“You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” is a famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi. As Gandhi highly influenced her life there is no surprise that her personal quote derives from Gandhi’s and it is “you must be the change you want to see, no excuses.”
No excuses mantra can be seen in everything she does. There are no excuses for not turning her ambition into reality, turning seven billion ideas into action.
Madi Sharma is the leading force behind the Madi group, a group comprised of international private and social enterprises and NGOs focused on achieving global impacts through creative innovative ideas and with the intention to maintain and promote a sustainable society.
She turned her personal struggle into her biggest strength. Madi transformed her life by taking full responsibility for who she was and taking full responsibility for leaving the role of victim in her marriage. Her hard personal struggle made her who she is. Highly emphatic, strong, fearless, unstoppable. The turning point happened when she was beaten up laying on the floor in her house in front of her children and at that point decided that the times of mental and physical torture are over. She started her own food company with no business background and no qualifications… and succeeded. For a long time her personal struggle has been hidden from the eyes of the public but once she old that story she made a promise to the victims of domestic violence that she will speak up about it, representing all the victims of domestic violence anytime having a speech with intention to turn emphasis on these pressuring, often hidden, issues. If there is a tagline that can describe her best is it is a victim to change maker.
Madi Sharma runs 10 companies and proudly mentions that those companies would not have existed without her team as they are the innovative force that is able to capture new ideas and turn them into new ventures. Madi is engaged in many activities such as offering back-office support for SMEs, having a business brokerage company linking global corporate companies, business to business and Governments.
Together with her team, she runs her companies in different countries dedicated to making profit which is then used for driving change. The change Madi Group focuses on is tailored to the needs of the community. The focus depends on the country and the priorities, particularly in relation to women and it goes from empowering women who are survivors of domestic violence, tackling issues of education, ending child labour and forced marriages, to youth employment and female entrepreneurship.
Madi Sharma also heads up WESTT Women’s Eco-nomic and Social Think Tank, She is a UK member of The European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels representing the Employer’s Group and had previously been appointed to European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani’s Advisory Board for Industry & Enterprise. She is also a free-lance journalist and author of Madi No Excuses!
Her sincerity and honesty are captivating.
Our conversation touched several topics; from leadership and team motivation to social responsibility and encouragement of women.
The conversation was dynamic as Madi Sharma is… and just in case you wondered… her name has nothing to do with Robin Sharma, author of many bestsellers including The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams & Reaching Your Destiny.
Listening to your speech at the conference titled “500 Podjetnic” took my breath away. After I made a research on who you are I kept asking myself, “how can she handle everything. Is she a superwoman or what?”
(Smiles) No, it is not like that at all. If you take a blank piece of paper and I ask you to write on the blank piece of paper what it is that you want to do… 95% of people can’t do this exercise. My point is… I know what I want to do. I want to turn 7 billion ideas into action. This means one idea for everybody on the planet. So, everything I am doing is focused on doing that one thing. The more people I can influence, either through my words, through my book, through my speeches on TEDx talks or whatever I am doing, the more chance I’ve got of those people turning their ideas into action. And the quicker I will reach my 7 billion. That is what all is about. It is not about the promotion of Madi, it is not about the promotion of Madi group, companies that I own and operate… It is all about people turning their ideas into action. If we can get people to turn their ideas into action we can solve some of the biggest challenges facing the world. And that means for your child, for my grandchildren for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. That’s what it is all about. Making sure we have a sustainable planet.
Right. That was my idea also. The reason why I went into the business is that I want to leave a better world for my daughter.
Exactly. But now you have to know exactly what that point is that you want to do that is going to make the change. You can not say, “I want to leave a better planet«. If you buy one less plastic bag you will still leave a better planet. You have to have something very concrete, with the timeline. That’s the challenge. That is the difficult part most people can’t do. However, once you’ve done that, everything that you want to do will be focused in that direction as this is where all comes from.
You have been in business for many years. Is there a long-term recipe for a long-term success of a company?
No, there isn’t apart from persistence, constantly innovating and changing, protecting your brand which means everything that you do you do is ethical. I think the most important thing for me is that I would not be able to do what I am doing without the team that I have. Success is the sum of the people you bring along with you. That is not necessarily employees. Those are all stakeholders. They can be your customers, the team that works with you directly, or employees, your suppliers, investors and to a degree these days your followers, your social media. They are the people who are also spreading the word about the things you are doing.
