Editor’s note: The following is based on a speech presented by Dagmar Beckel-Machyckova, the co-owner of Golden Calf Company, LLC. Dagmar gave this presentation at the 2014 Women’s Business Conference in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
There was a time I thought I could never become an entrepreneur. It’s quite amusing now that we have completed our fifth year of exhibiting at the World Dairy Expo in Madison.
But never is such a funny word. The way I see it, there are three kinds of never. The first one, others impose onto you. The “you can never do that” kind. Those are challenges you should tackle with all your might.
The second kind of never is life setting you straight on your path. Ever tried going after something only to run into obstacles over and over again? That’s your life telling you: “Step back. Look around. Your path is over there.”
But what I felt was the most dangerous kind of never – the one you impose onto yourself. I could never do that. Why? Because I am not good enough, because I can’t take that kind of a risk, because … Back then I didn’t examine my reasons, but I knew part of it was the way I grew up.
I was raised in Prague, the capital of what’s today the Czech Republic, a sovereign country with parliamentary democracy, elected officials and free-market economy. But it wasn’t always so. When I was born, the place was called Czechoslovakia, part of the Communist Bloc with a centrally planned economy. My early “business” education was formed by a system that functioned without the laws of supply and demand.
All businesses were owned by the government, and every citizen had the responsibility to work, which created the amazing 0 percent unemployment rate. As a matter of fact, if you didn’t want to work, you were imprisoned for being a freeloader.
The economy was run by the office of central planning. In it, a guy would decide what the entire country would produce in the next 12 months, and who would do what. He didn’t really care what people wanted to buy or what their tastes were; he’d just plan for what he thought was a good idea.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that no one cared about the demands of the marketplace, this system rewarded those who “exceeded the plan.” This created excess in some areas and shortage in others. To make up for it, the central planning office would then contact offices in other countries and barter. Swapping shoes for toilet paper, trains for notebooks and guns for potatoes. And so it went on for 40 years.
As you can see, this was not a great preparation for becoming a business owner.
The state ran the economy between 1948 and 1989. It all started when the communists won the election after World War II. One of the first things that happened was the nationalization of all private property.
Imagine that tomorrow the government walks into your business, takes all of your cows, tractors and equipment and says, “We are merging all the dairies in this county into one co-op. You are now an employee. Here, meet the new boss.”
All your animals go to the neighbor’s farm because he has a bigger parlor, and your place becomes the hay storage and tractor shed. You still get to live in your house, but it no longer belongs to you. You and the neighbor are lucky if you get to work at the dairy as milkers because your other farmer friends were either sent to prison or chased right out of the country for having “entrepreneuristic tendencies.”
For those 40 years, the word “entrepreneur” was on par with “enemy of state,” and any hint of entrepreneurship could be a ticket to jail.
It wasn’t until the late ’90s when I came to America on a Rotary Youth Exchange scholarship that my attitude changed. That one year here filled me with hope and empowerment, with the belief that if I really want something and work hard for it, I can achieve it.
After finishing high school and an undergraduate degree in business in Prague, I wanted to return to America, for I felt that was the place that nurtured me. I found out about a scholarship for an American college and was very pleased to find out that I was one of only two students from the Czech Republic to receive it. Determined to make the best of it, I wanted to squeeze a master’s degree into the one year my scholarship covered.
You should have seen my counselor’s face when I presented him my plan of 15 credits per semester.
“You can’t do this,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked, baffled.
“That’s too many credits. You’d need a special permission from the dean.”
“OK,” I said. “How do I go about doing that?”
“You don’t understand. Our American students can’t handle that many credits, so you never could.”
Here was that challenging version of never, and I knew just what to do with it. I got really mad and asked him if he was going to just sit there and tell me that I can’t or if he’d let me try.
In the end, I earned all my credits in the first two semesters while holding a Graduate Assistantship job and fulfilling my duties as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. I added an extra semester to allow time for an internship, which led into a full-time job offer after graduation. Of course, I felt it was an opportunity of a lifetime and jumped on it.
As I look back at my life, I feel that every step, every experience, every job I ever had or volunteered for was in some way preparing me for where I am now. It’s a gigantic puzzle where all the pieces depend on each other.
