Modernae Woman: Ema Ostarcevic, Staffing Company CEO

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By Brooke Goggans

When Ema Ostarcevic was 5 years old, her mother and three siblings packed for a two-week trip from Croatia, where they lived, to Utah, where her father was an international scout for the NBA. While they were in the United States, war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, leaving them unable to return home. “My family jokes that we’re on a suspended two-week vacation,” she says. Today, Ostarcevic is the founder and CEO of SEARCH Group Partners, a staffing and recruiting firm in Salt Lake City. She’s also a new mom to 4-month-old Alexander and is growing her company in new markets with the support of her fiancé, Ryan, who is a full-time dad. She credits her father and her ballet training for the drive and discipline that helped her start her own business at 25. She’s focused on growing a culture that empowers women, because in her world, the corner office includes a changing table and a bassinet.

How did you come to start Search Group Partners?

I always knew I wanted to own my own business, but I thought I’d probably do it 10 years from now. I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur at heart. I did early college when I was 15. I managed my first group of 20 people when I was 20 years old, and my whole team was 20 years older than me—and 18 of them were men. SEARCH happened organically. I was on vacation and one of the neighbors of the house where I was staying at owned a staffing company, and he opened his first company in his 20s. We were socially talking, and he said, “You should open your own firm.” At the time, I was working for Robert Half International, one of the world’s largest staffing firms and a Fortune 500 company; they have 350 offices worldwide. I had worked in their L.A. market, the Utah market and most recently was in the New York market working in their executive search practice. In this conversation, the man said, “I would back you, and I think we could round up a group of others who would be interested in backing you. Now is the time: You’re young, you’re single, you don’t have any kids, and you’re already working 80 hours a week anyway.” He pretty much talked me into it. While I’d always planned to do it, the opportunity presented itself with the right investor and financial backing, and that was really important to me. I didn’t want to start Ema’s staffing agency out of my basement. I really wanted to have the right partners and resources. I call it the right grey hairs. I fully recognize where my strengths are and where there are opportunities, and I thought, If I am going to do this, I have to surround myself with the right people to ensure that it’s successful.

Why did you choose Utah for your business?

Even though I was in New York at the time, I said that I wanted to start the company in Utah, which everyone thought was surprising. But I had managed the Salt Lake market for Robert Half before going to New York, and I saw tremendous opportunity in this market. And I have a little bit of a soft spot for Utah, and it’s an amazing place for business. It’s always on the top of Forbes lists for best places for companies, states to work in, growth states, lowest unemployment and has recently been nicknamed the “Silicon Slopes.”

Your dad was a recruiter. Do you think that influenced the business you’re in?

I think recruiting is in my DNA. I’m the talent agent for the everyday person.

You’ve said that recruiting women in executive and management positions is important to you. Why?

I’m a big believer in empowering and supporting women. I believe we achieve a lot more by supporting each other than tearing each other down or competing with each other. I believe that women can be the greatest resource for each other, and it’s something that I’m personally passionate about. Being in Utah, there aren’t a lot of women who work. In comparison to other states, there are a lot of women who stay home and there are a lot more children born per capita. There’s so many women who want to work but don’t know how or know how to get back into it after being stay-at-home moms and want to transition back into the workforce. We do a really great job of promoting, hiring and retaining women in leadership positions. I’m proud of that.

What’s your goal for the business?

I want us to be among the best staffing firms in the markets we serve. That’s why it’s about quality for us, not necessarily about size. I think what’s made us so successful is that we have an intimate relationship with our clients and our candidates. Ninety-two percent of our business comes to us from referrals. We’ve worked with companies that have the highest rate of growth, are the most innovative in the state, and we represent some of the most exclusive top talent in our market. We’re really grateful for that and the reputation we enjoy. We want to make sure that we remain true to that and expand upon that.

What would your advice for other women entrepreneurs be?

Call me! I say that jokingly, but we can be such a great resource for each other. It’s just like raising a child: It takes support. My advice would be, be humble and surround yourself with people who can help you, and be open to that support. Check the ego at the door and ask, “Who else do I need on my team, and how can I benefit from that team?” Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s no shame or embarrassment in that. If anything, that’s how you become the most successful. I’ve always believed I don’t need to make that mistake if someone else has made it.

