Lessons On Leadership: Natalia Vodianova, Co-Founder, Locals.org If one were to now look for common attributes in all of what Vodianova has done with her life so far, what emerges is her tendency to always challenge the status quo.

By Aby Sam Thomas

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Natalia Vodianova, Co-Founder, Locals.org

This article is a part of the 2023 edition of Entrepreneur Middle East's annual Follow The Leader series, in which enterprise head honchos from the region talk strategy, industry-specific tactics, and professional challenges as they lead their respective businesses to success.

Supermodel, philanthropist, investor, entrepreneur- these are just a few of the many roles that Natalia Vodianova has played (and continues to play) over the course of her career trajectory. And if one were to now look for common attributes in all of what she has done with her life so far, what emerges is Vodianova's tendency to always challenge the status quo, and then, having accomplished it, lead the change that she wanted- from the front.

It's this trait of Vodianova that is especially evident in one of her latest undertakings, Locals.org, a social networking website that she launched with co-founders Eugene Nevgen, Sergey Gonchar, and Timon Afinsky in the UK in 2021, and is now making inroads into the UAE with a US$11 million seed funding round backing it up.

Billed as an app that enables "social networking for entrepreneurs in real life," Locals.org has, so far, already been able to onboard over 200,000 users, with the platform being used to facilitate over 25,000 events, which includes gatherings organized by noteworthy names in the entrepreneurial landscape like Sam Altman, CEO of Open AI, Nik Storonsky, CEO of Revolut, Jeremy Jauncey, founder and CEO of Beautiful Destinations, Michael Acton Smith, co-founder and CEO of Calm, Camilla Al Fayed, founder of Farmacy, Pavel Durov, founder of Telegram, Jessica Kahawaty, co-founder of Mama Rita, and several others.

"When it came to building Locals.org, my co-founders and I chose a counter-trend approach to digital social products and business in general- by building a digital product that actually connects people in real life," Vodianova says. "We challenged the status quo, and embarked on a unique path to create a product that promotes face-to-face face interactions, and essentially uses social media for good. Through this approach, an influx of experienced entrepreneurs and unicorn founders joined the app, and through the platform, were able to foster genuine connections via common interests, while also raising money for charity. This particular experience taught me the importance of bold decision-making, perseverance in the face of uncertainty, and the power of a compelling vision to inspire change. Most importantly, it also made me realize, first-hand, that we should consider the path less followed more often than not- a quality that my co-founders embodied throughout the Locals.org journey."

And that, at the end of the day, is the ethos that Vodianova would like to see more of in the realm of entrepreneurship. "In the dynamic world of entrepreneurship, real leadership in action occurs when entrepreneurs are fueled by a passion to create products that meet authentic needs," Vodianova declares. "In my opinion, real leadership in action is evident when entrepreneurs are not solely driven by profit or market trends, but are genuinely passionate about making a positive impact on people's lives."

Related: Doing It All: Lily Kandalaft, Founder Of Malaak Mama And Baby Care

Locals.org. Source: Locals.org

The Executive Summary Natalia Vodianova reflects on what she considers to be one of the most important things she has learnt about leadership

"One of the biggest leadership lessons I've learned over the years came at a crucial turning point for the Naked Heart Foundation, my charity organization that helps families raising children with special needs, which I created in 2004. Since inception, and for the first seven years, we were growing fast and steadily, until the moment when we hit the invisible ceiling, and I, being a CEO at the time, started feeling the struggle to scale and elevate our impact, despite our best efforts.

The experience led me to study at the INSEAD Business School situated just outside of Paris, where a quote struck a chord with me: "What got you here won't get you there." This sparked a realization in me that in order to scale the organization, I needed to rethink my role as a leader. I decided to step down as CEO, and bring in another CEO to manage day-to-day operations, while I transitioned into a Chairwoman role. This allowed me to focus on what I was best at, and most passionate about- fundraising, and raising awareness of the cause.

The decision was a leap of faith, but it worked wonders for our charity, and it set us on a new trajectory of growth. This experience taught me the importance of self-awareness in leadership. Recognizing when to step back and allow others to step in, focusing on my strengths and acknowledging my weaknesses -while being adaptable to change- were key lessons I took away from this transition. I still feel that that was a prime example of how effective leadership can drive an organization's success."

Related: Follow The Leader: Salama Mohamed, Founder, Peacefull

Aby Sam Thomas

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor in Chief, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aby Sam Thomas is the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur Middle East. In this role, Aby is responsible for leading the publication on its editorial front, while also working to build the brand and grow its presence across the MENA region through the development and execution of events and other programming, as well as through representation in conferences, media, etc.

Aby has been working in journalism since 2011, prior to which he was an analyst programmer with Accenture, where he worked with J. P. Morgan Chase's investment banking arm at offices in Mumbai, London, and New York. He holds a Master's Degree in Journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.  

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