Basically, you are saying you have to look at the whole business eco-system in order to achieve a success of the company.
Exactly. It is not about one key success. You have to be focused on that top piece of paper and the goal you want to achieve. Let’s say you want to be logistics person in the world then – everything that you do must be focused on making sure that you give the best logistics. As soon as you compromise your mission in any way, people will notice. So if I did a project just for money, people would know. And that is the difference. I do not do a project just for money. The project has to have social benefit as well. The usual example that I give is a weapon. We do not do weapons, drugs, and anything with people exploitation In Madi group. These are the only three rules in the company. Anything else we will do. I have no qualifications so you may ask me how can I understand all the bid disruptive technologies and everything else. I find a way to be able to understand it to be able to sell it. I am very good at sales, I can sell one piece of defense aircraft and still earn more commission that I would ever earn from many of my other business deals, but if that weapon kills an innocent person that is the burden on my life. I have to carry that for the rest of my life. That is the reason why we don’t accept such deals.
You mentioned you are a great seller and that you find a way to understand it. How do you get to that point?
By listening. I think it is 94% of people listen to reply. In a normal conversation you and I you would be telling me how good your day was and what happened and I would immediately respond, “ this also happened to me.” That is listening to respond. If you want to get it right in business, you have to listen to understand. One other thing is that majority of people are not listening at all. Their minds are somewhere else. But listening to understand is crucial because every single one of us has a problem and answering people’s problems is the way to build friendships, build new customers, build a relationship with the stakeholders you are working with. It is a real benefit that you are writing this article about me because ultimately you do a promotion for me. I can not pay for that time. But it is also a benefit for you as you want to influence the lives of other people. Both of us are benefiting. I was listening to you and even through your LinkedIn, through your e-mails I can still read it through people. It is not just about listening what people are talking. It is about reading between the lines. You have a big ambition also. My objective is to help you achieve your ambition. And I know I can do that. What is it costing us? It is costing us a coffee and an hour. It does not cost anything to change the world. That is what all is about – listening to understand. Sometimes people have a problem and you have one solution to offer. That 1 solution in business can make a tremendous difference and a person who needs a solution may pay a fortune for it.
You are often emphasizing your team. How did you build up your team and how do you keep them motivated? What would you like to say to all other leaders that would like to have a fantastic team?
Don’t judge a book by its cover is the simple message. You and I meet. I have a brilliant feeling about you. I can look into your eyes, I can see your body language, I can see you want to help women around the world, not just in Ljubljana. You have a big vision. I can see this right. I trust you. I’ll give my time to you because you are not going to take any selfishness out of it. This is how I see you and your business.
The first girl who started to work for me was standing outside school when I was dropping my eldest daughter at school. I had the eldest daughter and the younger daughter. I dropped them at school, run back home, started cooking in my kitchen… This girl stopped my outside the school and asked, “what is it that you are doing? Every day you are running up and down and you run back to pick the child in the evening.” I told her that I have a small food business. She said, “do you have a job for me?” “No, I am really sorry as I am not making enough money for me,” I replied. She then said ok. Next day I went back to school. She was standing there waiting for me. She said, “listen I have an idea for you. I will cook, you go and sell and a third woman will look after the kids and she will clean your house.”
This is beautiful.
Isn’t that a solution for childcare and the issues we as women in the business face? One of us is good at taking care of the kids, one of is good at looking after everything, another one is good at something and if we work together as a team we all benefit even if it is just mine company. And that was the point. The company has never been just mine. I’ve always made sure that everybody understands how the company works, what money we are making, loosing, how we are loosing, everyone got bonuses if we were more profitable. We were always a team. When it was somebody’s birthday we gave a birthdays cake. It was this size (she spread her arms for about 50cm). Half of it was eaten at work and half went home to the families. As mothers we spend more time with our team at work then we do with our kids.
You are saying that the team just happened.
