Interview with Olga Bulhac - April 2021

Olga's graduations (June 2006 and October 2011) and her first days in Villach (Autumn 2009). Click to enlarge. 

So, why did you come here to Villach in the first place, Olga?

OB: It was just fortune, I think. I came here in 2009, almost twelve years ago. Originally, I come from Russia and I was born near the Ural Mountains. I did my first university degree there in financial management, so deep economic stuff. I did five years at the university and after that I moved to Moscow to work for an international company. While I was living there, I worked for Microsoft, KPMG and my last job was in development consulting in the construction industry, consulting the developers I was doing market analysis and bench-marking and so on. And that was very cool, it was what I wanted to do at that time. But in 2008 the crisis happened and it was very tough and a lot of people were laid off during the first hit and I was thinking, ok, if I am going to be laid off, I have to find something to do and while I was working for Microsoft I was in the program called Microsoft Academy for College Hires and already at that time I was travelling a lot to Europe and the United States with other students and we were doing a lot of different trainings and workshops abroad. And then when the crisis came, and I was working for this development company, it was clear that I had to find something else. And the idea was to maybe go abroad and do my master, just for a couple of years. And I started to search for a master, mostly in Germany, because I had some friends there and it seems that accidentally I found this master here at FH Villach, International Business Management, and it was in English and I was more fluid in English because German was only my second foreign language. I applied and I got accepted.

GP: So, you left in a hurry and never returned since then?

OB: Well, nothing was holding me in Russia anymore at that time. I mean, I was 25 and I wanted to continue traveling and to advance my career. And I came here for my master for two years - that was how it was planned. I had an amazing student life, great international and cultural experience, that is how I met my future husband. He is from Romania. He was doing his master’s in engineering and he was working for Infineon. When I graduated from FH, there was the question what to do. Some of my colleagues moved to Vienna, some moved back to their home countries, like Finland or Brazil. We were from all over the world. And at that point I said, maybe it is time to slow down and to try to settle down. Then I also found a job here. It was in Liebenfels, it is 40 km from Villach. The work was incredibly challenging, almost completely in German but it was important experience. It was a construction company as well and they were doing projects for Russia and were just about to open a company in Moscow. Thus, I was commuting, traveling a lot as well. I stayed more than a year at that company and then I decided to do something else, and I found a position in the Russian branch of a big oil company. And I started there as the secretary of the director for one year and then I was promoted to become a tax specialist and deal with the VAT for nine different countries, also working with the consultants and doing other projects meanwhile.  The company then moved to Vienna. So, I was working some years from home and I commuted to Vienna from time to time. And then I got pregnant and after I stayed one year in Karenz, I came back to the company, but after nine months or so the company was closed. That is how I found myself in the situation that either, I search for a job here and go back to the office after working from home for so long - because nobody knew that Corona would come - or I would try something else.

GP: And you decided to do something else…

OB: Yes, I decided to try something else. I went to AMS. I did German courses and some courses at CIC as well. And then I decided that I want to become self-employed. I got into ‘Self-employed circle” at CIC and I participated in the program from the integration center, the “Mentor for Migranntinnen”, and I got a mentor that helped me with the steps to go to the Gründungsprogramm of the AMS where I stayed most of the last year, from March till September. And in September I had to register myself. And I did register at 19th of September as an Event Agentur. It was the easiest at that point to register as such, because the plan was to open this place and also do some events here, e.g., birthday parties or international events.

GP: So, when exactly did you come across the CIC?

OB: I was never involved in any CIC activities until a certain moment, because before I got pregnant, we were mostly meeting and communicating with Infineon employees or my colleagues and I never had the need to meet other people. But when I was in Karenz, like many moms, I realized that ok, I have a baby now and I must do something. I was reading a lot at that time about babies etc. and there is so much information on the internet, which can sometimes be quite confusing. And I was thinking, there must be other moms like me, and I asked CIC if they have an offer for moms like me and they said no, not anymore. And I said, then let us organize a group and they said yes, let us do that. And we did organize a group.

GP: The Baby Chat group?

