Yarden Kaufmann Rotenberg (CEO) and Daniel Shpigel Shaltiel (COO), co-founders of Unika. met when they were both parts of the initial team of Avo. Yarden describes Avo as the best school she could have asked for: "You begin as a family, then you grow into a tribe, then you grow into a village, and after that into a city, and when you’re a part of the initial family you always feel close to the company." Their friendship blossomed after they discovered they both had the same pair of shoes, which turns out to be very relevant to their story (more later on).
The connection between being a professional athlete and an entrepreneur
Daniel grew up in a house of Olim (new immigrants to Israel). She described growing up with the feeling that she needed to be strong - strong in terms of language, knowing her rights without waiting for someone to come and take care of her, and always remembering that you don't give up no matter what.
The same mindset she absorbed at home served her well for nine years as a competitive swimmer. When I asked her if anything from her background in swimming contributed to her as an entrepreneur today, she shared: "Persistence and competitiveness with myself - there’s something special about swimming, because when you’re underwater you have to be really focused and not look around, and I think that in the world we live in today it’s very easy to look to the sides because everything is exposed in every way. It contributed to my understanding that I need to focus on some internal center and clearly define my goals, and that means that - if I say to myself that I need to reach some kind of result, then it depends only on me, and not on the fact that someone swam a little faster than me."
Yarden was a ballet dancer for 12 years, and also described that what attracted her to dance was the combination of persistence and focus together with competitiveness which constantly pushes you to improve: "You’re given an exercise and you have to perform it quickly - it's a combination of mind and emotion that I really relate to in general."
This connection between sport and mental strength is something that I (Gali) strongly believe in, and to this day in my lectures when I talk about the mental muscles that entrepreneurs need to develop there’s a picture of a ballerina in my presentation because what holds her in the air in the tense position that seems almost impossible are her muscles, the inner core, which also connects to our gut feelings. Our inner muscles as entrepreneurs are the basis of everything.
Of course, when we’re children we don't plan or understand how it can serve us in the future, we do it simply because it brings us joy - but looking back, as adults, we can see how the hobbies and things we did in the past built us into who we are today, with the unique strengths that allow us to move forward in ways that surprise even us.
Daniel shared another surprising ability that serves her today as an entrepreneur, which came precisely from the place that embarrassed her the most as a child when her parents insisted on her speaking and learning the Russian language.
Today, she said, she understands how it actually built pride in her - to speak without being ashamed, to say what you have to say no matter who the audience is or how they react.
She encounters situations that require her to bring those same skills, such as in presentations and pitches in front of investors, who do not always understand and are as enthusiastic about what they do as they are, and still, they need to maintain their energy and their confidence in what they do; they must convince the investors and it isn’t a simple task.
Yarden adds: "It's a place that also motivates us a lot because in every meeting with an investor, friend, or client it's very interesting what they would like to hear and how they think about things. As far as I'm concerned, there's no shame, on the contrary - there's learning here, there's a journey here, and there are things that need to be done. So, at first, it will be less good, but after the conversation, it will be better thanks to that."
Creating deep relationships within the company
They decided to found Unika together when Yarden was pregnant. Yarden shared about the lightbulb moment for her, which actually came from a personal place when she was parting from Avo - "One of the gifts that moved me the most was VEJA shoes that I received as a parting gift from the CEO of the company. It wasn’t the shoes themselves - we had a private joke about them at work after he got them from an investor and we laughed about when it would be my turn, and when they finally arrived as a gift it touched something internal that couldn’t be communicated through words. I felt that he knew me, that he thought of me, because he thought about what to buy for me and made an effort for it, and this is one of the gifts I talk about the most to this day and remember again every time I wear those shoes."
The power of gifts and experiences to build relationships without words and perpetuate shared memories most vividly and profoundly has enchanted them and is actually the basis and engine of what they do today at Unika.
Yarden explains: "When we look at the relationship between employers and employees, it has two components: a material component - salary, and there’s the experiential component. How it’s done today in companies with the employees brought Eretz Nehederet (satirical sketch comedy show) to do a skit about it - it doesn’t come with the same feelings that I felt with the shoes, and there’s a part of the connection that gets lost in the way - and this is where Unika actually steps in."
Daniel added a wonderful sentence: "We ‘ll be surprised to find out how many people want us to really know them."
We want to be seen, to be understood, and this is very difficult to do in large companies - "The gifts and experiences are just the way to convey that we care, and they also give the employees a feeling that they have a safe place to share because here, they’re really being listened to. It's a communication channel."