Yes, it just happened and we never advertised. We never put an ad in the newspaper. When we were looking for more staff, because we went form 3 of us to then 35 of us, it was all word of mouth from the community. If somebody knocks on my door and asks me about the job I ask them how they can help my company. If they can answer that question they usually get the job. It is really funny. All my team was all the food company people when I lost my food company. Then I started another business and the girl who is my personal assistant now she used to check me on a Delhi airport with British Airways. The same thing. It is the gut feeling. The girl who is my commercial manager in Skopje, in Macedonia, I did not even meet her. One of my other team said she will be good for me. I did not meet her for 3 months. And she is brilliant. She is my right hand.
You emphasized trust several times. Is this the key to building the dream team?
It is also my gut feeling. I trust it in relation to both. Intuition is very important.
One of the most important things about the team it is not about their qualifications. It is not about their CVs. We have never employed anybody by looking at their CV. This is the mistake I think people are making in business because you can not tell from somebody’s CV what sort of person they are. I think this is really really important.
Yes, I saw your TEDx talk just about this topic.
That’s right. That was one of my worst TEDx talks did not enjoy that one at all…but anyway.
But the point was there. No CVs.
Madi: yes, the point was there. At the end of the speech, students came to me and said, ”oh my God, thank goodness somebody has said it!” The principle was fuming. This was at the college of Europe.
The real challenge now is that entrepreneurs get it?
No. The entrepreneurs get it. You and I get it, right? People who don’t get it are CEOs, big company bosses, the HR managers. If you get rid of HR managers they will lose their jobs because without CVs you do not need an HR manager. We live in a system where 95% of CVs are red by computer. This is ridiculous. Computer rejects candidate before the person even had a chance to introduce himself.
And that brings me on to a question what makes a great leader. Can you describe your definition of a great leader?
The great leader is the one who can listen. The one who does not think they are always right. The one who knows that her/his company and herself/himself can be improved by having people around her/him who are more knowledgeable from her/him. I can not do the majority of jobs. We sell disruptive technologies as an example. I do not use PowerPoint because I do not know how to use PowerPoint. I do not have the time to learn it and I do not want someone to produce a PowerPoint presentation for me.
When I go to the client and I have a piece of technology to sell, I go to the office (she is basically based in Skopje) who explains to me in my language, what it is all about. Then I go and sell. She is a lot more competent than me. For example, I want to do a newsletter and I ask “Julie can you tell me how do we do a newsletter, what do we need?” She will then get the pricing for me, she will get the best ideas for me so that I do not have to waste my time with that. After that, I sit and see what she produces. Do I trust her judgment? I discuss it with commercial manager…but if two of them tell me I am wrong then I will accept their words. It is respect given and respect taken. Both ways. That is what it makes a really good leader. You can not grow a company if it is only going to be about you and if you demand to be in control all the time.
…and that you demand that you are always right.
Madi: exactly. The reason why we have ten companies in Madi group is because the staff has come to me with an idea. And I’ve said to them, “ok, it is your idea. I will do this-this and this with it, and now you go and you do what you want with it and it comes under the umbrella of Madi group.“
Each of the staff is actually running at least 1 division of the company. I do not interfere. I trust that. I tell them, “this is your thing, run it but if you have any problems come to me. If you are not sure of something, come to me. If you are not sure about the protocol, come to me. Otherwise get on and do it.” In case they make a mistake I take responsibility for that. It is my fault. It is never their fault and that they also understand. I will take the responsibility so that they are not frightened of telling me this is not worth or something else.
I tell them, “we analyzed it together, I took the decision, I gave you the chance. What happened is not your fault. It is my fault.” And that is it. That is how it works.
You mentioned trust several times. Do you have a set of values that are valid throughout the Madi Group?
Right, we have the 3 things that we do not do. These are rugs, weapons, and people exploitation. That is really important for our group. Any business deal that we are doing has to make sure it complies with not going in any of those three areas. People exploitation is a very difficult area to uncover. Child labour or exploitation of women are very often hidden in some commercial deals and thus you have to carefully examine them. That re the things we do not do.
And the things we do are again the three no-s. No secrets, no blame culture and no excuses, which is the Madi thing. Apart from that the trust the ethics plays a major role as well. We are not going to break the principles of the company and we trade ethically. You have to make sure that the brand is always being protected and what you are doing is it ethical. You ask yourself what your values are and then ask yourself what your company values are. Do they match? Are they the same? If they don’t match you don’t belong in our company.
You have to walk the talk.
