WOMAN. NERD. STORYTELLER.
I was 17 years old. It was my last week of a school I hated. My classmates took pictures for the graduation album. You know, where we all look happy and well-behaved? One of the girls from my class walked straight up to me and laughed in my face: “You know you are supposed to take pictures with friends for this album, don’t you?! Where are your friends?"
She was right. I didn’t have any. To be totally honest, from the age of 9 until I left school, my closest friends were my cat, junk food and my TV. My usual after school evening would look like one soap opera after another spiced by chips, chocolate and sweet bread. I was fat, socially awkward, and had no real goals in life. I just wanted to get out of this hell. To top it off, the kids called me monster and stupid.
So you can see I wasn’t the popular one at school. I didn’t have any money, at an elite school, but was very good at math. I was never sure whether kids wanted to be my friends because they really liked me, or so they could just copy my homework. Usually it was the latter.
I didn’t like sports, suffered from anxiety attacks and prayed every single day that my life would end soon. I didn’t even have a boyfriend until I was 16 years old. Even now, when someone tells me I am beautiful, it is still hard to believe; for 17 years of my life, I was called the opposite. To put it into perspective, my whole family and I were trying to find pictures from my teenage years and failed. I hated taking pictures because I never liked the girl in them. I’ve since learned that the most important voice is the voice inside of you. Once you start calling yourself beautiful and intelligent, and treating yourself with respect, miracles happen.
Surprisingly enough, however, my “offline” loneliness coincidentally identified my career path. I was 11 when our home got its first computer, then the Internet. Here, I found “friends.” I spent more and more time in chatrooms telling strangers things I would never tell my parents.
I don’t really know what helped me to get through my time in school. I think just a very strong belief that I was worth so much more and that I could achieve it if I wanted it.
And I kept going. I taught myself to manage my depression and anxiety attacks: I realized there are always good days and bad days, but they always come to the middle. If I had a bad day, I would tell myself, “You know it will all come to the middle tomorrow, and you will feel better.” If it was a good day, I knew I had to enjoy it, ’cause the good days were rare.
WHERE EVERYONE WAS EQUAL
My name is Olga Steidl, and I was born in the Soviet Union, which I now proudly describe, “You know, that country where everyone was equal, that county that does not exist anymore.” After The Union collapsed, you went from very strict rules and life arranged for you before you were born to landing into a pool of opportunities. But nobody told us how to use them right.
Growing up in Russian society for a girl meant that I had to be a perfect daughter, loving wife and mother at 22-23—and marry a person I would potentially hate after ten years of marriage. I am none of this. Nobody gave us time to sit down in silence and ask ourselves a very important question:
“What makes ME happy?”
Russia is still a country of “shoulds”: You should go to school, then university, earn money, get married at 21, baby at 22, you should buy a car, apartment, invest money and…and then hate your life happily ever after. Of course, not everyone is like this, but I see a lot of middle aged couples fighting over chicken breasts or the type of milk they want to buy in the supermarket.
THE LEARNING CURVE
Today I am 30—in a happy relationship, six cities behind me—with no babies, no cars, no willingness to settle and thinner than I was at 16 years old. In Russia, nobody teaches you that life is a flow; it constantly changes and evolves. The most important thing is to be true to yourself and know that somewhere there is a place you can call home. Unfortunately, the place where I was born was not my home. I had to leave St. Petersburg to be happy.
Things are clearer now. I won’t lie to you; it took me 30 years, a couple of killed startups and one divorce to get where I am right now. It took a lot of tears and doubts. Am I normal? Why do I need something else? Maybe I should live as they all do? Well, no…
Starting my university studies helped me rise from the ashes, as well as starting to work really young. I got out of the place I hated, opened my world to new people and experiences. Earning my own money helped me to say “no” to my parents and their idea of my life. Internet gave me a fresh air of diversity. It is a huge blessing that the Soviet Union collapsed and I had an opportunity to freely travel and relocate. The broadness of the Internet and the speed of technology allowed me to work from anywhere I wanted.
As a Soviet girl I learned business. I learned that money actually doesn’t matter much. If you listen carefully to the older generation in Russia, they still ask one other “Where did you get it?” instead of “Where did you buy it?” Buying fancy clothes or toys, sometimes even fruits was impossible, so everyone learned trading. You will always have something that another person wants and values much higher than you do, and you can always ask for something they have.
Life before was a struggle. It was a constant prayer to start everything all over again. Life now can be hard sometimes, because I chose to be a tech startup person, to live outside of my country—I was far from my family and facing the challenge of explaining my feelings to other people in a foreign language. But this is the life I created, and this is the life I like.
I’ve learned something else, too: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know it sounds like advice from a self-help book, but trust me, this is the hardest lesson I had to learn; there are people who love you, and they will always be there to help you. Just tell them where and when you need help.
And not everyone will like you. It is normal; just try not to blame them for being who they are.
To achieve success in business, financial freedom, reputation in the tech industry as well as mental stability, I had to use a lot of male energy so even now I am sometimes perceived as a 50 year old-dude. A friend of mine once asked me: “If your work did not exist, who would you be?” After 2 weeks of thinking, I came back to her and answered “woman.”
Today I really like this woman. I am more feminine than before, I am honest with myself and fair to others. I don’t look for “love in all the wrong places.” I’ve learned the only place to search for love is the place inside yourself.
An American poet, Richard Siken, once wrote:
"Everyone needs a place. It shouldn't be inside of someone else.” Find this place—your safe place, where you know your values, your beliefs and your superpowers. And most of all.. Don’t allow anyone to judge you for being who you are.
— OLGA STEIDL x UDD
I know what it’s like to feel unstable, sad, unloved and frustrated. I’ve been there. I can feel others’ pain and stress and make it my own. That’s helped me a lot through university and my career—and to attract the right people in life.
Some people want it. Others live it.
It takes guts, and I mean a lot of them, to leave “home”—the familiar, comforts, family and friends, life as you know it. Yet there can come a point in your life when your desires, your purpose, outweigh you fears. So you jump.
There’s a part of me that really identifies with Olga. I knew girls who married and had children right out of college. That was never my desire. I had a different narrative for my life, one that involved lots of discoveries, explorations and a few indiscretions.. The “white picket fence” was just never my idea of happiness. To me, it felt like a compromise, a compromise of myself, my goals, my dreams. But that was my choice, and we all have the ability to choose how to live our lives. And all of our narratives are worth the read, judgement-free.
Olga is smart, beautiful, and surprisingly funny! She’s fun, too. One thing about Olga is she doesn’t shy away from her past, who she is or where she intends to go—which is actually part of her charm. She knows she’s learning and growing and owns the process. She is quite wise and intuitive far beyond her years. Her economic background and cultural awareness make her approachable and great with conversation. She could converse with anyone.
She’s been called the Marissa Mayer of Russia. And although I’ve never met Marissa Mayer, I get the ambition equated with the comparison. Achievements are not by circumstance, but absolutely the results of hard choices, risks taken and criticisms suffered. Olga does the work to be the best she can be, personally and professionally. She’s ardent and creates opportunities from nothing—as in the story of her life. When she and I spoke, she was on sabbatical in Bali. We chatted into the late hours of the night like old pals. I gave her two weeks for her story. It was in my inbox by morning.
I would love your thoughts. Please share your comments or your own stories. And let’s start the conversation.