Conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1992.
Hosted by Will Bachman.

Episode: 96

Natalia Tsarkova, Media Entrepreneur and Filmmaker

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Show notes

Natalia Tsarkova, a transfer student from Latvia, was the first student from the former Soviet bloc to apply to an American college. She was thrown into a completely different world and roles, but knew she wanted to create more contexts for others to transform their lives like she did. Growing up in Latvia, she watched pirated MTV videos and credits seeing Billy Jean for the first time for inspiring her to work in the media space. In 1993, she met a professor at the MIT Media Lab, who recognized her mixed background of mathematics, social studies, and filmmaking. She fell into the master’s program at the MIT Media Lab, where she was educated on the new way of thinking about media and how to create more meaningful experiences through on-demand interactive media platforms.


Working in Video on Demand and Interactive Experiences

Natalia was eager to move to New York City and found a job with a startup in Soho. She was driven to explore the world of startups and entrepreneurs, which she didn’t know much about before. She created projects Barry Diller, Sony Music and was hired by the Beatles estate to create the first Beatles digital experience. She had the luxury of diving deep into the Beatles archives and creating unique digital content. Natalia worked with IMG, fashion, and sports, and was tasked with explaining the digital transformation to CEOs in management, helping them imagine new types of media experiences that were digital and on demand. Her journey from MIT to New York City was filled with excitement, partying, and meeting people from all walks of life. She was able to stay afloat as a consultant, working on projects that fascinated her and helped shape the future of digital media.


The Development of Transmedia

In 2001, Natalia met her husband, a French television music television producer, who was looking for a digital media expert. In 2003, they set up the first European video on demand platform, called Transmedia.  Natalia convinced television producers that linear television was dead and that video on demand was the future. They built a business by packaging content from France television and other European producers and selling it to telcos in Belgium, Switzerland, and even France. With their large library of live musical content, they launched a video on demand platform called iConcerts, similar to Netflix but with only live music. This platform evolved into a hybrid high-definition TV/Video on Demand channel, licensed by operators in 128 countries between 2007 and 2010. The platform was successful, with collaborations with CCTV, an office in Singapore, Paris and Tokyo and partnerships with Senegalese musicians and Africa. Natalia explains how she became disillusioned a few years before it was sold.


Making a TV Documentary

Ever since Harvard, Natalia always did some form of documentary filmmaking. During summers, she rented a house in France and started filming the Gypsy Kings, a group that were popular in the 90s. Natalia showed the excerpts to a head of a European arts channel called Arte, who suggested she submit a proposal for a full length film. The film was released in 2016 and received triple primetime ratings on the channel, and the Gypsy Kings loved it. This experience of original content storytelling and the idea of tribes, such as the Gypsy tribe, inspired her. She moved on to create a project called Tribo, designed to be a storytelling platform for groups to share their stories. Tribo has become more about digital storytelling and dynamic storytelling.


The Evolution of the Tribo Platform

Natalia discusses the concept of Tribo as a media platform for storytelling. Tribo was initially designed as an extension of live music festivals, but after two years of testing, it has been found to be particularly effective in private communities during COVID-19. Tribo aims to create a platform where stories that matter over time are told, such as collective storytelling. This can involve recording portraits of different people who are part of the organization, allowing everyone to post photos and videos during an event, and giving CEOs a space to motivate everyone. Natalia emphasizes the importance of engagement from employees, as most companies struggle with sharing their stories due to busy work and reluctance to share. By providing equal opportunities for sharing and having leaders interviewing people, Tribo can capture the heritage and legacy of the community.


Influential Harvard Professors and Courses

Natalia was particularly fond of the VES department, where she watched two movies a day, and had a close friendship with Robert Gardner, Director of the Film Study Center and Svetlana Boym, an expert on Soviet art and modern art. She mentions Liah Greenfeld, her thesis advisor. She also worked for the Harvard Negotiation Project, created by Roger Fisher, a professor at HLS known as the ultimate expert on negotiation.. Her first job at Harvard was working at the Russian research center, where she was hired by Marshall Goldman, a big Soviet studies professor.



05:12 How a Latvian student applied to Harvard despite obstacles

11:30 Moving to NYC, starting a business, and networking

14:00 Digital media, video on demand, and startup experience

21:03 Entrepreneurship, media, and filmmaking

24:15 Filmmaking, loss, and entrepreneurship

31:27 Using tech for collective storytelling in organizations

41:17 Grief, trauma, and resilience after loss

44:42 Filmmaking, Harvard experiences, and connections



Website: Tribo.Live

Kings of the World:



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Natalia Tsarkova, Will Bachman



Will Bachman  00:02


Hello, and welcome to the 90 T report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman and I’m here today with Natalia zharkova. Natalia, welcome to the show.