Yes, but this is with everybody that we deal with. For example, if you came along and said I want to do an interview with the intention to sell it to Chinese and you asked me to make a statement that I don’t believe in Tibet, there is no way we would do it. My team knows that… actually is it really funny because it is going back… there is a case study that people around you should know you really well. This reminds me of one story. Of course, my daughter knows we really well. My ex-husband was on his deathbed, he died of cancer.
I am sorry to hear this.
No, no, no it is a bad story and I do not feel sorry of him at all… and he asked to see me. My daughter knew at that point I wouldn’t go and she said if she would come she would come with a knife. Everybody around you has to know who you are, how you function, everything. And it doesn’t go just for your family, it comes for your team also. Every single thing that we do, everybody knows.
How do you allow people to get to know you? How do you achieve that? Sometimes people do not want to share so much information about themselves. How come people know you so well?
Because I am an open book. What you see is what you’ll get. I can not have somebody say, “oh Madi, you said this in this video or in this country, or now this on this video in another country.” No. I can’t get caught out doing any of this. I am an open book. I don’t lie. After I divorced my husband I made an agreement with myself that I will not tell any more lies. Not that I think I was telling any lies before but I just went into the decision that I will not tell any lies.
Maybe you made a personal promise of not accepting deceiving of your mind.
Probably. I was unhappy for years. I knew he had been abusing me, I knew it was mental torture and I’ve been fulling myself. I said to myself, “I am not going to fool myself or anybody else anymore.” I became very open, especially after one incident. The biggest mistake happened when I was a Jaguar VIP.
You were a Jaguar VIP? What happened?
Madi: yes I was Jaguar VIP. When I was a Jaguar VIP I made an agreement with Jaguar that I would go and talk to women in the refuge to talk to them about starting a business, being in business as a woman, especially as an ethnic minority woman. I was sitting there and talking to the women and at the end of the conversation, they said, “your speech was very good. It was very nice to hear you that you are successful but you’ve got no idea what it is like for us.” So I asked, “what do you mean?”And they said, “we are victims of domestic violence, victims of rape.” I replied, “I am really sorry. I’ve been through it.” The women then asked, “why didn’t you shared it with us?” This still makes me emotional… so I stopped and said, “because I never shared it with anybody. Until you said that I always thought it was my fault. I was very ashamed of it and believed if I would have told my parents or friends, the family they would have thought less of me.“ So they said, “no. You have a privileged position, you should tell the world now.” This is the moment when I made a commitment to them that every single time I stand on the stage would say it. And I’ve done it. I think that made me become really open because after I started saying it, there was always one woman at least who came to me form the audience and said, “you told my story. This is happening to me.” Or a young person would say, “this happened to my parents. How do I protect my mother«? Now, this has become part of my speeches and surprisingly now the women start to turn on me. Some people think I am just doing it for sympathy but it is got nothing to do with that. This is related to that promise that I did. I am not ashamed what happened to me anymore.
But what would you be ashamed at all? That is the stigma of society. There are some topics, that society does not want to open. This can be seen maybe in Indian society and in many other traditional societies, where there is a belief, that a women’s place is in a household. If you break that rule, then anything that happens, is your fault as you dared to be different.
But surprising thing Mira is that this is not about Indian society. It is about European society.
Yes, unfortunately, it is everywhere.
I am a president of women in the western Balkans now. The biggest thing we are talking now is domestic violence and the fact that rape is still accepted. Only recently I started talking about the fact that I was actually raped in marriage. That is now a crime. It was not a crime when it happened to me. I do not know how the journalist made it happen. I did a TV interview in Albania and the journals asked me if there is anything I could not ask. I responded, “no, I am completely open,” and she asked me to explain the domestic violence in details. She had got me crying on TV talking about the rape. And she said that talk show was their top programme. Women were saying everywhere, “this is something we should talk about”. How come it takes the foreigners to come and talk about it.” This is terrible but is happening to so many women. Somewhere you just have to say, “I am just going to open the doors and expose everything.” Once you’ve done that you can’t go back. You can’t close the doors. The only time I can close the doors now is when I go on holiday. There is sometimes when my partner does not get it when I say, “I would love to stay at home.” If I go out there is always somebody who knows me or something and so you end up talking about your life and business. Sometimes I just do not want to talk. I am not a celebrity, but I do believe in being honest with the people that are now what I call my friends.
