In Conversation with Philanthropist and Business Mogul Nadja Swarovski

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Nadja Swarovski
Photo: Courtesy of Swarovski

When an interview opportunity lands on an editor’s lap, the first step is usually to embark on an extensive Google search, devouring article after article about your interview subject. Depending on who that is, this part of the process can take anything from a couple of minutes up to a couple of hours. In a few rare cases, however, you find yourself sinking deeper and deeper into a black hole of information, partly due to the sheer amount of content available, and partly due to the fact that the more you read about this person, the more you want to know.

It was with this voracious curiosity that I entered a back room on the second floor of Harvey Nichols-Dubai to meet Nadja Swarovski, heir to the multi billion-dollar crystal company with which she shares a name. What had struck me most during my hours of research on Nadja was the sheer amount of accolades received, roles held, and titles earned by this one woman – who, to boot, was also a mother of two. What Google hadn’t been able to tell me, however, was how elegant, passionate, and inspiring she would be in person.

Hi Nadja. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
It’s a pleasure to meet you too. Thank you for coming today.

Shall we begin? I’d like to start by going back to your childhood. What was it like growing up a Swarovski?
It was certainly an inspiration watching my grandfather and my father as I was growing up, to be able to experience and meet the scientists that they were working with. As a child, everything seemed so boring – it was just another scientist, and another artist, and another business man – and it wasn’t until I was older that I thought, “Oh my gosh! It’s so fascinating and interesting.” Your parents do leave such a strong mark on you. Another thing that I learned from my parents is to have a strong working ethic. My father was always working weekends and had such a tremendous dedication to his work. It is definitely nice to see that his hard work has led to something – hard work and dedication. As a family business, you have a very strong feeling of accountability and responsibility. Now, being in the fifth generation and having celebrated our 120th anniversary this year, it really puts pressure on our shoulders to take the company into the next 100 years, into the future. It makes you think very hard as an individual about what it is that you can contribute to the organization that hasn’t necessarily existed.

I definitely fell into it. I didn’t expect to work in this business. I didn’t prepare myself to work in this business. I really felt very strongly about finding my own passion, which I did find in art and art history. But I find myself bringing my knowledge and my education back into the company, so maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t plan to work in the company, because if I had I probably would have studied engineering!

Which would have come in handy!
Absolutely, but you know crystal cutting is indigenous to Austria; we have the most incredible engineers here and we have amazing craftsmen. What has been just as important for our product was to team it up with visionaries of this world. So with my background in with Gagosian and in New York City, I feel very comfortable with the creative industry. That world merged with Swarovski crystals is such a great combination. In any case, I didn’t plan to work in this business and I just had an ‘a-ha!’ moment in New York when I was working for European family businesses that have their roots in fashion. I thought, “Well wait a minute! I have a family business that is European and has its roots in Fashion, but nobody knows about that, so let’s start promoting that and let’s start teaching people how to pronounce the name Swarovski.” So that really was one major mission, to make people understand the name and really bring it back to the forefront of fashion where it once was with its collaborations with the Paris couturiers.

 

Nadja Swarovski and Iris Apfel
Iris Apfel and Nadja Swarovski | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

You touched a bit on what it’s like to work in a family business. You said it makes you very accountable. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced working with family, but also the advantages?
The advantage is certainly that you have a tremendous sense of pride for what the business stands for and it is such a motivation. There are certainly disadvantages though. There is a lot of prejudice. You find yourself having to work a lot harder than an average employee.

You have three children yourself. Do you hope they will take over one day?
I tell them exactly what my parents have told me: knowledge is power. I tell them they can do whatever they want to do, but their weapon is their education. That will give them freedom. This is exactly what I tell my children. And they’re so different. One wants to be an engineer – yes! [laughs] – and he wants to run the company, the manufacturing plant. One of my daughters wants to be a fashion designer in New York. She is only seven, so I don’t know where that comes from! And the other one wants to be an Olympic swimmer or gymnast. And that comes from me. She gets that sport gene from me [laughs]. I just want them to have the attitude that I had for the family business, which is that I am there to contribute to the family business; the family business is not there to support me. The family business was never a plan B. It shouldn’t be a plan B, you know. I think you should only enter a family business if you feel that you are going to contribute more than the previous generations or do something new.

I am there to contribute to the family business; the family business is not there to support me.

Will you tell your daughters that being a woman has helped or hindered you?
I think as a woman you find yourself working a lot harder to prove yourself than a man does, and I think it’s a universal thing. It’s a cultural thing. Women are not necessarily expected to have a voice, but personally I find that the women I work with have contributed so positively to this organization. Our customers are women, and to understand a customer is a tremendous advantage. I think it’s one of the advantages that I’m bringing to the board. I am the customer and I know the point of view of the customer.

I think the female attitude at work is so much more collaborative than competitive, which makes it so much easier. People waste so much energy in competing with each other, versus collaborating with each other and inspiring each other. For men, being in a leading position is often about power, whereas for women it is about empowerment, which I think actually makes you more powerful because it reflects back on you. It is a completely different energetic proposition, but it is so much more effective. Again, bringing it back to the family business, it’s so good to be able to bring your own values into the business, and that is so much easier to be done in a family business. I do bring my own values into my family business, and I feel very strongly about that because I think those values are a positive contribution to the organization. It’s not a selfish quest to impose my values; it’s something that is very much calculated in order to make the organization better, more pleasant, and more effective at the end of the day.

 

Nadja Swarovski and Diane von Furstenberg
Nadja Swarovski and Diane von Furstenberg | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

 

Would you agree that, in a family business, the family values become the business values?
Totally. I think in any business you can’t just be a person here and an employee there – it’s one and the same. You need to stop thinking “9 to 5”. And I really hope that people find jobs that they personally identify with, because their life will be so much more fulfilling, but also I think they can contribute with so much more energy if they have passion for what they are doing.

For men, being in a leading position is often about power, whereas for women it is about empowerment.

As cliché as it sounds, the saying “Find what you love and do it forever” has a lot of truth to it.
Absolutely. They also say, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” I think too many people try to do a job in order to get the money, and they end up just being miserable. Money is not the only currency; positive emotions are a currency and I think that if people just thought of it that way there would be more people in the right place for themselves, which in turn will also increase the efficiency of output. So I really hope that kind of cultural shift and universal shift in thinking will happen, but I think it is going to be women who will be able to promote that kind of new thought process.

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