Natalia Tsarkova  00:16


Thank you. Well, it’s a pleasure to be here.


Will Bachman  00:18


So Natalia, tell me about your journey since graduating from Harvard?


Natalia Tsarkova  00:24


Oh, well, first of all, I really think you your podcast is a great idea. You know, and I think that if only we could all follow up with each other’s journeys and get to know each other better. This class is so fascinating. So it’s such a great initiative to capture different stories. Yeah, where do I start? Right? I think I’m going to try to summarize a little bit, you know, so, when I came to Harvard, I came in as a transfer student from Latvia in 1989, so I basically jumped in as a sophomore, right away. And I was kind of like, remember, I mean, we’re old, right? So that was a long time ago. And I was, I was the first student from the former Soviet bloc from the current Soviet bloc, and the time to ever basically apply to an American college. So it was really interesting, because I was thrown into this like whirlwind of a completely different world, completely different roles. I didn’t know I’ve never been to an English-speaking country before coming there. I landed with like a $5, check in my pocket and the front page of The New York Times education section. So, the first year was kind of blur. But you know, already, then I knew that I really wanted to create more contexts for other people to experience what I had to having gone from one world to a completely different world, having changed my life as a 17-year-old girl, to completely. And I always said that that happened, because in Latvia, when I was growing up, I watched pirated MTV videos. And so I’ll never forget seeing Billy Jean for the first time and just saying, Now, that’s the world where I belong. And so I was sort of determined already when I was in college, that my career will be media, it will be something related to television, but obviously, television already was changing drastically. And, you know, I really wanted to work in that space. So I actually stayed for an extra year because since I came as a transfer student, I was still quite young. I had convinced one of my favorite professors, Bob Gardner, who was running the VES, that I absolutely needed a full Harvard experience. And I needed an extra year. And so, we wrote this letter to the admissions office, and I got yet another scholarship, another year of full scholarship. And the reason I did it is I wanted to study film. So I spent the last year 93, after already having finished my, my thesis, etc, taking a course. And after that very quickly, I met professor who was running a film department at the MIT Media Lab. And she saw that I had this mixed background of mathematics. I grew up in a mathematicians, family, social studies that was my major at Harvard, and then filmmaking, and she said, Look, you know, you’re the type of interdisciplinary person that we’re looking for the Media Lab. So I sort of fell into the Media Lab, I wasn’t really even applying. But I fell into the master’s program at the MIT Media Lab just down the road. And I remember coming over to Bob Gardner’s office and announcing very proudly that I’m doing this. And he said something like, oh, MIT, this horrible hallway, so doesn’t it just look like a hospital. So that was my sort of, kind of transition to the digital space. And at the Media Lab, they sort of educated us in this new way of thinking about media, where we were already kind of seeing where the technology was gonna go. So it was not really as much about the Web, which became a big thing in the late 90s. It was sort of more thinking about the new types of screens or large databases of content, and how can we tell better stories? How can we tell? How can we create more meaningful experiences by creating on demand interactive media platforms? So that became my specialty, and graduated in 97. With this determination that was going to transform the world of television, and I was going to kind of recreate the experience I had with MTV, but at another scale, so create inspiring television or media experiences that will be on demand that will uplift us that will be the opposite of what by then I’ve learned television was, which is basically the lowest common denominator. and I ended up basically spending the rest of my life working in television and digital media.


Will Bachman  05:12


So much to explore. First, I want to so curious, how did you end up being in Latvia, managing to apply to Harvard? So there’s no internet. It’s not like, you know, most US students, you go to the local school guidance office, and they have these books of, you know, top 1000 US colleges. How did you even get the application? No, no about Harvard know how to apply to Harvard. Tell us how that came together.

