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After Words

1996: Taking Care of Business in the Czech Republic

Entrepreneurs, says Helena Stolka, have to be nurtured--especially in a brand-new market economy like the Czech Republic.

"I'll give you an example of the kind of thing that has happened to me over and over again," she says, reflecting on the two-year stint she's just finished as executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic. "You ask someone, 'Did the fax go out?' And instead of getting a simple yes or no, you get a ten-minute dissertation.

"Then you ask, 'So that's why it didn't go out?' 'Well, no,' comes the answer. And blah, blah, blah. . . .

"Under the Communists, people were discouraged from taking responsibility, and this giant culture of mediocrity developed. Every situation had to have a scapegoat. So communication is a challenge--but it's also part of the fun."

For the past two years, Stolka has headed up the Czech branch of the organization known as "AmCham," devoted to promoting trade relations between the United States and the Czech Republic and furthering the business interests of nearly 300 corporate members.

"This is the kind of business environment where companies still need to network, make contacts, get through all the rigmarole," she says. "It's not quite the Wild West where investment is a risk-- you can invest in this country, you have some security, bank deposits are insured --but business is still based on who you know, how you can get through the rubber-stamp process."

Things are moving in the right direction, in her view. "The economy is doing quite well. Inflation is around 10 percent a year, which seems high by Western standards, but it's manageable. I think the country has come an incredible distance, especially under the leadership of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. He has mixed popularity--some consider him too radical, but you can't get to a market economy slowly."

At AmCham, Stolka has spent much of her time aiding and abetting that market economy--building relationships with Czech policy makers and corporate leaders, working with nine committees to develop position papers on various areas of the business climate, and advising potential investors in the country. One of her toughest tasks was dealing with the country's low-tech phone system, she says. "Only 15 percent of the population has a phone line, and in most of those cases, it's an old-fashioned party line. If you apply to get a phone, you can wait 10 years."

Another challenge was--and still is-- the bureaucracy. "If I want to send out an invoice for tickets to an event, for example, or if I send out a fax, I have to put a rubber stamp on it so people will know it's official. To get permits, you have to bring flowers or chocolate or money. I don't do money."

However, she says, "I do speak Czech, which makes it easier to get around." Stolka was born in Czechoslovakia and left with her family in 1969, when she was 5 years old. "The Prague Spring was in 1968, so that's when we started trying to leave the country. Eventually, in the fall of '69, we got a permit--an exit visa, allowing us to leave for a limited period of time. Then we just didn't go back."

To some extent, she says, Czechs who stayed felt "a lot of resentment toward people like us who packed up and left behind families and belongings. It was seen as an act of cowardice, but I believe exactly the opposite: As I heard the story, we got our exit visas on a Friday, on Sunday we were on the plane, on Monday my father went to work at his new job, and on Wednesday we kids were in school. And none of us spoke a word of English. I can't call that cowardice."

Then in November 1989 came what's known as the Velvet Revolution. "That's when the Communist government fell. It started with East Germany and Poland and, once it got going, there was an incredible domino effect. All of a sudden this whole new part of the world opened up--and something started pulling me back, telling me to go, to seek my fortune. I really wanted to be where my roots are, where family still is, where I have some background. And it's very nice, very satisfying to be here."

What's ahead for her now that she's finished her AmCham job? At this writing, she was negotiating with executives at SPT Telecom, the Czech phone company, for a high-level position in marketing. "In terms of the country's infrastructure--in the phone system or in banking, for instance--there's so much ground to be made up. It would be interesting to be part of such a rapid change. I want to be in an environment where people think aggressively in making business decisions."

1986: The Marrying Kind?

If someone had predicted 10 years ago that her friend Helena Stolka would become a business leader in an emerging capitalist country, would Barbara Bliss Mahnke '86 have been surprised?

"Yes, definitely!" declares Mahnke, who is a field-engineering manager for Siecor Corporation, a North Carolina company that makes fiber-optic cable. "She was the one who was destined to find a very good husband and settle down and raise a family soon after college."

Instead, Mahnke reports, Stolka went to Boston, and that's when she realized she could take charge in a business environment. She worked for six years at Executive Perspectives, a company that creates computer-based business simulations for high-technology companies, and rose to become a project manager and program-delivery contractor.

Today, says her former roommate and fellow swim-team alumna, "Here I am, the stepmother of two and mother of one--and she's laughing because I was always the independent one!"

Denise Bolger Kovnat

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