According to the statistics, I have thirty years of work ahead of me. I decided to go back to school and study psychology. Maybe I’ll set up a clinic, says entrepreneur and philanthropist Michaela Bakala. With her 50th birthday, she says, came a turning point and an impetus to search for her next pursuit. How could she best utilize all her talents and experience? She spoke to Newstream Club magazine about her mission, South Africa, politics, philanthropy, and children.
By the Author: Tereza Zavadilová
Published in Newstream Club Magazine, September 2023.
Your family lives in many parts of the world. How has COVID-19 disrupted your life and business? I suppose the interference must have been greater than for a similar family living in one place.
It affected everyone. I don’t know how we managed it, but we somehow figured it out when we needed to move; we all passed our COVID tests, etc. I was always worried when the whole family was going to fly somewhere that, one of us wouldn’t pass, and it would all be different. Somehow, we managed through it. We definitely slowed down. It turns out you really can work from your home office utilizing numerous video conferences. It’s going. Also, the kids were home for some time and learning online, which was uncomfortable for everyone: the students, the teachers, and parents. That’s why we chose the US, where teaching and everything returned to normal the fastest. Our loved ones were worried that we were taking a risk. I said we can’t have everything in life. Fortunately, none of us got seriously ill. We got through that period more or less healthy, and with only two years of high school left for our daughter, I decided we had to hang on for a while in the US.
As the saying goes, which came first, the chicken or the egg? It started with covid throwing us into America instead of Switzerland and taking away the opportunity to live in South Africa for a long time. Whether this was good or bad is hard to judge. It is what it is. The kids are happy in America, and we’ll see where we end up again in a few years. We’re moving to California this summer, and I start school in September. So do the kids. We’ve all been taking entrance exams and transferring schools.
So you’re all going to be educated in California?
Yes, I’ll be in California.
I’ll get to your studies, but what are your children studying?
They’re still in high school, most of them. My youngest daughter is almost ten; the boys are 14 and 16, so typical high school for them. My oldest daughter was accepted to several universities, including the University of California at Berkeley and Dartmouth, so she had multiple choices.
And what do they gravitate towards?
Fortunately, in America, they don’t have to incline much anywhere. The so-called “undergraduate system” gives the option of going to college and then deciding which direction they might like to take. My daughter is 17. She started school very early, so I think she’s too young to fully know what she wants to do. With this system, she still has a few more years to decide. I sense from her that she’s more after me; it doesn’t look like a technical major but something soft, like liberal arts. Maybe business, but it’s too soon; she’s only 17.
And your studies? I know you’re going to study psychology. I’m curious about that. Where are you going to study psychology?
I’m going to The Wright Institute in Berkeley. It’s a three-year master’s program in Counseling Psychology. I’m really looking forward to it as it’s something I’m curious about as well. I decided to do it when I started thinking about what else I wanted to do in life two years ago. I’d celebrated my 50th birthday, and a kind of reassessment thought hit me. I was already doing business, our philanthropy was in full swing, and my kids were almost grown, though, of course, that work never ends. I wondered what I would fill the rest of my life with. I thought, we support many students at foreign universities, so why not try my hand at studying in the United States as well.
And the major?
Psychology is the one closest to my heart. It’s also different than if I went to medical school, which would be a long and demanding study. I’m not sure my brain probably could handle that anymore. This I feel I can do. And it’s a field I use every day. In communication, in my daily dealings with the public, with people, with children, with students, in interviews, in business, in negotiations, and once upon a time in politics. Subconsciously, I’ve been using it all my life, so I’m just acquiring the expertise and terminology for it. Will I learn anything new? I hope so. But at the same time, I’ll be pairing theory with experience. Sometimes, one learns the theory first and then puts it into practice. For me, at almost 52, it’ll be a combination of both.
Is your interest primarily self-developmental and academic, or do you think you can really use it professionally?
I would like to, but we’re having this conversation too soon. After I graduate and work a certain number of hours, I can apply for a license to work in California at a minimum, and maybe I can expand that to the United States. I haven’t checked to see if my education will allow me to work as a therapist around the world, but I assume it will. I have this internal plan. Because we invest a lot in philanthropy, I know that California, in particular, has a significant mental health problem. People are struggling there. One reason is the health care system, which doesn’t work well in America. It’s very limited, and there’s not equal access to it for everybody; instead, people who need it fall through the cracks system. For example, this is a problem in San Francisco, where there is a considerable amount of homeless people, and the reason for many of them is that they suffer from mental disorders. I’ve thought that maybe we could open a clinic and operate there. I already know more people there who are also studying psychology and would like to be a part of something like that. Already today, I have had people come to me saying they would like to come to me for therapy; I tell them to wait a while. So, I do imagine myself as a practitioner as well at times. I think I’ve met many people under a lot of pressure of responsibility, whether in politics or in business. I’ll combine experience in all those areas, and perhaps I could help with the problems of high-level executives.