Natalia Tsarkova  05:44


So I graduated high school at 16. And, you know, almost immediately my parents were mathematicians. And to them the only safe career in the former Soviet Union was mathematics. So basically, I was immediately kind of catapulted in the university and started studying maths. But I knew that was not for me, like, I was good at it, but I wasn’t enjoying it. This was a university in Latvia. Exactly. And so I was going to all kinds of at the time, you know, there was we’re talking what it is that 88 Right. 87-88, there were already a lot of kind of international delegations coming, because it was post Perestroika. So there was some kind of bridges being built. And so one day to the university, where my parents taught and where I was studying, came this delegation. of American, I don’t even know what they were they, I mean, I have no idea which exactly the part was at Rotary, or whatever. I just remember this one guy, he had, like a Harvard Business School tie. And I marched over to him. And I said, Oh, I want to go to Harvard one day. And then, you know, I was kind of, you know, super curious about the West. And I was super curious about America. And by then I already was very active in like the environmental movement in Latvia. And in the independence movement in Latvia, as well, and kind of dreaming of traveling. That’s really what I wanted. And so this gentleman, Mike Rinella, was actually HBS graduate. And he was quite impressed. So he came back to the US. And he just sent my address to the admissions office, and out came, you know, the application form. And I guess he knew I was already at the university. So the application form was to transfer. So I remember sitting at home and reading it in our kitchen. And discovering that Harvard has this amazing admissions policy where it’s blind, it doesn’t look at your financial status, prior to deciding if you will be accepted. And of course, my parents were making rubles, you know, which were not even convertible, we used to have a joke, you know that a pound of dry rubles was $1. So you know, their salary would not even be converted. So I decided I’ll fill it out. And I remember going to the visa department of my dad’s University and saying, I’m filling out this application. If I get accepted, will I get a visa, because nobody in my family has ever been to the west. And the visa department head started laughing and saying, honey, this is just the blank application form, I can photocopy it and give it to everybody out on the street. This is not an invitation. If you get accepted, come back, and we’ll see. And so I filled it out and the faithful system, Harvard admissions system sent me another document, which was the to take the SAT, because, you know, I guess later I found out that foreign students don’t need to take the SAT. But because I was such a unique case, it just sent me generic papers. So there was no American Embassy in Latvia. I got on a train. I went to the American Embassy in Moscow. I knocked on the door. And I showed up with my SAT documents. I said, Do I need to take them? And there was a long pause, the council was like floored, then she called her husband, who was this professor. And he looked at this, he said, We never heard of anybody applying to an American college. Hmm. But you know, you’re lucky tomorrow, there’s this American student who lives in Moscow, who signed up to take an SAT, so you could take it tomorrow. And I said, Great, what’s SAT. And so the next day, I showed up, the American student never showed up. The professor paid my admission fee, because I didn’t have any dollars. And I did my tests. And because I you know, I grew up in a mathematicians family, I think I did pretty well, especially in math, and I did quite well on English, which is surprising, because, you know, I’ve never really been to an English speaking country. And then there, it went off into the, you know, somewhere, my, my results, and then I did not hear from the admissions office before I heard from the Harvard Crimson who called to interview me, because they heard about it first. And so I was like, okay, you know, let’s talk to them. And then yeah, and then we got the application. And I just remember, you know, literally falling on my knees. My mom called me. I was actually in an environmental camp in Hungary, I think, you know, and I got a phone call in this like camp. So you know, there were no mobile phones, right? Somebody said, your mother is calling for you. And I ran over and she said, You got admitted. And I remember falling on my knees literally. And just realizing that my entire life just changed. And that this was something that was beyond like anything I could have ever imagined. And then the next thing is, you know, I was on a plane. I mean, I was waving my parents off and going to the US. Yeah.


Will Bachman  10:16


Wow, what a story. I love it. I love you at the agency to just okay, I’ll just get on train to go to Moscow.


Natalia Tsarkova  10:27


Thanks. Yeah, I tell this to my daughter, she’s 14 now. And, you know, I think that those kind of experiences basically kind of gave me this belief that, you know, I really, like I’ve never seen anything American around me, like, I’ve learned about the West. And I develop my dreams by reading books, by watching movies. And by seeing the music clips, which basically, you know, imbued in me this love for media, which of course, we all know, media can be incredibly destructive and can be incredibly, actually the opposite. But I firmly believe that oftentimes, we live in a context where an inspiring piece of content and inspiring podcast and inspiring film can literally change our life, because I had experienced that. Okay, so let’s


Will Bachman  11:13


fast forward back up to 1997. So you’re graduating from MIT Media Lab, play on from there. So tell us about your journey from MIT. And



