take the extra step and distribute at least a minor part of their gained resources and know-how. That is, in my opinion, our individual accountability and responsibility. Talent is universal, however opportunity is not. We should not forget that.”

 

“The more open you are, the more you expand.”

Have you always been thinking in a global context, on such a macro level? I mean, taking into account our generation, elder millennials that have studied, worked and/or succeeded abroad, not everyone operating abroad considers themselves truly global.

At the beginning, way back in my childhood, curiosity was the key factor. I was caught up in exploring what was possible beyond my closest environment. With time and experience, it has transformed into a sort of addiction, in terms of finding a place where I belong. I have always been drawn towards certain types of people, forward and complex thinkers, open-minded edgy individuals and communities. Outliers and pioneers, really. We all seek this sort of belonging, where you don’t have to justify yourself as most of your core values and worldview are similar. And still being respectful towards our unique differences.

I’ve always felt that it is within a global community of diverse individuals, who seek to drive a positive change, where I can express myself the best and can contribute, create value, help to connect dots and navigate complex contexts. I believe our fullest potential can’t be realized within a limited “box” (those limits defined either by state’s borders or other restrictive mindsets). Hence, for me, borders are a limitation really, as I value the fluid, dynamic, diverse, progressive, and the open. And from what I have observed, you can truly experience that in a global context.

 

How did your education and the opportunities we’ve had as students and young professionals help to shape your natural tendencies?

It added real contours to what has already felt natural to me. Erasmus was my first experience in a global environment and, to be honest, my studies in Denmark were a challenging phase for me. It was new to me to experience judgements and biases towards your identity, historical and geographical roots (not implying here that all Danes are biased people!). At times, there were tears.

But, I quite quickly decided to get out of my little eastern European cocoon and open up to the world. Then, there was Brussels, and it has just really accelerated from there. My eyes were wide open, which often means you are naturally drawn to inspiring people and the right kind of opportunities. I was hooked.

Having stayed in the Slovak context only, I would never see the world in its full complexity.

You can touch and feel something you didn’t know existed. You can experience different types of people, different kinds of thinking, different ways of doing things, different experiences and opportunities. At home, we often times feel like ‘I’ve got this.’ But then when faced with a new, bigger world, we realize ‘…there is still so much I don’t know.’ To me, that’s what keeps me going and looking around the corner.

 

Observing how you think and work, I see you challenge the status quo. And you have used similar principles in some of your major career transformations. First from diplomacy to startups and recently to inclusion advisory and your own venture-building. Can you walk us through the process of your career transitions?

That first shift from public policy and foreign affairs to the tech and innovation industry was truly transformational. I came from a humanitarian and government-relations tied space which I called ‘home’ for a number of years. And while I was contemplating my next career move outside of this sector, I got a job offer to come back to Brussels again. It looked perfect on paper, but instead of excitement, I felt a bit of surprising frustration. Walking that path seemed fairly comfortable and less challenging at that time for me.

By turning that opportunity down, I started a major shift in my career that lead me to a newly emerging startup ecosystem in Slovakia. A bunch of ‘friends of my friends’ were running the biggest startup space at that time, setting up an incubator and a corporate innovation studio. And although I am not coming from an entrepreneurial family background, I felt strongly pulled into this new world. Working with people that embrace things like design and systems thinking, are open to experiments and encourage you to test, learn and iterate as you go, was like breathing fresh air. This community seemed open-minded, hungry of progress and surprisingly accessible to me.

 

Apart from your gut feeling, what other factors played a role in your decision-making?

The gut feel part was essential here. I remember the exact moment, talking to a friend on the train and rationally listing pros and cons, while feeling I already knew the answer, however scary and unreasonable it seemed. In my close circle of government and public policy peers, going for something so risky and different might not have seemed particularly wise. I was also considering whether my friends might judge me or that I will be earning less money. In the eyes of some, it could have been a huge step back, but I realized on that train that it was now or never. And that you can always go back to your comfort zone. But I’ve learned when there’s an instant click, strong curiosity, intuition, and goose bumps, you better give it a try. Lastly, this shift has provided me with an opportunity (while hustling the startup acceleration) to found the Timber Foundation, our advocacy and advisory platform to help businesses design more diverse and inclusive company cultures. I’m super grateful for that.