OB: Yes, the first meeting was in October and my daughter was almost half a year at that time and that was perfect timing. First, we were meeting, me and three other girls. One form Slovenia, one from Great Britain and one from Egypt. That is how it started. Then more and more people were joining. And at first, we were just meeting and drinking coffee in the office and chat and discuss. And I did a lot of benchmarking about these groups, as they are common in Russia and the United Stated for example. Of course, in Villach there are also some Eltern-Kind Gruppen, mostly at the church and they are mostly in German and not anybody who is coming here speaks German and we also have a girl from Germany, for example, and she wants to talk English and communicate more with international people. I mean I could have also gone to the German groups but for me it was more interesting to talk to the people who came here and who had the same background as I have. And then we also started to do more thematic things. CIC managed to get in contact to Stadt Villach and the Stadt started to provide us some consultants. I was writing down the topics which might be interesting, and CIC helped me to organize the meetings with e.g., a breast-feeding consultant or a pediatrician or a policeman, Jugendamt, talking about the regulations here and so on. Also, the girls were sharing their experiences. And it got bigger and bigger and at some point, we started with the Facebook group and WhatsApp. I think in this What’sApp group we have 40 or 60 people. And the group helps to solve problems like my child is sick, were should I call etc. Or we organized a second group this year for selling and giving away things, kids’ stuff etc. And in Facebook we are posting meeting and during the first lockdown we organized talks online. E.g., I found a psychologist in London who shared her experience, or we talked about mindfulness or immensely popular the talks about bilingualism with Karin Martin.

GP: Was that also when you developed the idea to create a “small world” for children here in the city center of Villach?

OB: Yes, during that time, I talked a lot to my friend, she lives in Graz and her occupation is to create Brand identity. We were brainstorming a lot how to develop Baby Chat, how to implement my experience. I realized that more and more moms from BBaby Chat started to ask about play dates. But there was no place and time to organize it, safe place with toys and infrastructure.  And this is how the idea developed to find a place where the kids and moms could have quality time together. Not only like a coffee shop, where the kids are playing and the moms are separately, drinking coffee, but a place which could combine different kinds of activities. I really wanted to have something with a concept, some idea behind it.

GP: And is it also supposed to be a place where local people can come or is it specifically addressed at international people?

OB: At some point this was planned primarily to be a place for internationals, but then I realized that there are also local families who need it, that is how the project turned out to be bigger. I hope that when we open, this mixture will increase. Because for me, what I can see after living here for all those years and what we discussed also in CIC, integration is not only a task for people who are coming here, but also for the people who are living here. I want Small World to be the place free from any prejudice and discrimination.  For me one of the goals here is to show local kids to see the diversity and to feel it. To see that people are different but the kids do not see these boundaries and I see that my daughter e.g., she is in IDC now, and she sees the differences between people, but for her it is so natural. There are a lot of families which don’t have such experiences. This is particularly important to me, to bring these families into this international environment for kids to get to know the diversity and later not have prejudice and discrimination in their lives. So, this is a very global goal, but I hope that we can do it here in Villach, because Infineon is bringing a lot of international people here and if they do not feel comfortable here, it will push them to go back home or search for other places. And I see how over the last five years, Villach changed. It is international, and it is important that we make more steps forward. This month I was also meeting with the city government and the persons responsible for families and integration and for education and young people. We discussed how we can do this in cooperation, and this is how it should be, I think. Especially with support and cooperation from CIC.

GP: Yes, I think it will be great for Villach to have something like this. Do you think this could become a demonstration project which could also be installed in other cities?

OB: Well, I did the benchmarking and of course in the world there are things like this. In Austria people do not position their projects like this. The market is presented by kinder caffes and cultural centers, like Russian Verein or Spanish community. But for me the international diversity aspect is especially important. That is why it is called “Small World”. Small World is like it is for small kids but at the same time it means that it is a small world around us after all.And whatever is happening the world is so small that we must take care of each other. So, the idea behind the small world project was to create a place where kids can play and where moms can get some additional information and socialization, as well as some quality time with kids.