Natalia Tsarkova  11:23


so from there, you know, what they told you at the time was, well, congratulations, now you have the best education in the world. And it’s gonna take the world 20 years to catch up to what you know. So I was very eager to go to New York, I love New York, all my, all my seven years, you know, eight years in, in Cambridge, I would always use any opportunity to go to the city, you know, to New York City loved its energy. So I found that, I mean, I got a job with a startup out of the Media Lab, to just, you know, basically go to New York, and it was 36,000 a year, I think the salary was, and I roomed with Jenny Gibbs, also our classmate, you know, she’s an amazing actress, and a wonderful, wonderful person. So we roomed in this apartment on the Upper West Side, together, and then I worked for the startup in Soho for a little bit. But you know, I was just still, like, talking about agency. You know, I think I was, I was very, very driven to explore this world, I did not know because to be honest, I lived in the ivory tower all my life. You know, I grew up with mathematician professors that as a really good sort of studious girl, then Harvard studied a lot, I did few extracurriculars. Actually, I was really focused on studies. MIT worked hard. And so arriving in New York, it was like this incredible experience of life, you know, of actually going out and partying and meeting people of all walks of life, you know, no longer just, you know, I read our brilliant people, you know, but also, everybody from, you know, Russian girls Fresh Off the Boat who came in  to model to, to crazy writers to filmmakers to at the time, of course, we’re talking about, you know, 1999, that was the boom of the Silicon Alley. So a lot of entrepreneurs who were starting their own companies, you know, many of them went bust in 2001. But then it was still this incredible buzz in New York City. So I partied a lot to be honest, you know, I, I almost immediately got a small investment to start my own business. And so I started going around the New York City and making videos to build this on demand, interactive experience. And then got some cool gigs, you know, I worked with, with Intel, my thesis at the Media Lab was kind of this cool interactive collage. And it went to a bunch of film festivals. And it was also shown to a number of big groups like Intel, or, you know, JC Penney or Nike. And so I started getting really cool gigs, you know, and I knew nothing about business. I still know very little about business, to be honest. And so I was kind of struggling but I was staying afloat being a consultant. And the projects were really fascinating. For example, I was hired by the Beatles estate by Neil Aspinall who was the manager of Apple Corps, which is the Beatles estate in London to do the first Beatles digital experience, you know, they launched it was called Number Ones, I think it was in 2000. It was a disc and they wanted to for the first time because they were really avoiding the web at the time. They wanted to do like a digital experience  like videos promos, something online, it was gonna be called Number Ones. And they saw my work and they said, Look, we want you to be the one doing this. And so I was hired as the first of several artists they hired to do these interactive video experiences. And so I went to London and I, I had this incredible luxury of basically diving deep into the Beatles archives and hearing the stuff that’s never been heard and seen the videos haven’t been seen and putting together these collages. Unfortunately, none of it remains because I was also very bad at keeping it you know, but they were quite happy with the results. And so it became one of the first digital Beatles sort of performances or experiences. And then, you know, similar things I worked with IMG, IMG, fashion, IMG, sports. And so my gig, it was kind of cool. You know, I was this sort of this girl who was showing up in these big companies, being hired to tell the CEOs and the management, what the digital transformation is going to do to them the digital media transformation, how could they take their properties, whether it’s Barry Diller with his, you know, Sci Fi Channel and Expedia and home shopping network, or IMG with their  sports and fashion properties? How could we imagine the new type of media experience that is digital, that’s on demand? And so I was having a blast but was also struggling, you know, sometimes, you know, I had money, sometimes I didn’t, I certainly did not know what I was doing business wise. But I had the most incredible luxury of having these consulting experiences. And in 2001, sort of interviewing for one of those potential projects. In San Francisco, I met my husband to be who was a French television music television producer, how ironic, right? Like me, who was inspired by MTV. And so while I was mostly digital girl, fascinated with media, he was a media guy. Exploring experience experimenting with technology, he had this technology company that he set up between San Francisco and Paris. And we met because he was looking for a digital media expert. And it was sort of love at first sight, I would say it was very strange, because almost immediately, you know, we started dating, and then you know, I left that summer. That was the summer of 2001, I left to join him in Paris. I still had my apartment in New York. So you know, he, for example, was using it. He left New York, September 10 2001. To go back to Paris, you know, and then together, we watched the horrifying 911. You know, on TV from Paris, but so it was very strange, because I was still in New Yorker at heart. At the time, I was very much a New Yorker, but I was really sort of living with my husband, who was this media meia person. And my advice to him was to say, look, you’re a media producer, why are you focusing on technology? Media, and storytelling is so much more interesting. And so together in 2003, we set up the first European video on demand platform, it was not like Netflix, in a sense that it was not a brand, it was called Transmedia. And it was designed to provide content to telecoms, if you remember, in 2003 2004, telcos and cable operators, were actively looking to provide on demand content. And because my husband was this big television producer in Europe, he had, he knew how television business worked. And he knew very well that most producers who had high quality content, whether it’s television channels, or film studios, they only commercialized their television and DVD rights at the time. And so and even I think maybe video tape rights, I don’t remember that still existed. But there was this MIT, they called me digital diva, walking into France Television and all these different television channels and explaining to them that linear television was dead, and that the future was video on demand. And so I did my schpiel. And I would tell them video on demand is the future. And they would say, Well, do you mean we could sell those rights as well, we have these big catalogs of content. And so what we did is between 2003 and 2006, we build a very interesting business on basically packaging content from say, France television, and selling it to a telco in Belgium, or in Switzerland or in even in France. And that could have stayed a very interesting business. But having been this, having had this media like training, I kind of knew already that the model Netflix was pursuing the model where you brand your video on demand experience was the right approach, because we didn’t want to be an intermediary, we wanted to create these new channels, that would be on demand that would not be linear. And so because my husband came from the music space, we happen to have a lot of live musical content in our


