Strength, entrepreneurship and changing the world of innovation

Our November Young Woman To Watch Edlira Kasaj is a true inspiration for young women everywhere. A hugely determined entrepreneurial spirit, who had already set up several small businesses during her Computer Science studies at the University of Tirana. She holds an MBA from Lancaster Management School (UK) with a focus on Strategic Management which, along with her business acumen, has led her to be one of the most prominent entrepreneurship and innovation leaders in her country of Albania. A country still facing a big shortage of opportunities for female leaders.

“And this is the biggest challenge: you have to work twice as hard! But strangely this is also the greatest triumph, because you become better every day.”

Innovation Leader Edlira Kasaj
Innovation leader and entrepreneur: Edlira Kasaj

Edlira Kasaj currently runs the Protik Innovation Centre in Tirana, Albania, a start-up created from the joint contribution of the Government of Albania, USAID, AADF, Microsoft, Cisco and Albtelecom. Edlira and her team promote innovation, entrepreneurship, networking and partnerships in Albania.

“It was the opportunity to bring together my diverse background and expertise to create something new and innovative.”

Edlira has chosen to share her inspiring story with us. The story of a hard working woman and how she ended up in the world of ICT, innovation and entrepreneurship in Albania, where the sector as a whole is still very much male-dominated. We’re already waiting with great anticipation to hear more about her projects in the future!

“Every woman has something extraordinary in her. If you watch her closely for a while, you realize that, in her own way, she has given so much to her family, to society. But it is our duty as educated women, to show this to the world. That is what drives me.”

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

I have a Computer Science Degree (MSc & BSc), but, while at university I started, and ran, a few small businesses, soon realizing that I was better with people than with machines. So I decided to do an MBA, worked in public administration, academia and then the non-profit sector.

It has been an amazing journey, but being an ambitious woman in a male dominant country, in a male dominant industry is not easy. I once read somewhere “when you knock on the door of opportunity, don’t be surprised if hard work answers”. This is especially true for women. I am grateful to have found a few doors to knock on my way, even if the amount of work and sacrifices I’ve had to make have been enormous.

How much courage did it take to set up your current project?

Quite a lot, I must say. I gave up a job that was much better paid and embarked on an initiative doing something that 80% of people I met couldn’t understand or relate to. So it took a lot of courage, hard work, creativity and negotiation. But it was still a natural move for me. It was something new that I was going to create from scratch and would be able to shape until it became a reality. I had the good fortune to create something new and innovative.

What were the biggest obstacles and triumphs?

Obstacles? This word always reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s Professions for Women speech! “Outwardly, what obstacles are there for a woman rather than for a man? Inwardly, I think, the case is very different; she has still many ghosts to fight, many prejudices to overcome. Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against. And if this is so in literature, the freest of all professions for women, how is it in the new professions which you are now for the first time entering?”.

“Simply being a woman was the obstacle at times, but it also became the solution.”

She wrote it in 1931, but I am sure women still have many ghosts to fight, and strangely they are still similar today. I guess, in my case, simply being a woman was the obstacle at times, but it also became the solution. Being the only woman at the table with me,n while making important decisions, is very tough: your voice isn’t heard unless you speak twice as loud; your opinion needs to be articulated better; and your judgment must always be crystal clear. For you there is no room for mistakes. And this is the biggest obstacle: you have to work twice as hard, but strangely this is also the greatest triumph. Because you become better every day as a result.

How do you ensure work/life balance?

This is the most difficult aspect of having such a career. I once read an article on Linkedin, that said you can’t do both work and have a family easily. I believe that it is difficult, but not impossible. Over the years, I have realized that the happier you are in your personal life, the better you are at what you do. I try to nurture my relationships in many ways. Even though I may not have a lot of time, I make it a priority to show people how important they are to me, as well as how much strength they give me, while I’m doing what I do.

Who is your inspiration?

The many women who have lead the way for us to demand more from ourselves. Many women in my own country still have to struggle with the many challenges of life, often with husbands who do only the bare minimum for their families. Every woman has something extraordinary in her, if you watch her closely for a while, you realize that, in her own way, she has given so much to her family, to society. But it is our duty as educated women, to show this to the world. That is what drives me.

What would be the most important work lessons you’d like to pass on to other young women?

Believe in yourself and in your ability to surpass yourself every day. Women have an amazing ability to improve and grow. Embrace this natural ability and make it your continuous goal. Surround yourself with the people who see the best in you, who will push you further instead of keeping you down. Embrace your emotional leadership style and trust your gut. Our ability to empathise makes us much stronger, and often better, leaders.

When you look back, would you have done anything differently?
Yes, I would have said more ‘No’. To certain things, to certain projects to certain people. Being able to say ‘No’, is a great asset, and I have had to learn it the hard way.

What will the next 5 years look like?

Hectic as always, but more focused. I am sure that I want to continue working in innovation and entrepreneurship, hopefully in a wider context. I also have a number of projects I want to start, and I am quite close to that now.

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