The theme of our magazine is purpose and mission. You said your 50th birthday was a turning point for you, which is probably normal in life. It’s a moment when you take stock, reassess, and think about new plans. Did you also think about what your mission is? Did you look at your life in this way?
Yes, I have. I keep telling myself that the purpose of all my experience will come to fruition one day. Student support, children, travel, politics, business, communications, society, media, and now, psychology. I think it would be a shame not to put my management and organizational skills to good use, too, and I don’t think I’ll achieve that by hoeing the garden. I want to find a position, although I have yet to quite work out what or figure out specifically where my experience could be capitalized to its best use. This intermediate step will make me feel even more needed or helpful.
One thing I do know about myself is that my gift or talent is in my personal attitude, public outreach, working with people and the public, forming debates, and supporting programs, lectures, and therapy. This idea has been connecting in my brain with some staying power. Being able to talk and interact with people. That’s where I see my value or my contribution.
You’re not planning on getting more rest, are you?
I don’t plan to stop working. I’m not thinking about “retiring” because I’m not naturally set up to do that. I’d like to be active until the last minute, maybe start writing, I don’t know. Fortunately, I have time now and can concentrate mainly on my studies. I’ll learn something new; it’ll open up another field of activity. Also, I don’t have to rush anywhere yet – my youngest daughter is nine, so I have at least another eight years before she goes off to study or leaves home. So I have a program for the next five to ten years, and what will happen in ten years, I don’t know. I may not be here anymore by then, but I hope I will because we women live to an average age of over 80. That means if I’ve worked for 30 years thus far, I’ve got another stretch of the same length ahead of me. So there’s a lot more to do.
If you were to look at it in general terms, what do you mean by the word mission? Is it an expression of one’s own personality outward, an expression of experience?
I would say that every person’s mission is determined by what they can do. You’ve been given a gift to pass it on to others. I’ve had that in me since I was a little girl. I always wanted to help somewhere, to be involved in something. I grew up in a Christian family, so from a young age, that meant serving my neighbor. The responsibility that if you’ve been given something, it’s so you can create something with it. Not for yourself, but for your neighborhood and for society. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but that’s how I feel. That’s why I say that I don’t promise that I will invent something scientific. I probably won’t discover anything fundamental, but I can help people on a personal level or with some kind of development.
You say you grew up in a Christian family. Is faith important to you in some way, or is it some unquestioned foundation that is there somewhere, but you don’t actively express yourself in this area?
The foundation is there, and I can’t separate it anymore because I really grew up with it from birth. I don’t have a moment where I say, now I’ve started to believe, and now I don’t believe anymore. But I think it was a good foundation, even though I’m not very active in the church. To me, no matter who we are or where we come from, we all believe in something. I feel it’s a personal issue, and I don’t evaluate other people’s beliefs. Some people will say, “I believe in myself,” some people will say, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” some people might say, “I believe in something or a higher power,” and some people believe in nature. I don’t comment on those questions because we all believe something. Every one of us is a believer.
I’d ask a little more practically. So, how are you doing now? You live in the USA, go to the Czech Republic, and go to Switzerland to Africa. And how do you divide your year?
We respect the children’s school year. We adjust it, and if we travel alone with a man (?), there’s always someone to take care of the kids for a while. For us, it’s a combination of the whole family travels or just my husband and I; sometimes it’s just my husband, and sometimes it’s just me. It overlaps so well for us. Now, we have two or almost three months of vacation coming up, so that will definitely be filled with travel.
So, your main home will now be the USA and California. Perhaps you don’t see your calling in active politics? Would you say that in four years, you will run for President of the Czech Republic?
Certainly not in five to ten years. At least on this topic, I have a simple answer. I can’t rule out what I’ll think as I approach 60. But then again, perhaps by then, I will have my mind elsewhere, and my circumstances will be different. Right now, though, it’s not something I’m thinking about to the extent that I would say I’m preparing to campaign for President.
I think that my job title and my position today may not give me as much influence or power. Still, again, I have more options on more continents in more arenas and freedom than if I were to enter Czech politics. Such a move would limit and narrow my scope very much. It’s not something that I really actively consider, to be honest. Occasionally, it flashes through in my environment, not only in the Czech Republic but also abroad. It’s easy to talk about but harder to do. That I am such an amateur political scientist is nice, but I am not so sure whether I would be a successful political practitioner.
