Marina Byezhanova | Born in the USSR, Religious Persecution, and Personal Branding for Success Today

Marina Byezhanova is a Soviet-born, Ukraine-raised, Canada-based entrepreneur whose mission is to scale the reach of people’s voices. She is the Co-founder of Pronexia Inc., an HR and headhunting firm, and she is the Founder of InfluenceHR, Canada’s first association of HR influencers, and she is also the Co-Founder of Brand of a Leader where they help executives and entrepreneurs identify and build their personal branding.

Marina has been quoted and referenced in all kinds of publications from Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and Success Magazine. She is presently the Canadian host of the global podcast, Forum Confidential

In this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, John Corcoran interviews Marina Byezhanova, the Co-founder of Pronexia Inc., about starting and growing a HR company, a personal branding company, scaling to over 7-figures in revenue, and joining the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO). Marina also shares her experiences on facing discrimination in Ukraine and her family’s journey to freedom in Canada.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Marina Byezhanova talks about growing up in Ukraine and the discrimination that she and her family faced.
  • The challenges Marina’s father faced while running a business in Ukraine and how that changed when he moved to Canada.
  • Marina shares how her career as an entrepreneur started and what it was like during the early days of starting her company.
  • Marina talks about her company’s journey to joining the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), starting a personal branding business, and how she got her first clients.
  • The first steps Marina takes to help clients develop a personal brand.
  • The people Marina admires in her community and the people she acknowledges for her achievements and success.

Resources Mentioned:

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:14  

Welcome to the revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, where we ask today’s most successful entrepreneurs to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution, John Corcoran.

John Corcoran  0:40  

All right. Welcome, everyone. John Corcoran here, the host of this show. You know my story. I’m a recovering political hack and a recovering lawyer. I spent years working in politics, including as a speechwriter were stints working in the Clinton White House and for a California Governor spent years practicing law in Silicon Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area. And 10 years ago, I discovered this medium podcasting. And I’ve been doing it ever since because I get to talk to really interesting entrepreneurs all over the globe, and today is no exception. For over 10 years, I’ve talked to so many great top CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs of companies and organizations ranging from YPO to Activision Blizzard, Lending Tree, Open Table, and many more. I’m also the co-founder of Rise25, where we help b2b businesses with the strategy and production they need to create a podcast that produces tremendous ROI and connects them with their ideal prospects and referral partners. 

And today, I’m excited because my guest is Marina Byezhanova. How’s that, Byezhanova. There we go. She is a Soviet-born, Ukraine-raised, Canada-based entrepreneur whose mission is to scale the reach of people’s voices. She’s the co-founder of Pronexia, a HR and headhunting firm, as well as the founder of Influence HR, and a personal branding architect. She’s been quoted and referenced in all kinds of publications from Inc to Forbes, Fast Company, Success Magazine, you name it. She’s recently launched a new personal branding agency called a Brand of A Leader and we connected through our mutual involvement in eo entrepreneurs organization. And she is presently the Canadian host of the global podcast, Forum Confidential. Now before we get into this episode, this episode is brought to you by Rise25 Media which helps b2b businesses get clients referrals and strategic partnerships with done few podcasts and content marketing. We specialize in b2b businesses with a high client lifetime value. So to learn more and get more inspiration and ideas about how to get clients referrals and great friendships, go to rise25media.com. 

Alright, Marina, I’m excited to interview you. This interview has been quite some time in the making. You’ve got an amazing story, you were born in the USSR, in the Ukraine, your family was Jewish, your father suffered a lot of discrimination. And eventually you left the country and ended up in Canada because of that. Take me back what was life like for you coming up into your mid teenage years, living in the Ukraine and experiencing discrimination. And you had a father actually, who was an entrepreneur who wanted to start a company there?

