Serial entrepreneur and multi-awarded Ishtar Touailat speaks about the value of staying true to yourself, the importance of diversity and how failure constantly pushes you towards success.
You might describe her as a hard-headed boss who never compromises with her firm beliefs. But you might also describe her as a fearless leader, with a clear vision of what she wants, accompanied by a fierce silver tongue. It is not without difficulty you speak about the multitalented Ishtar Touailat. It is, however, quite simple to speak of her many accomplishments and on-going success. But when asked herself, she would rather speak about the three things most important to her, as well as the three things that seem to imprint everything she does: diversity, equality and inclusion.
– Being humble is not only about being kind. To constantly use my network, my platform and my voice is my way of giving back. But to be able to do that, I have to be firm and hard headed. If not, I won’t be able to see things through. As a woman, I’m often described as bossy or selfish in that sense, which is a shame. But I know it is never anything personal, people are just projecting.
The Constant Strive for Change
Ishtar’s career was, from the very beginning, all about helping others. Perhaps especially women. Her first company, Studentkompetens (“Student skills”) bridged the gap between corporations and students, and through her very own course “Starta eget-kursen” (The “how to start your own business” course) at Stockholm University she coached around 14 000 students and entrepreneurs to help create and manage their own businesses. Here, she discovered the silent potential behind the patriarchal world of entrepreneuring. A force and realisation so strong she is still driven by it to this very day.
– When I started my first company back in 2010, I quickly realised that women, more often than men, pitched better business ideas. Yet, they didn’t succeed like men did. Most likely because they didn’t have the confidence it required, which men sure did. Which pissed me off. But, I also realised that this is where I can actually make a difference and inspire people.
And inspire she did. She actually inspired so much, she was asked by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, to build and run the Office of Innovation at Stockholm University. A undeniably successful operation, which she ran for five years, and that is still active to this day. Meanwhile, she kept empowering women; from scientists to entrepreneurs. All to push her agenda further and into different fields of society.
The Historical Milestones of Equality
Ten years later, Ishtar is a multi-awarded leader with a background of several businesses and positions. But her constant force to create change remains the same. In her latest position, as Head of Innovation at Tieto, she rammed the equality agenda so fiercely and aggressively, they recently got the world’s very first equality award recognized by Gartner. And as a natural consequence of the attention it brought, a lot more female software engineers reached out to Tieto. Without a doubt forceful award and accomplishment.
– If you set your mind to something and work tirelessly to achieve it, you will succeed. I do what I do, not because of a feminist pathos really, it is more about what is fair. In the beginning of my career, I was often told that women were not very interested. Today, I know that women want to work and they are incredibly proficient. However they need better conditions, especially when entering a field dominated by men. The impact of role models can not be underestimated in that sense.
To Do and Be Different
The power of role models are truly important for Ishtar. And as we speak, she expresses both gratitude and humbleness towards her own position as a female influencer. Not least because of her non-stereotypical profile as a young, ethnic woman in a leadership- and chief position. It is not only the outdated image of how a leader should or should not look or act that is taking a huge turn in Ishtar’s fearless approach; the image of the kind, humble woman who wants to do good also finds a new face in her firm idealism – which again shows us that being compassionate is in no way an antonym to being decisive or tough.
– Some seem to think of me as harsh and uncompromising. But if I was a man, I would be seen as a visionary and an efficient leader. However I know exactly what I want and I know what I am willing to sacrifice. I do things differently and very unorthodox. But you have to dare to be different if you want to succeed and also make an impact! And you have to dare to face challenges.
Perhaps, this is where we find the unique dimension that makes Ishtar one of the most influential people of our time: in the fierce combination between a fearless mindset and humble ambition. One could easily argue that there is one thing to strive for change, and one thing to actually do it. For Ishtar, it seems that her energetic force for change started on quite early. With a tough background of having to constantly make it on her own and taking care of herself, even as a child, it is no wonder she is as much of a visionary as a doer.
– I had to take care of myself a lot. That made me very energetic and it sort of built my mindset. If I wanted something, I needed to get it myself. And the more I succeeded, the more confidence I developed. Today, I trust my own intuition without fear.
