Arriving home in England after a whirlwind tour of Saudi Arabia, I step out of the taxi and set foot inside my house in Epsom, Surrey. The plane was a little delayed into Heathrow and it’s past my daughter’s bedtime, but I am delighted to see that she’s waited up for me in her nightie. My husband hugs me and takes off my coat as I kick off my heels and collapse onto the squishy kitchen sofa, exhausted but happy. It’s been a good trip and I’ve met some amazing women and shared some incredible stories.
I was born in Lithuania in the 1970s, when our little country was still behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ and part of the communist Soviet Union. I was lucky enough to grow up in a close-knit, happy family with a younger sister and parents who both worked full-time. My father was a businessman and my mother was a well-respected primary school head teacher. Education was central to our world. My parents would drum it into us – “expand your mind, learn, study and grow”. I loved school and had a great memory for information; languages came easily for me and from an early age I knew that Lithuania, my proud Baltic nation, would be just the beginning. When it came to further study after finishing school at 18, I decided to pursue science and was given the opportunity at 22 to transfer to a university in Leeds, in the North of England. I arrived in the UK as a pretty innocent, sheltered young woman and quickly got a taste of the real side of life living independently so far from home. But I loved it.
Growing up, we had travelled as a family to Russia, Poland and the local states and even from a young age I knew I was destined for a cosmopolitan life, mixing with other cultures and nationalities. Different customs and traditions really inspired me and by the start of my twenties I could speak Polish, French, English and Russian as well as my mother tongue. Leeds was a great insight into a different life for me, and it was where I really grew up into a self-reliant adult. I discovered had a strong work ethic and began working part time while studying.
The 90’s was the dawn of the great British home obsession. It was all about home makeovers on TV and in the stores. We were all de-cluttering, streamlining and neutralising our colour schemes, and I quickly noticed a gap in the market for a range of quality, contemporary accessories to dress these more minimal interiors. At the time I was travelling home to see the family in Lithuania - the land of traditional glassmaking - and I decided to start a little cottage business making handmade glass pieces to meet this need. It was the perfect time to revive local glass traditions and bring them to a wider, more style-conscious modern audience. I called the company Svaja, which means ‘dream’ in Lithuanian, and set up in a very small way. My landlord in Leeds recommended an accountant and it all started from there. I started to exhibit the little collection at craft fairs and markets, and they sold. Orders got bigger and in eighteen months I moved up to the major UK trade shows and, being a bit different, we attracted the attention of some of the world’s top retailers - the ball was rolling. We now have a global operation with regional offices in Britain, Japan and the USA. We’ve retained the parts of a family business structure and overlaid them with the needs of an international operation. We are agile and innovative and keep the lines of communication with all of our clients, be they the finest hotels or an individual retail customer.
I’m so proud and delighted that I could bring local Baltic skills to a wider international audience. The people I work with are master artisans and it’s been great to give their businesses a new lease of life and some fresh cosmopolitan air. Our designs are super modern and it’s a funny sight to see me tripping through these steamy, hot, traditional workshops in my high heeled boots, to illustrate my ideas to a burly glass man.
The biggest challenge for me as a businesswoman, and the nearest we came to disaster, was the day last summer when we got the call to tell us that our main glass production workshop had a major technological failure. It was full steam ahead one minute with the furnaces making our huge number of international orders for large department store chains around the globe; the next morning the place was not operational. I had spent many years putting a team and processes in place where they could produce to our exacting standards and suddenly we couldn’t provide any clients with any stock. It was a huge, huge blow. In time we managed to relocate our operation and after lots of hard work – with me literally sweating in the workshops trying to show them what I meant – we started production again. Lots of challenges came out of it and it will be some time before things are completely back on an even keel, but at least we can service our main clients. Many of them stuck with us through the process, purely based on the goodwill and trust we had built up with them as we grew together over the years. That was a good lesson in the importance of good, healthy and positive relationships. Karma maybe?
The business now takes me all over the world to work on bespoke projects for private clients, to visit retail customer in all corners of the globe and to share my experiences and stories. I always knew I wanted a family of my own and, again, in my mother’s tradition, knew I could juggle the two. I now am happily married and a very proud mother to a nine-year-old daughter. As a wife, mum and businesswoman, I understand the complexities of the female balancing act. We always want to be the best in each area but often something has to give, somewhere. My daughter is a happy, bright independent girl and rather than being clingy when I go away for work, is proud to wave me off on my travels. Her friends think I am a cool mum for doing an exciting job and love to hear my tales of far off cultures and places. I love picking her up from school after a hard day in the office and goofing around with her at home – nothing blows away the office cobwebs like that!
I realize now how much my mother inspired me to work, to never feel second best, even in a very masculine world like glass making. I’m proud to carry on her traditions. When she sadly died some years ago, the funeral was overrun with well-wishers, people of all ages who she had made an impact on through her teaching and life. She instilled morals and huge encouragement to generations in my home town. I am proud to be her daughter and carry on her high standards of living.
What do I see for the future? To see my daughter become an independent, positive young woman; to keep steering Svaja’s global expansion; and to have the time to work with women in emerging countries like Saudi Arabia. Nothing feels better for my soul and spirit than to spend time working with them, sharing my experiences, listening to their stories, helping to inspire and guide them in their roles as modern women. I hope this will be a big part of my future path. It’s funny when I look back at how I arrived in the UK: a fresh faced young woman with no particular goals. Now I look at myself and realize how driven I am - to succeed in business, while having a happy balanced family life. More than anything I want to make my time on the planet as memorable and impactful as I can and leave a positive impact on everyone I have touched.