Two master’s degrees and a wealth of managerial experience didn’t deter Eva Berlaus from embracing a new challenge — enrolling in SSE Riga’s Executive MBA programme. Eva shares her journey, offering insights into the highs, lows, and valuable lessons gained along the way.
Eva Berlaus, previously holding the position of country managing partner for Sorainen in Latvia, has recently taken on the role of managing partner, now responsible for the firm’s day-to-day operations across all three Baltic states.
Eva describes herself as a true family person and believes that hard work and determination are key to her professional success. In her free time, she reads, plays the piano, and enjoys active leisure such as long walks, downhill skiing, and skating.
What was your dream when you were growing up?
The first serious thought was going professionally into music. But I realized that choosing music at that point might not be too kind to my parents. My dad used to be a teacher and had the second and third jobs to support us. I needed to become independent as soon as possible, so I completely changed my plan and chose to go into law. This turned out to be a good choice as I really love my profession.
During that time, business law was developing rapidly. Before joining Sorainen, I worked with the European Integration Bureau, the state institution responsible for Latvia’s accession to the EU. It was a beautiful experience that wasn’t available to anybody at that time. We were a bunch of young people, the first ones in Latvia who had education specifically in EU law.
What do you think was the key for you to become a successful lawyer, leader, and manager?
Couple of things. Firstly, I come from a large family, I’m the oldest sister of six. I didn’t realize it until later, as it was natural for me, but I had developed very good project management skills. I was responsible for everybody and everything at home, and quite often I was responsible even when I wasn’t there. It became natural to manage a large amount of work, put it into structure and get it done, get people organized, delegate. And that’s a skill that needs to be learned and I was lucky to learn it when I was very young.
Secondly, I have no idea why, but I do have the ability to work hard, meaning — I can put up with the high workload. Of course, everybody has their limits, and I have also tested mine. But, compared to an average person, I probably have [them] on a quite high level. On top of that – a bit of determination and you’re good to go.
You already had two master’s degrees and a vast experience in a senior managerial role when you applied for the SSE Riga Executive MBA (EMBA) programme. What was your motivation for applying?
By that point, I had been leading the Latvian office of Sorainen for more than 10 years. Although I was getting myself out of the bubble from time to time, the time during which I had the freedom to reflect and find new sources of inspiration unrelated to my everyday life was becoming smaller. I just didn’t have that space.
I began to feel a physical sense of suffocation and a lack of internal development. While I had been looking at SSE Riga’s offerings for some years, I always thought it wasn’t the right time. I had small children, and I thought they wouldn’t be happy with my decision. There were also larger projects within the firm, and I thought I needed to be there, so I couldn’t afford to study at that moment. As my kids grew up a bit, I decided that it was a good time, and I should go for it.
Besides your children being too young, what was the decision-making process behind pursuing the degree? What observations and doubts did you have?
A major doubt was about the workload, whether I can actually make it. It’s no secret that, like many managers, I don’t work just 8 hours. Because of work I also travel quite a lot and then I imagined the schedule… We don’t want to invest a significant amount of our time if we don’t see the value, so I was thinking whether this is something I really need.
What was the final push that led to this decision?
There was no one thing. These thoughts had become so frequent over the past few years that I eventually thought, ‘If you’re thinking about it this often, go ahead and do it’.
What would you say to people who have the same doubts about managing it with their busy schedules and workloads?
My recipe was that I got the support internally within the firm. We discussed it with our partners in Riga. I said — I have this dream, I want to go for it, but I need your support. Open and honest discussion about our dreams and what we want to do in our life was so helpful.
I had the same discussion within my family. It frees you internally because most of the doubts are in your head. I can imagine that in most cases people will be very supportive, because they see this is important for you, for your development.
You also recently wrote an opinion on Delfi about the public debate that occurred regarding our Prime Minister, Evika Siliņa. You said it’s unfair and unacceptable that women are being judged by their looks instead of their professional accomplishments. Have you felt this attitude towards yourself as well?
