Every successful venture follows a roadmap; for Ukrainian entrepreneur Uliana Torkunova, her dreams were the ones to pave the way.
As the CEO and founder of three technology and mobility companies — LetMePark, LetMeCharge, and LetMeVoice — Uliana has earned great recognition in the world of entrepreneurship. She's a two-time winner of the Women Entrepreneur of the Year award by Madrid City Council, winner of the Founder of the Year Spain award, leader of the Women in Tech Spain Entrepreneurial Cluster, and founder of the nonprofit organization "Ayudar+."
Apart from her entrepreneurial ventures, she's also an international speaker, delivering conferences and training sessions in different organizations and institutions, such as TEDx, IE Business School, the Founder Institute, and Geneva Business School.
Uliana's path involved a great amount of personal work, overcoming limiting beliefs and transforming her mindset to become the person she had always aspired to be. Reflecting on her early career, she remembers herself as different: "I had a lot of insecurity, a tremendous amount. I would think, 'How can I make it work if I'm not intelligent enough, or if I don't know this or that, or if I'm not familiar with finance?'"
Growing up, Uliana was unaware of the concept of entrepreneurship: "I didn't even know what it was; I didn't even know the word 'entrepreneur' existed. I thought there were big companies or state-owned ones, people worked for them, and that was it. There were no entrepreneurs in my family, and I had no idea about it. But later, when I started watching movies about entrepreneurs, it sparked my attention, and I said, 'I like that. I want to be like them.'"
Despite the absence of entrepreneurial role models, she always had a creative spark: "Since I was a child, what I liked the most was inventing. I wanted to be an inventor. I liked reading stories about them and thought that someday I could probably invent something myself." She discovered a parallel between her passion for invention and the essence of entrepreneurship. Both share a common purpose: bringing something unique and valuable into the world.
Finding the way
Fast forward to her adult years, Uliana had already discovered her calling in technology and desired to invent something that could make a meaningful impact on the world. The only thing left was determining what that could be: "I always say, when it comes to entrepreneurship, you have to do what you're passionate about, what you enjoy, not what is trendy, what your parents like, or your colleagues, or your spouse. You always have to search for what you like. Many times it's difficult to find what you truly like because we don't listen to ourselves. But one day, I decided to listen to myself. And what I like the most, what I'm passionate about, are cars. I thought, 'I have to solve a problem related to cars. What could the problem be?' And for me, the biggest problem was parking."
Following her interest in mobility, technology, and business development, in 2016, Uliana moved from Ukraine to Madrid with her three-month-old daughter to study for an MBA at IE Business School. The university environment was the perfect opportunity to immerse herself in entrepreneurship and absorb all she could: "Knowledge is the key. I'm not the type to jump into the pool and invest all my money. No, I was in university, listening, learning, talking to other entrepreneurs, attending conferences, events, gathering information, forming a team."
As she dipped her toes in this new world, she began developing her first company, LetMePark. Initially, LetMePark started as an MBA project with four of her classmates. However, from those early days, only the company's name remains. Since its inception, LetMePark and its team have undergone significant evolution and transformation. The project began as an app to facilitate the sharing of parking spaces, but something else was needed. Uliana pivoted to focus on reservations and ultimately evolved the business into a comprehensive parking solution with its own access system using license plate recognition technology.
Going at it alone
Most of the team's involvement with the project ended after graduation, leaving Uliana with just one remaining partner who would eventually also abandon the project.
While her classmates secured high-end, stable jobs, she found herself juggling multiple part-time gigs to make ends meet while also caring for her young daughter: "It's very easy to give up when your MBA colleagues already have great jobs and high salaries, and you're living in this cockroach-infested apartment and can't afford many things. This demotivates you. But what also motivates you is that many other entrepreneurs have also gone through this period."
Once Uliana became acquainted with entrepreneurship, she sought inspiration from others who had experienced the struggles of getting their businesses off the ground, just like she was then: "I still have the resources to motivate myself. Like the story of Dyson and how it took him 15 years and 500-something attempts to succeed. Or Warren Buffet; when did he really generate all his wealth? It wasn't in his first 3 or 5 years. It's very important to stay motivated. But it's one thing to see someone like Mr. Dyson. Oftentimes, we need someone closer. That's why I talk to other entrepreneurs I know. I also read a lot of entrepreneurship magazines to find people who inspire me. I always ask others to tell me their stories. I've learned some useful lessons that way."