You want to encourage women to leave that role of a victim, move past that, and start a new life?
That is the bit where I am now. Somebody gave me a line and I really like it. It is victim to changemaker. That is exactly what it is. My point is: if I can do it, you can do it. But it takes a lot of strength and it takes good people around you. There was nobody for me. But I would say that is where my strength comes from, from the fact that there was nobody. Once you understand “your life is your life and nobody else’s” then that’s where the no blame culture, no excuses come in. Because then you take responsibility for everything.
This was your struggle in personal life. What was the biggest struggle in your business life and what lesson you got from those difficulties?
(She laughs loudly) This is the real conflict now. This is the real opposite of what I already told you. Don’t trust anybody. I completely trust my team and my people. It is really strange. But I’ve developed some kind of mechanism which is based on my intuition. If the gut feeling is there and the people around me say that the person is right, I don’t take just my own judgment now, I also take a judgment of others, then we go with the gut and we go with the person we trust. We trust until the trust is broken. So, we take a blank piece of paper and if you screw a blank piece of paper and you try to unfold it, it will never get all the greices out. This is like trust. Once the trust is broken you will never get all those pieces out again. So you will never feel comfortable with that person. If an employee breaks that trust, that’s it. We get rid of the employee straightaway. It has only happened a couple of times, but it has happened.
But in business, there are real sharks out there. Real sharks. If somebody comes to you and if you don’t know them and they’ve come by line, “this organization has sent me to help you with etc.,« don’t trust. Check out the people and make sure you know them. This was my mistake in my business. Somebody came, they came from government institution on business support and they were completely corrupt. That is how I lost my business. That was the learning. Never to blindly trust somebody I didn’t know. That has really helped me. Now we put together companies around the world and you ask, “how come you know all the people in disruptive technologies, people with several millions of pounds that are going to be investors?” They are people I’ve met through connections. They are never people we just go and knock on the door saying, “we’ve got his project. Do you want to invest in it?”
Business partners have to have a trust record behind.
Yes, they have a trust record of somebody we already know and were already working with that person. LinkedIn is possibly a great example. People are doing business with people on LinkedIn but they do not know who they are they doing business with. Same with mentors and this is where I really want to warn women. There are loads of people advertising to be mentors and coaches, and your reader audience will be really angry with me, but you should take only a mentor that comes highly recommended from somebody you know. You have business ideas, you have personal things in your life you might not want to share. You were sharing those with somebody you do not know and you are doing this because it is easier to talk. But what if that person exposes all those things about you. Same is if somebody steals your business idea. You really need to make sure that trust mechanism is there. If you lose your idea it is not a person, who stole your idea fault. It is your fault because you gave the information away. It is a difficult lesson to learn but it is the one I would say in the business that you can learn most by trusting your own gut feeling. I knew that guy that came to me and had a bad gut feeling about him. And didn’t listen to it.
Intuition is a very powerful force.
Women are ideally set up to run the business. We time manage, we people manage, we are great organizers, we are good with the accounts and women have an intuition which we choose not to use some of the time. You know whether a business deal is good or bad. You know if a customer is bad and if they are going to pay or they are just saying it. You know in advance. This is why I think women make great business people.
If there is an emergency, how do you cope with stress, challenging situations? Do you have some kind of protocol? What do you do in such situations?
We stop and we breathe. Majority of people don’t stop and breathe when they are in an emergency situation but this is the key. Your mind can not operate while it is in a fighter flight mode. Stop, breathe and understand there are 3 options at least. It is not only a, b option. We stop thinking after 2 but you can do all those things as well. Plus you also have a team – if you have a team, rely on your team. It is also about prioritizing. Is it a real emergency? Often when there is an emergency it is not a real emergency especially if these are the things at work. If it is family it comes first above everything else even for me and my staff. If my staff call and some family had gone to the hospital they are told to leave immediately. Even for holidays. They are told to leave as they need that refreshment. Emergencies happen. I was in Brussels, my daughter was 5 months pregnant, she lost the baby and I had to go to the UK. It is all organized. I went, my daughter number 2 took over the business in the meantime.
If we move to the personal side of your motivation. Do you have a mentor?