From time to time. Luckily, not every day, and fortunately, less and less, as our environment is changing. But yes, I have seen that. As Baiba Rubesa wrote to me on the night that opinion was published — luckily, with age, it goes away. Probably, I still need to reach a certain age (laughing).
Did this aspect — being a mother, a wife, and a manager, having these expectations from you socially — affect your decision to apply for the programme?
No, it did not, because at that point I had already sorted it out for myself. But I know the feeling very well. To survive in a position like that, you need to find your way to deal with it.
The essence of the problem is how society sees women in life. From a man who works, it’s expected that he comes home at some point, and that’s it. The usual expectation for a woman working is that she will take care of everything else around. You are not excused because you work. The question is — how do you deal with that pressure from society? Quite often it’s silent because nobody is speaking out, but it’s there. The perception is that you are not getting any discounts, while a man in the same position would get a discount from taking kids to school, or from handling groceries, or whatever.
How did you navigate through this?
Firstly, again, with open discussions at home. Secondly, it involves sorting things out in your head and understanding that you don’t need to put up with the pressure just because it’s there. It’s your decision whether to go along with it and whether you feel guilty each time.
At some point, I made the choice not to feel guilty about it, to deal with it rationally, and to figure out which aspects at home are crucial for me to handle. For me, it’s the relationship with the kids, ensuring I see them physically, so they can talk to me, so I can look into their eyes and hug them. Other practical tasks I can delegate. And nobody has suffered.
Then it becomes a daily practice of not feeling guilty, and that’s a difficult thing. Sometimes, I still have those thoughts, but I keep reminding myself — no, we’re not going there.
Do you remember what your expectations were from the programme when you joined?
I wanted to get out, to get a space, where I could meet other people, where I could think and read about subjects which I don’t think about every day in my job. That was the main thing to me.
Secondly, I have two master’s degrees in law, but nobody teaches management to lawyers. Of course, I’ve been doing it for some years, and it works — the office is growing, and we are fulfilling our business targets. But there might be things that I still might find useful for my management role. I’ve been learning along the way, but not in an extensive way.
And were your expectations met?
Actually, yes. Sorainen is quite strong in strategy — focused and diligent about how to work it out, constantly reviewing it. Compared to everything else I’ve seen on the market, we’re definitely on the developed side. To my biggest surprise, Yuri’s Romanenko’s course about strategy was so good that I even got new ideas for strategy. My perception was that nobody could tell me anything new about strategy, I’ve seen it all. However, I still learned new things and got inspired by that course.
What was the most valuable lesson or skill that you learned during those two years?
I don’t think there’s a particular thing or skill, but rather I proved to myself that indeed the idea of getting out was really good. Because I got quite a lot of ideas which I don’t think I would be getting without studying.
Quite often people are afraid of doing the master’s thesis because that’s something scary. And it is. It’s a huge amount of work, bigger than you can imagine. But I managed to choose a subject which served as a basis for Sorainen to develop a new business line. Because of the necessity to hand in the master thesis in a certain time and at a certain quality, I forced myself to read huge amounts of literature about one specific subject, which I otherwise wouldn’t have read.
Was the master’s thesis then the most challenging aspect of the EMBA?
For me personally, it was the finance course. I’m managing the office, so I’m seeing numbers all the time. But not in such a detail that I would need to go into Excel and write lengthy formulas. There were groups in our course where we would be crying on each other’s shoulders, because it was quite challenging.
Was the challenge worth it?
There was a lot of debate among our group members about whether it’s necessary in such detail. Even those dealing with finance every day argued that in a managerial position general understanding of concepts would be enough. But I’ve noticed that from time to time when I’m getting reports from our accounting team or other people, I tend to go into Excel and look up how they arrived at these numbers. The debate is probably still open.
Any bright, vivid memory that you have from these two years?
We really became good friends with our group, and that was surprising. When you’re past your twenties, obtaining new friends becomes quite difficult because most of your friends are coming from your studies and your childhood. But within half a year or so, our group became very close and that’s one of the additional benefits I’ve got from those years, which I was not expecting.