Marina Byezhanova  3:10  

Yes, you know, life was very different when I was growing up than it is now. You know, the first time that I ever boarded a plane was coming to Canada when I was 16. Little did I know that I would know, travel the globe that I would get to speak to audiences all around the world, be a member of an entrepreneurs organization, a global organization, I could have never dreamt of that. I can tell you that growing up when I saw the map. And of course, you know, we had geography classes and schools, everybody. To me, the map seems like something so theoretical when I was growing up, same as, for example, kids here in North America, looking at the constellation map, you know, you know, the planets are there, you know, there, it’s just out of reach. That’s how I felt growing up. So certainly it was, you know, I grew up in a culture of censorship. I grew up, you know, in a very, very different world from, you know, when I say that I was born in the Soviet Union sounds like I’m a 100 years old man. I’m 38. It’s incredible to believe that the world existed in our lifetime.

John Corcoran  4:14  

Yeah, absolutely. A lot of change. And what was the discrimination like for you?

Marina Byezhanova  4:20  

So you know, it’s interesting because my parents never spoke about the fact that my father was Jewish to us openly. And you know, they kind of tried to shelter us so very often, I would overhear my parents talking and whisper and you know, lowering their voices. You By the way, great job at pronouncing my last name. And as you notice, it’s not a Jewish last name, right. Slavic. My parents decided to give my sister and me my mother’s last name, so that people wouldn’t know that we were Jewish. Now. They never told us that I figured this out as an adult. They told us some convoluted story as to how the decision came about. So I was sheltered quite a bit. You’re still exposed to it. I remember this one time. Being on the bus with my father, I was 10 years old, we were coming from a hospital, I had a cast on my foot because it broke my toe. We were on the bus together. And there were these old ladies who were vicious . The scariest part of the population were the old ladies. For some reason. This old lady started screaming racial slurs at my father and pushed him off the bus. And you can see how an older lady pushed a man off the bus. But my father is an extremely introverted academic PhD in linguistics, he wasn’t going to resist her. So she pushed him off the bus, he ran to bus stops so that he could retrieve me off the bus. And because I was in the cast, and so I remember stories like that I remember my sister getting notes in her backpack at school saying go back to Israel, you dirty Jew. Because my father had come to the school to give a talk. And kids again because of you know, his looks figured out that he was Jewish. So those things, because they remember, they were hard to make sense of because as I said, my parents didn’t really address it. And then when we came to Canada, my father would tell every single person he met, you know, Hi, my name is Michael. And I’m Jewish. Because he could and he felt the freedom for quite a few years and said that it’s okay. He said it every single time, but I don’t want to just be kind of beautiful.

John Corcoran  6:34  

That’s funny. And so your father, who was an academic, as you mentioned, wanted to start a business in the Ukraine. But they had a kind of a crazy system there. If you started a business, I imagine it would not be entrepreneur friendly. So what was that like?

Marina Byezhanova  6:49  

Not at all, because you can imagine this was a whole brand new world. When the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine became an independent country yet again. My father had the dream, you know, the entrepreneurial dream, I don’t know how we’re from where, you know, growing up in the Soviet Union, where does that desire even come from, but he had it. And with a PhD in linguistics, his dream was to start a company that would, essentially what today’s Google Translate, but software packages and on CDs. And so that was the plan. That was his business, he started it, his focus was machine learning even at that time, was kind of the beginning of that whole thing with very different machines than what they look like today. So he started a business and very quickly found out that the taxation system was set in such a way that if you as an entrepreneur, were to pay all of your taxes and a lot of different taxes, it was quite convoluted. Some of the taxes would come to over 100%. And now, it wasn’t done by mistake. And a lot of people found out about the sales because it was brand new for the system. And they didn’t realize No, they realized they did it on purpose, so that the government would still inadvertently always have control over you as an entrepreneur, for anything, right? jail, you fine, you take your business away for anything. And so my father realized that was Problem number one, problem number two was the black market, you know, the day he would release a piece of software, it would be on the black market the next day for $1. And so those two things just made it really clear that in order to pursue an entrepreneurial dream, you would have to mean, you know, engaged in the darkest sides of informal economy.

John Corcoran  8:30  

And what was his entrepreneurship journey, like, once you got to Canada, was he able to start a new company, as soon as you got there to take a while you hear all the time about people who have PhDs in another country company coming to Canada or the US, North America and having to work as like a taxicab driver or something like that in order to work their way up.