Anyway, politics is in your interest…
It affects me. I’m interested in government, the administration of the state, and the functioning of democratic institutions. I’ve been interested in it for a long time. It is also natural for me, thanks to my work experience with Václav Klaus and ODS. My first meeting with Václav Havel dates back to 1991 or 1992. That was his first visit to eastern Slovakia. I was working with the Federal Assembly at that time, and I took minutes of that assembly. I was 20 years old, and sitting next to me were Václav Havel, Michael Žantovský, and Karel Schwarzenber. The fate of eastern Slovakia was being discussed, a little privatization and the Roma question was already on the table. At that time, I was living politics. Although I didn’t stand on November 17th, on Národní třída, because I was studying at the University of Agriculture in Brno at the time, so we didn’t start until Sunday and Monday, but on November 20th, there was a big strike on Svoboda Square, where water cannons were ready. My parents were asking me if I was sure we were really all going there, and I said, “We have no other choice!”
As far as public activities are concerned, you and your husband are probably best known in the Czech Republic as the owners of the Economia publishing house and a number of philanthropic projects. What does that give you?
Thanks to my husband, we have and have had influence through several investments in the Czech Republic. We have never taken advantage of it. On the contrary, we have used the funds to start investing them in free media and the education of gifted Czech students who could not otherwise afford it. Our Scholarship Program has been in operation for almost 15 years. Soon, my husband and I began supporting the legacy of Václav Havel and the Václav Havel Library.
When was that?
It was around the time that Václav Havel wrote his work, Leaving, which was not exactly easy for him either, and if you remember, it was a time when people started saying that Havel had had enough. A new generation was coming up. At that time, there was a lot of skepticism about the 1990s, and Václav Klaus, a lifelong critic and competitor of Václav Havel, became President. On the other hand, a completely different group of politicians dominated, who also did not fundamentally support Václav Havel’s legacy. At that time, it was not cool or fashionable to assume that he would be necessary to the Czech Republic again at some point.
And that’s already happened?
It is essential to preserve the values that he embodied as a person and have shaped our entire modern history. So that teachers, students, and the coming generation are aware of why it all happened as it did. To do this, the Václav Havel Library has a valuable pictorial, textual archive full of human stories and testimonies. Václav Havel was one of the driving forces behind the creation of a free Czechoslovakia, and his humanism, manifested also in foreign policy, is now coming back to us. Perhaps also in the election of Petr Pavel, who so openly espouses him and the values of truth.
It is not just about domestic politics. Against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine, we can see how valuable it is that we have become members of NATO and the EU. I am convinced that it protects us; even though people sometimes grumble about Brussels and how ossified it is, it does not know exactly what is going on in individual countries, and it is such an unpleasant bureaucrat. That is not true; all the time the EU has existed, its Member States have been going through the safest and most profitable era. And now the question logically arises: what lies ahead?
Do you think the cohesion of Europe is at risk?
We have come to believe that democracy and a united Europe are the norm. The last two generations, and unfortunately, part of my generation, have forgotten that our parents lived through the period of the division of the world into the Eastern and Western blocs. Our grandparents lived through the Second World War or were born before the Second World War. From their point of view, these people should be more or less happy because they have a comparison. I remember that my grandparents were excited about the 1990s because they never thought they would live to see it, and what a wonderful time it was.
Nowadays, I see the fearfulness and dissatisfaction of some people. It’s undoubtedly because not everyone is equally well off; that’s logical. It’s essential that everyone has the same opportunities, but how they take advantage of them is also up to them. Here, we are still seeing the return of the previous regime, which promised people that everyone would have the same opportunities. That is, of course, a lie; it was already a lie then. If anyone promises that today, they are deliberately misleading others. On the other hand, the state indeed has to think about people who really get into trouble.
How can this be approached positively?
For example, it is important to me that we support talented students who study and grow up abroad, but most of them return to the Czech Republic. This means that they then help the country. The only solution to these long-term goals or crises is quality education. We will understand them better, we will be able to talk about them, we will be able to write about them. Then, of course, people can expect a program and a long-term solution. Otherwise, they will fly from right to left, persuaded by anyone who promises them something. From my point of view, neither in private life, academic life, nor in professional life, short-term goals and shortcuts never work, and I don’t like them.
When I was organizing a beauty pageant, I used to listen to young girls saying, “Now I have to become a miss and my life will be sorted,” and they were 19 years old. I’d say, “No, this is just the first opportunity, your life is just beginning, don’t rush. It doesn’t mean that tomorrow you’ll be famous, the day after tomorrow you’ll be rich and three days later you’ll be married and driving I don’t know what. That’s a marathon, and sustaining success is far more difficult than achieving it once.” That’s how I’ve always tried to lead myself. It’s surer than taking a big hit or winning one thing and then sitting back or going crazy or blowing it. A lot of things can make you unsteady.
