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Expat AND entrepreneur... is it possible?

The entrepreneurial adventures of Wendy Kohler Boothman, creator of "" as she describes them. The highs and lows of setting up businesses as a foreigner. A true vademecum for anyone willing to get into business.

The entrepreneurial history starts in Europe – Portugal, between 1967 – 1973

Aged 18, I was part of a 3 person team that started JUNO, the first model agency in Portugal.
I was born in South Africa and my parents (families from UK) had moved to Europe because of our schooling.  Up until age 13, my passion was classical ballet and I was accepted for a year at the Royal Ballet School but grew too tall to continue there, so went on to a wonderful, academic school in Switzerland where there were 38 nationalities.
After learning a couple more languages (French & Italian – while speaking fluent Portuguese) completing my GCE O and A levels, I returned to live full time with my parents who were living back in Portugal at the time.  Unfortunately, I was not encouraged to go to university, and after a family incident I was required to remain with my mother and help with my younger brother and two sisters who were still in school in the UK.

After a few months of sheer boredom I joined the British Amateur Dramatic group (where there is a British Embassy there is usually an Am Dram group) and got a part in a play – The Glass Menagerie. During a break in rehearsal one evening a tall American man was introduced and he came up to me and asked: ”Hey cutie, do you want to be in my commercial?”  To cut a very long story short, I agreed – not for money, but for dinner!  After finishing the commercial (during which I was all antennae alert and forever asking questions about the business, I and my dinner with the director and grilled him all about how to run a model agency, assuring him the next time he was in town he would not need to shop around for extras!

I was just 18, and not allowed to have a business account without my father’s permission… and he was not there to give me that, so I went to a friend of my mother’s who was the first Miss South Africa after WW2, and living in Portugal at the time, and suggested we go into partnership – hence JUNO was started.
The grooming school, model school and model agency quickly grew into a casting agency and production company for extravaganza fashion shows and product launches. A couple of years later I bought out my partners and opened an office in Madrid, Spain. I was the first ever outside agency to receive official representation of the British Fashion Export Council – a govt. agency whose mandate was to promote British ready-to-wear, and my territory was Iberia, a market they had tried to break into for a few years by never succeeded… I did.  How?  Because I had a profound understanding of, and respect for, the Portuguese and Spanish cultures.

After 6 years I sold the business and 6 months later there was the Portuguese revolution… thank goodness I had placed my money out of the country!  Did I have my thumb on the pulse of the Portuguese political scene or what!!! Or was it just luck!!!! Or was it time to enjoy my babies!!! Or was it time to move on!!!!

So, what did I learn from the JUNO experience?

  • Be alert and aware for business (and personal) opportunities.
  • Be curious and inquisitive  – and always be open to learning.
  • Be flexible, quick thinking and innovative enough to grab opportunities and move forward with them.
  • To succeed in other cultures make time to truly understand and discover the nuances of that culture including religion, food, traditions, dress codes, social traditions etc. and be sure to respect them to the max.
  • Wherever there is a British Embassy, find out what social groups are tied to the embassy, such as book clubs, amateur dramatic groups, card playing, sports groups etc. and join.  Even if you are not British you will find they are welcoming… and always remember to reciprocate.
  • Excellent home help is fundamental for a mother who works, even if working from home.

The story has a change of scene, still Europe but now based in London, England. The years are 1975 – 1979, commuting between Toronto and London!

After the revolution it was imperative I leave Portugal with my children. We had a house in London so I moved there with the children while my husband, an English fashion photographer, (now a successful published author and keynote speaker), considered where he wanted to re-start his career.
We chose Toronto, Canada, because it was very unsophisticated in the fashion and advertising arena, he did not want to return to the UK, and we had a connection in the Canadian Embassy… he landed in Toronto as a Portuguese carpenter!!!!!!

With no contacts in Toronto, I determined it would most unfair for him to start from scratch with the pressures of having a wife and children around, so decided to leave the children in their stable routine in London and I would commute back and forth to help him set-up his new business/studio.
This proved to be a good decision and the business grew fast, quickly establishing a high profile as we focussed on the more challenging aspect of fashion photography – menswear and women’s intimate apparel (underwear).

My responsibilities included styling, scheduling castings, PR, client relations, bookkeeping, HR, banking and general administration. The business became an important commercial/fashion studio with offices in Manhattan and Toronto.
Aside from commuting to Toronto and other travel involved in establishing the studio, I kept in touch with my contacts at the British Fashion Export Council, and was contracted to head export missions for the British Fashion Export Council, including establishing the collections in local markets and liaised with British Trade Missions in various countries including South Africa, Norway, Europe and Canada.
I was also contracted to coordinate the production in Portugal, and London launches, of U.K. top couture designer Bill Gibb’s suede collection.
Then in 1979 it was time to move the family to Toronto.

