Exclusive Interview With Female Hero Architect Entrepreneur Milena Cvijanovich

Milena Cvijanovich started her own architecture practice 18 years ago and has since re-invested profits in various projects and businesses, becoming a very successful investor as well as entrepreneur. Female Hero Milena is on the lookout for the right team member to join her latest company, fair-trade luxury marketplace Ethnosphere. 

Here's what Milena had to say when we met her:

TNW: You became an entrepreneur after your employer decided you could not keep focus having a small child at home. Did it come naturally for you and your husband to set up your own practice 18 years ago or was it a difficult move as an architect having moved from the USA to Switzerland?

Milena: The decision to go for it was sudden. When our son was 5 months old I opened my own office in our home on my husband’s suggestion, and he became my partner in charge of the financial and IT aspects. It was exciting but also difficult for several reasons. We opened in 1990, so we were dealing with the beginning of the financial and construction crisis. I had to learn quickly about sourcing and pricing of materials. I had no mentor in Switzerland and no architect was ready to give me advice and guidance. Even with all of these challenges, I would have to say that the most difficult hurdle was a cultural one.

Having learned the American way of presenting an idea – with enthusiasm, individualism and pride, I learned the hard way that in Switzerland it’s more effective to be pragmatic and neutral and to hold back on excitement, emphasizing function, cost and low risk in design decisions. 

I also faced the architectural challenge with very strict Swiss regulations which curb design heavily for the sake of “unity”.

One of the most valuable things we learned was high quality construction which we now export with success to our international projects. And now looking back, I realize that this cross-cultural immersion gives me a unique experience in all aspects of design and function.

TNW: You found your niche in sustainable and luxury design. Being a pioneer gives you first mover advantage but also presents challenges educating the market – how did you find your first customers? How has sustainable design evolve in the past 18 years and is it the future of architecture?

Milena: Being part of an emerging industry has certainly posed challenges.  However, Switzerland has been at the forefront in sustainability along with Germany so it was natural to evolve in that direction. Our first international clients were American companies, whose need for a striking corporate image I understood well as an American. Our excellent working relationships made it possible for us to convince them to choose sustainability at an extra upfront cost which would later be amortized. 

We showed our foreign clients in luxury residential that building sustainably can be done without changing one’s lifestyle. At the time it was more of a challenge to build sustainably without compromising on design or function somewhat. Today government policies have made it partially required and encouraged. Clients are also more aware of the issue and often request it on their own now. The rise in demand has forced companies to develop new products, which allows us to design sustainable buildings with fewer and fewer constraints. An example of this would be solar paneling which now comes as a bendable thin sheet rather than the previous rigid rectangular panels.

TNW: You have managed to not only grow a profitable business while raising a child, but also to get involved in supporting women victims of violence and women artisans through micro-enterprise across Africa and Central America, as well as become an active member of women associations and the Global Women Summit. What has driven you to want to support women across the World, and how did you get involved with these various groups?

Milena: A woman’s right to education, choice in her way of life and a chance at financial independence have always been key issues to me, even in developed regions like Europe and the United States.

I have met women of all ages and paths of life in my visits to over 40 countries and have been impressed by the positive energy and selflessness shown in their struggles and accomplishments. The Global Summit of Women is a platform where interaction among women is very effective and where one meets groups with worthy goals. I’ve made some great connections there. As a businesswoman, I'm enthusiastic about the benefits of micro-funding and the creation of small businesses as long as both entities’ growth models are crafted properly according to the resources and training available to the women in places like Africa and Central America. This is where I like to come in. It is vital to give these women a goal in life and a reason to hope for the future.

TNW: You have reinvested your profits into new business ideas, from the first sustainable ski resort in the Swiss Alps to the first sustainable yacht, luxury hotels and spas in heritage sites across the World, and now a furniture design marketplace connecting handcrafting talent in the developing World to luxury furniture designers: ethnosphere. They are all highly profitable businesses with a social or green focus - Is there a strategy behind these investments or are these the natural extension of your work as an architect?

Milena: I enjoy beautiful craftsmanship and am a passionate advocate of sustainability, alternative energy solutions and social responsibility. Each of our business ventures is based on the tenets of sustainability and luxury. Why luxury?

The strategy comes into the equation when we show others that luxury and social responsibility are not only compatible but are, in fact, harmonious and complementary.

Without luxury, craftsmanship such as that found in the handmade accessories of Louis Vuitton or Hermès, would not survive industrialization.  The same goes for artisans’ work in architecture and design—without clients who appreciate the craftsmanship of natural materials, industrialized products made on assembly lines would prevail because they are cheaper.

