Three individuals who built successful businesses. Three different impact journeys.
Anna Korzeniewska in a discussion with Zoltan Gyorko (Hungary), Wiktor Schmidt (Poland) and Marius Ciuzelis (Lithuania). Polish translation of this interview was published in Forbes Poland on December 8, 2023.
* * *
How important are conversations with children at the table? Why is the feeling of being useful so important after making an exit or transferring to the Supervisory Board? Do you gain when you share? Does it help you do business? And do you really need to enjoy the process of helping others?
After approximately 30 years of a free market economy in Central and Eastern Europe, more and more individuals possess the means to contribute. As their wealth increases, so does their willingness to support the values they hold dear but many of them don’t know how to start. Research shows that good practices and role models are missing. These three successful businessmen not only know how to make money but also have an intrinsic need to make a positive impact.
Zoltan Gyorko | Hungary
Co-founder of BalaBit, cyber security company (exit: 2018). Angel investor. YPO’er. Member of the Supervisory Board at Startup Hungary and Rosa Parks Foundation. Co-founder of Scale Impact.
Key message: Start. Learn as you go. Improve.
Anna Korzeniewska: Zoltan – how did your impact journey start?
Zoltan Gyorko: For me, it wasn’t a consequence of getting wealthy with the exit. It started much earlier. I was growing up in a countryside, among children coming from different backgrounds. I was the guy writing their homework; sometimes because I wanted to, sometimes because I would get beaten if I didn’t (laughter). I’ve seen a lot. It was the beginning of my impact journey, I believe. It wasn’t structured, it wasn’t strategic, it wasn’t conscious.
AK: When did it become conscious and structured?
ZG: Conscious decisions came with establishing the company. When it grew to around 100 people and had significant budget, there was this need inside the team to do something meaningful. So we painted the kindergarten and these kind of things. We also got requests for donations from our colleagues. We realized very quickly that we had to set a strategy, otherwise it was very uncomfortable to say “NO” to people who are important to you. So we defined a strategy and decided to focus on children’s education. It significantly reduced a number of difficult conversations. But even in this narrowed area the needs were higher than our budget. So we prepared a more detailed strategy and at the end, we decided to support one particular organization, Rosa Parks Foundation, on whose Supervisory Board I serve until today.
AK: What was your role in all of it, as a CEO? What were you motivated by?
ZG: You know Anna, people from your team know how much money you spend on marketing. That raises questions – if we spend so much on promotion, can’t we spend some money on supporting the community we work in? For an individual, donating 300 Euro is a significant amount of money; for a company, it’s peanuts. As a leader, you need to listen and be open to it. Obviously, as a CEO, I was motivated by one more factor – attracting and retaining talented people. BalaBit is a software company. IT people can earn good money everywhere, they can learn interesting things everywhere. So what makes a difference? Why do they choose to work for you? Why do they stay? Cyber security is not a mission you sign up to. But seeing that your company truly commits, having a chance to volunteer, this is what makes you proud of your work. We were definitely much more than just a money making machine.
AK: After you sold a company in 2018, did the new owners continue your impact strategy?
ZG: No. They had a different CSR strategy. However, I had enough wealth at that time, as an individual, to continue making the same annual donation to Rosa Parks that the company had previously made. It was a significant amount of money but making financial contributions was not enough for me. So I started asking Rosa Parks if I can help them with my knowledge. This is how I ended up at the Board of the Foundation. I started learning what is working, what is not, what they have, what they need, what is missing. I had my theory how I could help them and obviously I was looking for more organizations I could support.
AK: What was your theory?
ZG: My theory was that there is no connection between the companies and NGOs. That they don’t understand each other, don’t trust each other, and don’t speak the same language. This is why I decided to help organizations with their fundraising. So I started teaching them communications and the sales process; fundraising from companies is the same sales process as any other. There is a budget, there is a decision maker, and if you fit, you get the money. But soon I realized that on my own, I won’t have enough impact, so I helped establish Scale Impact which is an organization multiplying my efforts.
AK: What does social engagement give you? On a personal level?
ZG: Working with NGOs makes me proud. I am not very active in social media and I am always reluctant to share pictures of my family but when it comes to events during which for example we fundraise money for 5000 pairs of shoes – I happily do that. I’m sure there is a psychological definition for that but generally, giving is good. It makes me feel good. Especially after an exit, when I was semi-retired, feeling useful was important.
AK: You mentioned your family. How do you ensure your children are sensitive to these issues?
ZG: I gradually get them involved. I am doing small things with them. When they were younger, I made sure that they remained open, that they weren’t surprised when I opened the window and talked to a homeless guy at the red light. That they always remembered there is a human being behind. Now, when they got bigger, whenever there is a volunteering work I participate in, I bring them along. This makes them ask questions and this, in turn, gives me a chance to share my views with them. They are my biggest fans so it is important that they see what I do.
AK: You never decided to formalize your social activity. Why?
