Three women entrepreneurs from Georgia
Where are the women?, I thought to myself. I had been working for 2 weeks on my side-project, StartupStories from Georgia had met and chatted with at least 20 entrepreneurs to arrange some interviews and document their experiences with their startups.
Not one of them was female.
I was disappointed and frustrated, I wanted to believe that the women were out there, somewhere, and that I just hadn’t found them yet. I asked one of our interviewees if he knew women founders and, if so, if he could put me in touch with them. And while I was waiting for it, I posted on a Facebook group for women in Georgia.
-Hey, any women entrepreneurs out there??
Finally, a response. Two, three. Women from different nationalities telling me they had started their own businesses in Georgia and that they were eager to share their stories. I arranged some interviews right away and listened carefully.
You can read everything below, but before you proceed, let me just point out something very insightful and unexpected that happened.
I spend most of my days reading stories like these and hearing them live. They all speak of different experiences: some of them are more exciting, others teach you about perseverance, some seem like they were meant to be, and some others are just hilarious. So I really wasn’t expecting to be especially moved or touched by these, but I was. Somehow, maybe because they were humble, maybe because they were kind, they sparkled up my desire to start. They really brought me back to life, and I can’t be thankful enough for that.
I pay tribute to these amazing women by writing their stories and highlighting how powerful they are. Hopefully, we can light up some more and help each other rise.
“Be happy if you know the secret of life, you know that when you only focus on good things, good things happen.” Rumi
Anousha gets involved in every step of the presentation of her tea. Anousha enters the coffee shop and asks the waitress for me. I’m listening, so I turn around and shake her hand. She has dark hair, a generous smile, and a slight accent that denote her Persian roots.
“Everything started when I became a vegetarian. I wanted to find some herbs to replace the black tea, and there weren’t too many options”, she tells me. She wanted a more natural alternative, so she started blending her own tea with the herbs she had in hand, the same way she did when walking around the mountains in Māzandarān, her home town in Iran.
No wonder why her logo is the Bitter Orange Blossom, a flower that grows in that region. “I shared my tea blend with some colleagues and they asked me where they could get some, they wanted to buy it. That’s when I started considering that maybe that could work”, she says. Having her own business was always on her mind, but how or where to start was still a question mark.
That little push from her friends was all she needed to get started, and in 2017 Anousha began blending her tea for more than herself as a side-project, maybe just to try how it went. It wasn’t until June 2018 that she openly started selling to the public in markets and fairs, that she made this the work of her life.
She wanted to experience living in another country, she needed a change. Her first choice was New Zealand. She applied for a job and was happily selected, but visa problems made it impossible for her to move there and fulfill her role. That wasn’t enough to drag her down, so without much thinking, she bought a ticket to Georgia, and with nothing figured out, she left.
Life as a businesswoman
After getting a job to assure her income, she started up with AnoushaTea. The concept is based on a combination of nature, tea & art. “I bring the herbs from Iran, Armenia, and other parts of Georgia, like Guria. Then I make the blends in a special room in my house. During summer, I also transform my backyard into a teahouse where I serve AnoushaTea”, she explains.
“I don’t want to hire anyone to sell it, I like doing it myself. I put so much of myself in every step of the process of making my tea, that it’s very important for me to have it well presented to my customers”, she describes. Her selling strategy is very simple, yet extremely careful: she goes to the cafes, presents herself and her tea, and works out the agreements. In some of them, she has her tea served to the customers, and some others work also as showrooms in which the customer can take her products home. Apart from the cafes, she still makes an appearance in different fairs around the city, like the Tbilisi Winter Fair last week.
But Anousha is thinking at a larger scale, she needs to grow to rely on this as a way of living. That is why she started offering her tea on Etsy.com as a way to expand her buyers beyond Georgia, and the outcome has been more than encouraging. It was not long until she made her first export to Canada, to a client with whom she currently maintains her commercial relationship. In the future, she plans to cover more and more regions.
Last year, she registered her company in Georgia with the idea of settling her business down in Tbilisi, but months later she was told that she couldn’t keep her bank account. With no other alternative for online payments, she was left with a very expensive option: PayPal. Though this sudden change of scenario makes her hesitate and think about taking her business elsewhere, she would still prefer the chance to stay.
One of the reasons that drag her down is the beneficial policies there are for small businesses like AnoushaTea. Through the program Georgian Product to the World of the Georgian Post, she benefits with fees 4 times lower than the regular courier service. This allows her to have more profit over her exports.