What did I learn from this experience?

Along with all from above, include:

  • Networking is critical – maintain contact with people you meet and work with along the journey of life.  Send Christmas cards, postcards when travelling, snippets of information you think would be useful to them +++ Email is great for sharing information fast, but be more creative.
  • Develop a strong family and friend support system… you will quickly learn who you can rely on!
  • It’s OK to ask for help.
  • A good sense of humour is critical!

The adventure takes us to North America, based in Toronto. Years 1983 – 1985. The business is Corporate Images, an audiovisual production company

The studio had started to become involved in a new communication technique called audiovisuals (AV)….  Up to 36 slide projectors linked in batches of 3 to a computer (called a Dove), which in turn were linked to the master computer that was programmed to ‘fire’ the slides in sequence – either to music, narration or a combination of both, projecting onto single or wide screens. Video later replaced AV.
By now, my husband had become well known throughout North America as an excellent “lifestyle” photographer, which was a critical skill for exciting audiovisual productions.

We recognised a business opportunity and formed Corporate Images, an audiovisual production company, with a 3rd person - a producer. I was responsible for general administration including PR, client relations, bookkeeping, HR, banking and some production and sales.  We had a full time production staff of 15 and base of 12 part-timers.  Within the first year Corporate Images grew to become an important North American audiovisual production boutique, producing extravaganza 36 projector shows with an envied roster of clients from Mexico, USA and Canada. Year one revenues exceeded $ 1.2M.

After a couple of years I predicted the short life of AV and proposed expanding the business to include print and other communication technologies, since we produced all the components in-house, including typesetting and camera special effects.
My husband thought this was a good idea, but our partner balked – he did not understand the other techniques and felt threatened!  I decided I wanted out, too frustrated by the thought of not maximising on the shift in the market and sold out.

And, what did I learn from this experience?

Along with all from above, include:

  • Be extremely selective when choosing a partner and triple check credentials and personal lifestyle.
  • Know what you want! Most people can tell you what they don’t want, while few have a deep understanding of what the do want.
  • Conversation is an art…most people enjoy talking and it constantly amazes me the information people will share if you ask the right question.
  • Trust and believe in your instincts.
  • Have the courage to follow your instincts.

The real adventure begins: working from home 1985 – 1992

In the meantime I had a couple more children, so with three teenagers at home and a couple of young children I decided it was important for me to, and I wanted to, work from home. I established a corporate communications virtual consultancy serving corporate and governmental clients throughout North America.
I managed a stable of 30+ freelance suppliers while creative directing and coordinating high-level multi-media projects from concept to delivery. Projects varied from corporate image, marketing, event design and management, research and municipal strategic planning & economic development.
The evolution of telecommunications - faxing and video conferencing – and subsequently computers into the office, made a formidable home based office very achievable. In particular in the communications business where I went to my clients – they did not visit my office.
During this time we bought a farm 100 klms. east of Toronto and moved the family out of the city.  I was concerned that my business might suffer, but that was not the case since I found myself with more clients around North America – rather than in Toronto, hence travel was an integral part of connecting with my clients.
To efficiently manage my production teams, I became creative in finding fun spaces to meet at in locations convenient to all, and thorough knowledge of all the production processes was critical to creative briefings.
In 1992 a real challenge presented itself and I decided it was an opportunity to spend more time closer to home.

So, what did I learn from this experience?

Please add the following:

  • People will go the extra mile for you if you treat them with respect.
  • In business, don’t take rejection personally.
  • It’s OK to suggest a “test” project to a prospective client – if all works well, then full steam ahead at full value.
  • You don’t have to put up with rude clients or work with rude people… there are plenty more out there for the picking.
  • Have the courage to stand firm on your personal and professional ethics, standards and values and accept nothing less.
  • Always remember, in your clients’ eyes you are only as good as your last project.
  • Celebrate your successes.
  • Seek opportunities to give credit.
  • A strong marriage or relationship is precious. If you are in a good marriage or relationship, make sure to make time for being together when you focus exclusively on each other; and if you have children, make family time a priority. If you are in an unhappy or unfulfilling marriage or relationship – get out of it… you’re wasting your time and never think you can change the other person!!!!!!

Another leap... 1992 – 1995 Municipal Politics… Baptism by fire!

Having lived and worked in many countries, I always exercised my right to vote, where I could, but was never profoundly interested in the political process at a local level.  My South African heritage caused me to be acutely aware of human rights and the pervasive hatefulness of racism, not only of colour but also cultural.
One day I received a phone call from the newly elected woman Mayor Nancy Diamond, of the City of Oshawa, Ontario, Canada  (pop. 140,000), respectfully inviting me to meet with her a.s.a.p.  I did so that afternoon.