Marina Byezhanova  8:51  

He, it’s what he did, the moment he came, he registered the business right away. And he has been self-employed ever since collaborating with, you know, developers and various collaborators in Eastern Europe, also in the US. But absolutely, he pursued the dream further, he had a bigger dream of, you know, creating a business with employees and having an office but that didn’t really, you know, it’s not something that really worked out. But he didn’t have to deliver pizza. He didn’t have to drive a cab. And he keeps working till this day.

John Corcoran  9:24  

And what about for you? At what point did you decide that entrepreneurship was for you? And you were going to start a company?

Marina Byezhanova  9:31  

I did not have entrepreneurship on my radar whatsoever. It was certainly not glorified when I was growing up. And certainly I did not see you know, my father’s example growing up and think, Oh, this is fascinating. All they saw was just issues and it’s just it’s complicated, and there’s nothing fancy about it. So it was not my dream at all. My dream job was a corporate job. And you know, every year you go up a floor and the view gets better. And it’s a corner of you and, and you know, my parents come to get pictures, send them back home, quote unquote home. And Marina’s made it the immigrant dream. Entrepreneurship came by surprise, they got recruited to start a business by a former coworker. I was on maternity leave, that’s when we’re hormonal. We’re crazy. We make crazy spontaneous decisions, how the journey started. And so you know, for many, many years, I said, I’m not really an entrepreneur, I’m an accidental entrepreneur, real entrepreneurs, they sell lemonade, and you know, trade baseball cards and shovel snow, and they have all those stories. And I don’t, when I joined the EO it felt a little bit inadequate and less of an entrepreneur until, you know, years passed and I realized that I am an entrepreneur, I am an opportunity seeker and a risk taker. And the passion is certainly in me.

John Corcoran  10:52  

Yeah, it’s funny that you mentioned that because I asked that question of so many entrepreneurs. And you would think since I primarily interview entrepreneurs, that the majority would have those stories about lemonade stands or shoveling snow, but you just you’d be surprised how many don’t. And I wasn’t like that. I wasn’t out doing lemonade stands every weekend. So it’s a little bit of reassurance for me as well. And so you start this company, which was in, which was in recruitment sourcing HR? And what were the early days like, Did it take off immediately? Did it take a while?

Marina Byezhanova  11:25  

Well, so a couple of things my co-founder and I wanted to, you know, bootstrap and grow organically, that was important to us. But we were both extremely ambitious and also wanted to, you know, do well, and had a bunch of babies and bills to pay. She had her own babies, I had my own babies not together, but a bunch and that we continue to have along the journey as well. And so we started in a very humble way, subletting a basement office, buying ramen noodle soups, in bulk, and eating them for lunch every day until I developed stomach issues. But we did scale quite rapidly, we joined eel, and I think by year four or five of operation, and that was you know, in the services industry growing completely organically juggling mothering of kids and the business. So I’m quite proud of that.

John Corcoran  12:24  

And you know, for those who don’t know, yo, in order to qualify for a yo you have to be doing over seven figures in revenue did that feel like a victory to you when you hit that point having come from where you’d come from,

Marina Byezhanova  12:36  

you know, this is going to sound so cheesy and so promotional IBO. It felt like more of a victory that we could join eo than even the actual revenue goal. You know, what’s interesting is that when we found out eo got first exposed to the organization, I remember the first event that I attended, we did not qualify whatsoever yet. I attended the first event. And John, I was driving home. And I remember, I still remember that feeling of these are my people, I found my people, they don’t think I’m weird. And they are a bit weird. And that’s okay. And I remember having that feeling we didn’t qualify. And we were told of the accelerator program that has, we’re with another revenue threshold, you can join, you can go through the program for three years, scale to seven figures and then join. We scaled within the year, thanks to the accelerator, we doubled our revenue in one year, with no increase in headcount. We reshuffled some of the heads thanks to our mentor. But we did not have to add a headcount, it was quite incredible. The moment we saw the numbers and saw that we hit seven figures, I remember being elated, and my thought was not Oh, my God, I am and you know, an entrepreneur that scaled the business so much my thought was, Oh, my God I’m applying to I was filling out the application. That’s awesome.