GP: Yes, I can imagine. Your concept sounds interesting. How exactly can I imagine that to look like?

OB: Well, some activities for kids, e.g., to paint together or to make cookies together, crafting, dancing. these are things which are for some moms, like me, difficult to do at home. My daughter is highly active, and to keep her busy, you must find an idea, got to Pinterest or Instagram and then you must prepare the materials, you must make the kid interested in it, then arrange it and clean everything up in the end. This is really a whole spectrum of activities which a mother or father has to do with the kid. So, I in the first place, I wanted to create a place where you can come, and everything is prepared for you and the kid and the kid can play with other kids. Moreover, I want to organize events here, like movie evening or something where the moms can come and do not have to worry that the baby cries. There is a lot of space for everybody. We are also planning to have small concerts. I hope that one day we will be able to open this big terrace outside and have a nice concert for small kids or have some kids disco. Another goal is also to have some activities for moms where they can ask the father to stay with the kid and they can come here alone e.g., for an art therapy or some other nice activity, where they can learn something new, in English, Italian or German. So, this is another part, the quality time for parents. And of course, we will rent out the place for events, e.g., for birthday parties, where we provide decorations or some catering. Yeah, so there are three different parts. It is the kids’ corner, where kids can play. We have the events and the workshops for kids and/or moms.

GP: The playground looks interesting, with the three houses there. Can you explain the idea behind it a little bit?

OB: Yeah a central idea of this place is that you do not have toys everywhere. You really have the thematic areas, i.e., three houses, which are interconnected and which have some toys in it. So, what my daughter is doing is, she is going e.g., to the construction site in one of the houses, then somebody gets a bit hurt and then she is going to the hospital next to it and afterwards they are going to eat ice-cream in the third house, the coffee shop. So, you can somehow combine different houses and play the whole game. And we made the houses tall enough so that the parents can also participate in the game. So, the parents, its good when they are drinking coffee and the kids are playing. I know that most of the moms just want to have couple of minutes some rest. But we put the couch there specifically for moms who want to watch and from time to time they can intervene, not to disturb the game, but to participate when the kids is asking. We are planning to change the topics of the houses from time to time. And then we have a bigger table which is convenient for the workshops and meetings, and then there is some sort of reception. Then there is a Gitter for the babies, and coffee corner. . And there we are preparing a big air balloon, from balloons. And here we are planning to have some library, where you can take a book to read or to take home. We have books for grown-ups and some books about kids and cooking books in different languages. Now we have Russian, Romanian, German, and English. And in that corner, there are the books for kids and there is the place where they can paint and draw on the board there on the wall. There is also some sports activity, but as soon as we open, I hope we can get in time more things, a slope and so on.  we were e.g., discussing that we can have reading days and people could read in different languages. We could have different language corners; some mom could read in Spanish or in Russian. I am also always asking the mom for their ideas and one recorded me a message some days ago and said, it would be cool, because I speak Spanish and I would like my kids to communicate to other kids in Spanish. Of course, at CIC they also have these things, but it will be cool to have more such activities in cooperation with CIC. And it would be nice to have something for other languages, because not all people have such a strong community here. Italians e.g., have a good community, the Spanish as well. But there are others that do not. So, there are a lot of different things and ideas and I am always writing them down. I am sure step by step we will implement them.

GP: And how does it work? Can I become a member here?

OB: Yeah, there are different options. People can just come over one time, buy a bloc of ten or five with a discount or there will be the Small World club where you can become a member. . then you get the discounts for the workshops and birthday parties and priorities. This will be monthly or yearly payment then. But in general, you can just come here, pay the fee and play. Depending on the regulations it will either be a fixed time, or it will be just open doors. And in the price a coffee or a soft drink is included. So, moms can just come here to read a magazine or something. At some point we also plan to have a caretaker here and the moms can e.g., go fast shopping.

GP: And the Baby Chat? Will that continue?