ZG: The answer is simple. My annual budget spent on these causes is not big enough. I don’t want to make the same mistake many organizations suffer from – lack of money.
AK: Do you share what you do with your business network?
ZG: I’m at the beginning of this journey. I sometimes act as an intermediary, connecting my business friends with reliable NGOs. As I mentioned before, there is a lack of trust between companies and NGOs. If someone from business trusts you and you trust an NGO, why not introducing them to each other? Such connectors are needed, they can make a difference, especially that business people always have other priorities than charity.
AK: How can others learn from your experience? What advice would you give them?
ZG: Talk to people who have been there, done that. Read books. Learn what worked for others first before you try something completely new.
AK: Thank you so much Zoltan.
Wiktor Schmidt | Poland
Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Netguru (2008). WEF Global Innovator. Pledger at Founders Pledge. Chairman of the Board of Endeavor. Advisory Board Member at Kozminski University, Digital University, Tech to the Rescue, Social Impact Alliance for CEE. YPO-er.
Key message: Treat impact as an integral part of your life and business.
Anna Korzeniewska: Wiktor, how did your impact journey start?
Wiktor Schmidt: In my case, business came first. I started my own company at a relatively young age. At the beginning, your prime role as a founder is to first survive on the market, then grow a team, and then scale. In the early days I didn’t feel I had much time for anything else. But once we’ve reached that moment at Netguru that I felt I could use my skills elsewhere, I started looking for other opportunities.
AK: So it was business first, impact later?
WS: Yes and no. It turned out, we intuitively ran the company in a ‘no-harm’ way. It was only later that we found out that our core values were consistent with the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact. As we grew, we felt that ‘making no harm’ is no longer enough. We decided to leverage our capabilities, time and resources, to contribute in a positive way. We hired a dedicated expert to make sure we’re doing the right things in the right way.
AK: Was it purely a value-based decision?
WS: The need was driven by our core beliefs. At the same time, I wouldn’t be honest if I said we did not believe it could help us business-wise. We saw great companies that were run in a sustainable way and they were leveraging this fact to gain competitive advantage. Obviously, we couldn’t afford to do it at the Patagonia scale, but we felt we should invest some of the resources towards good causes, not thinking about making profit out of it.
AK: Is it the leader who sets this path?
WS: In most cases. Some founders I know said they followed suggestions from their teams. Truth is, if you don’t have the founder’s or the owner’s support, things won’t move forward.
AK: From the time perspective, was it a good investment?
WS: From the business perspective, we were growing faster than the market. How much of it came because of our sustainability and tech-for-good efforts? I feel it did have a major impact, but we’re missing good benchmarks to measure such things in a more tangible way. Very few companies share what they are involved in or how they’re running such operations. There are not many sustainability officers in the market. Having said that, we believe that in the long-run, it will bring both, social and business ROI.
AK: What about your personal commitment?
WS: Once I became less involved in day-to-day company operations, it allowed me to engage in many impactful initiatives that revolve around my personal interests. For example, I joined Tech To The Rescue where we connect tech companies with nonprofits or Founders Pledge that gathers digital and technology entrepreneurs around high impact causes.
AK: You are engaged in so many initiatives and organizations. Why?
WS: To put it simply: that’s how I like to live (laughter). Social engagement is a door opener for meeting interesting people and building lasting relationships around the world. It also helps me do business. For some reasons, many entrepreneurs are still reluctant to admit that business and philanthropy do come together, that our professional lives and private lives are not separated and all these things intertwine.
AK: How do you find time for it all?
WS: I believe it is all about skillfully combining various topics, areas and priorities. In business, it is natural for us, founders, to hire people and build teams, but for some reason, when it comes to social issues, we think we have to do everything on our own. We don’t. We can outsource, connect, build teams, or invest in promising initiatives. The processes work exactly the same as in business. We just need to start thinking about them in those terms.
AK: If someone reading this interview wonders how to start, what would be your advice?
WS: Think about the impact as you think about other areas of business. Let’s take Human Relations: once you reach a scale, you hire an HR expert, right? One founder will do it when they reach 30 people on board, another once they have 100 employees. But they will do it. With impact, it’s the same story – do not fall into the trap of doing things on your own. I would also recommend to first define what interests you, what motivates you and once you know that, simply get going. You won’t regret it.
AK: Many people say you have a catalyzing power.
WS: I believe that connecting people is important but I don’t like to take credit for it, it’s them who do the job. I know that getting someone’s attention is a big challenge today. If a short introductory email can help important messages get through, I’m more than happy to help.
AK: Thank you Wiktor.
Marius Ciuzelis | Lithuania
Founder of MC Wealth Management (2009), MC Investments (2012) and M. Ciuzelis Charity Foundation (2014). Currently involved in managing a Single Family Office and the Foundation.
Key message: Don’t wait for the opportunity. Create it.
Anna Korzeniewska: Marius – what was the beginning of your impact journey?
