Being an introvert in the cut-throat world of business

Stylerunner founder and BMW ambassador Julie Stevjana

Stylerunner founder and BMW ambassador Julie Stevjana discusses being an introvert in the cut-throat world of business, learning to love the limelight and an ambition to become an inventor.

As a child, I was very quiet and introverted, often lost in my own world and imagination. I loved to read and learn, especially science. While my twin sister would be outside playing with neighbours or friends, I’d often be reading or learning about the human body or the solar system. I loved facts and figures and science as a kid, so I guess you could say as a child, I was the nerdy one. At school, I was quiet and studious. I loved maths and science and have to admit, I looked forward to tests.

No matter what I’m doing, I’m either 110 per cent in or I’m not in at all. My parents emigrated to Australia in the ’70s and worked very hard – my mum in a factory and my dad mostly on building sites. My parents always told me to study hard and encouraged me to go to university so that I could live a better life, and my early beginnings definitely gave me drive and determination. I think this has definitely played a part in what we’ve achieved so far at Stylerunner.

I was always inventing things as a child and I still do. I see things that don’t work as they should, and my mind whirs with how they could be solved. I immediately dream up solutions like a system to keep cables tidy, or a box cutter that runs seamlessly along edges with a 90-degree guard. Often I’d find they were already invented!

When I was in my late teens, I saw a gap in the swimwear market so I put together a business plan, had samples made in China, and applied for a government grant. The interview process was unnecessarily patronising by a male panel member and it put me off starting something. Perhaps I should have had more grit then, but it took my first job at a start-up (streaming video on demand service MUBI, in London) to really get the start-up bug and embrace my entrepreneurial side. I loved everything about it.

When I had the lightbulb moment around the activewear gap, there was no turning back. I did some initial research, but ultimately I believed in the idea so much, I decided to back my judgement and make it happen. I’ve always believed in pursuing your dreams relentlessly. There’s only one person standing in your way and that’s you! My parents always encouraged me growing up. They always told me I could be anything I wanted, even when I briefly wanted to be an astronaut as a kid! They made me believe anything was possible if I wanted it enough.

My ‘aha’ moment occurred when I fell in love with Bikram yoga and was unable to find exciting, fresh, fashion forward activewear. This was while I was working for the tech start-up in London and I was enjoying Bikram so much that I was going five days a week. The idea to start a destination dedicated to this just hit me all at once while I was in savasana at the end of a sweaty Bikram class. I somehow knew in that moment that the idea would work and that I had to do this.

I reasoned that if I was having this issue, then surely women who love to shop all over the world were having the problem too. From that moment, I had a one track mind that I needed to fill this gap in the market. We set a three-month target to build a website and launch by the summer. That is where it all started!

I struggled early on with learning how to be a good leader. I have always been a bit on the quiet side and very much a ‘doer’. I would always just like sitting at my desk and working quietly to get as much done as possible. I’ve always had a strong work ethic and leading by example I thought was a good strategy to motivate others. As Stylerunner grew and I started managing a bigger team, I discovered that my behaviour, although normal for me, wasn’t translating to my team well. I had one of my employees mention that she thought I didn’t like her because I did not speak much during the day. This was a total light bulb moment for me as this couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was then I learned that my approach to leadership needed to evolve because everyone works differently. Now I check in with my team a lot and ensure they are feeling valued, because my business is nothing without them!

In a professional sense and in terms of Stylerunner, success for me is building a business that is sustainable, innovative and resilient and a brand that is cherished by its customers. When Stylerunner is at a point that it can enjoy a longevity beyond me and can thrive and grow even if I am no longer part of the business, that would be success. We are not there yet but hopefully we are on our way – and I have no intention of going anywhere. On a personal level, I believe that success is not measured by achievements, professional or personal, but more about living your life in a way that fulfils your own purpose. I like the idea of living with intention, knowing what you are capable of and working to achieve that, and while I am definitely proud of what we have achieved with Stylerunner so far, success to me is a constant journey to self-actualisation and reaching goals that I set for myself.

If I had to describe myself to someone in an elevator I’d say ‘Hi, I’m Julie, I should probably be taking the stairs!’ I’m a daughter, wife, sister and CEO. I feel very fortunate to have a life filled with guidance, love and support that has enabled me to have the courage to take advantage of the opportunities that have come my way. I owe my success to those closest to me. As a friend, I’m definitely the diplomat. I think my introversion comes into play here. I am often surrounded by lots of people in my work life, so I prefer smaller catch-ups with my friends. I choose my close friends very carefully and I am very loyal, so spending quality time and investing in their lives is important to me. In love, I’m quite romantic. To me, love is a matter of remaining optimistic in the face of obstacles. I also think that showing vulnerability is important in relationships and that is how trust can be formed and maintained.

