Yoana Land understands the power of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s a skill she developed early on as a child in communist Transylvania, one that helped drive her as she moved to the U.S. without any family and created an extraordinary career. Today she is at the top of the finance world as CFO Transformation of L’Oreal North America.
In this episode, Land shares what she’s learned along the way with our Jack McCullough, including how she got into finance, how she sees the future of artificial intelligence and why she was offered a job with the CIA, but didn’t end up with the organization. Listen by clicking below. The Q&A, lightly edited and trimmed for clarity, follows.
I’m excited and intrigued by our guest for this episode. Yoana Land is the head of internal controls at L’Oreal North America. Yoana’s financial leadership journey is anything but conventional. Yoana, thanks for joining us.
Thank you for having me.
Before we get in, I’d love to talk about your background since it is unique in my experience. You’ve been working at L’Oreal for a little while. What are some of the big challenges and opportunities your company is facing?
I’ve been at L’Oreal for several years. I’ve seen different facets of the business and its functions. Some of the challenges are always the same. We have to make a profit and our top line. Specific to 2023, there were a lot of regulatory challenges and political challenges across the world. Specific also to the U.S., it is inflation and elections for 2024.
How will that affect the economy? Indirectly, how will that affect L’Oreal? If I look much more micro level inside the company, other challenges would be how we keep up with this transformation across all the business when you look at digitalization and the fast pace we see in data and cybersecurity. It is business as usual for all the other companies but this is what keeps us up at night.
You are in a new role in the company in support of all the changes that you’re going through. Before we get into that, I’d love to talk about your life before your professional career launched. You are the first guest we’ve had who’s originally from Transylvania. I’d love to get an understanding of when you moved here, what inspired that and what the transition was going from a communist-dominated country to the United States. Share that if you would, please.
I am probably one of the few guests that you’ll have from Transylvania because there are not many of us. Coming from Romania, which went through 45 years of communism, to the U.S., it’s exactly what you said. That’s what inspired me, the transition from communism to capitalism. You have freedom of speech, open markets, the ability to trade and so on.
This was something that I’ve seen in the movies. These movies were not even available in Romania until Romania switched from a communist country to a democratic country. This happened in 1990. Before that, we had no television. Once the movies arrived, we had the whole population of Romanians realizing that we missed a lot of the things that were happening outside our borders because we believed we were the best and we had everything we needed.
You see a lot of influx of people living in Romania and going abroad because they realize the opportunities that are there. The same happened to me. Inspired by the movies, I discovered the American dream. I did everything possible to leave Romania at quite an early age by myself. I celebrated my 18th birthday here in the United States. It was a good celebration because it was something that I had been striving to achieve for a few years at that time.
You moved here at 17. That’s remarkable. You came on your own. No parents, brothers or sisters. There was no established family here that you could move in with to help with this transition.
Not at all. I was by myself and my best friend. The two of us came together. We landed in Dallas, Texas. It was a complete change from Romania to Texas.
I can imagine you were probably one of the few Romanians in Dallas at that point in history. You were inspired by some American movies to come here. Are there any in particular that stuck out as being, “What a great place to be?”
To be honest, I don’t remember. The only thing that I remember was waiting for these movies to come on the TV at night. It was such a different society. You cannot compare 45 years of communism where you have no products in the store. There’s no competition. Everything is owned by the government. Nobody leaves or comes into Romania. You didn’t know what jeans were or bananas, or things that were not locally produced. A lot of the local production was exported. The last years of communism were brutal. That’s the part that I remember as a child. Anything that was on TV and was coming new from outside Romania was a different world that we were opening our eyes to.
I had guessed in my mind there was a TV show called Dallas. The fact that you happened to pick Dallas, I thought that was going to be your answer.
No, but that was big. That was something that came to mind but that was not the only one. That was a little bit of a ruthless competition. It’s a tough environment to be in. What I’m talking about is the movies where everyone makes it. You have to work hard and the U.S. will give you that opportunity. That was what inspired me for the American dream.
You come to the United States. You’re a college student in Texas studying information technology. You worked in the IT field for several years. How did those skills that you developed early in your career still support you as a financial leader all these years later?
