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Ivana’s Story: The American Dream Begins in the Czech Republic

The other day, I wrote about the birth of my first child, and how that led to the creation of the Baby Ota. I’ve been thinking about that moment a lot, and I realized that even though Lidia’s birth was the impetus for the Baby Ota, the groundwork for becoming a business owner was laid down in my childhood, very far from my current home in Austin.

I was born in a small village in the Czech Republic (though at the time, it was still Czechoslovakia) at the tail end of communism. Communism ended in the Czech Republic when I was four, but it remained a huge influence the entire time I was growing up. My parents worked hard and tried their best, but it was not an easy era. They were often frustrated by the difficulties of raising a family in an economically turbulent country. However, we were able to stay self-sufficient by raising pigs, rabbits, chickens and ducks, as well as growing big gardens. If you could eat it, we were raising or growing it!

When I say a small village, I mean a really small village. There were only about 3,000 people in the town where I grew up. As any of you from small towns know, growing up where everybody knows everybody isn’t easy. My mom always knew what I had been up to by the time I got home.

My older brother, Tomas somehow avoided the pitfalls of small town life. He’s five years older than me and has always been my mom’s favorite. I heard everyday how much better he was at making the bed, how handsome he is, how smart he is and on and on. I pretty much hated him my entire childhood, which led to us not talking very much. It was hard for me, to feel like my parents loved my brother more, but it made me tougher and more determined to succeed. It’s a big part of who I am today. Nowadays, I have no doubts about my parents at all, I just believe they didn’t know any better at the time. Also, I can put my mom on blast in this blog because she doesn’t know English. (Any Czech peeps who are reading this – shhhhh!)

When I was 15, I was ready to get as far from home as I could. I left my parents house and went to high school in Prague. It sounds like I was a bad kid that got sent to boarding school, but the Czech education system is very different from the US. Czech high schools are professionally oriented, with a huge variety of subjects you can study. A lot of it is industrially oriented, technical chemistry and electrical engineering and things like that, but you can also study agriculture, health services, IT or economics. A major draw for me was that I could go to a new city and live on my own in a dorm! It’s a lot like going off to college here in the US. Being on my own at 15 wasn’t easy, but it definitely helped me mature and grow up quickly. Having my own kids now, I can’t imagine them being gone at 15 years old. Scary!

After a few years in Prague, I felt like the capital city wasn’t big enough for me and I had to leave, so I did! I went to study English in Cambridge in the UK. Of course, I wasn’t totally on my own. My parents helped me pay for school, but food, transportation and fun were my responsibility.

Cambridge was the biggest test I’d ever put myself through. I didn’t know any English, literally, not one word. When I arrived at the airport in London, I had to get to Cambridge. This is a problem when you have no idea how to communicate with anyone. I walked around the airport crying before finally mustering the courage to talk to a taxi driver. I showed him the address and he said something – I have not idea what, so I just smiled politely, got in the taxi and the problem was solved!

My host mom in Cambridge made the transition much easier. Her name was Sue and she was the sweetest lady ever. Even though we couldn’t have anything resembling a conversation the first three months I was there, she made me feel welcome and a part of the family with her body language and her beautiful smile and her laughter. I’m very thankful for her kindness during that rough transition.

Living abroad in a country where you can’t speak the language is very hard, and I admire anyone who can do it without being afraid. I frequently felt like the dumbest person alive. I got on the wrong bus so many times and had to walk back miles and miles. I’d say “yes” or “no” to questions when I had no idea what was being asked. I cried myself to sleep a lot, but I didn’t give up and wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

I ended up having an amazing, crazy time! After three months, I was able to communicate and everything started getting easier. I made friends from all over the world, partied like a rock star and, most importantly, learned English!

I still find myself leaning on the lessons I learned growing up under the shadow of communism, living on my own at a young age and moving to country where I didn’t speak the language. All of these formative events made me stronger and gave me confidence in myself – which is something you really need when you run your own business. It was hard, but I’m thankful that I went through it.

There was a phrase that I used to repeat myself when I was having a hard time and it made me feel stronger. Hopefully, it’ll help you through your own challenges.

“When you’re in the middle of the ocean and you can’t swim, you either learn to swim or you die.”

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Ivana’s Story: The American Dream Begins in the Czech Republic

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