Nino Zambadhikze, Head of the Georgian Farmers Association, completed her MBA at Grenoble École Management in 2016 and was selected by the World Economic Forum as one of the most innovative and social-minded leaders under 40. In an interview with David Woods-Hale, she talks about her career journey, her current goals and the need for greater investment in women in business.
Tell us about your career so far
Shortly after I graduated from the Humanitarian-Technical Faculty at Tbilisi Technical University, I went to New York to further my studies and took up a course in marketing.
I decided to launch my first business in the US. I took out a bank loan to buy up GAP jeans and send them to Georgia where my father’s friend was selling them in his shop. However, my father’s friend vanished, and I discovered there was no shop. This was my first failure.
I also recall becoming angry with my country. But I knew that if you jumped on a plane and flew just a few hours, an absolutely different life awaited. This was the biggest motivating factor in becoming an entrepreneur.
After returning to Georgia, I still had to pay back the $20,000 loan I had in the US. My family had to sell everything in order to pay the money. These hard times lasted for almost a year, but in 1998, I started working as an interpreter for a Greek businessman operating in Georgia. I learned a lot from my employer; however, problems quickly arose as the businessman was forced to leave Georgia.
I found a job at an audit company in Tbilisi, where I met Beso Babunashvili, my eventual business partner. We started to export non-ferrous metals from Georgia and also opened a coffee house. In 2005, we launched the first three take-away coffee booths in Tbilisi.
One day in 2007, Beso went to Akhaltsikhe and bought two cows. This led us to launch a cheese production business. We submitted an application to the Millennium Challenge project and received US$125,000 in funding. Then I moved from Tbilisi to Akhaltsikhe and opened a farm. We created an agricultural company which is mostly in the milk-processing business, as well as animal-husbandry and food processing.
What does a typical day at the Georgian Business Zone look like for you?
I had already started my work with the Georgian Business Zone when I met Petre Tsiskarishvili, the Minister of Agriculture at that time. I told him I wanted to buy highly productive cows and start producing cheese. With the funds from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, we started to build a milk-processing plant. The only problem was that we couldn’t find a technician with modern knowledge in milk processing and cheese production. So I travelled to Turkey to study the profession, and also became a food safety manager.
When September came, the cows stopped producing milk. I thought the cattle needed fodder, so I took out another loan to build a fodder-producing plant. But it turned out that the problem was due to the genetics of the cows. We eventually built our farm with the help of the Cheap Credit Programme and now produce 400kg of cheese daily. We have 100 cows, 70 hectares of agricultural land, 300 hectares of pasture fields, a five-hectare apple orchard, and a fish farm too.
Mornings start very early in Tsnisi. After breakfast, I start to make the rounds at my businesses. After that, I go to my office where I take care of clerical tasks. In the evenings, I visit my friends and we drink coffee and talk. Days are long travelling from Akhaltsikhe to Tbilisi and back.
Tell us about your involvement with Invest For The Future (IFTF)
I am an Honourable Country Coordinator of IFTF for Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Greece. IFTF was designed to focus on improving the economic situation for women across Southern and Eastern Europe and Eurasia, and was initiated by the US Department of State. The IFTF brought women together to foster development and overcome barriers of gender inequality. I believe that while women are doing a lot of work, they are not being recognised properly.
Women’s talent needs to be discovered. At the Farmer’s Association, we feature stories about new projects on our Facebook page, and magazines also feature stories about our members. I think increasing their visibility will increase their sense of responsibility, which will result in their success. This is important because women’s participation in business helps economic growth, but it’s being overlooked in the region.
Furthermore, employed women are predominantly in low-paying sectors and the gender pay gap is high. I believe this can be changed by promoting women’s entrepreneurship by boosting access to finance for female-led businesses, improving local banks’ ability to serve the female market and help female entrepreneurs’ access business advice.
What were the highlights of your MBA and how has it changed your career trajectory?
I believe there are three key components for success: take risks, have willpower and, to some to extent, consider every failure a success. My MBA taught me how to use theoretical knowledge, how to learn from my mistakes, the importance of time management, and how to achieve my goals.
My goals include increasing agricultural productivity, defending farmers’ rights, developing legislative proposals in the field of agriculture, and strengthening farmers’ social and economic conditions. My MBA can help me to achieve these goals.