You could argue that something that I learned in IT is not as much as you can translate into finance skills. It’s the basics. It is the idea that you have to be very good at what you’re doing no matter what. Based on a conversation I had with my team regarding the StrengthsFinder, you find what you’re very good at. That’s what you should constantly hone on, not necessarily the weaknesses.
If you put a team together that has a lot of strengths, then they play to each other’s strengths. It’s the same thing. What you form at your early age as a teenager and then as an adult, the idea of being dedicated to your craft, trying to be the best at what you’re doing and constantly learning, these are things that you adopt early on. They will stay with you no matter which career you go to.
Going from IT to finance is a great skillset but it’s not an obvious career path for somebody. Did you have a moment when you said, “I want to go into finance?” Educationally, you’ve positioned yourself as a success in the finance field but what led you to it?
I started in IT for many reasons. One of them, I had a mathematical mind. In Romania, I competed in the Olympics for mathematics. I came to the U.S. and didn’t know what I could do. My dream was to be a doctor, but I didn’t have the money to support myself for seven years of medical school. I went into IT knowing that I have a mathematical mind. It was a big field that was developing at that time. I knew that having nobody, the moment I graduate, I need to get a job and make money. IT was the perfect answer for that.
In my time in IT, I enjoyed it. I realized in these careers that there are very few women but I do want to open the doors for more women to come and end up in leadership positions. After spending six years in IT, I worked a lot with the business to develop intelligent business reports. I started learning about the business and what they look at, what KPIs, and what matters. I was fascinated by it so I thought, “I would like to go into the business side.” The easiest way to do that is to get an MBA. That’s when I went to Duke. I got an MBA. That was an easy transition from the IT tool to the business side.
You were in the math Olympics in your home country?
Yes, Math and Latin. Imagine that. It’s a bad language and a scientific language.
I’ve never been prodigious in any one particular topic. Were you good at math at a young age? Was it as soon as you started studying it, you mastered it type of thing? Was that work?
Nobody is born as a mathematician or a language connoisseur. You dedicate a lot of work. In Romania, the better you are at specific subjects, especially mathematics and literature, the higher the chance you have to go to the best universities and high schools. My parents were ruthless about that. They had a saying that they don’t keep idiots in our house. Pretty much, you have to be the best.
I was the only child so it’s not like they had options but also, I didn’t have an option either. I ended up in the Olympics. Many people in my high school did as well. It was not such a specific case but I took the fourth spot because I read one number wrong. Instead of 56, I read 65 so I solve the problem with 65. This goes to the attention to detail. It could cost you the first place in the Olympics.
It’s little things like that. You hear stories like elite track stars. They jump a tenth of a second before the starting gun goes off and they get disqualified. That’s years of hard work thrown out the window. That’s too bad though. You may have won the whole thing. Not only are you the first guest I’ve had from Transylvania but you’re the first Olympian I’ve had that I know of. That’s pretty cool.
I wanted to get back to your career path. You’ve made the switch from IT to finance. I’ve noticed your path. You’ve worked for three very large, almost iconic types of companies during the course of your career: American Airlines, Novartis and L’Oreal. Was that a conscious plan? Were you drawn to these big, global entities, or was it serendipity? What led you to that?
It’s a bit of both. When you are at Duke, a lot of big companies come on campus to talk to the students and convince them to follow a career path there. It was a little bit of a self-selection when you think about that. Also, you have to think about yourself as a brand. You have to make sure that especially at the beginning stage of your career, you develop yourself and your brand.
In a company, that’s iconic, they already have the best processes and tools. They know how to do business. Later on in your career, you can take all this and apply it to small companies. You can also be an entrepreneur and say, “I’ll do it all myself. I learned a way to do it,” but there’s a lot of rigor, processes and best practices that you get when you work at big companies.
The people around those companies know so much about what they’re doing. You can’t help but learn from being around people who are accomplished and smart. I believe you also very early in your career worked at Pepsi. What did you learn at those companies that set you up for success at a global personal care company like L’Oreal?
There are a few things. Let’s start with the first one, which is your core skillset. Having the best tools and processes available is the way you set up your career. The second is learning from the best. You don’t only learn your craft but you also learn people development, personal development, mentoring and coaching. That’s another super important aspect of a leader and pro. For me, it’s the most important aspect of a leader.