Natalia Tsarkova  19:18


in our library. And we came up with this idea of launching a video on demand platform called I concerts, kind of like iTunes, Apple had iTunes, we would launch our channel based on this very, very large library of live music content. And then things kind of evolved, you know, as they do in startups. That was my first and very long real startup experience. You know, you start from nothing, you go to these TV conventions, and you’re nobody and you know, and then suddenly slowly you start building this reputation because you have something unique. And we were really strong binome because he was such an experienced television rights person and also a great business person knowing how to build a business from scratch. And I was more of a creative, really having the strong vision for this inspiring live music experience. And what happened next was a telco in France called Free telecom. were also launching high definition TV channels. And there were not enough. There were not many high definition television channels, broadcasting in high definition. And our library, the content library was mostly high definition. Because, you know, music, television producers always film  in the latest technology. And so they said, Well, could you also give us maybe a TV channel? And so we built this linear playlist, because that’s what TV really is. It’s a linear playlists, and iConcerts became this hybrid, high definition TV slash Video on Demand channel. And then I would say, between 2007 and 2010, it was licensed by operators in 128 countries in the world, Yeah, so it was basically, you know, not in North America, because rights are somewhat different in North America, but in Europe, and Asia. So we were, I was really fortunate, you know, because I was, you know, still in my 30s. And traveling, as a president of this live music, TV channel, you know, going to everywhere, from Hong Kong to Singapore, to Beijing, we had a collaboration with CCTV, we had an office in Singapore, we worked a lot in Tokyo, we had beautiful partnership with Youssou N’Dour, you know, wonderful Senegalese musician in Africa. So this was such an incredible experience of really sort of implementing this super, you know, like, an idea that’s core to me, you know, creating an inspiring experience on screen with this platform, and the tagline was “ Believe Be Live “ and it was, you know, I was really hoping it was going to be this great inspiring space. But you know, then there’s the reality of the business. And by 2011,  2012, it became somewhat complicated, because the television part was was earning more, but it was also costing a lot more, you had satellites you had rights, and I personally felt like, it was wrong to continue creating a TV channel because it was very hard to acquire rights like that. And some of the investors we had came from the old school, from TV, and they did not believe my vision that linear TV was somewhat dead. And that we had to focus on VOD. And so there was a bit of a rift. And then basically, the platform was sold wholesale to a Canadian group that transformed it into a VOD platform in the end, you know, so it was a great experience. But by 2014, when it was sold, you know, I was already a little bit disillusioned. I felt that, you know, I, I started out with this great vision, and then also had my baby in 2010, you know, had Anastasia in 2010. So, so I still think somewhat differently, you know, life is short, you want to make something that truly inspires you. And by 2012, it was more of a business than it was a difficult business, you know, media and television business is a difficult business. So, so I was happy when it was sold. I am sort of going chronologically, tell me if I’m talking too much.


Will Bachman  23:13


But keep going. This is great.