My dad insisting on my learning English led to the high-school exchange scholarship, that led to my encounter with Rotary, which led to the university scholarship in Mankato, where I eventually met my husband, Andy.
The challenging kind of never is my favorite. Much like the situation with my counselor, it is a call to action – a challenge to see if you have what it takes to fight for what you believe in. It’s easy to spot.
The second kind is not as pronounced and a bit harder to recognize. It is your life telling you, “No, this is not the path for you. Not yet, anyway.”
I met my future husband about the same time my employer was applying for an H1B visa for me. When it was finally granted, I was required to return to the Czech Republic in order for the visa to be issued in my passport, requiring a three-week stay for the administrative transaction to take place.
But when I returned to Minneapolis, the newspaper headlines at the airport were announcing that my employer was, after 90 years, shutting down all its Minnesota operations and moving to Texas.
I spent the next 12 months looking for a new job in Minnesota, and nothing would come to fruition. Eventually, I had to leave the U.S. and return to the Czech Republic. After three months of being apart, my future husband flew over to propose.
We returned to the U.S. together. I started my job search again, all the while living with his parents and working on their dairy farm. It was my job to take care of the calves while looking for an off-farm opportunity.
That’s when we decided to move to Wisconsin and start dairying. I received a job offer from Eau Claire almost immediately, and we were able to move and start a search for the right dairy farm.
For 12 months, we looked every weekend for a farm to purchase. Finally, we found one within budget – only to be told the seller had changed his mind 30 minutes before closing. Devastated, we then decided to look at it from a different angle. Instead of looking at a dairy farm, why not look at a house with acreage? We can build the barn ourselves. We closed two weeks later and built the barn before the snow flew.
It was definitely life’s way of showing us our path. If you are working really hard for something and you have given it your all, and it’s still not working out, it is time to take a step back and see what you are missing. How can you tackle it differently? Is there another angle to it? I am always surprised how smoothly things go once I make a change. And it reassures me that I am on the right path.
Changing your approach after you have been working in a certain direction for a long time is not easy, but it is less difficult than taking down the boundaries you impose on yourself. Finding the guts to fight my own insecurities is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Becoming an entrepreneur didn’t come easy to me, and it is still a work in progress. It took a lot of time surrounded by entrepreneurs and mentally preparing myself that I was capable of doing it. My position with the City of Eau Claire Economic Development surrounded me with entrepreneurs.
But it wasn’t until after our first daughter was born we began to crave more time together as a family, and the idea of running our own business slowly began to emerge.
We did everything by the book; for almost two years, we kept our day jobs. At night, we researched new trends in calf care, colostrum management protocols, and read up on university research.
We wrote the business plan after having surveyed potential customers and visited many dairy farms, learning about their needs and challenges in calf care. Finally, in 2010, we launched our business, the Golden Calf Company, at the World Dairy Expo in Madison.
For the first year-and-a-half of the company’s existence, I kept my position with the Wisconsin Department of Commerce. While my husband worked on the business during the day, I worked on it at night: invoicing, bookkeeping, designing ads and brochures. I’d even schedule my day-job vacation around the business’s trade shows.
I started to feel like I was burning the candle at both ends, but was too scared to let go of my day job. The proverbial last straw came in the form of a fabulous announcement. Our colostrum management system was being recognized as a top product of the year at the 2012 World Ag Expo. That’s when I quit.
The trade show went off without a hitch. Our sales soared and I never regretted it. As I get older, I see that life makes perfect sense looking back. It’s just difficult to see when you are going through it.
And when I do look back, I see the times when I had to work hard to prove things to others. I see the times when I tried to accomplish a goal in a manner that wasn’t meant for me. And I see the times when I, myself, have closed the door on things I desired to do.
I also realize that the first two are the easy ones; push harder or change direction, let your life guide you. It’s the third one that’s a real challenge. So next time you think to yourself, “I could never do that,” take a step back and make sure you aren’t using the never as an excuse. See it for the motivation it really is.
And rest assured that the things that missed you were never meant for you, and those that are meant for you will never miss you. PD
Dagmar Beckel-Machyckova was raised in the Czech Republic. She used the word “never” as motivation to achieve much in her life, including starting a dairy calf business with husband Andy Beckel.
As published in Progressive Dairyman on November 20, 2014