The third thing is this quest or desire to always be the best, always perform your best and be exceptional because you get the best athletes in these companies. This company’s DNA, they are always fighting to be number one in what they’re doing. That’s another thing you start making a part of who you are and your personality when you are in the circles of these extraordinary companies and people.
I know a lot of young CFO types or financial executives. They want to switch industries but are afraid to make the move. I’ve always worked in tech. There are a lot of jobs in tech. I can have a great career there. They want to try something new. They’re afraid of what they might find if they do go for it. Do you have any advice for people in that situation about overcoming the fear and then ensuring their success once they do make that leap?
I had the word fear in my mind and you put your finger on it. There is no reward if you stay in your comfort zone, like carrying the reward or the opportunities that are on the other side. Stepping out of your comfort zone and overcoming the fear is when you get to learn and grow. Make yourself uncomfortable. If we don’t grow, we die, as Tony Robbins says. If we don’t grow, we stagnate and other people will overtake us. What you work for will be obsolete quite soon. People need to put themselves outside their comfort zone.
There is nothing impossible. Put me in another industry–our finance skills translate. Being a good CFO, having the rigor, having the processes and the tools that you know a company should have or should put in place with their resources, all that stays with you. It’s people management. If you’re in a CFO position, executive, or even manager where you manage people, that also translates. It’s easy to take from one industry to another seamlessly. What you have to learn is the industry. We’re constantly learning in life whether we want it or not. Waking up tomorrow, it’s a new day and a challenge. We adapt and learn. I don’t think it should be such a big deal. They should take the leap.
It’s interesting you mentioned getting out of your comfort zone. Somebody once gave me the advice that you should become comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s the only way that you’ll continue to grow. Otherwise, your career will peak at 28 years old or something like that and you’ll find yourself doing the same job at 58 that you might’ve been doing at 28. You’re not doing yourself any favors in any way. You embody that. Go for it. Is that fair to say?
Yes. We are so scared of this discomfort. Every day, you wake up to a new day. It’s not going to be like yesterday or a few years ago. It’s a new day. You don’t know what’s coming. We live in discomfort. We hate to think about it and step into it willingly. We wake up to another day not willingly. It happens. It’s more of looking at it as an exciting thing, opportunity or something new, and then you’re not that scared anymore.
In the last few years, the pace of change has been incredible. People who don’t like discomfort I’m sure struggled the last few years. It seems like every month, there’s some new global challenge we’re facing. Covid was the most dramatic of all of our careers but it seems like there’s always some new, if not historically unprecedented, at least unprecedented for people in the workforce, whether it be inflation, supply chains or disruptions. If you don’t deal well with discomfort, good luck dealing with those challenges.
Maybe there’s a different job that’s good for you but in all honesty, every job will require some level of adaptability to change.
One thing I’ve observed is that most CFOs and financial leaders, generally, that I’ve spoken to have had a mentor or even multiple mentors throughout their careers. It may not have even been a formal thing like signing up for a mentorship type of program. It’s people that maybe were taken under their wing and learned from. Do you have any people in your career that had that kind of influence on you?
Absolutely. I don’t think you can make it alone. First, it’s a lonely journey. Second, it’s limited to only your ability to drive change for you and your company. Success is a group effort. Having a mentor, sometimes official or unofficial, is super important. When I say official, I mean from the beginning, you established that our relationship is going where you are a mentor and not a mentee. That could be established through your company or reaching out to someone and saying, “I admire your background.”
Informally is when you invite someone for coffee or you reach out to someone. Sometimes, it happens to me on LinkedIn where people reach out and say, “I like your career. If you ever have time, I would like to set up 30 minutes to discuss.” Nobody will ever turn you down for that. This is a little secret people don’t go for. People like to talk about themselves. Nobody will ever turn you down for a discussion, a coffee chat, or anything that they want to learn more about you and your background.
Those are the informal mentorship that I’m talking about. I was lucky enough to start with formal because I didn’t know the secret of the informal. The discovery of informal mentorship is sometimes even more powerful because you have so many things in common with that person when you reach out and admire something about them.
You’re big on paying it back. Are you mentoring any up-and-coming professionals?
