Kristina, founder of the TotUp nursery

Kristina has always been passionate about entrepreneurship, and she accomplished the crazy challenge of opening a private nursery in Geneva. Becoming by proxy the mom of about a hundred children, let’s discover a touching and very inspiring woman’s story.

Kristina, can you introduce yourself in a few words?
I am 100% Russian. At the age of fourteen, I came to Switzerland, to Lugano, where I lived until I started at the Lausanne Hotel School four years later. After this, I did a Masters in lobbying and international business at the Geneva Institute before entering Fribourg HEG and enrolling in another Masters in entrepreneurship. 

What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?
Both of my parents are entrepreneurs. I lost my dad when I was five years old, and I always wanted to follow in his footsteps. He was someone who was very social and always full of ideas. I’ve always put him on a pedestal, which, made my mom kind of jealous (smile). TotUp is part of the BABIN SA group that I founded and that I named in honor of him. 

In your opinion, is it more complicated as a woman?
Yes, especially when someone is young and living in Switzerland, even though from a certain age, it will balance. When I started, I was 27 years old, and nobody took me seriously. I was always told: “you are too young, with no experience, no expertise….”. 

Why did you decide to open a nursery?
I always liked and preferred being around kids rather than adults. They are honest, straight to the point and have no filter just like me. It’s a different energy, purer, without judgment or bad intentions. And, unlike adults, they’ve never disappointed me! 

 Let me tell you one story; I arrived one morning at the nursery wearing a dress and sneakers. 

I forgot to change shoes, and nobody noticed it except one little 3 years old girl, who looked at me from top to bottom and told me: “but you can’t wear those shoes with a dress”. I still laugh about it. 

During my Masters, several of my girlfriends had children, and they were telling me about their struggles to find an available spot in nurseries. I couldn’t believe it. I would have never imagined that a country as developed as Switzerland, with numerous subsidies and other social plans, does nothing to help young parents. Today, there’s a lack of 4000 places in nurseries, and that’s only in the Geneva area. From that point on, I understood that there was a real need and an opportunity to catch. 

I decided then to complete my Masters on the theme of nurseries and started to compare international private nurseries with Swiss private nurseries. Result: in Switzerland, on top of the lack of places, there’s no real educational program in place, other than games that are offered in daycare (which only means looking after kids). From this moment, I concluded that I could make a difference by providing a structure with both games and education, focusing on languages and mathematics. TotUp was born from this Masters work with the following purpose: Test, Observe, Unleash, Discover, Improve.  

What do you like the most about your job?
I feel useful! I know I’m doing something good for the community. I have a few other projects on the side, including a bar in Lausanne, which is very nice but nothing compared to the fulfillment of TotUp. However, I will be honest; despite its social impact, TotUp remains a business that needs to be profitable. Making a profit stimulates me. 

Do you feel fulfilled?
Hell yeah! I know how to be satisfied with what I have, and I am grateful. I’m the optimistic kind; in my mind, there are never problems only solutions. It took me 3 years to open TotUp due to the administrative complexity, but I didn’t give up.  

How do you manage to juggle professional life and private life? Your tips to be organized?
The first motivation for becoming self-employed is freedom! So, you need to have the right people around you and stop thinking that an the entrepreneur has to do it all. An entrepreneur is an orchestra conductor who needs to stay grounded and be modest. My team includes architects, a lawyer, a general company, educators, an IT team, cooks, and many more. They are the musicians and the real added value to TotUp. 

Therefore, to answer your question, YES, I do have a private life because I know how to delegate and make my coworkers feel accountable. There are times more intense than others, such as the opening of a new nursery where I do work 300%; however, it is ok to take 2 weeks off without having to justify myself.

Do you ever doubt yourself? If so, how do you move forward?
If you really believe in your project, there’s no room for doubt. It’s normal to go through times where you question yourself, but you should always think positively and take it as a way to move forward. In no way should the project integrity be questioned; otherwise, you might as well stop it. You need to feel confident about yourself, your project, or your team.

A woman(en) that inspire(s) you?
My mother, a natural-born businesswoman. A woman who never gave up despite many obstacles, including my dad’s passing. She is the one who believes the most in my project, she supports me greatly. 

What would you advise women who would like to kick off their own projects?
A European last name would help (laughter). I was often told: “you want to do business in Switzerland, but you are not Swiss”, that, even though I’ve had Swiss citizenship since 2013. On a more serious note, it’s crucial to ensure finances are following before launching any project. Even when starting a (good) crowdfunding, you will need a communication budget (video, sponsored posts…). As I already mentioned, it will not be possible to do it all by yourself. 

Lastly, the human factor. Never build your project on friends’ advice because they are not objective. You need to prepare yourself morally to lose a part of your friendship group, due to jealousy. Adults, unlike children, find it hard to be happy for other people. Instead, they find it easier to be there for you when things don’t work out. I wasn’t prepared for this. I was taken by surprise and was disappointed by some people. 

What do you think about failure?
 I don’t think that failing is a bad thing. I feel it’s more like a sign from the universe, which helps us to recognize that it wasn’t the right time. It took me 3 years to open the first nursery. In the beginning, it was supposed to be in another neighborhood, in a smaller space and worse on all levels. In the end, it was a blessing in disguise when it didn’t happen, even though a lot of patience was required during all those years. 

Which skills are required to be a good entrepreneur?
First and foremost, always be confident defending your project rigorously. Moreover, be capable of pitching your idea correctly to convince people to invest their time and money. For this purpose, you need to be a good storyteller. How many people have good ideas but don’t know how to present them?… One last, fundamental thing: hard work. You shouldn’t count your hours if you want to reach your goals. 

To this date, what is your best and worst entrepreneur souvenir?

Best :
When the first nursery project was finalized, one mum came to enroll her child, crying with joy and relief. She had been waiting for this place for 2 years!

Worst :
Never having received support from authorities. The SASAJ, division in charge of nurseries, is not doing anything, I don’t understand it. They are not in favor of private nurseries opening, fearing that they’ll go bankrupt and that the kids would then need new places again. With that type of thinking, we won’t go far! A happy parent means a happy child. If the mum doesn’t find childcare, she won’t be able to be professionally fulfilled, and everyone will suffer from it. 

What do you do in your free time?
I practice a lot of sport which enables me to unwind (that’s why we opened a family sports center at the nursery). Otherwise, spending time with my loved ones and taking long walks in the wild, it helps me think. I also try to keep room for love and the desire to start my own family one day. 

What are the next steps for TotUp?
The building of the family sports center (the first in the Swiss-French part) is almost done. There will also be a beauty center and a primary school (bilingual and focusing on mathematics up to 8 years old). Everything in the same building at the Lancy Geneva Business Center.

Do you have any other projects?
By next year, two other nurseries will open in Vaud region. They are currently still under construction. In Geneva, a second one will open in 2022 in Thônex area. 

Kristina, what can we wish you today for tomorrow?
I have a project which is close to my heart. I would like to succeed in including disabled children in pre-school and school systems because today, it’s very challenging. Especially in the private sector because we benefit from no support from the authorities. I hope that one day I will manage to convince the State to fund this initiative, which would be a real value for the children and their parents. Our spaces are indeed more equipped and spacious and have more staff.  

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Becoming a mom myself while keeping on initiating new projects to help and support families. 

Geneva Business Center
Avenue des Morgines 12, 1213 Lancy, Suisse /