One-on-one | Entrepreneurship

Linda Shala: Kosovo’s market is suffocated, but foreign markets present the youth with opportunities

By - 30.12.2017

After nearly 30 years of doing business, Linda Shala speaks new opportunities and challenges in the market, as well as her passion for journalism.

As a journalist at Radio Television Prishtina (RTP), Linda Shala was often punished by her editors and fined parts of her salary.

In the ’80s, Shala addressed the camera in Mitrovica wearing a gas mask in reference to the city’s high pollution levels. On another occasion, she approached police officers for an interview and asked them “What time is it?” — a reference to the daily curfews that had been imposed by 1989. At the time, her on-screen appearances were considered ‘provocative’ to the system.

The end of the ’80s saw Shala and the majority of her Kosovar Albanian colleagues dismissed from their television roles. Her dreams of becoming a journalist came to a halt, but the struggles to support herself and her family paved the way for her to become engaged in entrepreneurship.

Today, she is a veteran of business, approaching her fourth decade in the field.

“It was simply a survival instinct that directed us to open a small cosmetics shop and gradually build up the business over the years, [and as a result] today, after 30 years, to be a manager of a trade company and becoming a business veteran,” Shala says.

Her long career as a businesswoman includes her co-owning a cosmetics shop with her brother, co-owning a boutique with a friend, opening a flower shop, and organizing the first ever editions of Miss Kosova and the Video Fest music award ceremony.

Since the first half of the 2000s she has been managing Data Project Electronics, a market leader in consumer electronics and home appliances. She has also established the Technomarket retail brand, which covers the entire Kosovo market.

Shala sees her involvement as an executive producer at Radio Television Kosovo (RTK), at a time when the public broadcaster was being established after the 1999 war, and her roles as a board member of both the Trepca basketball team in Mitrovica and the Kosovo Basketball Federation as a contribution to the process of Kosovo’s statebuilding.

She spends most of each day at the offices of her company, Technomarket, in Fushe Kosova’s industrial zone, surrounded by recognitions for her contributions as a business leader and philanthropist, as well as paintings she bought from young artists, and pictures of her dearest ones and meetings with famous figures, including Hillary Clinton and Ismail Kadare.

K2.0 sat down with Shala at her office to discuss opportunities in both the media and business, as well as their contribution to society.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

K2.0: Today you are a successful businesswoman. What dreams did you have in your youth?

Linda Shala: I was engaged in journalism during my youth. As a child, I started to cooperate with Radio Kosova’s children’s program. That was the start of my relationship with this medium. Then I started writing, and at the age of 18, I started to work at RTP, specifically on the children’s’ program.

That is where my relationship with journalism began, and I definitely thought that it would be my future profession. At the time, there was no Faculty of Journalism in Prishtina. Initially I thought about going to study abroad but I decided to stay in Prishtina and study economics, with the idea that I would study journalism later on, and ultimately become an economic journalist.

This was maybe influenced by the fact that my father was a renowned economist in Kosovo, so I understood the importance of economy on the country, society, emancipation… everything. That was my idea. Then it changed during the ‘90s, when RTP was shut down, when I lost my job under the Milosevic regime. Whether we liked it or not, the conditions and circumstances led us to new waters.

They led me to entrepreneurship, which was a normal initiative started by my brother and I with the aim to secure our existence, because at the time, our father was arrested and our mother was left unemployed. I was also unemployed.

It was simply a survival instinct, which oriented us towards work… let’s say entrepreneurship… and we opened a small cosmetics shop and gradually built the business in the following years. Today, 30 years later, I manage a trade company and am still in the business environment. Those circumstances pushed me to be the business veteran that I am today.

I read in an article that the subjects which you dealt with during your time at RTP were taboo. What subjects was the article referring to?

I started to work on the current affairs/documentary program, and within it we started a new show called “Ritme Rinore” (Youth Rhythms). It was a very avant-garde show for the time. We dealt with subjects that were a bit different, and had an approach which was more distinct from the ideological concepts of the time.