Absolutely. I’m very big on paying back and volunteering to pay back. If I see someone who’s amazing, I’ll say, “Let’s make this chat going forward every quarter or every eight weeks. Reach out to me if you have any questions in between.” I had the opportunity to mentor my mentor’s children, which I thought was the most rewarding opportunity. It shows you that they look at me as someone they can trust to mentor their kids. I met people through different interviews with the CEOs that I talked to. They asked me if I could talk to their daughter or have their son come and spend the day at the company to see how we do business. For me, that’s very rewarding.
I’m older than you but I have a reverse mentorship. It’s with a Gen Z professional. She wants to get a better understanding of Boomers and I want to understand the generation that’s going to be running the world relatively soon. She is the granddaughter of a guy I know. I am mentoring my friend’s grandchildren. That pegs me as old. Do you have any reverse mentorship type of relationship where the younger person is mentoring you as well?
In the mentoring when we start talking, I always talk about, “Don’t feel bad reaching out or putting more meetings on my calendar. In reality, it’s a two-way street. It’s not only the fact that you get something out of me. Talking to you, hearing your perspective and what you’re going through, no matter what and no matter your age. No matter how much interest or how much knowledge I have on what you are doing, your career or your company, it is a reverse mentorship. You are automatically teaching me about things I don’t know or I’m learning about things I don’t know.”
I always look at it as a two-way street. I tell that to people because I feel like the mentoring sessions become more interesting and a little bit more relaxed knowing that I’m benefiting from me, too. They don’t feel like, “I’m going to take her time.”
I’m at the point where I do a decent amount of mentoring. I haven’t been a CFO for a while but there are certain areas that I can mentor. I always learn so much from the relationship myself even if it’s not set up that way. There’s a saying, “A wise man will learn more from a fool than a fool will from a wise man.” I’m not saying that I’m mentoring fools. Hopefully, that’s clear if any of them are reading. Anytime I have a conversation with somebody, there’s something that person can teach me.
I love the saying. I never heard it before.
I’m not sure who said it. My mother taught it to me. That’s an interesting transition because I can give another quote that my mother used to say about well-educated people. She said, “More degrees than a thermometer.” In your LinkedIn profile, you have a lot of highly impressive academic credentials. You’re pursuing a master’s degree in psychology, if I have my facts correct. You’re doing that partly because you’re intellectually curious and a committed lifetime learner but perhaps it’s going to make you a better leader as well. Is that fair to say?
That’s exactly why I’m doing it. I realized that the more you get into the leadership position, the less it is about your skillset and the more it becomes about your ability to relate to people, understand who they are, what they want, how to motivate them, and how to set up that vision that we keep talking about and rally people against the vision, and how to build teams.
I talked about the StrengthsFinder. You want a team that has as many strengths as possible related to what you’re doing. I do believe that. That’s how exactly I pitched my master’s in psychology to L’Oreal HR. I said, “I want to do this because I want to be a better leader.” Their response was, “I wish we had more people like you.” They understand the reason why. I need to be honest. It’s been one of the best investments of what I’ve been doing in the past couple of years because it’s starting to click a lot of the concepts with what I was doing but maybe I was not aware of what was going on underneath.
I suppose on a bit of a personal level, given at one point, you wanted to be a doctor. I’m guessing that this is very fulfilling for you as well to pursue this degree.
In a way. To be honest, it was a different type of doctor than I would’ve liked to be. This is more about understanding people and myself. It’s so rewarding when you know who you are, how you show up in the world, and what impact you have on others. It’s a self-discovery journey as well.
I work largely with CFOs. Hence, the name of this show. With the modern CFO, what separates the good ones from the great ones are things like inspiring people, having a high emotional IQ and establishing trust. That’s inspiration. It’s not only to inspire people to take action but to follow you and believe in you. It seems like you intuitively have a grasp on this that these are the skills that matter.
I’m not sure if I have an intuitive grasp but you can work on that intuition. The more aware you are and the more you learn, the better you’re becoming at feeling the environment around you and the players in it.
There are a lot of people who have the technical skills to be successful as CFOs. I’m not saying the job’s easy but the core skills, a lot of people have those skills. The leadership, strategy, communication and ability to relate to people is the difference between a manager and a leader, I suppose.
