Serena Leka’s journey to mentoring innovators


Serena Leka is an Albanian born in the city of Puka who lived and studied in Tirana until she graduated from the University of Tirana with a Bachelor in Finance Accounting at the Faculty of Economics. During her studies, her passion for practicing what she was already learning made her part of many non-for-profit organizations, particularly a project funded by the US Embassy and run by Levizja Mjaft, which uncovered the corruption level of high education institutions in Albania.

Her rebel spirit in search of justice was witnessed early on as she, together with fellow activists, led two protests: one of them to avoid certain construction buildings right next to the Faculty of Economics at Elbasani Street and the second related to the illegal constructions by the side of the Artificial Lake of Tirana.

The following is an exclusive interview where she reveals her career and goals for AlbaniaTech.

Prishila Gjoka: You have been so active, especially in social matters, during your time in Albania. How did you find out about these initiatives?

Serena Leka: One should be a seeker: Seek, and you shall find! For me, it was never enough to be a good student. I would not fully understand the textbooks if I did not implement them, so these activities were like trails of applying specific knowledge and scaling up what I was already getting from my studies to see how I could get more hands-on experience. I have this high sense of responsibility, too; if I belong to a community and see something done incorrectly, I cannot standstill. I always ask questions, challenge the team and whoever is leading the event/ activity/ city/ country, and more. I ask questions, and at the same time, I look forward to high participation rates from the groups of interest. This might be because of how my parents raised me: to have responsibilities and be held accountable ever since I was a kid. I also "blame" the fact that I read many books when I was growing up, so I became a fan of critical thinking very early on. I think that was what gave me that drive and confidence.

Another driver for me was learning how girls and women are treated on certain occasions, especially in economically developing nations like ours; in that sense, I aspired to achieve results and be valued based on actions and impact only. Therefore, I put the effort in not just being about the talk but also doing the walk; I go through execution, implementation, and concrete steps. I always preach this to other women that I meet in my journey. The opportunities present themselves to you because you are ready for them and preparing for them. You probably have something to contribute with, even though you often do not have the answers for what you are supposed to do. Still, say yes and seek the answers along the way.

All of this made me cancel my master's studies in Tirana, drop off the studies, and apply for all scholarships I could find abroad. I got a scholarship from the Danish government, and I worked until the last day before flying to Aarhus in July 2015.

Prishila Gjoka: Why did you decide to leave Albania? Were you somewhat disappointed in a sense?

Serena Leka: To be honest, I know myself very well, and very early on, I learned there two ways that it might go for me in Albania: either I end up not liking myself because I have to compromise my principles values for how things are done, or I was going to" fight the system," which would consume me quickly. I was young, and I had to become stronger. I had a few offers to join political parties and run certain youth divisions of these parties before leaving the country. I was intrigued,  but I noticed resistance to change on how things are done nowadays. The only way to be heard would be to strengthen my network, skills, and knowledge internationally. Build a career and validate it in an environment that plays fair and is much more competitive. I had to pursue that sort of challenge, which is why I left.

In the meanwhile, I never turned my back; I have been giving classes and workshops, I answer every week to all emails and messages I get from social media for students wanting to study abroad, students wishing to pursue different careers, teachers and professors who need resources, who are applying for projects and grants. However, I am still figuring out the best way to contribute without compromising certain principles that I believe we should reinforce back home.

Prishila Gjoka: What if in all those messages you one day find one that asks: "How can I make it but in Albania, without needing to live somewhere else"?

Serena Leka: I receive such messages very often. My number 1 insight is that it is unfair to leave without working in the country. I became who I am today, and I successfully reached my goals thanks to what the social environment in Albania taught me. I worked there with the community of students, young professionals, activists and citizens, not forgetting the institutions. I tested the ground for quite a few years. You have to find a job or many for that matter; you have to seek things back home before going elsewhere. Difficulties are everywhere. It is not more manageable if you go abroad, but once you have tried a few things back home, you are better prepared for another country. In addition, it helps you understand where you are good at, where you need to improve, and what your mission is.

When I was in my bachelor's, I found out that the Bank of Albania was accepting internships, and I was a second-year student; I applied for the internship and got rejected; everything was in order in my perspective. Then as I was asking around, I found out that they do not accept interns in their bachelor's but only students in their masters. So during the third year as a bachelor student, I applied again, and I insisted on talking to whomever I could find supportive in changing this. They made an exception and accepted me. I did my internship for three months, and I got the inspiration and data from the bank to do my bachelor thesis; I later published the thesis results with my supervisor. So all of this is an example of a track record for a student in Albania that things can work out on your terms; you have to show persistence and prove that you have something to take from whatever initiative. Still, you also have to give something in return - The pay it forwards attitude.

Prishila Gjoka: What is the drive? What is your push to do it? Because most students think they are attending university or high school and have to finish this to start something new, they do not try new things. What made you different? Did you have this passion, or how would you call it?

Serena Leka: Some days ago, I talked with some new colleagues, and they asked me: "Who mentored you for reaching all these goals?". My very first supporters were my parents. They used different parenting techniques; my dad would provide studying resources to his best ability and expect good results, while my mum would not accept any results if they were not exceptionally good. If there were a 9/10, she would ask what happened and what went wrong, but she would also advise me on how to learn and not to leave things for the last minute and not have an attitude of blaming others for my actions or for what is within my reach of impact.

Later on, I found that if you want to be competitive, you have to find some advantages that make you unique, and if you only study the books, you are going through the same content with thousands of students at the same time.

So how do you become competitive? I would always read extra, and I never hesitate to share that. I would raise my hand and say it out loud, and maybe someone would have some additional comment which would start a discussion, a thought, an idea, a project, a company. Find what your competitive edge is!