Oshawa is where the automotive giant General Motors started, and today the home of the largest autoplex in North America and Canadian corporate headquarters.  GM Detroit had decided to close 2 lines down in North America, and Oshawa was one of the threatened plants.  Mayor Diamond had called me in to produce the report making the case for NOT closing the line down in Oshawa… and I had 4 days to deliver!
I made a successful case – in fact GM increased a line in Oshawa - and this resulted in a 3 year consulting contract to Mayor Diamond’s office on Strategic Planning & Economic Development. As a member of the implementation team to overhaul the administrative structure of the Corporation of the City of Oshawa, including creating the office of City Manager and Department of Economic Development, I became acutely aware of the overlapping redundancies in government administrative structures, often encouraged by the lack of academic qualifications and/or business experience of the politicians staff report to. I developed a successful strategy to expand the airport including a proposal for a combined municipal, regional, provincial and federal funding strategy.

What did I learn from this experience?

  • Diplomacy is a real skill – a valuable skill, and the basics should be taught in High School.
  • Good elected representatives read all the reports.
  • Consensus building is a fundamental skill for any Mayor or political leader.
  • National competitions for key City staff are a must.
  • Stick to your ethics, standards and values.
  • Lead by example.
  • A life in politics, at all levels, is all consuming!
  • Be aware of your health and pay attention when your batteries need recharging.

After my stint at City Hall I needed to make time for myself, my husband and our children and took a couple of years off to travel, garden, knit, sew, read, do sports and enjoy my friends – then one of our daughters got engaged, so, plan a wedding in Portugal.  It was the year of Expo. 98, scheduled to take place in Lisbon. The last International Exhibition of the millennium.

The adventure continues: June - July 1998 Trouble shooting at "Expo 98"

Since we were going to be spending time in Portugal for the wedding, I decided to check into opportunities with the Canadian government concerning Expo.  I was contracted by the Canadian Prime Minister’s Export Mission to troubleshoot for the Canadian Marine Technology floating exhibit – an ice breaker -, moored off Lisbon’s Expo 98 site for 2 months.
To mediate, intermediate, intercede, interpose, interface, intervene, negotiate, arbitrate, compromise and meet half-way are all verbs that describe troubleshoot – now try that in 4 languages, multiple levels of 3 governments (Portuguese, Canadian and UK [ship coming via UK]) including agencies such as Harbour Commissions and Customs & Excise, plus regularly putting out fires without treading on the toes of the Canadian Mission in Lisbon while dealing with the separate Canadian Mission at Expo., and that was the basis of the actual job – not requirements per the job description!!!!
My Portuguese network became critical. My profound understanding of the cultures and how best to communicate within them imperative, and understanding when to say “no” and admitting “I don’t know” fundamental in moving issues forward, fast.

Add to the “What did I learn from this experience?” list:

  • It is possible to create challenging and interesting work for yourself any place – any time!
  • My credo “Never take no for an answer” was successfully confirmed multiple times (but its OK for you to say ‘no’!!!!).
  • It’s OK to ask for help, as we have learnt already.
  • Learn to quickly define, recognise and develop good rapport with the people who can be most helpful on a project. Make sure to give them credit each time they pull through for you, and public recognition when appropriate.
  • Keep the sense of humour level high.

Later that year my husband became seriously ill and needed my 150% support.  Naturally he became the centre of my attention for a couple of years, and I am proud to say he is fully recovered and successfully launched into a new career.

The current challenge: 2001 to date – Giving women the courage to succeed in business

In 2001 I began to have itchy brain, restless mind, and contemplated “what next?”.
After reviewing my life so far, I determined I did not want to return to the world of corporate communications and was up to the challenge of something new.  I always looked for opportunities to empower women to take control of their lives financially and conceived, researched, tested and launched – online support and advice for working women. The online service is free with current membership of 2,500 + representing women from 17 countries.  The membership is made up of women entrepreneurs with HBBs (Home Based Businesses), SMEs (Small to Medium size Enterprises) and mid to senior levels within corporations.
The slogan " gives women in business the courage to succeed" captures my passion to inspire and energize women to take control of their lives financially.

What am I learning from this experience?

  • Practice what you preach.
  • Treasure contacts that follow through with their commitments.
  • Be fluid and flexible.
  • Keep Business Plan flexible.
  • Make sure you have 3 years of mortgage and car payments in the bank before you start. There is nothing unhealthier than stress over money.
  • Be sure you know what you want both for yourself personally and your business.

And I am still learning much much more……

It seems that the consensus around “success” is millions of pounds/Euros/dollars in the bank!
I am often asked for my definition of “success” and would like to share it with you:
“Success is living the lifestyle of your choice”.

Wishing you much luck and success,

Wendy Kohler Boothman
Tel./Fax: 1-905-983-9496
Email: [email protected]
" gives women in business the courage to succeed"


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