Natalia Tsarkova  23:15


Yeah. And then it was sold. And by then what happened as I was doing, you know, 2012, I started filming again, because, you know, I’m always filmed, you know. And when I was at Harvard, I was working very closely with Bob Gardner. And then at the Media Lab, I had this incredible opportunity to become a student of Richard Leacock, who was actually the teacher of Rob Moss and, you know, most of the documentary filmmakers, actually the ones who taught us at Harvard, etc. So Ricky, was this pioneer of documentary filmmaking. He was living in Paris by then. But he met me at the Media Lab and kind of adopted me in a sense that I’ve learned from him. And he was a Harvard graduate. You know, he roomed with Bernstein when he was at Harvard, and he made a beautiful film about Stravinsky. So this is to say that I always had a camera in my hands. And in New York, I was very close to Albert Maysles. So when I was at iConcerts, I was like, Okay, I’m done being a television executive, you know, I’m actually creative. So I tried to have my hand at everything that was kind of producing content. We didn’t have a budget to do original shows. So at some point, in the summers, we would rent a house in the south of France and my husband through his, you know, contacts, knew the Gypsy Kings. So some of them or the family would come over to the house and they would play guitar and I would run around with my camera and film them. You know, remember Gypsy Kings were big for us in the 90s. Right. So, so I was super excited to meet them and to film them. And so I because we had a music channel, they said, Well, why don’t you film something about us for your  music channel, and I did this one shoot. And it was during a dinner one of the MIPTV dinners. I showed it to a head of a big arts channel in Europe called ARTE and he said, you know if you are ever tired being a startup or entrepreneur person. If you want to direct it, you should just apply and maybe like this is an interesting subject. And we have nothing on this subject. So I can’t guarantee you, I don’t make those decisions. But why don’t you apply. And so around the time that iConcerts was being sold, I sent on this application in my style, I sent this random application to ARTE, which is really like probably the ultimate arts channel in Europe, with this proposal to make a film about the Gypsy Kings and their family and their story, and it got accepted. So when the channel was sold, I had this great chance to basically take a sabbatical and make a movie. And that was amazing, because, you know, it was a small budget. So I shot one of the two cameras. I had an amazing DP. So we work together, but I really just have the main basically, I, on the film, I cut it myself here, like at home for like three months, and did the post production,  sent it to Arte, and they loved it. And it did really well. It did like triple primetime ratings on, you know, on this amazing channel, and the Gypsy Kings loved it, they said, how could a “payou”,  a non gypsy see us how we see ourselves? So it was a very deep and, and amazing experience. And it was completely different from running a TV channel, you know, doing a small documentary, running around with a camera cutting it yourself, really, really powerful. And it got me thinking about what I was going to do next. And, and I realized that creating original content storytelling, and also, this, this idea of tribes, you know, the Gypsy tribe, the way they function that really inspired me, so then I moved on to doing this project called Tribo, which you might know, because we used it for the last reunion. And it’s kind of designed to be a storytelling platform for groups, you know, like a private storytelling platform, we can share our stories. So I created that, you know, and I, and I did it in somewhat difficult context. And, you know, that was kind of another element of my story, which is basically in 2016, when the film was broadcast, we went over Easter to the mountains here, our daughter had just turned six. And my husband, he was, you know, an ultimate consummate entrepreneur. So he was already discussing the next projects we could do. And he was encouraging me to do this, the Tribo project, and maybe make more films. And then he had this massive heart attack and passed away, like overnight, like, over basically, we had an Easter lunch. And then he went up to the mountains, and two hours later, he was gone. So it was this really incredible sort of life twist, you know, where I found myself with a six year old, you know, daughter, the channel sold, the movie broadcasts, so completely clean slate. In a country, that is not really my country, Switzerland, you know, he grew up here, I didn’t. in a country house, and I’m a complete city girl, like I love New York, I love Hong Kong, I absolutely adore you know, I didn’t even drive at the time, you know, instead, I found myself in the situation. And that was an incredible challenge. You know, and I see now we’re coming to eight years since then. And, you know, I’m looking at that period in my life, as a kind of University of sorts as well, you know, of figuring out how to function on your own, how to rebuild your life, how to stay true to what you want to be doing, because, you know, at the time, everybody said, Well, you should just get a job, you know, now that you no longer have this business partner, and certainly not going to go into another project. You were, I mean, you’re an entrepreneur, but you are creative. And your husband was the business mind. So how are you going to do this, and yet, I launched myself into, into basically another startup, and I built this platform called Tribo and then slowly from Tribo, it has evolved into something else. And now it’s becoming more about, I would say, storytelling at large digital storytelling, dynamic storytelling, that’s what I’m working on right now. Because I’m more and more convinced that we don’t need more technology, we don’t need more platforms. But what we need is better ways, and more meaningful ways to tell our stories on the digital platforms. So and I think that that sort of life changing experience, you know, of losing my husband and, and knowing that still life is a joy, life is beautiful, and, and really finding a lot of faith and joy in that experience, you know, and, and light in that experience has really helped me understand that what I truly care about is communicating meaningful emotions and uplifting and inspiring others. It’s not necessarily about creating a startup that’s going to be sold for billions, you know, which was perhaps at some point, some of my motivation, because so many of my MIT friends went on to do those kinds of things. But, you know, this kind of past few years really made me realize that there are things I truly care about and when you do something you care about the universe aligns things so that you can do it, you know, and so, yeah, that’s  kind of my story up to now. It’s the work in progress.