Those skills are important but at the end of the day, if you have a very strong team, you’re not going to close the books yourself anymore. You’re not going to do the budget and the forecasting. You have the people in your team that you selected who are the best to do that for you. What is your role? If they do that very well, the technical part is to develop them as individuals, leaders and a team. Make sure that you contribute to their success. If they’re successful, you’re successful automatically.
That makes all the sense in the world. Hire a great team and inspire them to achieve their potential. That will help you to achieve yours. I mentioned you have several impressive educational credentials and are still pursuing them. What drives you? Why are you so committed to continually challenging yourself and improving this way? Is there an underlying thing there or is it curiosity? What’s your motivation?
There are so many things that are going through my mind as you’re talking. At the end of the day, there are not many things we all probably can say that drives us. It’s probably one thing that stayed with us from when we were very young or something. For me, it was being born in a country where everything was locked down and everyone was equal. Everyone is the same.
There’s no diversity of thought. There’s no diversity of speech or ability to do anything. Everyone is expected to be the same, and the best is the same as the worst. That’s something that affected me early on. I thought, “I want to step out of it, be seen and be recognized for who I am and not for the group that is going to be always the same.” I believe that’s what drives me. I would be bored or unfulfilled and would be dissatisfied with myself. It won’t be right for any human being, in my opinion, to limit yourself to less.
You deserve more. You are more. You’re born into this world to do more with it. We should take advantage of every opportunity we have. That’s what will keep us mentally stimulated. When you feel mentally stimulated, you feel good in your body and the environment you are in. You bring good into society and everyone. That is one of the best things that you could do through school. That’s their job, to mentally stimulate people that enter the doors of the school.
You mentioned Transylvania. Do you ever have the opportunity to get back there?
Yes. My family’s back there so I go quite often. I’m the only child. My parents are getting old and they have all the regular old people’s illnesses. I’m realizing that there’s more need for me to be there more often so I started going back a few years ago. I also started reconnecting to my roots and the people, and rediscovering what it means to belong somewhere.
Romania is so different from when we were young. Perhaps most Americans may have associated it with Count Dracula, Nadia Comăneci and a handful of other elite gymnasts. It’s a very vibrant economy. I’ve never been to Transylvania but I’m told it’s quite beautiful.
It’s amazing. I call it the Alps of Romania because, like the Alps of Switzerland, it’s very beautiful. It’s an amazing place. There are a lot of opportunities for the new generation and even my generation that stuck around. If you go to the big cities or where your job has developed in the industry that’s favorable for it, then you find a lot of opportunities.
Have people ever said to you they didn’t know that Transylvania was a real place?
Yes, all the time.
They think it’s fictional from Count Dracula. It is remarkable how there is a little bit of confusion about it because I’ve known people who also thought it was a country. I even mentioned that I would be interviewing an executive from Transylvania. They thought you were pulling my leg. They were like, “There’s no such place. That’s in the book.” I’m like, “That’s not just in the book. It’s a real place, I can assure you.”
When people discover it’s a real place, they look at my teeth. I always joke, “Don’t worry. They’re filed.” That’s the first thing they do when I mention Transylvania. First, they misunderstood and said Pennsylvania. I’m thinking, “I have an accent from Pennsylvania, seriously?” I say Transylvania and that’s when they start clicking and connecting the dots. They go, “Is it a real place?” The whole Dracula concept was made up from it. They have the right to believe it’s not a real place when the Dracula concept was not real.
It’s odd to think that the place is real because a work of fiction was created there though. Do you know the movie Transylvania 6-5000?
If you know Jeff Goldblum, he was the main star of it. It was before he was famous. The premise is they were American reporters. They went to Transylvania of all things because Frankenstein was there. They went to hunt down Frankenstein in Transylvania and ended up coming across the werewolf, vampires and stuff like that. It’s a remarkably bad film but nobody seems to have mentioned that one to you.
Thank God. If you say it’s remarkably bad, then that’s probably good.
Perhaps I’m the only person rude enough to have mentioned that, or maybe I’m the only one who remembers the movie. There was a song from my parents’ era by Glenn Miller. That was Pennsylvania 6-5000. The movie was Transylvania 6-5000. When you mentioned people thinking you were from Pennsylvania, I thought of that.