Never Fail Your Own Values.
With a collection of awards, such as Global Woman Award, Sweden’s Most Powerful Business Woman och Future Leader of the Year it is hard to claim anything else than that Ishtar Touailiat is truly an inspirational woman. And according to herself, the key to a successful business and leadership lies within the power of values.
– I never compromise on my values: equality, diversity and inclusion. Those three things need to imbue everything I do and every decision I make. It is tremendously important that everyone I work with feels respected and important. Because if they feel respected, valuable and included their wellbeing increases, and when their wellbeing is increased, their mental health and performance increases. This in turn will make them more competitive which also makes them more innovative and with this we gain the opportunity to attract new talents which is the number one success factor in the 21st century.
Ishtar is clear: those who are not consequent, value-driven and know what they want will fail. But failure in itself is never an end station. If anything, it seems that failure is nothing but natural stops along the road, just like success.
– To be able to succeed you have to face huge obstacles. And when you do, you need to go back to your values and visions, and be clear on who you are, and what you want. Of course people don’t like change! People never do. Change is uncomfortable and risky. But in order for you to drive change and foster innovation you need to have the ability to communicate, so you can engage your people and keep them motivated during the process. And if this is really what you want to do, you need to accept all obstacles, challenges and eventually failures.
Fear As an Illusion and the Art of Balance
If every entrepreneur’s journey is characterized by failure, it is easy to understand that there are a lot of risks for those who wish to travel along the road of entrepreneurship. And risks are very real. Fear, however, is nothing but a choice. And by risk-calculating, the choice of fear becomes eliminated. At least according to Ishtar.
– Of course there are times of fear… But fear is destructive. And, when I sense that I might get scared I usually just go on even faster! So I never really have the time to truly experience it. I know it’s not real anyway. Calculated risks are real, fear is an illusion. When you get paralyzed by fear you lose momentum which is dangerous because you need more energy to regain momentum than you do by keeping it up.
Believing in yourself and facing up to those moments of risk seems to be the very foundations for a successful entrepreneurship. However putting both heart and soul into your business comes with external risks outside of your business life. As an entrepreneur, there is a fine line between work and private life that seem almost lost.
– For me it is very important to understand the value of giving oneself room to recover after hard work, if your balance between work and recovery is damaged, it will not only affect your work but most importantly it can be devastating for one’s own health and wellbeing which is the root of one’s performance.
Human Sustainability and the Value of Recovery
When the lines between your professional-self and your everyday-self get harder and harder to define it is essential to prioritise. As you and your business grow together they become more and more symbiotic, the need to prioritize true self-time and recovery grows.
– No one will thank you because you went to that brunch, that day when you rather would have wanted to stay at home and practise self-care. Don’t burn yourself out. Stand up for yourself, your needs and believe in yourself and your ideas – even when others don’t. I only surround myself with people who support and believe in me. It is important to surround yourself with these things because if it costs your peace it is too expensive.
Ishtar Touailat about…
Our Future Workplaces
– Well, first and foremost you need diversity. Create and sustain a culture where people are allowed to make mistakes. Allow them to fail and be creative – that’s how you really find the good ideas. A lot of businesses say they can’t do this because they have certain established processes. But if you really want to make a difference, just change the processes? Many leaders also ask for diversity but in their leadership teams they are often homogeneous
Our Future Leadership
– With a diverse workplace you need leaders who also fall under this category. We need leaders who understand that they need to adjust and who are willing to change. Leaders of the future need to take actions quickly. Sometimes as fast as during a day. There are many fantastic leaders out there, but they too need to change with time. And I’m very intrigued to see how leaders in the near future will change their communication and ways of working.
Our Future Recruitments
– If there is one thing successful business care about today, it’s the people. So there is only one truly important thing to regard when it comes to the future. It’s always going to be about who you hire. Leaders who know this and manage to attract the right talents will be the winners of the future. The ones who are stuck and still focus on sexy products over a diversed workforce, will for example, lose. Because the ability to succeed never lies in technology or innovation, it always lies within the people and the leadership.
Photographer: Jesper Florbrandt