Another story I can share here is when researching for my Ph.D. project during the first semester of my study visit at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, the USA, funded by NGI Explorers, I tried to take that challenge a little early on in the process and believe that the faster I learn these lessons, the quicker my growth curve is. In late October 2021, I met the Chief Engineer of the Perseverance Rover launched to Mars in 2020. Having that person three meters away from you and talking to him, listening to his history, is just thrilling. So who says you have to wait to flourish in your career? Especially nowadays with Artificial Intelligence, things are escalating so quickly that you wake up the following day and there is a new startup completely changing the paradigm of how to do business, how technology is influencing all sorts of business operations, how your role might be obsolete, and you need to adapt fast. The best thing one can do is take things with a bit of leap of faith and have courage early on.

I have been teaching applied innovation and engineering for five years now, and the very first things we share with our students are three concepts:

Chaos Theory - there is always a way to navigate the chaos. If things are too comfortable, something is not going right, or you are missing out on something. A bit of spice is always good for you to be part of the next great idea. So we teach them to accept chaos and work with it.

Constructivism - We try to make them aware that they come up with ideas or make decisions based on previous experiences or events or knowledge or life events, whatever they have from the past, and those determine their next idea, their next decision. So one should be aware of the way they are constructed and see if they can find a pattern and whether they can break that pattern so that the following idea is not what is expected of them but what is more of a breakthrough. One way to assess "how your thoughts might be constructed" is to review your notebooks of the past or create a notetaking habit for the future. For reference, use my TEDx AUBG talk.

Cybernetics - If you want to get something done, if you are going to fix a problem, you have to choose the right tools. To select the right tools, you have to know many tools. The students need to make the right decisions on what tools to use for what problems. Let us take the example of the climate crisis right now. Every person could have their proposal of a solution, depending on their background (constructivism) and tools at hand, so the best solution can come if you explore other means and re-construct specific knowledge in your brain differently. The only way to do that is to be open to new experiences and cross-industry learnings.

Prishila Gjoka: I do not know if you can share this because people try to hide these things before making them happen, but what is the biggest goal you have?

Serena Leka: Definitely, I will share: I plan to have my own company; I cannot say for sure if it will be a technology-based company or consulting; maybe it will be coupled with a foundation because I have had that in me since I was a teenager. One of my other dreams is to run a restaurant, but let us leave it here for now. 🙂

Prishila Gjoka: You have also trained startups; for how long? Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

Serena Leka: Yeah, my work with startups started in Albania, with Unique Junior Enterprise, and then when I moved to Denmark, I was regional manager of the organization supporting spinouts for bachelor and master students called Venture Cup.

As part of that organization, my tasks were to deliver lectures and workshops, direct training to the startups on campus, and prepare them for competitions, grants, and pitching to get their idea to the next step. Meanwhile, I provide pieces of training for institutions like the Innovation Network of Advanced Materials in Germany, The European Space Agency in Austria, EIT Food in Belgium, and more startups on a personal basis. Right now, I consult a global award-winning startup called Cellugy. I helped the founders become part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem at an early stage; I would introduce them to entities, incubators, accelerators, institutions and conduct other ad-hoc tasks, including stakeholder management and communication strategies.

Prishila Gjoka: What do you think about the Startup Scene here in Albania, some of the problems, and do you have any advice for them?

Serena Leka: The entrepreneurial ecosystem has developed quickly in the last few years. I have seen tremendous changes and an excellent job from all ecosystem players. I still believe that many resources are not leveraged yet. Some of them are in funding, training, access to international expertise. Everyone in the country that works at the intersection between academia, industry, and governments has something to give. Some of these roles are still not grasped that well; they are not activated, they are not given full power yet, and yes, many entities are doing that, but more boost is needed.

There are many problems; some of the issues become bigger by just acknowledging them, some problems shadow other problems, I am not going to put my finger on one or two points, but I will say that awareness is required across the general public and more incentives for anybody to enter the startup world when they feel like it.

On November 8th, 2021, we launched the Albanian offices of the World Business Angels Investment Forum, an affiliated partner of the G20 Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion (GPFI), committed to collaborating globally to empower the economic development of the world, in this case, to mobilize finances and to strengthen the startup environment in Albania and the region.

Prishila Gjoka: Do you think you will ever come back to live in Albania in the long term?

Serena Leka: It depends on my life's happenings, so I cannot say for a fact, but I promise to keep finding ways to contribute. I am open to all sorts of interactions, and as you can see, I am ready to share all I know so others can use it to get to better positions in their careers. One can contribute with money, time, and knowledge for a good cause, and I will provide the latter right now.

Prishila Gjoka: We have to face it; women are a little prejudiced here. What advice do you have for women who want to create their own companies, get involved in business, or grow professionally?

Serena Leka: First, here is another resource: We started a podcast called Her Frequency with one of my colleagues at Aarhus University. We discuss topics and issues of relevance for Girls and Women in STEM. We try to share different practices from academia and industry, and we provide additional resources and references like articles, books, events, and videos that listeners can work with afterward.

So to women in STEM or women entrepreneurs or women and girls in general, be aware that out there is a man's game, and one has to enter the game knowing the rules and at the same time proposing new rules that are gender-neutral. You first need to fully understand the game, which means knowing the player, learning their strategies, and joining with your strategy.

On the other hand, though it is unfortunate, we have to accept that we will still have to do some additional work, so do not be afraid to give an extra 10-20% to your 100%. See it as a contribution you are making to prepare the ground for the next generation of women and to create an unprejudiced habitat for them.

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