Getting back to a little bit of work, I want to touch upon your educational and early career because it’s relevant. You don’t meet a lot of finance and accounting executives with your mastery of technology. It has always been changing and that’s what makes it fun to have a professional life. How do you think all of these technological advances are going to change finance going forward?
When you were talking, I thought, “I’ll make a good point about this.” My IT background was not done on purpose. It was something I ended up in, not knowing exactly what to study once I got here. I believed only in my career once I lived IT that it was a detriment to me. I was looking at other people pursuing the CFO career and comparing my career to theirs. I thought, “This is six years of my life in IT that you can throw away.” My career in finance started at the point that I was in McKinsey and then American Airlines. I didn’t think it was a good thing for me. I try to get all this extra education to make up for something that I thought from a career perspective I could throw away.
The digital revolution came. If you look at Accenture, Accenture was an IT consulting company. They are relevant in almost every field because of their IT background. When you think of transformation and digitalization, they can do it all. That’s when IT started becoming the backbone of every company. My IT background became super relevant as a CFO.
I want to make this point because a lot of people may have hiccups like that or feel like, “I did something in my career and it’s not serving me well to where I want to go.” In reality, all this brings a very diverse background. I should have looked at it like that with versatility, adaptability, and learning fast. All this brings that diversity in your background that makes you unique in the market.
When I look at what makes me unique in the market, it is the fact that I have this IT background, I was CFO for digital, and I went to China, which is stepping out of your comfort zone. I wanted to make a point of that because it’s very important for people reading to think of it like, “How can I make myself unique,” versus, “How can I follow the same path that everyone does?”
You’re a lot humbler than I am because you started in IT and long-term, it ended up being a brilliant decision. I would’ve positioned that I knew all along how I was going to end up. Your humility is admirable, to say the least. My question was given that you do have some rare expertise amongst financial leaders, how do you see the role of finance changing along with IT? Some people are worried that generative AI will be doing all of our jobs pretty soon. I’m not sure that’s going to happen in the near term but what do you see on the horizon?
Let’s talk about that separately because I have a good point that I heard. I do believe that CFOs are going to be more integral in driving the transformation of the company. A lot of people say, “They’re becoming CEOs.” It’s not true. CFOs are becoming CEOs for a very long time, and it depends on the industry. If you go into an industry that’s very capital intensive like American Airlines, historically, CFOs have become CEOs. If you go to companies like L’Oreal where it’s marketing intensive, CFOs becoming CEOs is not that common.
However, with the acceleration of digitalization, it’s much more important for the CFO to have some kind of technical background or understanding. They don’t become CEOs but they’re 100 percent in all the companies the right hand of the CEO. The CFO is the right hand of the CEO. If the CEO there doesn’t think like that, they should call me because I can contribute to their success by opening their eyes to this concept. The good CFO, in my opinion, will know the business as well as their CEO. That’s my rule in life. If you don’t know the business as well as your president, the board and the CEO, you are not necessarily going to be the best right-hand and CFO for that company.
When it comes to digitalization or AI, a lot is coming in. There are a lot of questions. I wanted to touch on that AI point that you made that it is taking over our jobs. The concept that I heard, which I very much internalized because I truly believe in it, is that AI is not there to do our job. We should look at it as a partner or a coworker. If I have a coworker who could do some work for me and we can split tasks, then I’m much more successful at what I do. It also means that it frees up my time to be more strategic perhaps or be able to have a bigger scope in my role.
As long as we look at AI as such, first, we’re not going to be threatened by it. Second, we can adopt it easier. Third, we know where to place it in our work. It’s not here to take our jobs. It’s here to enable us to be better at our job and enable us to grow and scale, which is important, or to transition to more strategic jobs. That’s the idea of AI should be placed versus it’s easier to take over our jobs.
I like that analogy that AI is another coworker. It’s limited but good at what it does, I suppose.
They cannot make decisions as humans do. Once you have the data, the so-what question cannot be answered by AI. Look at the market. There are some numbers there but at the end of the day, the change is driven by the emotions. The emotional piece is what machines cannot learn. If they can learn, they still learn it as a machine. They cannot adopt it or apply it properly to the situation. They’ll never replace this human ability to synthesize, put everything in context, add emotions and feelings, and make a decision.