I think the public perception is that being in the spotlight is natural for me, but it has taken some getting used to. I am a confident person in a general sense but I am also naturally very introverted and quiet – I always have been. As a result, things like public speaking were never what I wanted to do, or was very good at, but since a public profile became part of the job, I’ve focused my energies on getting better. Even for magazine interviews like this one, getting answers out of me can be a bit like pulling teeth – just ask my PR team.

In the beginning, I was working 18-hour days, seven days a week to get Stylerunner off the ground. As a result, I had no time to work out (ironic, I know), so I did feel some discomfort around maintaining a certain image, especially in the new world of social media, which was such a big part of our business. Over time however, I learned that our community of women didn’t need to see me with perfect hair and make-up all the time and I wanted to remain authentic. Now I allow myself that freedom to be in the moment and not try to be perfect. Funnily enough, our customers respond even more positively as they are able to relate to me as a person, not a constructed profile. I won’t lie though – a photo shoot with an amazing glam squad is always a good day at the office.

With the level of success we’ve achieved, there are a few great perks. Most importantly for me, I have had the pleasure of meeting some of the most incredible business people who I have long admired. Beyond that though, life for me hasn’t changed all that much. The events are such a small (but fun) part of the job, however, most days you’ll find me at my desk, in meetings or hanging with friends and family in the same way I always have. If I could spend a day doing something completely different, I would maybe take the opposite route and live the life of a K-Pop star, since I’m already very fortunate to have access to some wonderful people in the business world.

I am fascinated with the way humans engage with technology. It has, and continues to change the shape of our society and how we all interact. I could definitely see myself (maybe in a few decades’ time) tinkering away on some new technology. I do worry that we as humans, we might be becoming desensitised by the amount of content we see on a daily basis. We all consume so much news and information each day through technology that I think sometimes, the really important global issues can just get lost in the noise.

Meeting Kej (my husband) was a chance encounter that changed the course of my life. I was at a networking event and was introduced to him by a mutual contact. As is often the case at these events, I was pulled out of that conversation to speak to someone else and we ended up on opposite sides of the room for most of the evening. I was a little disappointed; I wanted to get back over to speak to him (he was and still is very handsome!). Later in the evening I noticed something stuck to my shoe and it was his name tag that had fallen off his jacket and found its way to my shoe. I quickly seized that opportunity to strike up another conversation with him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Kej has been the most influential person in my life. We both lead tremendously busy professional lives but he is incredibly grounded and has taught me the importance of being present in each moment. Whether we are at work or at home, that is a skill that has taken some time to accomplish, but brings so much peace and purpose to our lives together. I hope this influence makes me a better wife, sister, daughter, friend and boss. I am incredibly lucky to have a great support network. My parents, siblings, husband and friends are all around me constantly as sources of guidance and as my biggest cheerleaders.

Finding a balance between my professional and private lives has been a challenge. Throughout the early days, it really was non-stop, that’s the reality of a start-up. There is always something that needs to be done, or you are constantly strategising about new ideas that it can be (and was) all consuming. Over time and learning from experience, I’m definitely making more time for balance these days. There was a shifting point for me where I felt I needed to find a more sustainable way to perform at my best, and now I find time to bring that balance. Since Stylerunner was born out of my love for Bikram yoga, working out – whether it’s yoga, a spin class or some HIIT – is something I always ensure is scheduled into my day. It comes first, not the other way around.

We’ve implemented ‘core hours’ for staff to enable the team to prioritise their health and wellbeing goals. This means we never book meetings outside the hours of 10am to 3pm. I love seeing our team members head off early for a boxing session or we’ll have a group yoga class in the office before the day starts. My view is that the happier and healthier we all are, the more productive and creative we can be once we are at our desks.

In the world of start-ups, you learn very quickly how to deal with criticism. It’s a fail-fast mentality, things move rapidly and the difference between success and failure often rests on your ability to identify errors and mistakes quickly and make changes to rectify them so you can keep moving forward. There is very little time for emotional responses in these moments. As a result, I learnt to embrace criticism as it presents an opportunity for improvement rather than dwelling on the problem.

There were so many instances in the early days where I would be disappointed if something didn’t pan out the way I had hoped. Over time, however, I’ve really learned that everything actually does happen for a reason and that missing out on the small stuff – a particular brand we wanted, a press hit, a big sale –is not a big deal. I know that over time you will always have more wins than losses as long as you put in the work. Hard work breeds opportunity and you never know what may happen tomorrow. That is the most exciting part of my job.

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