Do you still keep in touch?
Yes, we are organizing our get-togethers and travel together — the last trip was to Tallinn, before that we went to Vilnius. We are serious about it, we have a programme and those who organize it agree on visits to interesting companies with interviews of management. We are, of course, having a social programme as well.
Can you share some tips on how you dealt with an intense workload while studying and having a family to encourage those for whom this is the biggest concern?
First, internal agreement and transparency at work and in the family are crucial — agree that they will support you, and you will need some time. I tried to reserve all the school schedules in my work calendar so that everybody is informed. I would be lying if I said that it was easy, that I wouldn’t be answering any calls between the lectures. It wasn’t really so. But somehow, it worked at the end of the day.
Was there a point when you thought you could not do this anymore?
This was around the time of the finance course. At one point, there was a slight depression for most in our group, it was really tough. It’s one thing to listen to a presentation online, but it’s another to try to understand between three screens of Excel online for hours and hours and then try to repeat the same at home. This coincided with the first deadlines for the master thesis. At some point, we had to do two or three finance final projects plus the master thesis. I remember there was a discussion among us, the students who had really been in all the lectures and dedicated, that we will not make this, this is not possible.
What made you push through?
We established a small support group. We did work on our own, there was no copying or anything like that, but there was a project when we just locked ourselves together in a room, where we would ventilate, just talking it all through.
Anything else you’d like to add about the study process?
For me, the interesting part was the group work. I was thinking that I knew everything about working in teams. But no — you have different professionals, different dynamics, different people than those you have chosen yourself for your team. You certainly get surprises and from time to time, that was an eye-opening experience.
Does it still help you in your work?
Yes, it does. Actually, it is mostly not so much about other people, but about yourself. You see yourself in a different light. One thing is how you act in a group of people where most of them are chosen by yourself or very like-minded people. In the office, because of my title, there’s some sort of presumed respect, presumed importance. And there you don’t have it. It makes you see yourself in a different light.
How has the EMBA changed you as a leader, colleague, manager, and professional? How has it impacted you or influenced your work?
Apart from practical things like the business line we are now developing because of the master thesis, which is really practical, it is about self-confidence, actually. Coming from a legal profession where nobody teaches us management, I came out a bit more confident. Seeing managers from all kinds of industries made me understand that I’m doing quite fine. It’s not that I somehow feel unconfident about my management skills, but especially for women leaders, I think it is important to gain confidence. Because it is not something which is given in the initial package.
I also gained various practical tools in all different areas related to management, which I know that I can pick up in different situations. You gain a bit wider toolbox than you came with, which is very healthy. Maybe you don’t need to use it today, maybe not tomorrow, but you know that in that toolbox there are some things you can always take up and see.
And the relationship with the course mates — they can also be sources of your tools if you need advice, support, contacts, expertise in some of the issues, a second opinion. Because for managers it’s important to have a group of people you can brainstorm with, and [the programme] gives you a very good group of people like that.
Do you remember the last tool that you took out from the toolbox?
Design thinking. That’s one of the practical things I’m really using. We are now discussing internally in the office some projects where we need to improve or develop, and I went back to the design thinking tool to think whether this might be one of the solutions for the problem we’re trying to solve. It was helpful.
Anything you want to say to those who are still trying to decide, whether they should do it?
I don’t want anybody to be careless about it because the time investment is indeed serious. You need to understand that during those two years you will not be doing much else other than work and study. You must be realistic about it. But if you’re ready for that time investment, then it’s definitely worth it because of all the benefits.
Even for those who think they know it all?
There’s always something to learn, even in things you’re really confident about, thinking you know everything. You don’t! Because you just don’t have time in your daily life to follow up with all the news and the latest ideas. This gives you a space to be a bit more reflective, learn a bit more, read new things, and speak with top professionals.
Learn more about executive MBA at SSE Riga !