John Corcoran  14:00  

And so you’re also really passionate about personal branding? Where did that come about from?

Marina Byezhanova  14:07  

You know, it developed quite naturally, for a couple of reasons. Number one, as I mentioned, they grew up in the culture of censorship, and was so you know, I don’t know just part of the DNA and part of you know, who I was that feeling, you know, you have to suppress yourself, you have to censor what you’re saying, you have to be careful that when I came to Canada, I was only 16 years old. But I remember, you know, that very vivid thought, This is Democracy, and I can speak my mind. I can, you know, express myself. Now, I had an extremely thick accent. And so as much as I could legally express myself, people weren’t that interested in hearing out why oh, I made a lot of mistakes. I stumbled on my words, it was quite choppy. So had this determination to, you know, be able to find my voice and scale its reach. faced quite a bit of discrimination. When I was looking for a job. Straight out of school, I realized that there was a lot of discrimination against recent immigrants. It wasn’t until I removed all mention of Ukraine and me speaking Russian for my CV, that I would start getting phone calls for interviews, people just assume that my communication skills would be rough and that it wouldn’t fit in. My communication skills were rough, and bite Sam, I saw quite a bit of discrimination. And then also, I noticed that marketing, your business marketing, your small business is expensive and hard marketing, you know, b2b and investing in it. And so for all those different reasons, it all started coming together, where I started focusing on building my own personal brand, scaling the reach of my voice and creating visibility. Slowly, I started speaking at events, I started building my reputation with an eo getting involved and things started leveraging LinkedIn quite a bit. So all those different things, and started seeing incredible results for myself and for my business. So number one, more and more people interested in hearing me speak and hearing my voice. There is nothing more precious to me and my Why is helping others inspiring others to find their voice and scale its reach, I believe there’s no more precious commodity than voice for obvious reasons that I have shared, and also started seeing incredible ROI for the business as far as clients incredible media attention as well, which media is media placements, hard to get for a business, but for a thought leader, it’s accessible, and then your business gets mentioned as a result. So my interest was completely selfish, purely selfish, for the reasons that I described. And then just slowly and organically started having people approach me other entrepreneurs or executives say, you know, I like what you’re doing, can you teach me how to do it. And as we started having those conversations, I’m an entrepreneur, there came a package that came with a business idea. It all came together. And the business is now an actual business. And it’s Incorporated. It’s called brandable. Leader, and it’s a personal branding agency.

John Corcoran  17:10  

And I love how you, like many entrepreneurs just so launched straight into it. You have paying clients for it right now. And you were telling me beforehand, you don’t have a website built yet?

Marina Byezhanova  17:20  

Yes, indeed, is comical. And, you know, when I had the first client approach me first prospective clients, she asked me, you know, how many people have you done this? Because she said, I said, I have a program, I just created a program because I figured there’s interest. had somebody approached me and said, How many people have you done this with Marina? And I very honestly said, Man, I said, none, you know, the first time you start building a business, if you have to fake it till you make it, you exaggerate and how many employees are your zero, you say, three, you have three, you say, five, five, you sit and read all this feeling that you have to exaggerate. And because it’s my second business, I felt that I didn’t have to, I can be you know, can be real and honest and assist none. You will be my first but I promise you, I will go above and beyond because you’re my first client. You thought about it. Former president of a multimillion dollar transportation company, looking to rebrand herself. So she thought about it for a second. And she said, Listen, we all start somewhere. Let’s get started. And then the second client that said required number two, the third client number three. And now I’m fortunate to be busy with so many clients that website built has taken a bit of a backburner, but I finally incorporated so at least,

John Corcoran  18:34  

that’s good. That’s good. And now I know you have used a lot of different mediums you’ve done on LinkedIn lives, you’re active on LinkedIn, speaking, appearing in media podcasts. Take us through for a new client, what are the steps? What are the elements? What do you do first, for someone who wants to develop a personal brand and wants to build a reputation and wants to use that to fuel their business? What are the steps that you take them through?