Getting on track
By drawing strength from these stories and seeking support from the entrepreneurial community, Uliana found the motivation to persevere. In 2017, she finally secured the first small investment and assembled her team. Though she was slowly getting on track, the road was paved with challenges. Uliana and her team discovered there were a great number of competitors. They needed to redefine their business approach to become the innovative solution they had envisioned: "We understood that numerous platforms were offering the same service, and you had about 23 parking applications that were unique and not interchangeable. So, if you wanted to be a digital user or introduce all these conveniences of automatic parking payment, you would have to integrate 20 different platforms into your car, which is impossible. We saw that the problem was the abundance of applications and the need to consolidate everything into one platform. That had to be the foundation, and then we could add our voice technology, connected car features, and more. So, we decided to bring everything together in one place."
LetMePark now aggregates parking applications and services, mediating between companies and drivers to provide a smart, predictive, and proactive parking solution. Through the LetMePark app, users can find, pay for, and easily manage their parking needs. Instead of relying on APIs, the platforms are aggregated through digital representation. Users authorize LetMePark to access and manage their accounts across a list of platforms, enabling the app to interact on their behalf with third-party apps. This is all possible through a single interface and Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
The challenge of collaboration
LetMePark became a success and started getting recognition within the entrepreneurial ecosystem. After its positive welcome, Uliana founded LetMeCharge and LetMeVoice, two other platforms in the connected mobility industry focused on electric vehicle charging, and Amazon Alexa and Google Voice services. However, despite all these achievements, Uliana still encounters a significant roadblock: forging collaborations. For her, the difficulty doesn't lie in creating innovative products but in introducing them to the market.
Innovation requires collaboration from many different industry players; without it, it doesn't exist: "But of course, when we started saying, 'I bring you customers and represent you,' that's when we started hearing, 'No, the application is mine, you can't touch it, you can't enter.' It's very complicated to create innovation when you're blocked for various reasons. There are obstacles everywhere because it's a paradigm shift, a change of players, and people think you may take a piece of their pie."
Uliana finds this challenge particularly pronounced in the Spanish market but notices a more favorable environment in the United States: "That's probably why they're making faster progress in some areas because they use what's already been done instead of starting from scratch."
Despite the difficulties she encounters, she remains optimistic and confident about the future of the mobility industry and the contributions she and her team can make: "This is a revolution and an evolution of the parking and electric charging industry as a whole. Many things have been like this before. If you remember mobile data, there was a company, and that was it. No one could enter or use the infrastructure. Or the creation of Uber; it was difficult for them as well. Nobody wanted them. They were blocked and fined; they wanted to put them in jail. But many companies have already adopted our format in other sectors.
So, we're going around Europe, talking and sharing our ideas. We've entered the European Institute of Technology, and we're talking to European associations, lawyers, and everything. We are confident that our model is completely legal and viable. I'm sure we will achieve it."
Uliana's journey is nothing short of impressive, from living in a cockroach-infested apartment to becoming the CEO and founder of three successful mobility companies. But how did she accomplish this transformation? She emphasizes the importance of rewiring one's mindset for success. To navigate and rise above the inherent challenges of entrepreneurship, reshaping your thinking and programming your brain is crucial: "Entrepreneurship is challenging. There are many obstacles, there is fierce competition, and there are many things to consider.
If you don't believe in yourself and don't think you can do it, it will be much more difficult and unpleasant, and you'll give up much faster. But if you believe that you can do it despite all the obstacles, if you create your own motivating story, sleep at night with confidence, wake up energized because you know you can do it -because if he or she can do it, why can't you?- that's the most important thing."
Despite her personal growth, she still needs and resorts to her motivational articles, movies, and podcasts. As a result of being frequently approached by aspiring entrepreneurs, she created a course to help others on their journey. Me and My Start-up. Program Your Brain for Success is a compilation of tactics she has learned along the way, along with advice from people who have played pivotal roles in her development.
"Just like we can train our bodies, our muscles, we can also train our character. As an entrepreneur, you have to know a lot. You have to know how to pitch well, build your personal brand, negotiate, and many other things. So, you need to have many abilities and also learn to delegate. All of this requires practice.
I believe that soft skills are very important for an entrepreneur, just like character is crucial. Many people give up because they lack character. That's why I tell everyone that you must educate your character before becoming an entrepreneur."
All it takes is a creative idea, self-belief, and unwavering character, and one becomes ready to walk down paths that might have seemed unimaginable. For Uliana, however, there is one absolute certainty in this journey: the roads to success are always guided by your dreams.
"I really like the phrase 'follow your dreams, they know the way.' You may not understand it at first because it's usually the most challenging path, but in the long term, you start to see it's true."