We are sitting in one of Karlsruhe’s best cocktail bars, which once has even been mentioned in the list of the best bars in Germany by the German Playboy Magazine – “Carlos’ Cocktail Bar”. “Wait a minute” my companion says to me, “I have to say hello to my friend, who works in this bar.” Meanwhile, I unpack my laptop to start the interview with Joan Lois, a 33-year old Peruvian artist, who has been living since 2012 in Germany. We met at a Couchsurfers Party a couple of months ago and approximately at that time the idea about series of interviews with immigrant entrepreneurs living in Germany came into my mind.
Being a Russian immigrant myself I became curious about the reasons why Germany, which has almost the same percentage of immigrants as US, doesn’t have the same entrepreneurial culture as the States. “American Dream” became a known metaphor due to the countless success stories of immigrant entrepreneurs, who came to the new country, started their businesses and assisted the nation to its wealth. In the recent history, just look at the names, which made Silicon Valley so famous – e.g. google founder Sergey Brin or whatsapp founder Jan Koum: both American entrepreneurs were born in the former Soviet Union… I wanted to direct my own focus and the attention of the readers to the successful immigrant entrepreneurs in Germany, create space for them to tell their stories and for us to develop more awareness around the contribution immigrants in Germany make to the local economy.
Joan: My family moved from Peru to the US in the 90-s to escape from poverty, I was around 13 at the time. The first time in a foreign country without knowing the language was hard for me. When I came home from school, I cried a lot. So my parents decided to send me back to Peru to my grandparents, until I become a teenager and could decide for myself in which country I want to stay.
In Peru and later in the US both of my parents had their own businesses. My mum is a textile designer. She taught me how important it is to deal intelligently with money. She had a talent to establish relationship with the right people and to convince them. She could sell anything. By “right” I don’t mean the social status… It is important to surround yourself with people who inspire you, who have a good energy level. I learned from my mum to be gentle and good to people. She would always smile and look fresh and clean. In Peru, we were very poor and I had to wash my cloths every morning in order to look good. My mum was very clear about what she had to offer and could communicate it very clearly. When you communicate openly and clearly people start to trust you. When people start to trust you they would buy anything from you.
I have to show my clients that I understand them. Some would look at my paintings and they make stories in their heads about the motive and have ideas about my personality. And there are others, they need answers…explanations. They look at me and associate some ideas with me. Well, I am a Latino, I have a romantic accent when I speak English, even German. And through this, they establish the idea in their heads: “Oh, it is an exotic, romantic painting.” They buy “me”, because they associate my work with the romantic scenery of Peru and an exotic Latino. In this sense, I benefit from my Peruvian background.
Luba: You lived in Australia, Canada, Columbia and France. How is being an artist and entrepreneur different in Germany, compared to other countries?
Joan: Oh, well, I like being in casinos and I don’t find so many here… [laughing] For me, Germany was more difficult, than the countries where people speak English or have a history connected to Spanish speaking countries. My first city was Berlin, a very international city. However, I didn’t like it there. People don’t have time, they are rushing from one meeting to another, they don’t have time to talk. So I took my laptop, sold all of my paintings and moved to Karlsruhe – the city, where the second part of the name means Quiet (Ruhe), a friend said to me…
Luba: What was your first step in the new city, then?
Joan: As you can see, I am good looking man…[smiling] I love to go out and to connect with people. I would start a conversation and mostly it is a beginning of a relationship, either business or private. “I am an artist.” I would say. “What kind of artist are you?” people would ask, they start getting curious.
However, Germany is a very tough market. For example, in the US, there are a lot of young people, young entrepreneurs, who have money. In Germany, a lot of old people have money, not the young ones. A new generation of young entrepreneurs is just starting out in Germany, it is very different to the US. So, you have to build a network with people who are around 50 or 60. Most of them don’t speak English and are very conservative. My work is very visual and I don’t have to explain much in German, that’s my advantage.
Luba: What was the most important lesson you have learned as entrepreneur in Germany?
Joan: Be punctual! [laughing] For the first time in my life I do possess a watch.
Luba: How important for your start in the new country was the Peruvian network in Germany?
Joan: When I arrived in Germany I emailed the Peruvian consul and asked him to assist me… He checked out my work and said his wife and him loved my paintings. He invited me to lunch, we had a very interesting conversation and started to build a relationship… The next step was, he linked me to a gallery in Nuernberg, where I sold many paintings. Next month I have an exhibition in Geneva, the Peruvian consul in Switzerland has a gallery there.
Luba: What advice would you give other artists, who are just starting out?
Joan: Be hard workers. Don’t be bohemian. If you want to be an artist, spend all of your money and energy for your art. For example, I spend a lot of time keeping my network alive. I email people, make phone calls to stay connected with them.
Luba: Are there some questions, which you ask yourself every day?
Joan: I ask myself “How long will my painting, art in general, stay in the remembrance of the humanity?” The technology is replacing humanity, the technology is replacing art… I sometimes feel threatened by it as an artist.
Luba: What is the most important thing people should know about you?
Joan: Oh, Socrates has been known to have said “You can spend your whole life trying to get to know yourself.” I am trying to let my actions speak for me, my paintings. I am an artist all of the time. It is different for a doctor or an engineer. When he is at home, he might have private life or be an alcoholic. I am artist 24 hours a day. It’s a 24 hours job, being an artist…