Inna is the co-founder and CEO of “Heybaby.kz”. Prior to that she held position of Vice-Director of Samruk-Kazyna Invest LLP, which is an investment consulting subsidiary of the Samruk-Kazyna JSC (Sovereign Wealth Fund). Before joining SKI, Inna was a Director of Macroeconomic Department of National Chamber of Entrepreneurs of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Inna also had extensive work experience as a project manager at National Analytical Center under the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan, where she served as a team member in the creation of the Strategic Plan of the Development of Kazakhstan 2020.
Inna is an Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program Recipient (U.S. Department of State). She graduated from University of Nebraska at Omaha and has an M.S. in Economics from Moscow State University.
She enjoys snowboarding, figure skating and volleyball. Network Capital caught up with her to learn about her career choices.
1. What do you do? What drives you? What is your vision?
So, we are a team of four girls who, despite not having all the core or industry-specific education and relevant experience, have built a successful business in a highly competitive industry in a country where, historically at least, light industry has not been developed. That imposes several serious obstacles in terms of its management. Therefore, the first thing that drives me is new challenges and difficulties that do not break me, but make me smarter, more experienced and stronger.
We create clothes, understanding the needs of women very well, making their buying experience joyful and emotional, and the experience of wearing the clothes satisfying, confidence-building and comfortable. Therefore, the second thing that drives me is the pleasure of seeing the ultimate result of my work
One might question what distinguishes us from a million other women’s brands? Perhaps it’s the fact that we carefully study all the seasons’ colours and style trends and apply them on a deep understanding of what is best for our women, considering their colour type and body shape. So, we don’t just make fashionable and trendy items, we create something stylish.
My vision is to make clothes which make a woman the best version of herself externally and internally: beautiful, confident and free. Our clothing not only makes a woman look beautiful, but also feel the best.
We started in 2014 with a team of four people, 10 skirts, and a photo shoot at home with a white sheet as a background! Today we run our own production with 22 employees, two stores in the largest shopping centres of the country in Astana and Almaty, and a 20-fold increase in turnover.
We are often asked how four girls could manage to build a business and not quarrel or fall out with each other! The Russian billionaire entrepreneur Mikhail Fridman (Alfa Bank, Dea, Vimpelcom, X5 Retail Group) once said: “The most important business achievement is that I was able to build it with my friends and not lose friendship.” So, we also build a business from friendship and we are sure that if we lose that friendship, then it never was.
Corporate experience has given me a lot – incredible stress resistance and discipline, understanding the importance of business reputation and the strength of keeping your word. I learned how to communicate with different people with different levels of education, professional and life experience and learned how to easily build strong contacts with them. Now all this is priceless in business.
2. If you were to reflect upon your career, what would be some of the most defining moments that have shaped your professional journey?
As a 30 year old, despite doing quite well in the corporate world, I struggled to find meaning. In my heart, I knew that I wanted to create something of my own.
A few days before I took the decision to write my letter of resignation, I watched a movie about people of a high caliber – bold, desperate, risky, and motivated enthusiasts. There was a phrase that literally stuck in my mind: “There are people whose life is much harder than others, and they have to do better. And if a person has decided to live by a dream, then he has to work doubly hard. That’s why most of them are afraid to live their dream!”
I took the risk and I quit my job and started to live the dream and run a business.
3. Who are your mentors? How do they help you?
I would name four people who have played a pivotal role in my path of becoming an entrepreneur.
- Kairat Akhmetov: He is a Kazakhstani serial entrepreneur and innovator. He’s a friend and the spouse of one of our partners. He is our main investor, mentor, motivator and inspirer. Although we know what we’re doing we sometimes need another rational point of view and he always draws our attention to implementing new technology
- Yegor Rudy – is a Russian innovator and entrepreneur, the winner of the “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” award by Ernst & Young and the “Businessmentor” in 2013, the founder of the Profi.ru service, an angel investor. Our first private investor, a man of exceptional mind and charisma. He just once said that I will be the best CEO. I believed it and went for it.
- Inna Apenko is the founder of the first Kazakhstani brand of children’s clothing MIMIORIKI. We try to close the gaps in our knowledge by addressing experienced players in the market. A year and a half ago at a conference we turned to Inna, a woman who had 10 years’ experience in the field of light industry in Kazakhstan and asked her about mentoring. Now, at least once every six months, we hold 2-3 hour sessions where Inna looks at our business from another angle, gives advice and insight, and introduces us to other useful market participants
- Peter Korbett is the founder and CEO of iStrategyLabs (a full service digital agency with offices in DC & NYC who build campaigns, products, experiences, and create content for the world’s biggest brands). He is not a mentor in the truest sense of the word, but he motivated me to not hesitate and leave the corporate world without doubts, engage in a business and never regret this decision.
Our mentors help us think things through from different angles, nurture ambiguity and embrace challenges with a growth mindset.
4. If you were to give your 18-year-old self some advice, what would it be? Would the advice be different to your 30-year-old self? If yes, what?
I would tell my 18-year-old self to frantically and eagerly acquire new knowledge. This could be from additional courses, student grants and projects, conferences and workshops, even better if they are international. And travel more. Nothing gives better knowledge of life than a journey.
To myself at 34 years old I have only one piece of advice to be strong and not be afraid to take risks. Fear should not restrict you; it’s only an emotion – an aching feeling. When the problem passes you will have a nice feeling of relief in contrast to a sense of fear.
5. What is the next big personal / professional ambition / target for you?
We have just opened two stores in the largest shopping centres of the country. This is a highly consuming process from a financial and energy point of view. The retail side of our business is up and running. Therefore, my next professional goal is to optimize our production and make it lean, efficient and flexible in covering our sales needs.
6. What advice would you like to give to students and young professionals?
The same as for my 18-year-old self, to work hard and be thirsty for new knowledge, new challenges and new networks.