I had 5. I have 2 or 3 now. Male. I can not find a female mentor.
What are you missing in a female mentor?
I am missing somebody to take to next level on fighting for women’s rights without being the strong feminist…
… who can sometimes push people way as they can be too harsh?
Yes, especially with men. I also want to grow to the next level as a leader. I do not want to be in politics because I know you can do better outside of politics. I would like to be the influencer of change. And you can do that better outside of the politics because I do not want to be linked to a party I do not believe in. Unfortunately, I do not believe in any political party. But as a leader, I would like to go up a little bit further with the decision making policies. Ideally, I would like to learn from a female, somebody like Christine Lagarde, even Violeta Bulc, she has done an amazing job in Europe. I would love to be in UN too in order to be able to influence the change but at the same time all those organizations, as I see, are as corrupt as politics.
Making seven billion ideas into action is a big goal and this is how you can indeed make a change.
Indeed. Everybody little idea ads up to the big change. It is like that famous quote by Neil Armstrong “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
What do you do to grow personally and in business?
You go to conferences where there are good keynote speakers you can learn from. Or you can watch TED talk where you can learn from. Or you can sit and have a coffee with people and always learn something forms somebody. Just have conversations.
Do you like to read books? Which book is currently on your nightstand?
I don’t. I am terrible. My language is very basic. That is because I do not read. When I am standing up speaking I’ve learned to speak in a simple language with small words because I speak to different people in different places in the world and I want them to understand my message. I like clear and simple messages. Books I can not put down are women in history, and usually they have been queens of England, and they write about how women were controlling the man. How the women were using their intuition and insight to drive changes in politics. Joan Bullard, Anne Boleyn, The six wives of Henry VIII. But if you ask me which book I would recommend to anybody… first of all, it would be my book (she smiles and says this a joke) I always recommend Think and grow reach by Napoleon Hill as the book is about the traits of successful people and understanding that once you know what it is that you want you can make the change.
It is funny. When I go to conferences people ask me if I am Robin Sharma‘s sister or if I read The Secret. I say no. I believe if you read those sorts of books it comes out in your words. I want to be the unique Madi. I like to give case studies of things that happened in my life.
You are active in many different areas. Where do you find your energy?
I’ve got seven billion ideas to do and I will not live forever. I have a choice. Either I lie in a bad in the morning and don’t do anything – in this case, my seven billion ideas won’t be achieved, or I keep busy and I keep working. But I do not get distracted. I work towards the same goal.
Is there any person that left a tremendous impact in your life?
If I have to pick there are two. Mahatma Gandhi because one man led a whole county and lead the change. The other one is the toilet cleaner. Nobody wants to do that job and yet nobody would go to work, shops, organizations where toilets are not clean.
Was that a specific cleaning lady? Who was she and what did she say?
She was in Croatia. I had 5 HRK left in my purse and I was not planning to go back to Croatia. This was about 15 years ago. I was thinking, “I’ve got this money and I will not use it”. I came out of the toilet and said “hvala” (thank you in Croatian) to the cleaning lady. She looked at me puzzled and in broken English asked something like, ”why you say thank you?” I answered, “thank you because it is clean”. And then I gave her 5 HRK. She almost cried. Nobody ever says thank you.
There is such a strange thing. We walk pass so many people that do so much for us and we forget to say thank you. In the mornings, when I am walking to work usually through a really nice square in Brussels, three cleaners are there. Amon them is a guy putting out chairs and tables for a bar. When I walk past them I just say, “bon jour, ca va”. One day the guy who was putting down the chair, he is slightly backwards, he called me back and asked, ”why are you the only person who says good morning?” “It is because you are doing something and it is nice to say hello as I see you every morning, “ I responded.
They were happy because you noticed them. They felt valuable.
Yes. When talking to people it is about recognizing that each of us has a talent and each of us can improve the life of another one.
The Leadership that inspires series is a monthly interview with successful businesswomen and businessmen sharing their leadership experiences with the intention to INSPIRE and to PROMOTE good leadership practices. They are exceptional, changing the world as we speak, and leaving their positive mark.
Mira Milovanović is a #success and #leadership mentor helping entrepreneurs to reach their next level and become unstoppable by focusing on the development of their leadership skills and optimizing their work.