Although there was a certain degree of censorship, the control and focus revolved around the informative programs — the news, the political program. Regarding these youth programs, people would say ‘Ah, they’re young! What do they know? They don’t understand.’ But we utilized that media space quite a bit, to deal with taboo subjects.

"I was also issued a penalty for making a story after curfew. We started the story by approaching a police officer in the street and asking 'What is the time?' It was assessed that we wanted to portray the circumstances of the curfew."

Linda Shala

Leke Zherka (journalist and former head of Kohavision) and I were authors of the show and believe me, throughout all of the years that I’ve worked in television and made that show, I never received a full wage, because we would always be penalized.

Fines were implemented through wage reductions at the time, depending on how editors would assess mistakes. Those mistakes would seem strange in today’s world. I was fined for doing a story about Mitrovica. I started the story by appearing before the camera with a gas mask. I put on the gas mask because Mitrovica was the most polluted city in Europe, so I wanted to highlight this issue. But they all saw other connotations.

Another fine which I was issued was for sitting cross-legged on the committee stairs. The Party Committee was the highest state institution of the time and they felt that I had violated the facilities and that my approach was not serious. So with that story, we were forewarning a new climate of political plurality in ex-Yugoslavia.

I was also issued a fine for making a story after curfew. We started the story by approaching a police officer in the street and asking ‘What is the time?’ It was assessed that we wanted to portray the circumstances of the curfew.

People watched that show and commented on it a lot. As young people, we tried to bring some innovation which we picked up from world television. Because we were working in television, we had an advantage because we had the material exchange room where we had the opportunity to follow transmissions such as the BBC and ZDF of Germany, so we tried to bring that European spirit.

It also influenced our music selection and the way we presented, as well as the visuals, illustrations, and our approach. It was an interesting phase. I think that I perfected the work of a television journalist — then the ‘90s happened.

However, you returned to TV after the war. You were involved in RTK…

After the war I was invited to return to join the new team, which was comprised of a certain group of former RTP workers. They were all invited to join the new staff and thus we started to build the new Radio Television Kosovo (RTK).

I decided to go because I sort of felt a moral obligation. Despite the fact that I had my own work and business at the time, I felt that I had to give my contribution for the country. I worked in TV, I started as a reporter, under the management of internationals, and as I gradually gained experience, I was chosen to be the executive producer of RTK’s programming. It was an outstanding period in my life because I was very engaged in building the television station.

In the early 2000s, the Kosovo Television project was an emerging project of the international community for informing the population on the postwar period in Kosovo. I think that Kosovo still needs a public television channel to this day, despite having suspicions, dilemmas and debates about it. It was an outstanding experience.

Leke Zherka (journalist and former head of Kohavision) and I were authors of the show and believe me, throughout all of the years that I’ve worked in television and made that show, I never received a full wage, because we would always be penalized.

Fines were implemented through wage reductions at the time, depending on how editors would assess mistakes. Those mistakes would seem strange in today’s world. I was fined for doing a story about Mitrovica. I started the story by appearing before the camera with a gas mask. I put on the gas mask because Mitrovica was the most polluted city in Europe, so I wanted to highlight this issue. But they all saw other connotations.

Another fine which I was issued was for sitting cross-legged on the committee stairs. The Party Committee was the highest state institution of the time and they felt that I had violated the facilities and that my approach was not serious. So with that story, we were forewarning a new climate of political plurality in ex-Yugoslavia.

I was also issued a fine for making a story after curfew. We started the story by approaching a police officer in the street and asking ‘What is the time?’ It was assessed that we wanted to portray the circumstances of the curfew.

People watched that show and commented on it a lot. As young people, we tried to bring some innovation which we picked up from world television. Because we were working in television, we had an advantage because we had the material exchange room where we had the opportunity to follow transmissions such as the BBC and ZDF of Germany, so we tried to bring that European spirit.

It also influenced our music selection and the way we presented, as well as the visuals, illustrations, and our approach. It was an interesting phase. I think that I perfected the work of a television journalist — then the ‘90s happened.

However, you returned to TV after the war. You were involved in RTK…

After the war I was invited to return to join the new team, which was comprised of a certain group of former RTP workers. They were all invited to join the new staff and thus we started to build the new Radio Television Kosovo (RTK).

I decided to go because I sort of felt a moral obligation. Despite the fact that I had my own work and business at the time, I felt that I had to give my contribution for the country. I worked in TV, I started as a reporter, under the management of internationals, and as I gradually gained experience, I was chosen to be the executive producer of RTK’s programming. It was an outstanding period in my life because I was very engaged in building the television station.

In the early 2000s, the Kosovo Television project was an emerging project of the international community for informing the population on the postwar period in Kosovo. I think that Kosovo still needs a public television channel to this day, despite having suspicions, dilemmas and debates about it. It was an outstanding experience.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

You were one of the key figures that built RTK. How do you see RTK today?

I am not satisfied with RTK today. Believe me, in most cases I avoid watching it, because I am concerned when I see the level of unprofessionalism in many aspects: technical, journalistic, editorial, visual — I cannot be indifferent.

Kosovo’s citizens deserve a proper public television channel, a professional channel which promotes proper values, which has an unbiased editorial policy, which prioritizes the truth and the wellbeing of citizens, and not the interests of certain groups, or different political groups.

The public television channel lost an outstanding chance to be a leader in the media, because there is always a need for a professional medium which guides other TV channels. I am very interested in a plural media market, but we cannot expect outstanding quality from other media when the public television channel is at a very low level. Because its primary mission is to inform, to educate, to have educational and scholarly programs.

I do not agree with people who assert that there is no need for a public TV channel. The British have the BBC, even though they are much more democratized and economically developed. The mission of the public TV channel and other commercial channels must change. I hope and expect that this channel, which I am very positively emotionally attached to, will change and will truly serve citizens.

We had the opportunity to develop the best TV channel in the region. We lost that opportunity due to unprofessionalism, haphazard solutions, and petty, small-minded, partisan interests. We sort of lost the space of a medium which would have benefited each and every one of us, regardless of political orientation and economic status. That TV channel should have united us all, and this didn’t happen. It is a pity.

You mentioned the censorship that characterized the ‘80s, in the context of the former Yugoslavia. Do you see censorship in today’s media?

I think that in the past it was a dictated censorship, although I worked in a more liberal environment of ex-Yugoslavia. I would not label it as censorship in today’s world. I think that I would be complimenting the medium if I criticized it for censorship. I think that now we can see ignorance, based on unprofessionalism and servility. Censorship is too big a word for the level of certain mediums in Kosovo. It is more about ignorance.

In your biography, it is stated that you are a promoted of gender equality. What do you do in this regard?

Gender equality has always been important for me. I was lucky that my family treated my brother and I equally. But I have noticed differences in my social circle, society in general, as well as in my extended family.

When you notice it early on then you become sensitive to it. Then you work on the aspect of promoting gender equality and eliminating these distinctions between the treatment of girls and boys, as well as creating equal opportunities for both groups.

So I used this opportunity by engaging outside my business. My active presence in the media, in many activities, but also in society, and me, as a woman who has a job, her own business, her family, children, obligations… it sort of makes me into a model which shows that you can be a successful woman who is engaged in business, but is also a mother, a wife, a girl, and a woman of the community.

I think that it is important in Kosovo, not so much to change the traditional perception and insist on it, because that changes with time, but more so to insist on creating opportunities for elections, for women and for girls, and especially based on economic empowerment.

"I am a promoter of economic empowerment of women because if women are empowered, then the problems of domestic violence and different forms of discrimination that are prevalent in our society are more easily dealt with."

Linda Shala

I strongly believe in economic empowerment for society, girls, boys, and women, who are in an unfavorable situation in our society. Economic empowerment would eliminate these problems that come as a result of discrimination in the workplace, domestic discrimination, and discrimination in access to opportunities.

I always mentioned that there are no traditional fathers, brothers or husbands who would be able to bypass traditional perceptions if their sister, daughter or wife got the opportunity to find a job and receive a 1,000 euro wage. For 150 euros, the minimum wage, everyone becomes traditional.

So I am a promoter of economic empowerment of women because if women are empowered, then the problems of domestic violence and different forms of discrimination that are prevalent in our society are more easily dealt with.

As a woman who has developed a long-standing career in entrepreneurship, were you ever faced with patronizing tendencies of male partners?

In some cases, especially in the beginning. But my approach was a bit different. I did not fight them directly. I found an indirect way to balance it and to convince them that approach and those perceptions are wrong. I did not hesitate to work harder, to give more from myself and to refute their prejudiced approach towards women.

Everything was made easier when I achieved success, and especially when I became materially empowered. Then these forms of patronizing started to reduce, because it seems that they patronize and discriminate only when they are given the opportunity to do so.

When you are in business, when you are in a room full of men and you are the only woman, of course you are treated differently. From the moment you sit, the way they address you… for example, I can recall a meeting with renowned distributors of a company which I represent in Kosovo, an event in which the most successful European companies were invited to participate. I was also invited. Kosovo is small and I am a very small distributor of that company. I was invited only because I am a woman, and for them it is very interesting that in this region a woman is managing a company and is also a distributor within it. I was part of this event solely because I am a woman.

I think that the way I was treated by banks is also evidence for this, because statistics show that women undertake less financial risks. I think this also had an impact. My business was supported quite well by the bank. So being a woman also brings benefits in the world of business.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

How do you see the fact that very few women hold decision-making positions in Kosovo?

There are only a few decision-making positions in Kosovo, and when there are just a few places, the fight for those places is very big. Men are more powerful in that fight because in particular moments they fight dirty. This is the problem, because the opportunities are limited and are not equal for women and men. When the opportunities are limited, the fight becomes harsher and women withdraw from that harshness.

How did the climate of doing business change over the years? What are the advantages and obstacles today compared with the time when you got engaged in business?

I think that I was lucky to start a business in a period of transition from the socialist system to a liberal economy. But the many difficulties of the time came as a consequence of the outstandingly severe political situation. We lived in an aggressive occupation and afterwards we experienced war.

But today the issue is that economic opportunities in Kosovo are very limited. It is a problem of globalisation, of opening the market and of drastically changing the way business is conducted.

The focus of most companies in the market is very limited. You compete within Kosovo’s market, you compete within the regional market, and you compete within the global market, which makes it quite difficult. But I think that the advantage today is that whereas I was limited to conduct business only in Kosovo, young people have the global market in front of them.

Today the internet makes people citizens of the world, without visas. The idea is to focus the potential and opportunities of Kosovo’s young people on the foreign market, because I believe that Kosovo’s market is suffocated and opportunities are limited, very limited.

But to penetrate the bigger market, especially the very in demand market of information technology, you need to have professional competences, a good knowledge of the field and naturally, good knowledge of foreign languages. Whereas knowing foreign languages was an advantage in the past, today I think it is a necessity.

The opportunities provided by the internet should be utilized. When there is willingness, there are opportunities, even free of charge. Today you can find the best mentors for different professions online. They offer advice, suggestions, motivation and instructions, free of charge. In my early days, to obtain a certain piece of information I had to order books and someone had to bring them to me from Zagreb or England. Today’s young people can have the whole world inside their homes with the click of a button.

"Despite the fact that we are isolated, the trends of business, communication and internet, are a part of our lives, and whether we like it or not, they will radically change the business environment."

Linda Shala

We are going through a very interesting phase of general worldwide development. International trends will start to appear in Kosovo, maybe not immediately, but very soon. We must understand that many professions are disappearing overnight, and the youth must be informed.

They must know that a bank, one of the biggest banks in Kosovo, has reduced the number of its employees from 900 to 300. The banking system is being digitized and we continue to educate our youth about banks and finances in outstanding numbers. So the education system must react to contemporary and international needs and trends. The way business is conducted has developed drastically.

Today the biggest companies are virtual companies. Airbnb doesn’t even have facilities. Amazon is the biggest trade company in the world and it has no shops. Facebook has no original content and is the most profitable platform. As a medium, it produces nothing. So the concept is changing completely.

It is important for the youth to adapt to this, and to understand the philosophy of conducting business in the future, to understand what business means in the world, and what it will mean in the future. Because despite the fact that we are isolated, the trends of business, communication and internet, are a part of our lives, and whether we like it or not, they will radically change the business environment.

How do you see Kosovo’s business environment?

Business and the economy must yield welfare for citizens of a country. If we look at statistics of people who live on minimal social benefits, of such low levels of income per capita, we are a poor country. When you are a poor country, you have a poor economy. Our issue is that we do not have a strategy for economic development. We do not know where we are headed to. As a small country, we need to focus somewhere. We are not doing this.

As a society, we have a basic problem, one which was solved in the 19th century: the energy issue. How can you have a proper business environment when you have energy cuts? I need not comment any further on this. Let alone if I start to talk about issues of political insecurity, the dysfunctionality of the justice system, the black market…

We are a country which was fiscalized very early on, whereas our gas industry was not fiscalized. All the profit is in that industry. It is one of the most profitable industries in the country and we are yet to fiscalize it. These are the indicators that the business environment in Kosovo is very, very severe.

But we are lucky to have the global market before us, and the youth should focus on it. It is Kosovo’s biggest perspective. Time is the most valuable thing and the youth have no time to lose. I would instruct them to follow the global market.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

You were involved in the Basketball Federation for many years. What role do sports play in state-building?

Part of my engagement in the Federation was dedicated to its internationalization, to achieve recognition of the Basketball Federation and of other sports in international institutions. We were not first country to discover the function of sports as a promoter of a country. This is how it works worldwide.

Sport is an ambassador, an opportunity, a strong media presence which serves to promote a country, and I think we missed our opportunity to utilize it to promote Kosovo, as it is a country which really needs to be promoted. We must continue to promote it and to have it recognized by the United Nations.

I believe that if Kosovo qualified for the World Cup or European Cup in basketball or football, it would be a great promotion for the country. It is also important for our people. I think there is no citizen who didn’t feel a sense of pride when Majlinda Kelmendi won the gold medal.

We need to promote ourselves through sport and we need to give our people moments of pride, to make them feel good about being part of the country. Sport is the best way to achieve that feeling of belonging for all citizens. We must find ways to give space for sport and to support it in Kosovo.

In 2010 you joined FER (Fryma e Re – New Spirit) when it was established as a political party. As a public figure, I suppose that you had other offers. Why were you never involved in one of the biggest political parties in Kosovo?

I joined FER to support girls and boys because I was and still am convinced that we need to change the mindset of policymaking in Kosovo. It was an outstanding experience, a very good one. Someone asked my “do you regret it?” and I replied “not even for a moment.” Being part of FER, of that political journey, of that political campaign which ended unsuccessfully, was an outstanding experience.

We didn’t manage to win seats in the Kosovo Parliament, but I learned a lot. I learned how a political party functions, I learned how important it is for people who are part of political parties to merge themselves with the party.

For an individualist like me it was quite challenging. I’ve met many young people who I didn’t know before and with whom I still keep contact to this day. I am very happy about this. I am happy about the success of Shpend [Ahmeti], Dardan [Sejdiu], Fis [Fisnik Ismaili], Puhie [Demaku], and other colleagues from our party who managed to continue their political journeys and are deputies in Kosovo’s Parliament today — with the exception of Shpend, who is Mayor of Prishtina. But I didn’t have ambitions to make a career in politics. I do not see myself there.

When I left television, it was an interesting period because I got offers from all the biggest parties. They always need female public figures who are eloquent. I was happy to receive those offers because they proved how professional I was throughout my time in television.

I had my political preferences, as everyone does. But I managed to preserve them, to not show my preference for one party or another. This created an impression that I am with everyone, not one in particular. It was evidence that the work that I did in television was truly professional, was not influenced by politics, was unbiased and served the citizens of Kosovo, not certain parties.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Albanian.

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