You are involved in philanthropy beyond Havel’s library or students. What else do you do?
10 years ago, we helped found the Aspen Institute Central Europe, which creates a platform for discussion between people from different disciplines with different political views. It is similar to the American Aspen Institute. But it’s easier there because they only have two political groups. In our country, of course, there are more parties and more opinions. But mainly, it maintains transatlantic ties, it deals with security issues, and recently, there has been a lot of talk about artificial intelligence, technology, and about how our lives have begun to be programmed. It constantly goes back to the beginning: to education, to freedom, to the responsibility we feel.
But in our foundation, in addition to scholarships abroad, we also award, for example, architecture students; we announced the Kaplicky Internship in collaboration with schools of architecture and design. The awarded student gets an internship in a famous architectural studio. Other programs support aspiring journalists.
One of your homes is in South Africa. It has been a turbulent, difficult situation there in recent years. How do you live there, and what are you doing there in terms of philanthropy?
Thanks to Václav Havel, I formed a friendship with the de Klerks many years ago – during his last trip abroad in 2011, before he fell ill. Frederik Willem de Klerk was running for the presidency of South Africa in 1989. He and Havel were the same age, the same year of birth, and both in a relationship with the second love of their lives. We met in our home, and a friendship between all of us was born out of that. Our debates often focused on the fate of South Africa and the subsequent development of society. South Africa’s modern history is turbulent. It is close to ours in many ways, only more serious in that it was a truly oppressive and brutal, racist regime.
Do these problems still manifest themselves today?
The country is dealing with various security and racial problems, poverty, COVID-19, and migration problems. But it’s still a free democratic country, and we firmly believe it will make it. South Africa has one of the most modern constitutions, which has become a model for some other countries. The Centre for the Protection of the South African Constitution was introduced by former President de Klerk and then President Mandela back in 1996, and it was for this peaceful democratization process that they jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. FW died last year. We had a chance to physically hug him and say goodbye a few days before. It was incredibly moving; he knew he was leaving.
We decided that we would help his wife, Elite, to protect the Centre, not only FW’s legacy itself, but especially in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and his family, to protect and sustain the South African Constitution because the whole future of the country’s system will depend on it. If it is kept within that legacy, there is a chance for the country to come through the crisis positively. We firmly believe that. If it doesn’t, there’s nothing we can do; it happens in life, but we are among the optimists who believe in the future of South Africa.
Did you set up a foundation there?
No, the FW de Klerk Foundation already existed. But we became supporters of it, and over time, I was asked to become more involved in its activities because of my experience with the Václav Havel Library. I can offer a different experience there, perhaps a different perspective. Last year, Elita expressed her confidence in me and approached me to join the Foundation’s Board of Trustees.
You have lived in South Africa for some time, and you have a business there. Are you connecting with South Africa in the future? Do you see yourself there in the long term?
That’s a difficult question. But the interesting thing is that if our children have to say where they would like to live in the future, they mention South Africa first.
Were they born there?
Our three children were born in Prague, our youngest daughter in Switzerland. But from a very young age, South Africa was their home. We used to go there for a period of time for holidays. Then we spent longer periods of time there. They also went to school there for a while a few years ago, which was cut off by COVID-19 because South Africa went into a hard lockdown. They canceled visas, and their school was online only. As I said at the beginning, it was at that time we decided to move to the US again.
What language do you actually speak at home?
The first language in our household is English. The children speak English, French, and thanks to their school in the USA, they also speak Spanish and understand Czech. My husband and I speak Czech to each other. I would like to keep my children’s French because once they have learned French and have gone to French schools in Switzerland, they shouldn’t lose it unnecessarily.
Michaela Bakala, born Michaela Maláčová, comes from Brno. Czech businesswoman and philanthropist, chairwoman of the Bakala Foundation board, founder of the Czech Miss, and winner of the Miss Czechoslovakia competition for 1991. She graduated in film and television production from FAMU, and in the past, she worked in PR, including as a spokesperson for ODS.
Together with her husband, Zdeněk Bakala, she founded BM Management (now Bakala Capital), which manages their family investments. In selected companies, such as the media house Economia, Forum Karlín, or Luxury Brand Management, she was directly involved in their strategic management from her position on the board of directors for several years.
Michaela Bakala is a member of the Supervisory Board of Aspen Institute Central Europe. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Václav Havel Library, whose mission is to preserve the legacy of Václav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic. Since 2011, she has been the Patroness of the TOP Women of the Czech Republic project. She has four children and lives with her family in the United States.