Everyone says it: the MBA is an intense experience. It takes a lot of time and resources, as you would expect from any change process. After 2 years of almost continuous learning, there is a mixed feeling of relief that you come out on the other side of a challenging period and nostalgia that you will see your colleagues less often.
But, thankfully, we get a chance to see each other in our community meetings, networking and week-end getaways. After I met some of her colleagues at a recent wedding, I’ve arranged a new meeting with Raluca Mihăilă, RO6 alumna. An entrepreneur for 3 years now, she made the transition to working on her own after having run marketing departments in companies such as BILLA, Carrefour and Ana Hotels.
Our conversation about life, career, plans and advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs became the interview below.
How would you describe your professional life, in a nutshell?
If I were to choose something outstanding from my almost 20 years of professional life, it would be the rollercoaster component. Be it for the scope of proving myself immediately after college, of gaining recognition and status while growing up as a professional, of doing what I loved during my establishment years and of pursuing my unconventional goals through my entrepreneur work, I’ve usually found myself at the intersection of roads less traveled, exploring unpopular opinions and the cultural shoulds.
The common denominator of my work comes from transforming pragmatism into creative endeavors and connecting imagination and art with action plans. It’s been quite a ride so far and, although challenging at times, I am looking forward to the future.
Tell us a bit about your current role. What are you working on at the moment?
I have recently celebrated 3 years of entrepreneurship (yay!), a period of great collaborations, major personal and professional ups, much needed downs and am now in the phase of redefining my general scope of work.
The COVID 19 pandemic somehow softened some of our common pathological skepticism and drove us towards collaboration, but it’s still deeply rooted in our DNA.
See, I consider brands as extensions of their founders’ psychology, therefore it’s not a coincidence that the current context of communication is built on the myself-first-mentality, scarcity attitude, authority rejection, provincialism, intolerance, lack of commitments or accountability, fearful attachments, distrust, deprivation, FOMO and my-reality-is-the-reality. As I see it, there is little space for togetherness and the common need to be different often ends up in everybody being similar, hence, propagating a new era of the same behavior.
So, my focus right now is to understand the psychological triggers of our behavior (creatives, strategists and clients alike), find the suitable tools to dismantle them and turn them into actionable personal growth scenarios able to lead to greater businesses, happier communities and better served clients. All through Ethical Marketing and asking the right questions.
Which were the top 4 challenges you encountered in your entrepreneurial work?
Lack of visibility. I was in a vehicle speeding 200 miles/ hour with no visibility due to fog conditions.
Market perception. The moment you step out of the office of a big corporation, although you take every skill you ever had with you, you seem to lose market value. Clients perceive you as courageous and willing to thrive, but they are not willing to invest money in you at the level they would have while your business card was backed up by a reputed industry name. For sure, it’s a bet you make with yourself. And it’s a big one, especially in a status-based culture where value comes mostly from the money you make.
Financial power. Suddenly, you’re not managing millions of Eur of corporate money, but you must finance your lifestyle and make money to live. And while doing so, the clients you might consider to target are reluctant about investing their funds in you.
Competition positioning. Usually, you look at others and adjust. Or at least this is the theory. To me, true competition makes sense if you enter the battle with the big ones. But when you start over, when you just define what you’re up to, going after the big ones is one of the most discouraging things you can do for yourself because all you see is what you don’t have and they do. Sure, be inspired, let yourself be drawn in the deep market conversations, read the news, but stick to your thing and just do that.
Don’t look left, don’t look right, or you’re losing track of your own path and of the fact that what you have and they don’t is yourself. None of them is you and you can make that count. But it’s not at all easy and it’s for sure counterintuitive.
What did the MBA mean for you?
The MBA community was one of the best environments I’ve been part of so far, as it capitalized on individual assets coming together in win-win situations, common goals, the openness to investigate objective realities and challenge personal truths, the drive to pay attention to the small numbers (me, you, him, her, us) and turning them into sustainable drivers of mass growth.
The Maastricht School of Management Executive MBA was, at times, an excruciating project, because it demanded more of the energy I was willing to give, yet I somehow managed to find in me the resources to give my 100%. I remember that period, I was working 17 hours a day at the corporation and during the weekends I was studying intensively. A period of anxiety, uncertainty, huge business pressures and yet, hope, peace and the feeling of genuine belonging to a valuable community of like-minded people.
The big difference between my professional context and some of my colleagues’ is that I didn’t have my own company back then, to apply all the practical concepts I learned in class. It would have been very useful because of the practicality and Romanian market’s relevance components of the MBA. And another one, I paid everything in full from my personal savings. This kept me extremely sharp and engaged because I knew exactly how much an hour of class was worth. Best money ever spent (except therapy :D).
Any emotional triggers from the MBA? Anything you regret doing?
What I most cherish to this day from the program is how it was built around forcing us into a constant solution finding. This was the great asset I took from this experience, apart from the multifaceted knowledge. It strengthened my confidence in my own skills, ideas and drives, after having put them through endurance tests.
My experience with Maastricht School of Management, as I see it after 6 years now, circled beautifully: it started with me bursting into tears and apnea after a speech during the first class with the insightful and ever-smiling Cosmin Alexandru, culminated with an episode of panic attack and intense rage on the ruthless, yet empathetic Adrian Stanciu and ended with the biggest focus I had in my life while having to write a big stake thesis in ten days under the supervision of the great Mihaela Reese and Prof. Khaled Wahba. I put everything I have learnt and had in this thesis and after a few months, it became my first published book available on Amazon.
The tears and anxiety paid off, I guess ☺. I was not in a good place and I cherish very much the way this MBA literally transformed me. I don’t think there is anything I regret. I was all in and usually this is a winning recipe.
What made you take this path (entrepreneur)? Would you change something? What were the challenges?
It must be that the program was the cherry on top of my intrapreneurial muscles self-exercised within the companies I have been working for. At the same time, however, I don’t feel as having made the move as a consequence of the MBA, but rather in a career moment when reporting to a manager and following other people’s agenda didn’t seem like an option anymore. So I took a lateral step and started my own agency. It’s been 3 adventurous years full of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) but I would do it all over again.
There is also something I would change. The rhythm. I would allow myself to take a break before plunging into this experience. And also little breaks in the process.
Connecting the dots backwards, now I realize that I didn’t start with a plan and I missed out on the concentrated attention, except when working on specific projects. What I had instead was plenty of curiosity and openness towards the new. PRICELESS, I have to say. I put myself as a person with needs, desires, talents, passions before money and business plans and this has enriched me tremendously. It has also taught me a lot about my own boundaries, biases and triggers and it was fine to discover them while building my universe of collaborations.
What do you think is a must have for a manager/entrepreneur?
I’m not sure about a recipe here, but I could mention two things of value, from my perspective: self-reliance (as the driving pillar) and compassion for the other (be it your customer, your collaborator, your employee or your boss). With this binomial I believe you can conquer the world, regardless of the startup ideas, business plans, bank accounts or talents you might have.
Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs? Or perhaps lessons learnt the hard way?
I’m not keen on giving advice, nor in asking for it, but I’ll give it a try.
- Surround yourself with people of character and allow compromises only to the extent of your moral compass.
- Mind your mental health, your healthy boundaries and be ruthless with your time. Don’t risk burnout just to make a name or money. Honor every win, learn to be happy with little, at first and before you know it, you’ll be thriving.
- Be the Utopic Brain that turns what seems impossible into a source of inspiration for unexpected outcomes.