As managing partner for the central and southeast Europe region for the global accounting giant Ernst & Young, Magdalena Souček has frequently topped lists of the most influential women in Czech business. With her doctor parents coming and going from Czechoslovakia, she spent part of her childhood and youth in Western Europe before studying in the U.S. and beginning her career there with Arthur Andersen. But when Communism fell in her native country, she soon returned to set up a Czech branch of the firm – at a time when even basic amenities were hard to get.
"We actually left more than once. It all started when I was three. My parents worked in Scotland and I joined them for a year. I started going to school in Scotland and I learned my English basically in the street. This was before '68. We returned in the spring, shortly before the invasion. We lived here, much like everybody else, but we were lucky enough to have some relatives and friends abroad, and we were able to generally travel.
"It was always difficult on those travels coming back home – when you were driving by car and you saw ‘Československá Státní hranice’, the border. It's 100 kilometres, then it's 80, then it's 50 – what do we do, do we go or do we not go? I start crying just talking about that. But anyway, finally we decided to stay in England. My parents started working and I started going to school. That was the beginning, I guess."
As a child, could you sense the difference between here and the West? How clear was that to you as a kid?
"I was very exposed to it. And really I wasn't a child any more, I was 12 and I had a very good sense of what was happening and the implications of it. Living in different countries, living here and living there…as a child, nothing bad happened to me here. I had a lovely childhood and fond memories, which is why it was so difficult to decide to go."
You went to university in America, you went to the University of Massachusetts to study economics and business management. What was it that drew you to that area, that whole field?
"That's very simple. I come from a medical family and I started medical studies here. Actually, I left after my first year of medical school. I decided not to go back to medicine. The only non-doctor in my family was my grandfather and he kind of did this – he was a tax advisor in the [interwar] First Republic. So maybe there some genes in me that related to it.
"But really I liked the pragmatism of it. We studied at school what you read in the paper, unlike medicine where there were tonnes and tonnes of books that didn't really relate to my future practise."
"I was very much tied to Czechoslovakia. My grandmother lived here and I was always very, very close to her. So yes. But also, having said that, I thought it was important to not live in a Czech community, so I was very much integrated into American society, having American friends there. But very much in touch with home."
And you came back very soon after the changes at the end of 1989. What spurred you to come home so soon?
"I felt I had unfinished business. Maybe it had to do with my grandmother being here. When the Curtain came down, or the Wall came down I should say, and all the consulting firms were opening up offices, I thought, what if Andersen comes to Prague and it's not me? So I was very active in trying to get us opened. It was something I really wanted to do."
How was it setting up a branch of Arthur Andersen here in the early '90s? That was also of course the time of the Wild East, as it was known.
"Yes, it was very much the Wild East. It was exciting times. For me, when I arrived, when I got off the plane, I was wondering what I would do the next day. I had some meetings set up from the network, so it worked out OK. But we operated out of the apartment of my grandmother for almost eight months, because office space was difficult to get. I think we moved out when there was about 20 of us, so we used to have meetings either at home or in hotels.
"Also there were no emails then, so I got faxes. The faxes were lying on my couch, which I had to turn into a bed for the night. So it was very efficient – I certainly had to see every fax that arrived that day. So I thought it was more effective probably than emails today [laughs]."
The Czech branch of Arthur Andersen later became part of Ernst & Young and now you're managing partner for central and south-eastern Europe, as well as being country managing partner still for the Czech Republic. Generally speaking, how would you compare the business environment in this part of the world and in America?
"In Europe, there is probably more focus on quality of life, more balance in life. Business in the U.S. is probably faster, I would say more efficient, and I would say cleaner. People's word can be trusted more. I remember when I first came here, we couldn't start working without having a contract signed, which is not something that used to happen in the same way in the States.
"I think corruption here is still an issue. I am personally involved through the American Chamber of Commerce, and Ernst & Young is involved through the Platform for Transparent Public Tenders, and we're trying to improve the general business environment with regard to corruption. But it is still an issue."
Speaking of corruption, which seems to be the thing that everybody talks about here all the time, how does it impact your work, which must to a large extent to do with transparency?
"Myself, by background, I'm an auditor, and audits generally are the same everywhere. You always rely on the integrity of management, so it doesn't impact me as such in my work. But I think it very much impacts the economy and it impacts resources, which are really not being channelled to the best businesses and are not being put to the best use. I think for society as a whole corruption is a big problem."
There's often unclarity surrounding the ownership of businesses here. Would that ever lead you to refuse to work for a company?
"Yes, our client acceptance policies are very strict, and we do look at the ownership of the company, integrity of management – it's a whole process around accepting a client. So yes, we do decline."
Would that happen often?
We often hear about the glass ceiling for women in business. Could you possibly compare that glass ceiling here and in the America? Is it the same, or different in some way?
“I’m not a believer in the glass ceiling. I actually think it’s about priorities. I think not every woman wants to go for a career, because there are things that you have to give up, there are trade-offs. So not everybody wants to do that. But I think if you want it hard enough, you can get there. And I think that applies to the Czech Republic as well.”
Generally, how do you view developments here over the last two decades, or now it's 22 years [since the fall of Communism]?
"I think we've come a long way. Business is being done regularly, in terms of there are laws and there are processes which more resemble those that are used in other countries. So I think we've become westernised and we have the laws to support that.
"However, what is missing is transparency, and corruption is catching us. I think also our unstable government isn't helping us. We could move faster if we had more continuity, and a clear track."
My final question is, you use the name Souček, not Součková with the -ová ending – why is that? And does it ever lead to any problems?
"This dates back to when I emigrated and when I had to fill in my name for the foreign police and for my non-Czech passport – then you use your father's name. That's without the -ová. So once I became that and I returned, I saw no reason to switch it. So that's why. There's no big secret behind it."
You don't get people trying to call you Součková?
"Yes, of course. And I sometimes call myself that too, so it's a bit of a mix."
Martin Nekola: Czech Chicago and other untold stories of Czechs abroad
Czech President Zeman addresses Council of Europe
Czech Republic faces court action over freedom of movement
Czech pre-election battle plugs into war of words over lithium mining deal
Communist era past catches up with Czech ANO leader ahead of polls