High-maintenance and high-consumption yachts, 5-star hotels, spas and resorts, secondary residences must be at the forefront of sustainability and social responsibility and can afford to purchase handcrafted design and thus celebrate and uphold financially artisans across the world. I would also like to add that we have linked a non-profit foundation to each venture, based on Fair Trade, Sustainability and Gender Equality, in which a part of the profits goes to support community projects in emerging market countries.

TNW: How do you source spas and hotels in global heritage sites? How many do you expect to have built or renovated in the next 5 years?

Milena: We have had the opportunity to begin developing sustainable luxury resorts in amazing places such as the World Heritage site of Cartagena, Colombia, Bhutan, Brazil and Bali. Some projects are moving forward more quickly than others and partners have been identified as well in Tanzania. We seek World Heritage sites as a backdrop for our concept of cultural and natural preservation and the training of the local population in sustainability, hospitality and high quality craftsmanship. The intention is to build these resorts based on local construction techniques fused with modern technology, sustainable design and alternative energies fitting to the environment. The interiors will be fitted out with products from our Ethnosphere concept. The synergies in this project will lead to careers for the local population in hospitality and wellness as well as a revival and evolution of regional craftsmanship.

We are looking for a partner to run the resorts and spas who has similar high standards in sustainability and social responsibility. Once again, a non-profit foundation is linked to the venture.

TNW: Tell us more about your new business Ethnosphere, the long legal fight over your brand name, your mission and the challenges ahead on the path to build a scalable marketplace plugging skilled manual labour in the developing World into the luxury furniture industry.

Miilena: Ethnosphere began with the idea of turning indigenous craftsmanship into high end craftsmanship to be sold on a global market. Handcrafted high-end furniture, lighting, textiles and accessories made in emerging market countries and designed by international and indigenous designers to meet international quality, trend and comfort standards will be sold in an exclusive online boutique followed by physical boutiques in places like London, Paris and Tokyo.

Each element within the project will have its story, taking it back to its cultural and traditional origin and its handcrafted production. Wherever possible, these design objects will be produced by social enterprises within the given country under strict quality control and sustainable materials compliance.

The craftsmanship of the country will be placed in the limelight of an international luxury brand structure, giving it new importance as a modern, viable high-end trade resource. The social enterprises will have the opportunity to produce in quantities high quality design elements to be sold directly to 5-star hotels, high-end decorators and interior architects, as well as Ethnosphere’s own boutiques world-wide to insure that their business will be financially viable. This is also a reason why Ethnosphere is positioned on the luxury market where items’ prices can be higher and a part of the profit return into the Ethnosphere Association to promote craft, design and related micro-enterprise training.

The business is based on a Fair Trade label guided by a charter which includes Fair Trade, Sustainability and Gender Equality. We finally won the trademark label against the Spanish department store giant El Corte Inglès. After a four-year battle in court, El Corte Inglès even refuses to pay our damages! This has been a huge investment but now we will shortly be registered in the United States, Brazil, China and Australia and are ready to roll. We are looking for someone to help us run this business with experience in trading and an understanding of the luxury market yet who believes as we do in the importance of sustainability, Fair trade and social responsibility.

It will be incredibly exciting though challenging as we develop partnerships with organisations and companies who work with artisans in countries such as Morocco, Peru, Bangladesh, Mongolia and the Philippines.

We already have some beautiful items lined up and are just waiting to finalize the business model and team before going online.

TNW: Any advice for women entrepreneurs and architects who want to launch their own practice

Milena: To any woman who is considering starting a business, first I would say, “Go for it”.  Surround yourself with high quality people that complement your strengths and take care of your weaknesses. 

Make sure that your family understands the time and energy needed to make a business work and ask them for their support.  Don’t feel guilty but don’t let your business take over your life either. Women’s networks can also be a great source for support, so I would recommend getting involved. 

To an aspiring architect my advice would also be to find a mentor.  Choose someone whose work and work philosophy you admire. Work in their firm before beginning your own and try to learn as much about the business in all its aspects.

TNW: Any female heroes?

Milena: Yes, my female heroes are the women in underdeveloped countries and emerging market countries and in countries whose non-violent struggle for human and women’s rights and for a brighter future for their children is admirable.

They work selflessly to support their families, improve women’s rights and uphold women’s dignity under very adverse and often dangerous conditions.  Their talent, energy and courage genuinely inspire me to get involved.

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