OB: Yes, it is staying, of course. I really do not want to let go of Baby Chat, because it is like my baby so to say. I really want to combine the two projects. Baby Chat is an entrance for moms to “international parenting community” and then if people want, they can also come here. While Baby Chat will stay in CIC, regarding Small World I hope we will work in cooperation. And it will be even more than a cooperation, as CIC is really supporting me, and this is very important. CIC was always, when some new families were coming, they were always informing them about Babychat and I was all the time getting messages asking can if I could add this or that person to Baby Chat. So, it is a lot of information that was provided about Baby Chat and a lot of help with the specialists and with the state communications. Because for me this is all very new, and it is especially important to have some support in the first steps.

GP: Well, at the beginning you said that you had all these different projects. But it seems to me that this all fits together quite well.

OB: Yes, I hope. A friend was telling me once that I was trying to do too many things at the same time. And I said ok, but first I do not know what will work out. E.g., I wanted to do event decorations and thematic parties for kids, then I was involved in the project with CIC with intercultural diversity and then of course this space, the playground. all these projects are somehow interconnected. events are part of this place and intercultural communications are giving me, when I need to prepare the workshop or a presentation, a better understanding of the group that I have at Baby Chat and here. These ideas are all interconnected, because So, they are all interconnected, and they are giving me different perspectives.

GP: How does your educational background and your former career benefit you with your new business?

OB: Well, I have much experience with presenting, communicating, because when I was back in Moscow, I present and defend my part of job, my marketing research or whatever. Then, here already, I had to communicate to management from Russia and a lot of consultants. And this is extremely helpful. So, I do not have the fear to talk to people when I go to the authorities, I am not afraid to talk in front of the group. I can still be nervous. But still, I am confident with these situations and don’t panic.

GP: And how does the city of Villach support you with the project?

OB: First, I got some funding from the city.  It is called “Villach fördert Vielfalt”. I defended it in front of jury and it was challenging. So that was the city tries to support entrepreneurs. The funding is for the businesses in the city center. Small world is located at Lederergasse, the street developed a lot and we have good neighbors here.

GP: Yeah, it is a very cozy place, and I can imagine that is does not get too hot in the summer, as well.

OB: It took me a while to find the place. I looked at a lot of different places, but this one was perfect. Because you can fully open the windows, there are no cars here mostly and there is enough space for everything. You can also divide it and it as a second entrance, and it also has underfloor heating. So, it is perfect for kids also in winter. They can just run and sit on the floor. We used a lot of secondhand furniture here because it is more sustainable, and some girls also brought books and some toys. Some toys we were also making on our own. Also, to show parents that they do not have to buy everything. They can also take a box and put a picture on it and yeah, I like that. You can also open the terrace windows and this terrace is also a good place for the strollers. Then you do not need to carry them down the stairs. We will also have some ramp here e.g., for people with limited abilities. We also have toilets of course and a coffee corner.

GP: Do you have a vision for the future, if you could dream a bit, how this could look like in five or ten years from now?

OB: Hmmm…I heard two different opinions regarding this. One is that you must dream big, you must have big plans and another one that you should live here and now and should be more concentrated on today. Because when you start to think about the future, we use to run away from today and either you live in the dreams or you will see that everything is bad. And I also have my ups and downs in this pandemic. One day its cool and I am enthusiastic and another one is, what should I do, maybe close everything and go to find a job. So, the big dream is that I really want to help the city to become international and to support the diversity which is already here. So to be more patient with international people and for people here to understand foreigners who are coming here and for foreigners to feel like home, to feel comfortable and to want to stay here and especially for moms who want to give birth to their kids here, bringing their kids here,  to feel that the city is welcoming international people and for this place especially to become a hub for people who want to learn about and communicate with the international community. At some point it would be nice to have something similar in other cities, maybe in other cities in Austria or maybe in Italy or Slovenia, because Ljubljana is a huge international city for example. Of course, they have some more options there for kids. But that could be an interesting cross-border project.

GP: Yeah, I can imagine. I mean even some of the parents that come here and go home after some time, they could take the idea to their home country.

OB: Yeah, that would be nice.