Marina Byezhanova  19:02  

Step number one is developing the client’s personal brand architecture, identifying what the personal brand is going to be all about? What is my client’s Big Vision mission? What is unique about their voice? What is the impact that we’re going to be making together? Who is the audience, we have to identify what the platforms are going to be, etc. So that work takes six weeks. And what happens down as you can imagine, when I have entrepreneurs approach me, they say, okay, so you let me know Marine, am I doing a podcast? Am I doing speaking engagements, what am I doing? And how soon can I start? And then I say we’ll figure it out and we’ll take six weeks and they see the face go, oh, but I want to start and I say but that’s the start. The start is first figuring out and gaining that personal brand clarity. So those are the steps. That’s where we start and then number two is when we start scaling the reach of the clients voice and for different clients. That means leveraging different forms of media. You know, one of my clients, right now is preparing to launch an online course. And so you know, we’re gearing up towards that he’s launching a summit in preparation for that. I have another client who’s launching a podcast. So for different clients will leverage different forms of media. The more the merrier, right? The more you scale the reach, the better. But we identified based on each crime, but before that, it’s a process of figuring it all out.

John Corcoran  20:24  

Hmm, that’s great. And I want to wrap things up, we’re getting a little short on time, but I’ll wrap things up the two questions I always enjoy asking, which is, first of all, a big fan of gratitude. So as you look around to your peers, particularly, you’ve been really active in iOS, and maybe there’s some people in there that you would want to acknowledge, but who do you admire? Who do you respect who are, who are others who are doing interesting things in your community or larger community at large, that you admire and respect.

Marina Byezhanova  20:52  

So first of all, I would acknowledge the whole EO community, I really, really would, and especially now, during the pandemic, I am an just crazy fan of people who are eternal optimists, and, you know, see the bright side of everything. And oh, my God, have we seen that during the pandemic? Or what the conversations that I had with er members in the last six months have been, it has been now, eight months have been my lifeline, you know, calling fellow entrepreneurs who got massive to their business, right, lost 50% of revenue 7080, somebody 90 would start telling me the stories of how the businesses got affected, my heart would start to bleed. And then right after that would say, but you know, what, Marina, I think is great that this happened, because this is making the pivot into the Muslim buyer increasing not normal, but in the best of ones, you know, makes me really proud that I’m a part of it.

John Corcoran  21:48  

And that’s really cool. All right. And then the last question, so let’s pretend we’re at an awards banquet, like the Oscars or the Emmys, you’re receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for everything you’ve done up until this point. And what we all want to know is, who do you think so? Who are the mentors along the way? Who are the coaches along the way? Who are the business, you know, people along the way, for members, who are the people that you would acknowledge in your remarks,

Marina Byezhanova  22:14  

I would certainly start by acknowledging my parents who brought me to Canada, because I would not have the life that I have anything close to, you know, visited Ukraine at some point and just thought, Wow, my life would be something completely, completely different if I were to stay there. So I would start with my parents, I would absolutely love to acknowledge my incredible mentor that I had when I was in your accelerator, George lebec. And he’s the one that taught me how to run a business and scale a business. So he would absolutely be somebody I would acknowledge your community at large. And right now I’m working with an incredible vision coach, her name is Daria, she’s a fellow Ukrainian. And she’s the one who kept me sane throughout the pandemic when I, you know, spent mornings at night staring at the ceiling for a good week saying what is going to happen, what is next, everything is crashing and burning. She’s the one that kept me sane, but the list is so on. I’m really fortunate. I have the most incredible network of people that inspire that lift me up and help me scale my voice.

John Corcoran  23:19  

Awesome Marina, so I know that the Brand of a Leader website isn’t up yet, so we won’t point them to that but maybe your LinkedIn page, where can people go to learn more about you?

Marina Byezhanova  23:27  

Definitely my LinkedIn page, you’ll be able to also see what I personally do and how I increase my reach as well. So LinkedIn would be a great place to reach me and hopefully sooner rather than later the website will be live.

John Corcoran  23:41  

Exactly. All right, but I’m going to spell it for people so Marina and last name is Byezhanova, in case you’re looking her up on LinkedIn. Marina, thanks so much.

Marina Byezhanova  23:54  

Thank you so much for having me.

Outro  23:56  

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at smartbusinessrevolution.com and while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.

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