Dictionary Stories: Interview with Eliska, the owner of the Dictionary Hostel.
I met Eliska in 2016, when her youngest daughter Caitlin, who was 7 at the time, auditioned to be in a play my theatre company were making at the Unicorn. We wanted children who could collaborate on writing the show with us, so we were looking for confidence, weirdness, a good sense of humour and kindness. Everyone was struck by Caitlin – she was all of those things and more – a brilliantly precise, talented human.
When I rang Eliska to tell her that we wanted Caitlin to be in the show – which meant working with her for a year, a huge commitment from the families of the children – she started to cry and laugh at the same time. She said, “we love her so much, we know she’s amazing, we’re so happy you can see that.” I was incredibly moved by this, because it would be impossible to not think Caitlin was amazing. When I hung the phone up, I turned to my partner and exclaimed “I LOVE Eliska!”
Women should not be defined by being mothers alone. But to raise a child who is so confident in themselves and their identity at such a young age is often an extraordinary reflection on the character of their parents. And over the course of making the show, we got know Eliska – and of course were inspired by her fearlessness, her fierceness, her can-do-anything attitude, her generosity and her gregariousness. She is a woman who champions open hearts and minds, who is raising daughters to be a new kind of leader and who is shaping the lives of her employees, friends and customers. She’s amazing.
Eliska really kindly agreed to answer some of my silly questions and some of my more serious ones. And on International Women’s day, my hope for everyone is that they are lucky enough to find an Eliska to have in their lives.
So, you are the owner of The Dictionary Hostel, right?
That is right, since 2010.
And you aren’t from London are you?
I’m not even from the UK! 🙂
Where are you from (for our readers. I know where you’re from obviously…)
I was born and raised in South Africa and came to London at the age of 28 and have been here ever since (so for the past 16 years)
And what brought you to London?
Several reasons really. Obviously I wanted to travel the world and explore and see what lay in my future beyond my then existence. I thought London, as the centre of the world, would be paved with gold haha. An idea of seeing a big city in the UK appealed to me, but what kept me in London is the incredible diversity, intelligence, creativity and acceptance of this city.
How did you get into working in hostels?
As most people did then and plenty do now. I was booked in for a week whilst between flats in London, started making friends and an opportunity came up for me to become a receptionist and I jumped at it (as my previous ‘job’ was selling photographic sessions on street corners)
And what made you decided to start your own?
After 8 years working hard for someone else, running their then 5 hostel in London, I felt I had reached the glass ceiling that as a women I was going to reach. I thought to myself, controlling my own destiny is far safer than being reliant on my then employer to look after me. I also thought it would be easier than running 5 hostels. I was wrong.
What’s your most favourite thing about Shoreditch?
There isn’t a day that goes by that something doesn’t surprise me in Shoreditch. I love that.
It’s international women’s day! Why do you think girls are better than boys😉?
I don’t. But I think the world needs to stop thinking boys are better than girls. What I do love about woman is our adaptability, our grit, our creativity and emotional intelligence. I love that we are so strong that we have not let unacceptable inequality and harassment break us. We have wisdom and compassion and the future is bright when I see how many women are stepping up and into positions of power.
What are the challenges of being a female business owner in a relatively male field? How do you feel that affects the way you run the hostel? I mean, I’ve noticed you are a pretty serious boss, but nothing about it FEELS hierarchical in that typical I’M A MAN AND I’M THE BOSS AND ONLY TALK TO MY ASSISTANT UNLESS YOUR BOOBS ARE OUT THEN WE CAN HAVE A CHAT IN MY OFFICE kind of way, you know?
Hahaha, yes I totally know what you mean. It has been very challenging. I have been ignored, dismissed, talked down to, asked only about my love life (in serious business meetings), eyed at, and sexually harassed and largely not been taken very seriously as a business woman. This is not true of all interactions but the large majority. So yes, it’s been tough, but no tougher than being a woman in so many areas of life. You can choose to fight it sometimes, ignore it sometimes, ‘prove them wrong’ sometimes or you can focus on making the changes that are needed.
As a boss, I try to empower people, women especially, or anyone from a minority group to move up in the ranks and to have opportunities within my organisation. That way, I feel I can make something positive out of a very harsh and aggressive mostly male business environment and feel good about myself.
Do you feel like you faced more challenges when you were starting out, or more now that you are a successful business owner?
You know, business is so tough, I think it’s just different problems. It’s pretty relentless. Problems are always there and I believe a measure of success is simply being able to solve the problems faster than they can come at you. On some level the start-up process is more tangible and so you can see success. Whereas now, I have to consider what next and it is a different problem and less tangible. For now 🙂
How do you think being a woman has helped you to be a better hostel owner?
I think I am a great listener and I respect my staff. I also operate on emotions, which I believe is needed. You need empathy in a customer service environment, and in a managerial role. I also think I have immense creativity in me and that is crucial when it comes to problem solving. And as a woman I want to see women succeed and diversity flourish, so in that sense, I believe we have drawn staff from all backgrounds who have made us richer and more able to navigate problems and deliver an excellent product.
Do you think the fact that The Dictionary is a female owned hostel makes women feel more comfortable staying there?
No, I think our product offers safety and great value and an awesome location with brilliant staff to all ) What should make women feel comfortable staying here is that we are on a main busy road with plenty of lights and people and no dark shady areas around. We also offer female only dorms and have a 24 hour open reception with staff on-site so all who stay here can feel safe and comfortable.
What advice do you have to younger women starting up their own business, in travel or otherwise?
Build your network. Get a female business mentor. Pick your battles – whilst sexism is something to fight every single day, you can fight that sexism by being a success yourself and empowering other women. I have spent many hours angry at the attitudes of men around me, but rather focus on making it no matter what.
You are an excellent feminist, tell us why misogyny sucks.
We miss opportunities when we hate. We miss the chance to grow and learn and make something stronger and better when we hate. All hatred only says something about the hater and nothing about the hated. And for people to live with that amount of hatred in themselves, well, that is a sad life.
What can we do together to make the world better for women?
Bring up our sons the way we want our peers to behave around us. Join the conversation wherever you are. Educate yourself on the facts of sexism and sexual harassment. Vote strategically. Get politically involved or at the very least well-read. Speak to other women about empowerment. March when there is a march. Rally when there is a rally. Write to MPs. Speak up. Understand the negative effects Brexit will have on the rights for women and minorities. Bring up our daughters to love themselves and feel powerful.
What are the most important things you try to teach your daughters?
I tell them that their minds are the most precious thing they have. I engage them in political discussions around human rights, animal rights and women’s rights. I tell them all the time that I love my body 🙂 with all its folds and lines and wrinkles and marks and cuts and flecks. I also talk about qualities which we admire in people rather than men or women. Kindness is what I want to teach them most and to use their minds to make the world better in whichever way they can. And that they can be anything they want to be.
Tell us about Frida.
Best puppy ever! Named after the wonderfully strong female Icon.
You are an intrepid traveller and just got back from Istanbul. What did you eat?
Vegetarian Moussaka, Halva, Turkish Delight and drinking copious amounts of apple tea
And finally, who is your favourite member of staff?
Kidding. It’s me, obviously.
Yes, obviously you but after you my favourite member of staff is one who thinks outside the box, who has a can do attitude and loves working hard.
And finally, if you could tell your 20 year old self something, like a secret, what would you tell her?
Travel sooner and for longer because the world is wonderful and mind-expanding and beautiful. Go, go now, go.