Will Bachman  30:02


So sorry to hear about your husband, thank you. Tell us more about Tribo. Who are the users and what tell us about the product for those of us who didn’t download it at the last reunion. So


Natalia Tsarkova  30:20


Tribo originally was designed as an extension of live music festivals. So I took what I’ve learned from IMG when I was working with them, I took what I saw at iConcerts, and I thought, isn’t it a shame that when you have a festival or an event, that you have to communicate with your audience on open social platforms, which means that as an owner of the event organization, you’re giving them your data. And you’re basically kind of giving your own audience to an open platform that will use it in the ways that we all now know is not always the best. And there’s certain exploitative, so that was the original impulse. But then it’s been six years of doing this, we did a lot of testing a lot of kind of pivoting, because it’s still a startup, and it’s still a business. And what we found was that, during COVID, especially where the really strong application of this platform was, was, was private communities, or communities that have a kind of invitation-only reason to be together. And I’m not talking about building communities, there are lots of platforms that are designed to build digital communities. Tribo is designed more as a media platform, a storytelling platform for a community that exists. So we have a number of companies using it and telling their internal stories. And it usually complements, you know, Teams or Yammer, because, you know, those platforms are productivity focused, and they’re very efficient. But they’re also quite noisy, and they’re ephemeral. You know, we strive and my goal is. our goal is to create something where you tell stories that will matter over time. So it’s a kind of exercise in collective storytelling where, for example, an organization can really capture its DNA by recording portraits of different people who are part of it, by allowing everybody during an event to post photos and videos, by giving CEO a space to motivate everybody, so at a regular time to send out a personal video saying, Hey, guys, this has been tough, and this is really positive, and this person is amazing. So this is one use of it. Now, it’s not the only one. And as a small startup, once again, we have been very careful about not making all the bets on corporate use, because what we have discovered is while it sounds like a great idea, most companies don’t get much engagement from their employees, because people are busy working, because people are reluctant to share. So it can become a kind of newsletter type experience, where it’s a top down, what we saw was that our reunion and some alumni experiences is very different. What we saw is that if we can give a group of people who really are equals and have a reason to share a platform like this, and if you have a few real leaders like yourself, you know, who is actually stepping out there and interviewing people and curating the conversations, or Gabrielle our wonderful reunion leader, you know, if you have people like that, and they really draw out the stories, or if we have the right kind of strategy on how to collect the stories of everyone, this type of platform becomes interesting, because over time, it captures the heritage, it captures the now, the stories of the people who constitute the community now, and then the legacy. So this is our main focus today. So we’re talking to alumni, we’re also looking at some sustainability applications of the same technology. So for example, I can’t mention the name. But we’ve talked to big multinational that’s very focused on a kind of Farm to Table focus. And we’re working on this concept where, how could we gather the stories of the farmers or producers, and then really make them available to the end consumer in this very dynamic way? So So I would say that I went from Tribo  being a technology to this idea of working with organizations on an idea of dynamic storytelling saying, Yes, we have a technology that will support, collecting the stories, sharing stories, and diffusing them. But before you even look at the technology, we need to look at how you tell your stories, how do you gather them, who is your world back, when who will go and interview people, what are the stories that will matter and stay over time. And you know, surprisingly, well, not many companies are actually thinking in that way. It’s quite new to them, you know, they might invest quite a bit of money in events or off sites, or one off kind of communication. But then when it comes down to internal storytelling, or even external storytelling, but by like, taking content from this collective DNA that an organization represents. It’s a very novel field. And so I have a lot of hope for it and, and more so even for, for the approach itself and for Tribo, which I think is going to be an amazing support in the long run for any private community that wants to tell its story. But we really need to Create that habit of storytelling first, you know, because today what I’m seeing, we’re sort of, you know, we’ve been educated by social platforms. And so we expect ephemeral content, we expect a kind of selfie culture, many people are feeling awkward about sharing, the others couldn’t be too loud, you know. So social platforms are a very different beast, I think that social sharing, being able to collect content, using all these great new tools we have now, which is, you know, amazing camera phones, I mean, phone cameras, the ability to record the podcast like this, you know, those tools are incredible, but we cannot reduce them to open social platforms, you know, it’s also we can also do that in a more meaningful, more curated in a more long term way, in our own private communities, and then we could share some of the content outside. But in a private community in our tribe, we could have access to a lot more, and somebody who just joined the tribe, could then experience the content in a more personalized, dynamic way. So this is my vision for Tribo. And this is my vision, also, for the kind of this is what I’m preaching, when I go into organizations and companies think about your DNA, think about your origin, your heritage, and think about your legacy. What are the stories that you’re telling? And how do you capture those stories? How do you preserve them? And how do you communicate them to your audience, whether an internal or external one, and then yes, we have a platform for that, to collect the stories and distribute, but for example, for our class, my big dream, and we have been speaking to the Harvard Alumni Association, as well, in general about the dynamic storytelling as an, as an approach and about Tribo as a potential support for the reunions. And beyond, you know, I think it would be just incredible to have what you have done, these incredible portraits that you’ve collected, and also this ability for us to share in a vulnerable way on a platform that maybe is not as open as Facebook, and to find each other to message each other to, to know about the next event. And this is kind of my vision for where this type of a platform can bring a lot of value. But before that, what you were doing brings a lot more value, what you were doing collecting these stories, is I think the essence of making these type of platforms different from the open social networks.


