Katya Veleva Profiles in Excellence

What was the catalyst that finally drove you to start your own business?

Growing up, my mum ran her own business, and it just happened to be during very turbulent times in the politics and economy of our country – hyperinflation was a daily occurrence that even I as a 6-year old understood. I made up my mind then that under no circumstances would I ever run my own business. I would grow up to be working in large stable organisations where the responsibility for the future and stability would lie with other people. I was adamant!

I also grew up to be a very proactive person, someone with very strong ideals and beliefs. I have always felt that I needed my work to matter in the world. So last year after the brutal murder of George Floyd, I took a pause. I looked at the industry I was in, I had also recently experienced a very disappointing recruitment process with a large and very important public body. They had offered me the job, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the rigidity and ignorance with which the process was carried out and how I could possibly affect change in any industry in an environment like that. More importantly, seeing what was happening in the world, I knew I just HAD to be doing something.

It was a Thursday afternoon and I was angry. I took a deep breath and decided I would do only absolutely pressing things for the next day and then I would try to not think and just move my body over the weekend, trusting that I would know what to do by Monday morning. And I did. I woke up on Monday, knowing that this was the time to face this huge fear of being professionally independent. I knew what my skills were, I knew there were things I could do with those skills that would move workplaces forward in terms of inclusion. So I rolled up my sleeves, made some phone calls and set up some meetings. I left a flourishing career in Architecture and Digital Construction to come to the world of Diversity and Inclusion and I have no intentions of looking back!

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced starting your own business?

Overwhelm. There is so much to know and there are so many sources to learn from and I am greedy for knowledge! My inner geek is strong and sometimes I can get really engulfed in topics because I always want to be an expert in them.

Overwhelm and ‘her best friend’ anxiety arrive promptly when I start losing sight of the things I am involved in. So the antidote for me is planning time. It is not always easy to pause and take time to plan and write out on large pieces of paper what is going on and what are the outstanding tasks (this is what works for me). Sometimes this even feels counterintuitive, as I can be a little ritualistic about it – needing to have the right papers, the right pens and markers and post-it notes. This is what I need to find comfort and it helps without fail! It helps because there is no space for overwhelm and anxiety when you see things laid out in front of you. Yes they may be many, but you can count them, you can put them in the diary so they then become finite.

How have you found running a business through the pandemic? How has it impacted you professionally and personally?

I don’t have a base to compare as I only started working on my business last September and launched it in January, so running a business in the pandemic is all I know.

But I think the pandemic had a big part in me starting the business too. It opened more time for contemplation and as banal as it is, it brought an air of inevitability to everything. It made me braver, because, if the world is ending, why waste time with little things. Instead, let’s be bold and brave!

You list diversity and inclusion as two of your passions. From your experience, what are the two things companies need to do more and less of in order to ensure they are actively supporting and promoting them?

Two things to actively promote diversity and inclusion (D&I) are:

  1. Talk about it. Don’t pretend you are all sorted because you have a woman and a black person around the table and you have a transgender person as a contact on LinkedIn. Bring out the sore topics into the light and be ready to listen with both ears!
  2. Put your money where your mouth is. After you have opened the topic, invest in additional support. As wonderful as your team is, improving D&I takes actual work. It’s great that you have already given them jobs but also bringing in external consultants opens the pathway for braver conversations. Alone, colleagues will always be bound by the restrictions of their professional relationships and the very real essential need for them to maintain those working relationships. Basically they need their jobs. Bring in paid speakers – again this takes work. Bring in consultants to create mentoring programs and to develop communication skills as a start.

Two things to stop doing:

  1. Stop being defensive. You are racist, you are sexist, you are homophobic, transphobic, ableist and fatphobic. Guess what – so am I. So is everyone. This is not an excuse, neither is it a good thing. It’s super hard to hear, but if you don’t, none of us stand a chance. If it’s too hard to think of it this way, try thinking: “We all do racist things, we all do sexist things, and have sexist and racist thoughts.” – take it outside of your personhood. Then remind yourself of a quote someone way smarter than I once said: “you are not responsible for your first thought. Society is. You, however, are responsible for your second thought and your action.” If you are called out, and you feel yourself becoming defensive, think this – whatever you have done has hurt this person; feelings are facts, if they feel hurt, they are hurt; while it’s great that you didn’t intend to hurt them, the effect is more important than intent. Remember that last bit. The effect is more important than intent. Verbalise it, and apologise. If you do that, you are already on a great path.
  2. Stop making people from marginalised groups around you do the work. Yes, someone can call you out, because your actions or lack of action has hurt them. Or your actions or lack of actions positions them at a disadvantage. It is not their obligation to educate you and manage your emotions. Those people have been oftentimes living with the constant trauma of their identity that is not accepted in the world and therefore they are already doing a lot of emotional labour. Don’t make them do more of that for free for you. If they have things to say, listen carefully, and when you are asking questions, do so while ensuring that they have space to say they don’t want to respond. And then lift your head up to see all those other people, who are willing to support you on your educational journey. There are many of us! There are wonderful books, films and professionals waiting for you to approach them!

Mental health and a healthy work-life balance have been hugely important over the last 18 months especially. What steps have you taken to ensure the care of both yourself and your employees?

I am my only employee and I try to take good care of her :). I was a part of a panel at the start of the year with several other business owners and they all spoke about the insane hours they were working and the inevitability of that when you’re on your own. This doesn’t work for me. My brain starts operating at 30% around five in the afternoon and I need my weekends. When I show up for work, I am there 100%. The only reason that I am able to do that is because I have taken the appropriate breaks. I come from an architectural background and I have done my fair share of late nights and even overnight working and I do not want to go back to that under any circumstances. This would only lead to burnout, and I am my main resource, so I need to take good care of myself. Because I am my productivity capacity, I don’t want to kill the golden egg-laying goose just to get quicker to get to that one egg, and then never be able to get any more golden eggs!

It is not easy to reach the knowledge of what you need to function well, and I am very grateful for the amount of therapy I have done so far in my life. I see the effects this has on me and the way I run my business every day. All the inspirational videos about starting a business mention this and there is a reason – before starting a venture, sort yourself out! All the issues, anxieties and problems you have will show up. And I am far from saying that I am an image of emotional balance and intelligence, not at all. But I have consciously thought about it. It’s not that I don’t go into panic mode, I just have strategies to deal with it. It’s not that I don’t get depressed anymore, I simply have steps that take me out of the hole. And these are not intuitive things you sort of hope you will remember to do. These are thought through conscious and aware plans I have made when I felt great.

One of the most essential investments in my business is my therapist and coach costs.