As for how my MBA changed my career trajectory, I started watching out for opportunities which come with the constantly changing business environment. This made me more self-confident and a more competitive businesswoman.
What was the most useful thing your MBA taught you?
The most important skills you can acquire in business school are the abilities to adapt, make the right decisions, become a real leader, and learn how to be a good in business. I reached a new level of confidence in my ability to make a decision with limited information. I learned that the difference between a great idea and great change is in the execution, but the person who comes up with a great idea is just as important.
The MBA is a pathway to global leadership – how do you address the cultural challenges?
As cross-cultural management compares organisational behaviour across countries and cultures and seeks to understand how to improve interaction around the world, I want to reduce the cross-cultural differences and raise awareness of these, in order to have better communication and cooperation in the workplace. To do this, employees have to know each other’s cultures and languages. This keeps employees integrated within the organisation so they cooperate with each other and attain shared goals.
It’s necessary to recognise different business cultures across the globe too. Every country follows a different management style and so managers have to take into consideration the key elements of each country, such as its religion and history.
How do you ensure your messages get to the right people in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment?
In a fast-moving world, the challenge is to retain a clear vision of what you want to achieve. This vision should be flexible in responding to unfolding situations but hold a consistent message. This means you need to be ready for change. Change is about survival but is especially necessary in organisations that wish to prosper in a VUCA environment.
Therefore, the question is what you are going to do to initiate change? What role are you going to assume? If you play the right role, then you and your organisation will survive for as long as the environment tolerates that role. A successful leader knows which role to play at what time, and knows when to change roles.
As people communicate in different ways, marketplaces are becoming busier and silos develop. How would you address this in business?
Execution of a project is the result of thousands of decisions made every day by top management. However, the right decision is one that can guarantee a long stay in the marketplace by ensuring maximum satisfaction of the consumer’s demands.
Organisations need to concentrate on quality, not on quantity, share technological achievements, and keep up with innovations and development. This way, they will gain the consumer’s confidence and become a competitive company in the world market.
What should responsible [and sustainable] leadership look like?
Sustainable leadership is about leading an organisation towards sustainable development, implementing socially responsible methods and acknowledging a shared responsibility for preventing the use of unjustified financial and human resources, and the violation of the environment. A good leader should involve employees in the company’s decision-making processes.
Sustainability is moving to the core of business strategy. What are the skills you’d look for in your team of the future?
It’s important to have friendly team where everyone has equal opportunities for development. It’s crucial to have team members who express their thoughts and ideas clearly, directly, honestly, and respectfully. Reliable team members are an important asset for any team, because they get work done. Also, good team players are active participants, fully engaged in the work of the team. They’re open to sharing their information, knowledge, and experience.
A good manager knows the most valuable asset is the team. Sustainable business is created when each employee considers themselves part of the company. This means employees can work together to solve problems. They respond to requests for assistance and take the initiative to offer help.
What would your advice be to MBA students and graduates?
Make best use of this time, and gain theoretical knowledge and information about practical issues. Be results orientated and make an effort to achieve success in your career. Also, it’s important to ask questions until there are no more answers. After finishing each module during my MBA, I thought ‘that’s enough’, but that was exactly the time to move forward. Knowledge is the biggest investment you can have, and the practice is the most solid foundation.
Do you think business schools and employers have sufficiently strong links?
Business schools and employers have links, but it’s not enough. We all know how it should be but it doesn’t happen in real life. Business schools have to keep up with modern trends and adapt their programmes to the latest innovations. I think it’s very important for business schools to be focused on giving their students more theoretical knowledge based on interesting and practical real cases. Obvious mismatches between business schools and employers occur when the business school does not take into account the changing business environment. Also, when businesses are less involved with MBA programmes, their expectations for future employees’ skills are inadequate.
As a successful female leader, what would your advice be to other aspiring women?
Never give up, never be afraid of the risk and don’t be afraid to make a mistake.
I know the challenges women face every day because they’re ‘the weaker sex’. To achieve equality, we need more education, more support, more female involvement at governmental and non-governmental levels, and more women in leading positions. Especially, in terms of business, I would like women to have more educational programmes, more grants for projects, and more empathy from financial institutions.
Do you feel optimistic about the future of business and the global economy?
Yes, business is not just a way to gain money but a way to impose social responsibility and care about environmental problems.
Businesses need to do this to stay in the world market, and make a financial profit in the long term.