But apart from these helpful Georgian policies, she hasn’t seen other kinds of support when starting up her business. “When I started, my friends and family were not happy, they kept saying that this was not a good idea and warned me I wouldn’t be making any money with my tea. Maybe they didn’t know how good I felt by doing it”, she tells me.
And yes, there were many times in where she thought of quitting, but the passion and the love she feels for producing her tea and owning her company were bigger, so she kept going. “Throughout my journey, it was my mother and my customers who gave me the positive energy I needed to keep going. People that saw potential and offered to help me, like my website designer”, she says.
Words of wisdom
I ask her what would she say to all the women that want to start their own business but don’t feel confident enough. She stops to think for a second and looking at me steadily she says, “Choose something that you truly love, that you’re really passionate about, because there will be times in which you’ll want to quit, and it’s that love for what you do what will keep you afloat.”
She stays in silence for a minute while she sips the Mountain Tea blend from AnoushaTea and adds, “keep the good mood, always think positively, have a yes-do mindset and keep yourself open to let good things happen”.
Ekaterina is from Russia, but she has no accent when speaking English. She’s been studying in the United States and living in Canada, and after returning to Moscow with her child, she decided to spend her vacations in Georgia, where her roots belong.
That winter she gave a couple of prenatal classes and consultations that filled quickly and soon noticed that all the pieces were falling into the right place effortlessly. The niche was practically empty, and she understood that women were not getting the support they needed for pregnancy, birth, and post-partum.
She moved back and forth every 4 months and was feeling the need of making a decision when her son was accepted into a Georgian school. The next thing she did was fly to Moscow, pack their lives and settle down in Tbilisi for good.
A year passed and now she runs Tres Lunas, a women’s and family center where she offers counseling & psychotherapy, doula support (a trained non-medical companion who supports mothers and families), prenatal classes, breastfeeding consultations and an educational lecture series on women’s health.
But as she tells me, it wasn’t always like this. Her work goes way beyond, back to where her own journey as a mother started.
“Women need support”
It was her personal experience that showed her how impactful motherhood was and how pregnancy could turn into a traumatizing experience without the appropriate care and understanding.
She was all alone in the United States studying Psychology when she got pregnant. Fortunately, her classmate offered to be her doula to accompany her throughout her pregnancy. Not knowing exactly what that meant, she welcomed all the help and support she could get, and grateful, she said yes. The work her classmate did for her was so meaningful that after giving birth, she followed a training to become a doula herself in Canada.
With her counseling degree and her doula training under her belt, she returned with her kid to Russia and started working with ex-pats to help them with their pregnancies. Soon she understood that these families were very much in need of support and compassion. “There’s a tendency in the world to consider pregnancy as a pathology. Labor and birth are ruled by doctors, birth is practically taken away from women”, she says. “Young girls hear from other women and see on TV that childbirth is terrible suffering. It’s understandable that young women ask themselves ‘why would I be putting myself through this?’ They want all the medication available, they don’t want to feel ‘’, she adds.
She works hard for the dream
She never imagined the direction that her life would take. She started it as a club, just women talking about breastfeeding and motherhood. “Mothers kept telling me ‘where were you 3 years ago when I gave birth to my child?’”, she says, “it became very clear that women needed the support of someone who could guide and reassure them on their journey”.
She began going to her client’s houses for consultations and giving workshops in her own living room. It wasn’t until two months ago that she wrapped everything together into what now is Tres Lunas, a center where women and families can go for education, empowerment, and support.
“I have all my passions together in my center”, she says. Recently, she had an obstetrician-gynecologist move from Russia to work in the center with her, which enhances the wide range of services Tres Lunas offer, in pursuit of a holistic approach.
They’ve also started Lecture Series for women, where they meet and talk about different subjects on women’s health. In the future, she wants to start a travel show on motherhood and pregnancy in different countries of the world.
“Women need to be educated, especially in this country but also in other parts of the world where women have no idea about how their bodies work. They rely on doctors to ‘fix them’”, she says. This is why she also opened a library, where families can go for literature about topics related to pregnancy, birth, and parenthood. “There is a growing number of women in Georgia who are not okay with the amount of information that’s given to them. I want them to know that they have an option”, she states.