Marius Ciuzelis: In 2010, my life changed overnight. My daughter was born 3 months prematurely. She weighed 1 kilogram. Together with my wife, we spent several months practically living at the hospital. Nothing else existed. Nothing else mattered. When they saved our daughter, we wanted to give back.
AK: Did you find a way to do it?
MC: Yes, a few years later. During the time we spent at the hospital, we talked to a lot to people working there. As it turned out, one of the key devices for critically ill patients, ultrasonic cardiac output monitor, was not available in any Lithuanian hospital at that time, so we, as a family, decided to buy it.
AK: Is this when you established the foundation?
MC: We established foundation in 2014, estimating it will not be the only charitable project of our family. We felt good about helping the hospital and we enjoyed the process – it was smooth and rewarding. Business was also growing nicely, so we were quite confident in terms of financing the foundation’s activities. The offer for the next project from the hospital came soon afterwards, and having the foundation already established we decided to go public for even bigger impact. The reasons were also pragmatic – so that our business partners could contribute to it and make impact even bigger.
AK: Tell me more about the process you mentioned.
MC: I am extremely results-oriented. I like to do things effectively. In business and in the foundation, the purpose may be different, but the process is the same. You have to know exactly what you want to achieve, what’s your target, your ambitions, your motivations. There’s one difference though. When you are helping others, positive emotions matter more. In my investment business, the process was usually more technical than emotional. In the foundation, it’s all about impact and the positive emotions that accompany the whole process. How the hospital took our support was important to us – they were extremely happy with it, and that made us very happy. But we also experienced some negative emotions.
AK: Can you elaborate more on that?
MC: Yes. With our second project, we faced two situations which I didn’t expect. Some people did not want to help because they said they have not been privileged themselves so why would they help others. And second, that some donors were really mad we entered “their” field. There is a tension in this market connected to money and recognition. Many are fighting for the same Euro or publicity which is diminishing their willingness to cooperate. It is not building the market but most of all, it is not helping the kids or whomever you want to support.
AK: How did you go from helping children to helping the elderly?
MC: From the very beginning, I thought about how to make this work systemic. Together with my wife, we never wanted to decide which kid or which family receives our support and which doesn’t. We were new in the social sector but we quickly realized that kids get the most. So we started analyzing who is lacking the attention. This is how we ended up focusing our energy and resources on the elderly. And here again, the personal experience played a role. My wife had this special connection with her grandpa. It was something they built through hours and hours of conversations. We wanted to ensure this emotional wellbeing to other seniors, we just needed to find a way to give it a scale. We found an organization running such programs in the UK. They didn’t want to scale in continental Europe but they let us learn. And half a year later we launched “Sidabrinė linija” (the Silver Line). Just the two of us, me and my wife. And at some point, we decided to devote 100% of our time to it.
AK: That must have been a serious decision for your family.
MC: It actually came out quite naturally for us – we both were looking for something meaningful to engage in, so we took it as an opportunity. Everything went so fast from that moment. There was so much progress and such an acceptance from our new “clientele”, that we decided we should be in it fulltime. We wanted it wholeheartedly. My wife often jokes that she had one grandpa, now she has hundreds (laughter).
AK: How did you find the money for it? It seems like a project that is beyond a budget of an individual.
MC: At the beginning it was financed mainly from our private wealth and donations from local business and individuals. The problem was that the emotional support for the elderly was not in a ‘social service catalogue’ of our government at that time, so they couldn’t help us with public grants even if they wanted to. We have been advocating to change this situation for almost 4 years. The breakthrough moment came with the COVID-19 pandemic. It grew the government’s understanding of the importance of metal health and the seriousness of the situation for seniors. Did you know that Lithuania has the highest suicide rate in the entire European Union and that it is the elderly who commit suicides most often? Today, our government is helping us tackle this challenge. Approximately 40% of the Silver Line’s budget comes from public sources.
AK: Looking back, was establishing a foundation a good decision for you and your family?
MC: Definitely yes. When I was a kid, the Soviet Union collapsed. We lived through many reforms on a way to free market economy, and my parents had to count every penny. So at the beginning of my adult life, I was focused on becoming financially secured. Once I achieved that, I had this unspoken wish to do something more meaningful. Having money doesn’t make you a better person, but impacting other people’s lives with it – does. I consider myself lucky that I managed to combine my investment practice with a passionate, impactful work. Just the targets for performance switched from financial to social ones.
AK: Do you involve your children in the foundation’s activities?
MC: The foundation is a big part of our life. We speak about it with our children over dinner. They see what we do. My daughter attends the foundation’s events. I dream of her becoming the foundation’s CEO one day. But she is still young; we have many years ahead to get her ready. If she wishes to.
AK: Any advice to people who are thinking of doing something good with their wealth?
MC: Things get done by doing, so start doing them. If you don’t have the time or don’t want to get involved in the operations, support someone who is doing things you care about. If you want to be 100% in it, you will need a formal vehicle. In any case, if you believe in something, put your money and effort into it. I did.
AK: Thank you so much Marius.