In this guest post for The Recursive, five Romanian female women in tech who met during an MBA program, reflect on how their friendship evolved into a support system crucial to their entrepreneurial journeys. In these personal essays, they talk about the toll of the professional and personal balancing act, the challenges in the innovation ecosystem, and the power of vulnerability to join forces and grow together.
They are brought together by Alina Stefan, who has supported startups like MEDIJobs Romania, MyBenefits.ro, and Salarium Fintech from the seat of CEO or Country Manager. She is joined by Diana Mereu, a professional in HealthTech, and currently the CEO of RASCI (The Romanian Association of the Self-Care Industry); Cori Gramescu, the founder and CEO of Crave Bespoke Nutrition; Ruxandra Cord, the co-founder of theCoRD.AI; and Delia Necula, who has successfully developed and exited SanoPass.
“Our authenticity never came in the way of clarity, assertiveness never stood in the way of kindness, and femininity did not have to hide behind a suit,” – Alina Stefan.
Alina Stefan: “These mountains that you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb,” shares Najwa Zebian, the Lebanese–Canadian activist. But we chose to climb them together.
After many years of learning, exploring, and achieving on our own, our paths intersected and intertwined. Each of us had embarked on a unique road of development without knowing exactly where it would take us or who we would become along the way.
We grew up at a time when men and what appeared to be savvy women dominated the highest echelons of management. The majority of them thought that they needed to come out manly to have a place at the table. To “make it” in the corporate world, it was thought that you had to be strong, which meant projecting authority while revealing the least amount of emotion possible. And, at the time, that made sense since women were viewed as being sensible and emotional in general, and board rooms were no place for sensibilities.
Yet, the next generation of women did not have to follow the models set prior. Their values were their Nord Stars in the decision-making process and showing sensitivity when dealing with sensitive issues was their stronger asset. We are looking at a new generation of business women who lead with both a big heart and a clear head.
How 5 women became one group
Delia and I met in 2009 and began working together soon after. Since then, we have collaborated on more than three projects, across various industries, and we have managed to grow together and in the same direction.
As a result of this journey, we realized we needed more knowledge and structure. It was 2013, and we were in charge of Club Moving, a rapidly expanding network of fitness clubs, which was later acquired by World Class, the biggest fitness network in the country. Delia joined me shortly after I enrolled in the Maastricht School of Management (now known as BISM – Business International School of Management). There, we met Cori, Diana, and Rux.
Once we connected and realized that we shared the same values and beliefs, we began to interact more openly, and the next thing we knew we built our relationships into friendships. We became each other’s supporters and also “go-to” people when in need of support and understanding. We were the ones that cheered the loudest in the room, celebrated each success, and pulled ourselves up when needed.
The importance of a community
For women in business, the road is not a straight line, as a business is not linear in general, it has its ups and downs, turns, and bumps. The mix of the pressure we put on ourselves together with the expectation to “have it together” and prove ourselves worthy of the roles we carry can become at times a heavy burden, especially when trying to excel in both our professional and personal lives.
But having strong women who not only understand all the complexity and challenges of the business world but can hold one another and correct when needed, who have the openness and joy to celebrate each other’s successes, who trust each other and allow themselves to be vulnerable when facing failure. Building such a community of women, by leaning into one another, is a true achievement.
Therefore, I challenged each of these wonderful women to share a bit of themselves, their stories, and what it meant to be part of this group of women who redefined the way we interact, contribute, connect, and recognize one another.
This is an invitation for them to share a less displayed side of themselves, but a side that will motivate and encourage other women to step into leading positions while supporting each other unconditionally as an opportunity for shared growth.
“When life gives you lemons, CHOOSE to make Lemon Drop and have your girlfriends over,” – Diana Mereu.
Diana Mereu: When was the last time you made a decision? One to shake you up and shape you up? Did you make it yourself or did others make it for you? No matter what your answer might be, I am sure you got back on your feet even stronger if you find yourself here reading these lines.
It happened to me too – when I decided to leave the country, change jobs or attend an EMBA that brought these wonderful ladies I co-write this article with into my life.
Yet decisions are backward-looking. If you want to look forward to it, make a choice. Choices are value-oriented – they speak a lot about who we are and what values we hold dear. If decisions can be based on fear, choices reflect our hopes. One can be undecided, but can’t run out of choices. Hence, the choice is one of the most powerful acts of trust you can offer to somebody.
Because out of infinite choices, you choose them – talking particularly about my co-authors, if life decided for us to join destinies in becoming master’s colleagues and business partners, we voluntarily and intentionally chose to be best friends and ardent supporters of each other. Unless you want to take the same actions that would lead to the same results, CHOOSE to change one thing today.
“The power of vulnerability,” – Cori Gramescu.
Cori Gramescu: I was always a strong, driven, and stubborn individual, the Tomboy who is generally not afraid of much. And I was always surrounded by women. I have created a safe and pleasant environment where I could just be myself, and people liked me. It was a pleasant way of living, and it even grew into a successful career.
But somehow, despite the ease that I was living, I always felt something was missing. I couldn’t name it, but I knew there was something in me that was too guarded to reveal itself. I was afraid I would lose all this bubble of joy where I was the primadonna of my entire universe.
I met Alina during a break in our MBA course, I met Delia during a course at the same MBA and I met Diana at the community gatherings at the school.
I was immediately attracted by their energy, their drive, and elegance while doing extremely complicated things. They were all juggling intense career objectives, social lives, or even families, and it all seemed easy when I watched them. I knew their struggles, I was living some of them too, but I instinctively knew that there was more. You have to be one to see one, so I immediately connected with them, in completely different ways.