You have a 4 month old. How has it been being a new mom and owning your own business?

Being a mom is the most amazing opportunity of my life. Everyone says your life changes when you become a parent, but I would add to that it changes for the better. Sometimes we forget to say that. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have support. My fiancé stays home with our son, and that’s a decision we made a few weeks after he was born. We made that decision because it was in the best interest of our family. Initially that was hard for me, but I remind myself that every family is different. Living in Utah, there’s a stereotype that you have to stay home with your child, and ultimately that’s not the best for me or in the best interest for my family. I joke that I’m a better mother if I work, but I really do believe that.

It’s wonderful to be in a place where you can choose what’s best for your family.

Ryan, my fiancé, has always been incredibly supportive of my career. I’ve always been incredibly lucky to have support from the men in my life. The men in my life have enabled me to be where I am today. I’m incredibly lucky to have Ryan at home. It just makes it so I don’t go to work and stress about whether my child is OK, or if he’s being taken care of. That’s made the transition incredibly easy for me. I’m also incredibly fortunate to have my own business, and I have the flexibility that a lot of people may not. I’m sitting in my office now, and there’s a baby Bjorn bouncer under my desk and a diaper caddy with diapers and wipes. I work a lot of hours, and it’s nice to bring my child into work if I need to. Sometimes when Ryan needs a break, the baby gets dropped off and hangs out at the office with me for a few hours. So I have a lot of luxuries that I think makes it a lot easier for me. There’s the flip side to this, too: I got a lot when I was pregnant, “Oh, you’re so lucky you own your own business and can take as much maternity leave as you want.” And I’d chuckle because it’s the opposite when you own your own business—you can’t take any time off. I had a 24-hour labor, and I was on the phone returning emails a good portion of it. But I do my best to make my schedule work for my family and me. I do remember that family is first: I don’t live to work, I work to live.

How have other men in your life supported you?

Growing up, my dad would say, “Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman.” My dad was a pretty well-known basketball player in Croatia, and once while still living there he made the front page of the newspaper for pushing a stroller with one of my siblings in it, and the other kids were walking alongside him. He would take us on these nightly walks, and my brother couldn’t fall asleep unless he was in the stroller beneath the tress with the sound of the ocean. The headline read—it doesn’t translate exactly but it’s closely: ‘They have their Dad wrapped around their fingers.” It was so unheard of at the time in Croatia that there would be a man pushing the stroller, taking care of his kids while my mom was at home. It was not a man’s role to care for the children, but my dad changed our diapers and took time with us and fed us. He was truly a co-parent, and I’m grateful I grew up seeing that. That was something that always stood out to me: my Dad saying be who you are. It doesn’t matter that you’re a woman, just be who you are. He led by example, and I always appreciated that about him.

Do you have a personal motto?

“Work hard, stay humble.” Humility is a virtue that has always resonated with me. Spiritually, I’ve always said, “I love god not religion.” Personally, my motto has always been, “Judge less and love more.” When I take that approach, I think I handle most situations better.

What do you do to relax?

We’re big on traveling. I’m happiest with a full suitcase and a boarding pass. A weekend at the beach does a lot for my soul and my mental health and re-energizing me. I’m a former ballerina, and I don’t get to ballet classes as often as I’d like, but I’ve developed a love for Pilates. I love cooking and spending time with my family. I moved back to Utah, and for the first time I’ve really enjoyed having the mountains be my backyard, and I’ve taken up skiing and biking. I did have to pause that with the pregnancy last year, but I’m back into that.

Tell me about being a ballerina.

Ballet is a common thing in Croatia and European countries. I was a ballerina growing up, and when I started college, I stopped dancing and started teaching. It started to be too much with a full-time career, but it is still one of the biggest blessings of my life. A lot of people will ask where my drive comes from, and a lot of it stems from ballet. It taught me discipline and hard work and a tremendous amount of respect for my instructors and team and community.

What is something, real or make believe, that you wish you had that would make your life easier?

I’m sure everyone says this: more time. I don’t know where it goes. And now having the baby, he’s growing up quicker than my eyes can adapt. I just wish there were more hours in a day.