It is very human in the way it communicates. I was sarcastic at it once and it responded, “Touché.” It recognized that I was making a joke and was applauding me for it. I also find myself saying, “Please” and, “Thank you,” to ChatGPT. Do you do that?
I generally dive into the question that I have or the shortest possible. Some of them, you refine it. I love it. I need to pay attention.
My wife thought that was weird when it was relatively new. I showed her a transcript of stuff I was working on. She was like, “Why are you saying please and thank you?” “I don’t know. It seemed like I was talking to a human being. I know it’s not.”
It’s a coworker.
It deserves the same respect we all do. You mentioned the fact you’ve had some experience in China, which probably from the American business perspective is both our biggest threat and opportunity, which puts it in a unique place. What’s some advice you can give to American financial executives and maybe executives generally for doing well in partnering with and at the same time competing against Chinese businesses?
I do believe that there’s nothing like learning about what’s going on in China. If you have the opportunity to go there, you should try to go there because it’s a different world. What you see on the internet is not the same as what it is there. There’s very little data that comes through because the Chinese government tries to cipher anything that leaks outside the gates of China or the Great Wall. Once you go there, you realize the opportunities.
It’s a very big society. It’s hungry to be the best, consume and catch up in every aspect. They want to be the best in Asia and the best nation in the world. They have this dream to do that by the 100th year of the Communist Party anniversary. They are gearing towards that. They achieved the top 10 in top industries already so they are on track. Being there on the ground, you realize that it’s a huge opportunity. It comes with risks like every opportunity. You need to live there and be among them to see the opportunity but also see the other side, which is the risk, and then decide what’s best for your business.
I always like to end our episodes on a bit of a fun note. I was curious. Is there a fun fact or maybe something about you that would shock people? You’ve already been maybe one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had. Is there anything about you that’s interesting? Maybe you have a go-to joke, a pet peeve or something like that you’d like to share with the group.
You have used my Transylvania already. I was a little bit in between when you were saying it. I cannot use that. That’s something that will surprise people because they don’t know about the place. I have another one. In high school, in Romania, we had to choose between Japanese and Arabic as another foreign language on top of German, English and Latin. Latin was mandatory, and English, so I chose Arabic. I still can read and write Arabic.
The fun fact is that the CIA wanted to hire me. I was so happy. It was probably one of the happiest days of my life. I was interviewing someone coming out of IT. The reality versus what I was dreaming was probably not in sync. The reality probably would’ve been a desk job. What I was dreaming was to be the next partner of James Bond. The job didn’t happen because, at that time, I didn’t have a green card. It was also the very first time in my career that I dealt with rejection in a professional setting but also rejection that no matter what I would’ve done, it was not in my power to change that trajectory. Here I am, a potential ex-CIA agent.
I could see you partnering with James Bond. James Bond is dead so maybe the next 007 could be a woman. There’s no reason it can’t be you.
Hollywood, Bollywood or Wall Street, whatever they want, I’m still here.
Unfortunately, this show isn’t going to get those types of people for you but that’s interesting. How many languages do you speak?
I learned a lot of languages but if you don’t speak them for a while, you cannot say that you remember them or you can speak as well. That’s why when I say Arabic, I say read and write because a lot of the language I have not practiced in 20 years so I forgot. I took German and English in school, as well as Latin. Latin also helped me understand a lot of the Latin languages, which I do pretty well. I know about 70 percent, which are French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. It’s the farthest away from Latin so I’ll stay away from that.
We’re ending this by giving me an inferiority complex. Do you know how many languages I speak? One.
I was going to say, “I don’t think I want to take a guess.” That’s the thing when you’re isolated on a big continent that speaks English. If you’re in the South, you can pick up on Spanish. Otherwise, here, you don’t have the opportunity to interact or travel so easily to other countries where you could practice a little bit of a different language.
I probably never interacted with anyone who didn’t speak English until I was a young adult. I speak one and I don’t even speak it all that well. It’s impressive that you’ve been able to get some mastery in as many as you have. This has been a lot of fun. Thanks so much for joining the show. I want to give you the last word if there are any other things you’d like to share with the group.
Our duty is to pay forward. If anyone reaches out to me on LinkedIn or any other way, I am happy to spend some time and discuss my background or anything that could help you in your career. Please feel free to do that. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.