It wasn’t, however, until 2020 that I understood the strength of a support circle made of strong women. As I was looking at my life disintegrate – Covid had closed my gyms, I was battling depression and I felt I was going nowhere professionally. But during that personal hell, I started working on a new project, trying to rebuild what was left of my life. And their encouragement, uncomfortable questions, and incredible smartness helped me build a viable model. And then, by talking and meeting them again, I started to build clarity, regain energy, and get better at what I was doing.
My life was back and it was good again. But this time it was different because my new path was no longer rooted in fear and projections – I had already lost everything, why would I still be afraid? I could cry and I could be vulnerable, I could listen to my questions as I was talking to them and I managed to find amongst them a space of growth.
Because this is the power of strong women, they allow you to be vulnerable with them, they fix your crown and tell nobody it was crooked, and they support you until you can walk again on your own.
“Get ready for what you need, not for what you desire,” – Ruxandra Cord
Ruxandra Cord: Like any great thing, this group took some time to bake. We have co-created it in small but robust steps, as we are in different stages of life and business. It all started in Dacia 99, not on the Stand-up comedy stage, but in the MSM classrooms.
Well, strong ground was built between classes. Different cohorts, different backgrounds, different everything, and that’s the magic. We left room for the unexpected and the passion for tech and automating things was the catalyst. I often say that my life is split in two – before and after my MBA. Because this was the time and space when I met the most amazing human beings and nurtured a mature friendship.
I am the introvert of the group although people don’t perceive me like this. I am an extrovert only when surrounded by people who make me feel safe and that was my entry ticket into this great community of businesswomen.
Throughout my life, I never imagined that I would become an entrepreneur. The business owners I encountered seemed so confident and assured. Yet, I had a dream that wouldn’t let me go, and a desire to explore and push boundaries to have a life that would be far more meaningful.
So, I set out to pursue my ideas and bring about a change in the world. Now, as I look back, I realize that facing and tackling challenges was easier due to a combination of friends and mentors that ran the full spectrum of extroversion and introversion.
From public engagements to private discussions, I have had the fortune to come across people with different approaches to life that inspired me to reach and succeed far beyond what I thought possible. These amazing women have encouraged me to be more conscious and honest when it comes to my anxieties and introversion, enabling me to take the necessary steps and set boundaries to nurture a more fulfilling life.
By drawing on the energies of both introversion and extroversion, I’m proud to say that I’m glad I took the leap – with the help of some wonderful businesswomen beside me – and learned to use my full personality to build something that makes an impact.
“What is the most important strength of a woman?” – Delia Necula
Delia Necula: I have a strong belief that gender disparity is less of a subject in the Romanian business environment and I have always followed and admired many strong – yet feminine, successful – yet kind, powerful – yet empathic women!
For obvious reasons, I have, for a very long time, tried to look for common traits in these people, just as I have certainly tried to find the unique and common traits that keep our group together. I pride myself on being in the company of these successful ladies, each accomplished in her own right, a true mentor and example, but what are the things that make them so special?
There is drive, attitude, kindness, smartness, and many more, but not one single trait separates successful women from the rest. We each followed our path to where we are today, made our own mistakes, and changed over the years to become better people, leaders, mothers, or friends.
My way has been long, rarely straight, and often impacted by outer forces that shaped me into the woman that I am today. I do believe that my past is my biggest strength, as all my past experiences define me: I am not sorry, nor am I apologetic about any of the things I have lived. I am however humbled and grateful for the lessons learned. I am certainly curious and keen to see what the future holds, but I think I am better equipped for it because of my experience and knowledge.
Talking about my experience, one might say that I am rather “fresh” in entrepreneurship, having spent more than 15 years in corporations. It is why I value even more the support I get from Cori, for instance, unaware of it sometimes – through the power of example, or very focused and determined, when she has repeatedly told me: it is ok to be wrong, you can do mistakes, you basically must be aware of them and learn from them at all times. And this has happened more than once, when I was able to call her in a time of turbulence and uncertainty, and boy, do we have moments like that lately, with the Covid, war, and economic crisis on our doorsteps.
What then keeps us as a group together, in a fast-moving, never-waiting world, on different continents, with different lives and interests?
Like-minded people stick together, through good and bad, they say, because the motivation behind is stronger than a certain context or the simple fact that they spend time together or not. We have all met in a pretty common context, we all share our love for our families, dedication to our professions, and passion for our work. We also have respect for each other and life in general, and we have the will and desire to learn from each other. We are either entrepreneurs, either C-level executives, mentors, or simpler said, we are damn good at what we do!
A final note on the crack in “perfect”
Alina Stefan: During the Covid period, I began an exciting project that aimed to enter the market as a great convenience for employees in Romania, a useful solution, particularly during that difficult period. It was a novel idea, previously undefined.
It took a significant amount of energy, effort, and time to establish it as a concept and as a corporate benefit for both employees and employers. While caring for a home of three young boys and traveling through a period of uncertainty and unknown. It was during those two intense years that I realized how important having a healthy support system is.
It “takes a village” to grow a startup, but also a family and ourselves. Because of the openness of other women, I realized that when you set out to do extraordinary things, you will almost certainly fail extraordinarily at some point.
And that’s how my life played out; I had to choose my setbacks. Even if I was able to attend an event or put in a few additional hours at work, I would undoubtedly miss a child’s basketball or tennis game, dinner with the family, or a great night out with friends. With this support system and an expanded version of it, I realized that we cannot do everything perfectly, consistently, or extraordinarily at all times. This realization not only makes us excellent leaders, but it also makes us human.
Once you realize that greatness packs up failure, you become more tolerant and humble with yourself and others. And once you are tolerant and humble, the world around you shapes up differently.