The words of a true supporter
Ekaterina’s journey has been one of success: she enjoys what she does and works hard for what she wants. Slowly and relentlessly she’s battling to improve women’s quality of life, and with that, she’s undeniably fighting for their rights.
With a 6-year-old in charge and a load of emotions crossing her daily practice in her profession, she still endures to keep on developing a profitable business and dreaming about new projects. And having talked with her for a while now, I can tell she’s a vibrant woman that doesn’t have the word failure in her dictionary, and I wonder how she does that.
“I got stuck for a month when rebuilding my website. I buried myself in stupid details like the color of my logo and the font type when I suddenly realized that no one cared. I just needed to do my job, and everything would unfold”, she says. Everything went easy from that moment on.
As we reach the end of our conversation, so empowering and inspirational, I ask her what would she say to other women that, like her, want to take the wheel and follow what they love. She thinks to herself and concludes more confident than ever, “Stop worrying about perfection, we’re not meant to be perfect. Women are enough, you are enough, your work is enough, so keep doing it. What matters is what you leave in the world”.
I find Maria talking and laughing with a friend of hers, on a table near to the cafe’s door. She recognizes me, takes me to the back of the shop where it’s quieter, and invites me to sit on a swing (yes, it’s a room full of giant swings hanging from the ceiling). She’s blond and has a big smile, she looks so happy and cheerful it makes me want to hug her instantly.
We sit on the swings and we start our little chat. “I have a long story about advertising. I was doing commercial marketing but was eager to make something social involving women”, she says. And so she remembers how it all began for My Sisters.
It was all by luck
I was working in advertising and went to Chile to work on the development of a social startup accelerator for a year in 2013. Soon I understood the value of a social enterprise, and decided to have one myself”, she tells me.
She came back to Georgia, and as if it was fate, she saw a post on Facebook that changed it all. “It was a woman looking for a cofounder for a social enterprise. She had an idea for a business but needed a partner. This was exactly what I wanted to do, so I met her”, she tells me. The idea was for the agriculture industry, she wanted to help women in rural areas to run a tea business, but they soon discovered that it would not work.
With experience in art and culture, as well as with managing charities, she thought of combining 3 key elements for a new idea: crafts, charity, and business.
“We were in Kakheti doing some research for the tea business when, by accident, we found a woman that was doing some beautiful slippers”, she tells me. “I saw that she was very proactive and eager to sell her products, so I thought to myself, ‘we can help her’”. After consulting with a designer to make the product commercially attractive, they started with the PR and marketing for putting the slippers out in the market. The success was round.
A social enterprise for women’s empowerment
My Sisters is a social enterprise that helps women in rural areas to commercialize their crafted products. “We provide the knowledge and the expertise to develop and promote the products, and they provide their talent and skills”, Maria explains. They only help women that cannot make a digital appearance. “They’re not reachable online because there’s no access to the internet or knowledge on how to use it in rural areas”, she tells me, so haunting talent is merely driven by word of mouth and, as she likes to call it, by chance.
Normally, people who know My Sisters and what it stands for introduce them to the talented artisans that already have a product and after that, they schedule an interview to make sure they meet 2 basic requisites: talent and passion. “We have to make sure that they really want this because we have to undergo a full process to make their products market-fit not only for Georgia but for the world”, she says.
Last year, her co-founder Anna Kharzeeva had to move back to Russia and far from being an obstacle for My Sisters, they used it as an opportunity to grow. Now they export their products to Russia and Ukraine.
But My Sisters has bigger dreams than just expansion: they want to reach these women and get them to take action. This is why for the next year they’re planning on organizing workshops to train rural women to be entrepreneurs: “right now we’re collecting money and we would like to find a partner with a Georgian NGO for women’s’ rights to develop these training”, she says. And there’s still a long way to go, but these women are not playing around, they’re fully determined.
The change has already started “You know, I can’t imagine myself doing business with no social impact now”, Maria tells me. For her, the change has already started, she sees that in the more and more women that are starting their projects, they are following their gut. She explains to me that Georgia has a history of powerful women and that they are unique. They are watching each other make it possible, and it gives them hope that they can do it too.
“Women are so powerful. They’re the base of everything on this planet. They just have to follow their hearts and, maybe not now, but later people will show their support”, she assures me. Then she takes a sip of her tea and comes back to me saying, “I truly believe that women in Georgia will be more empowered, more independent. I know so. If what you do comes from your heart, people will follow”.
Originally published in IamTbilisi. February 14, 2020.