GP: Although it would probably have to be adjusted, because Carinthia, Villach are quite particular because of Infineon and…

OB: Exactly, of course. I think in big cities the international aspect is already there. And it is important to understand that this is not a substitute for kindergarten. It is an additional activity. Even if the kid is in kindergarten there is always some time afterwards, or on the weekend or when the kid is not going to kindergarten in summer, when the weather is not good. Or for moms who are staying with babies at home. So, there are the options for different families and situations.an option for such families. And for moms in Karenz who can come here to communicate.

GP: So, right now you are doing most of the work on your own. Are you planning to build up a larger team?

OB: Yes, I am currently doing it alone, except for my partner who really helped me a lot with whatever after work and my mom who is really supporting me. Without them I would not manage. And of course if there was no my daughter, there would be no Baby Chat and no this project. I think in the beginning we will have to manage somehow on our own and see how it will work. Maybe at some point, this is my dream for the next year, I will have an administrator who will be able to stay here more time, to give more flexibility to families to visit. and maybe to have somebody, for an internship or so who will help to manage Instagram and Facebook because this is consuming a lot of time, if you want to do it right. I want to be still involved in all the activities, but if you want to develop business you must have the opportunity to visit companies, to visit partners and really negotiate a lot of things. Because the idea is also for the play zone to cooperate with local companies, e.g., companies that will support me building more stuff like Bauhaus for example.    Because now we have the three houses, a coffee shop, a construction site, and a hospital, but later as I have said we want to retain them, so it might be later a firefighter station and a kindergarten for example or some pizzeria. And we could also ask the firefighters to come over and we could have a meeting here. Or we could invite somebody from the hospital or somebody from the police. Or we could also do a firefighter’s day or so.

GP: Is it also an idea that the companies pay the membership fees for their employees?

OB: That is something I wanted to discuss with them, yeah. They can either buy the vouchers, for Mother’s Day or for Christmas. They can buy e.g., one month of membership for their employees. This is the idea. So yes, this is the idea that the companies can support families with a membership. So, this is the important thing, the cooperation between different lines of businesses, the city, and people. That is how we reach some stability in this.  And it will also help us to keep the prices lower so that more families could afford it.

GP: What advice would you give other people who come from elsewhere and who want to become self-employed or maybe want to start a volunteer initiative?

OB: I think the most important thing is not to be afraid that somebody will not understand you. I still have this sometimes, this fear that I will not be understood. That your idea or your goal is ridiculously small and not important. I think that the whole thing is like a puzzle coming together. Even small things can turn into something big, and you never know. And not being afraid to talk about it. I made this mistake at the very beginning. I had this project in mind for an exceedingly long time and I was afraid of telling people what I wanted to do. When they asked me, I said I am doing some project, but I was afraid to say out loudly I thought they would think, ah Spielplatz they have a lot of them here already and she will probably be out of business after a couple of months. I did not feel comfortable to talk about it, but this is what is particularly important. So, to express what you want to do and not to be afraid that somebody will say something negative about it. To accept critic and new ideas. And you also need to knock all the doors to find partners and support. It can be the company, the government, it can be whatever. It does not matter whether it will bring any material result, any visible result, but it will always give you some new experience. It is always worth to try. You must stay open minded. You must be flexible. If something does not work, you must be ready to change your project. I do not know how many times I did this for this project. Because in the beginning the idea was different from what it is now. Also, the circumstances are changing, like now with Covid-19 and who would have expected something like this? So, flexibility is also important and belief of course. You must believe in what you are doing. You must believe that people need it. So, flexibility, belief in your project and not being afraid these are the most important things. Another advice I would give is to look for support. First of all, from your partner, family. And also outside. For me, this self-employment course at CIC with a group of people with whom we could discuss the whole project was helpful, because you have people who did it before, who have experience or who are in the same boat and who can help you develop your ideas.

GP: Great, thank you so much for giving us these insights into your projects and for sharing these experiences with us.

Interview: Gesa Pflitsch 

April 2021

Some impressions from "Small World" and Olga's decoration service ("CreatEvent"). Click to enlarge.