What I find fascinating was your shift from the local startup world to working with the investment fund in London and New York, couple of years later. Can you walk us through that change?  

My first career shift was strongly intuitive. The second one was more conscious I immersed myself into available tools, resources, books, and methodologies on how to step away from the traditional career box and design your career according to who you truly are and how you want to show up in the world. It resonated with me.

The actual story played out as follows; my colleagues from the innovation studio had been previously engaged with the UK innovation ecosystem and invited the founder and other team members of Anthemis (the investment fund I collaborate with) down here for a conference. And once we’d all met, there was an instant and genuine connection. I felt a hint of something special in that connection and needed to explore it further.

Having said that, this looked more like a gamble if I only thought about the opportunity rationally. It would require me to relocate to London, work for a company that did not have a clear position for me at that time. The first half a year was painful, placing me in a more technical position on a financial services advisory team. In a way, it was great, because it pushed me to reconsider everything who I am, what I’m naturally good at, what value I can contribute based on my talents, and what the market/company needs. I was looking for that right match.

“What did it look like? I was reading a lot, filling out plenty of exercises, scribing on walls at our apartment in Prague, basically creating my career design.”

It was then when I realized that my human rights background, passion for the greater social good, entrepreneurial ethos, and the ability to activate talent and build innovation ecosystems, could all be combined in my collaboration with Anthemis.

It was, of course, a process and I am making it sound easier that it was. I had to face the leadership and have honest conversation on how I felt in my current role and how I’d like to shape it moving forward. It also required Anthemis founders to appreciate such transparency and be open and ready to explore that space together. Which, gladly, we did.

 

How exactly does one explore the unknown?

We were working closely together to design this new direction and collaboration. Eventually, I incubated early-stage fintech founders for Anthemis, focusing on both their mental wellbeing (super relevant but highly neglected topic) as well as business development, we co-launched the Anthemis Institute, and finally I managed to bring to life a diversity, inclusion & belonging specific business pillar.

The journey has been both challenging and exciting, but mostly aligned much more with who I am as a person. It was indeed a work in progress and a constant learning, as there is no easy way to build and scale new products (I like to apply the product design analogy). It requires a mindset shift when introducing new concepts such as inclusive culture in the workplace. And that takes time.

 

What was your first real task in applying diversity, inclusion & belonging (DIB) principles into action?

For me, even creating meaningful space, appreciation, and resources for this topic has been a major accomplishment, as in my previous experiences DIB never really gained a proper opportunity or the priority to evolve. And then by design, the working set-up, I’ve had a lot of responsibility as well as freedom and flexibility, allowed me to truly roll up my sleeves.

In fact, my very first assignment was something like ‘Show us what we can actually do with the DIB framework and how it’s relevant for our goals as a VC (venture capital) firm.’ So I did. Starting with a very basic framework around the authentic and right narrative, strategic priorities, context mapping, practical tactics, and actions. What do we aim to accomplish with help of diversity and through inclusion & belonging? What do we understand under diversity, inclusion & belonging? What strategy do we enforce and why? What concrete action steps do we take to meet those priorities and how to set and measure KPIs? (Yes, you can set KPIs also for the DIB).

The work set-up, in partnership with Anthemis as their DIB advisor, has challenged my perception on how people could work with and within companies and what the future of work might really look like. My model has been known as “a blob”. I was not sitting with any particular team, but ‘blobbing’ across various functions and levels. That’s what the DIB agenda requires.

“Diversity in the workplace goes far beyond just wanting more women or people of color on your teams. 

It’s everything from how our brains are wired, how differently we think to whether you are introverted, autistic, of colour, or left-handed and much more.”

 

How does “blobbing” as a work set-up look like?

As said before, the DIB agenda has been implemented across different teams from investments to people & culture, finance, venture-building teams, you name it. I’ve not really sat anywhere and sort of sat everywhere. I was blobbing around, expanding beyond borders, teams and functions. My role has been to serve them and help figure out how the DIB priorities or lens could be applied in their own business functions and embedded in their priorities.