Will Bachman  37:25


I also wanted to loop back to your husband, and could you just that was such a sudden event and someone who is not only your, you know, your your romantic partner, but also your you know, your your collaborator, could you talk to us a bit about just how you kind of processed that loss, and you know, how you helped your daughter deal with it. You know, just as kind of advice for those of us who, who may lose someone close to us, what was that process like for you?


Natalia Tsarkova  38:01


Absolutely, you know, the next day, and my daughter was actually with him, when that happened, they were in the in the ski cabin going up. And you know, she literally, like I said, just turned six. So, the next day, in the morning, she woke up, I was sitting on the windowsill in this mountain apartment. And she said Mommy Don’t cry, daddy doesn’t want us to cry, he wants us to live. And, you know, that was such a, you know, how kids sometimes they channel something, and it was such a powerful line. And, you know, my husband was quite a bit older than us, you know, so. So he had an incredible experience, also a lot of very fascinating spiritual experiences, you know, and so he always talked about not being a victim, that in life, we are agents, we’re not victims and, and death doesn’t exist, and that life is a joy. And so I’ve gone back to all of those boxes, they were not always obvious. But I must say that, you know, I went through this kind of like a parallel process of grieving, like my body was definitely grieving for about two years, people would see me and they would say what happened, they wouldn’t knew instantly. But my mind knew that the best way to honor his legacy and what he had taught me and also, the work we’ve done together, was to go on. And I think part of the reason I created Tribo was that at at lunch, we had just been working, passing away. He said, Look, I know you loved  making this documentary for ARTE, but I know you, you want to build your own ARTE, your vision is to build a large platform that’s going to impact millions of people. It’s not just to make documentaries. And so in many ways, I think I was almost like, how blindfolded just went in, you know, in around 2017 I started raising the money and like I said, you know, the money appeared when you’re clear about what you want to do. So definitely building the business was ws a great way to, to go forward, you know, to go forward, becoming somebody defining myself finding a way to grow, you know, and finding, somehow, I think many friends have given me a very strong and good advice that which at the time sometimes felt almost like, awkward, when they said, look, we’ve observed you and your husband, you know, and because he was older, and he was more well known, you know, sometimes it seemed that you were backstage, we know that you were the soul, we, we know that you were the brain of this and that. And, you know, and that felt sort of encouraging me saying, the next thing you’ll do is going to work, and then you will learn the things you did not know how to do. So that was kind of, it wasn’t an escape, you know, it was really kind of way to honor him to honor his legacy, and then really believing that life, you know, life is for the better. So telling myself, okay, he went, you know, he lived an amazing life, he went on a beautiful day, holding his daughter’s hand. You know, having built companies having traveled the world, still young, still positive, you know, and it’s certainly better than being paralyzed or suffering, you know, and so, you know, that’s how I felt, I felt like, Okay, we will all die Death is in many ways a celebration and a passing on. But there was a huge amount of faith. And then I found some consolation. Also, in art, I was exposed to some amazing artists at the time and, and some abstract art that made me kind of feel like I could connect to the place where he went to, and through these beautiful works of art and see it and, and really never, never feel like a victim never feel like it has happened to me, which is why I speak about it openly, you know, when I would give a keynote, and I would speak sometimes in a women’s organization, and, and some lovely woman would come after and say, you know, I’m a widow, I just lost my husband. And thank you for, for telling me this, you know, that it is possible to live, to move on and live and be happy and, and actually find your new self and find your new iteration. And, you know, we still light up candles for him, you know, like I said, it will be eight years on, I mean, tomorrow. So you know, my daughter, and I will always remember, and she is she’s very connected. And at the same time, she’s okay, she doesn’t mourn or suffer, you know, she was only six. And so she has taken the strong parts of him. And the beautiful stories and the fun stories of this great rock and roll, you know, entrepreneur, and she’s proud of it, she has a lot of traits of his that still are there, even though she did not grow up with him. But we’ve lived in joy, since you know, as soon as we could, because he’s big mantra was life is a joy. And we really, you know, we I really believe that’s, that’s the way to, to, if we can, that’s the way to, to deal with trauma and, and loss.


Will Bachman  42:54


So to wise and beautiful thing for your daughter to say. