Joana Lenkova is the founder of Futures Forward Ltd. Futures Forward is a strategy and futures consultancy company founded in 2019.

What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
What made you decide to become an entrepreneur? I was born in Bulgaria, but my family moved to Angola when I was 3, so that was where my earliest and most formative memories were made. My early experiences have made me a curious explorer, and made me brave enough to move to LA alone in my teens to continue my education. This definitely taught me a lot of discipline and resilience, as I had to rely on myself and overcome a lot of change. In LA, I decided I wanted to become a graphic designer, which I thought at the time was a really new and exciting job, so that is what I went to college for. After college, I returned to Europe and completed a BA in Visual Communications, and then went on to do an MA in International Economic Relationships and Project Management, which was a new programme at the university. I think I’ve always been drawn to the unexplored, and to topics which balance creativity and business, which has meant I’ve never felt like I had to choose between the two. Initially I started working in graphics, but soon I moved into marketing and innovation. I worked in Bulgaria and then moved to London, working for companies like AB InBev and Société Générale and, in between, smaller innovative companies and startups. I then joined Disney in London as a strategist, and was trained as a futurist during my time there. In 2019 I founded my own company, Futures Forward, and in February 2021, I also joined The LEGO Group’s Creative Play Lab as a Strategic Foresight Director.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
To me, an entrepreneur is anyone who is willing to find innovative solutions that are brave and involve a certain amount of risk. It’s about someone who will experiment to find new ways to solve problems and generate value. You don’t necessarily have to have your own start up to do this, as you can be an intrapreneur – have entrepreneurial qualities within a large company. It’s a mindset, not a job role.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I didn’t know for sure! With a lot of things in the field of innovation, you don’t have enough hard data, but I knew my heart was in it and that made it the right decision for me. I was still as informed as I could be, as I could see tangible benefits through the use of foresight in my role as a strategist, and moreover I wanted to spread my own knowledge and experience. My interest in the unexplored also definitely contributed to my decision, so it felt like a natural step, and one that would give me the time and space I needed to prioritise my development. As a futurist, we teach that you can’t predict the future as there are too many variables beyond our control, but you can work from a basis of being informed about the possibilities that lay in the future, measured risk and proactivity in shaping your desired future, so based on that I knew I should go for it.

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
There are many, though I would say curiosity is key, as it facilitates open mindedness and passion. There is an excellent book called ‘The Living Company’ by Arie de Geus which explores through foresight what the key traits of long-term global companies are, and comes up with four key ones: Sensitivity to the world around you, allowing you to be aware of what external factors may interact with and affect your business; Awareness of identity, so knowing what you want yourself and your company to be; Tolerance to new ideas, which means having an awareness of your own confirmation bias so you are able to take on all viewpoints; Finally, conservatism in financing, meaning you need to balance being a visionary with pragmatism.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I’m charged by variety, so I’ve enjoyed working with different industries, which has allowed me to be very varied as an entrepreneur. When I started Futures Forward, I worked with an educational NGO, a grocery retailer, a governmental health department among many others, all globally. I also worked with the Entrepreneurship Centre in Oxford, running a futures workshop for SMEs. This variety of clients really broadened my horizons and has given me so much opportunity to learn and grow. I’ve now written articles, spoken at different global conferences, and I am currently writing a book on strategy and foresight!

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
To me, the people that I meet are my sources of inspiration. I don’t like to measure someone’s success by their wealth or media presence, I want to judge what they bring to the world beyond profit! My mentors, my colleagues, my professors, they are all a source of inspiration. My Oxford cohort was an amazing source of inspiration due to the variety of people, their passions and amazing achievements.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I’ve learnt to try and enjoy every step of my journey. It has been hard work, but every little win has been satisfying, from my first client to the possibility of becoming a published author! So many opportunities opened up because I chose to be okay with uncertainty. Equally, I’m massively charged by positive feedback or people choosing to reach out. Hearing someone say they were inspired by you is incredibly humbling, and makes me feel responsible to become a better person and professional, a positive role model.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
My journey has taught me to believe in myself, and my biggest mistake was not doing this from the start of my career. Sometimes I would doubt my abilities and deflect compliments. I think a lot of women will recognise this! It took me time to see that I was too harsh on myself, and that in most cases I have no cause to doubt myself. I have not always celebrated myself enough, or taken a moment to appreciate my hard work before leaping into the next project. It’s all linked to perfectionism, so I’m learning to evaluate when things actually need to be perfect, or when good enough is more than enough!

How have you funded your ideas?
My journey has been self-funded so far, but I may need some external funding for my big future plans.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
As my business is new, no, but I am looking at Innovate UK and Oxford University as future resources that I would like to tap into.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Looking specifically at the Saïd Business School, being part of a cohort of 39 nationalities who are all being taught by such high-quality professors is exceptional. A lot of my experience and support there is what made me brave enough to launch my company, as I felt I had a strong support network. I’m also a big proponent of mentoring, as I’ve done it formally at The Walt Disney Company, where I can honestly say that my mentor changed my life, but I also have some wonderful unofficial mentors too. I also act as a mentor, and seeing it from both sides is so rewarding and enlightening.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would want to find out exactly what they needed, share my journey and learnings, the resources I had good experience with, but at the same time, I would be happy connecting them to someone from my network, who could give them advice in their specific area of interest if that is not me.

Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I think I’d developed awareness to facing challenges. Early in my career I didn’t understand these stem from being a woman. I thought I wasn’t assertive enough, or I was too young and others had more experience, as I was taught not to be pushy. In hindsight, I can see that there were signs of dismissive behavior. This can work against your confidence and make you doubt your abilities. Especially if you are young and given big responsibilities. That made me work extra hard. I realised I had to build confidence and change the way I shared my ideas and thoughts. I also realized that I need to shake off any stereotypes and biases I had about myself too. I learned to speak up and do it with more confidence in my voice, so that I don’t perpetuate the stereotype of female silence. In some situations, like group settings, it can be really helpful to have a male or female “buddy” to look out for you and call out others for dismissive behaviour. I also developed an awareness to watch out for others in similar situations. I use any opportunity to highlight young people’s achievements and encourage them to be brave and chase their dreams. Then it’s up to them to put in the hard work.

What resources would you recommend for other women?
Find great mentors who are both men and women who will champion you and can help you through your journey. There is no need to do it alone.

How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Oxford has provided me with a great support system, so they should keep up the good work! They could do this by involving both men and women to champion those from different backgrounds, so that we see far more diversity in business.

Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Believe in yourself and find a strong support system that will enable you to take your own path. Don’t compare yourself to others and learn from mentors, have several and don’t take any one person’s advice too literally. Their experience is not your own.

Any last words of advice?
Be brave! Embrace uncertainty and look for opportunities to allow you to be proactive in building a better future. Go out and inspire, you may change lives!

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