 

OK, so now is the best time to ask, what exactly lies under the DIB umbrella? And more specifically, what is the DIB framework from your own perspective?

Well, I’ve had to ‘grow’ into my current perception, too. I remember when studying human rights in Venice, the idea of diversity and inclusion was very tightly connected to women rights. Then, while working in the public sector, it became more about female representation in government and public roles, and even in the startup world, my perception of DIB was, at the beginning, still related to female founders empowerment.

It wasn’t until later when I immersed myself much deeper into the topic, studying vigorously how companies and teams operate, how workplaces are designed and what a healthy workplace looks like, and also whether and how one can bring his/her authentic self to work and so on. Only then did it really click for me. I realized what really lies in the core of the DIB framework for me, which is the notion of well-being at work.

 

How do we know we are being our authentic selves at work?

I believe it’s when we are able to bring the fullness of who we are to work and not leave it at the front door. It’s tricky though and hard to achieve. So, I’ve immersed myself in studying what this really means for different individuals and teams and whether authenticity is achievable and how within the context of a workplace.

One of the key takeaways I’ve observed over the years is not imposing the company culture on an individual, but letting those individuals actually shape the culture. We don’t aim for a culture fit, but rather shared values and aligned purpose. Whether you bike, like chocolate ice cream, or have three dogs, does not really make a difference in the core of belonging. Our values and beliefs do. So within the DIB agenda, I try to help companies understand what such diversity, inclusion & belonging means to them and provide them also with a set of tools in the pursuit of designing a healthy workplace.

 

If we had to walk away knowing one thing about diversity in the workplace, what would that be?

Diversity is a very complex phenomenon and should be understood as such. It basically consists of three pillars:

  1. Demographic diversity. Our identity, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, age, disability, both mental and physical, and other demographic aspects.
  2. Cognitive diversity. Our different thinking models, heuristics we use, and how we process information.
  3. Neurodiversity. This covers unique aspects such as Autism, ADHD, and other ways that show how differently are brains are wired. It’s often perceived as a disability, whereas in fact, those individuals are uniquely abled.

 

How can one measure such intangible concepts and how do you present results of your work?

I am a strong believer in measuring progress, as it shows you what works and what doesn’t over a certain period of time and where you should focus both your resources and attention. I actually get this question a lot as people consider DIB as a soft agenda. The truth is that KPIs and measuring methodologies are quite advanced in this area, and I have been able to learn from others to apply both quantitative and qualitative metrics. Let’s say your goal within one particular company is to design a more inclusive culture.

One of your very first steps would be getting everybody on the same page. That means, we need to all use the same language and terminology around inclusion and understand its meaning. Often people are simple discouraged by not knowing what diversity and inclusion mean, and they hold judgements and stereotypes around those words.

As a next step, you would aim to understand as soon as possible the current state of DIB at your company, as it enables you to diagnose key pains but also practices already done well. As you have those priorities identified, the goal is to start moving the needle by small steps, actions, and experiments. The key is to act, test, reflect, learn, and iterate. And measure! 🙂 At Anthemis, we say it’s simply “safe to try”.

 

And how do you measure the progress?

Well, one example as said before, is to run the initial landscape mapping of the current state before implementing any random tactics. Luckily, there are quality and open sourced survey templates available, which companies can tailor to their use case and needs. Those anonymous surveys give the opportunity to anyone across the company to have a voice and share experiences, perspectives, sentiments, or suggestions. It’s best to run those regularly (annually at least) as they allow you to measure whether there’s been any progress on those identified blockers. This is though just one of many methods really, it’s good to experiment with a few, and also combine qualitative with quantitative ones.

“Part of my job at Anthemis is to make sure the portfolio of founders Anthemis invests in is diverse with inclusive cultures built in. Most of venture capital funds have a pretty homogenous pool of founders with very little of either gender, ethnic or social class diversity. The reason for that is often already homogeneous initial pools of talent as they tap into very similar waters most of the time. At Anthemis, we’ve understood from collected data that most of the underrepresented founders come from warm referrals from other minority founders or special minority accelerators or funds. Thus, you can then accelerate those channels and gain different results. Until you see those numbers, it’s quite hard to be aware of not providing a fair opportunity to all founders out there. I find it very alibistic to say “one can’t measure DIB”. Find a way to gather relevant data, explore possible actions, implement those, measure the results, and celebrate the progress.”

 

Can we highlight a single actionable step one could take when they feel unsafe or frustrated at their workplace?

I would say the first step is self-reflection. When you face blockers at work something that prevents you from being your authentic self and leaves you rather frustrated or unsafe try to understand it, name it for yourself, and then call it out. When doing so, make sure you find a way, which is safe for you, to communicate your concerns to the right person, either an ally or somebody from the leadership team, or use any anonymous channels available if it’s a concern in which you need to protect your safety and identity. The important thing is to speak up about it.

Equally, the radical feedback might be very useful in some instances as we tend to lean towards those confidential ways of communicating and neglect the power of uncomfortable but powerful, candid feedback. Such situations might be, for some, triggered by providing alcohol at company celebrations and holiday parties. Unless we call out how uncomfortable this makes us, there is a natural group expectation that this is actually OK for everybody. For others, especially introverted people, it can be speaking out loud at group meetings as a way of attracting attention. Perhaps you might need a little while to run the topic through your mind, come up with arguments and ideas, and then share those with your team or manager.

There is no one-model-fits-all. I believe it’s a joint responsibility of both team members to speak up about their needs as well as managers to acknowledge the existing diversity and act on those needs. The goal is to meet somewhere in the middle.

“We were taught to swim in a pool of applicants while the employer makes the pick.

Today however, the power lies in our hands. Individuals are the ones to design their careers and portfolios, choose employers, partnerships, and collaborations.”

 

Working in London and travelling all around the world to witness current workplace trends, what do you think the very near future of work holds for us?

Let me start with saying that whatever edgy trends we might talk about, the majority of the world’s population won’t be faced with those until much later. When sharing my perception of the future of work, I am talking about early adopters, mostly coming from progressive developed markets and geographies. I’ve also noticed that we often tend to apply a “black and white” lens, placing more traditional workplace structures against the new ones, challenging the status quo. As if there is only one right model.

I believe there will always be a part of our society running on so-called traditional structures and that is absolutely fine. What the future of work might bring to us is a gradual realization that mostly all workplace models are valid. The circumstance is important. What works for me, might not work for my neighbor, simply said.

Secondly, I believe power will be much more in hands of individuals. We are nudged to design and explore various types of careers, with our professional and personal lives blended, seek purpose, fulfillment and meaningful opportunities to create value for the wider ecosystem. We might not even call it work or a career anymore. Who you are and how you show up in the world might become one thing.

This is tightly related to another trend I’ve observed emerging, which some experts call “a portfolio career”. Basically, the career of the future might look more like a portfolio than a narrow path. Similarly, as Anthemis and other venture capitalists build their portfolio of investments, we can build our own adaptable, diversified, and personal career portfolio. Such a portfolio of our diverse skills, experiences, roles and responsibilities helps us to not only distribute the existing risk, but also allows for experimentation. 

“You can be a Thai boxing teacher on Fridays, a marketing consultant for the rest of the week, and a dog-walker over the weekend. It goes beyond freelancing just one of your skills.

It’s about curating a portfolio of work that reflects you and maximizes your potential in the world.”

 

I am certainly experimenting with this concept myself, welcoming the advantages of such a career model, collaborating with a few investment funds on the DIB framework, while launching a new venture around talent incubation, and mentoring other entrepreneurs and global impact movements through their advisory boards.

 

[The interview was originally held in our native languages. Vladi’s answers were translated into English by the author]

Photos by Marek Rebroš Photography.

 

Enjoyed my talk with Vladi? Stay tuned for more. How to design your future and build a portfolio career coming soon.  

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Hi, I am Pavla..

Prague-based writer, company content creator, aspiring global journalist and future-of- everything enthusiast.

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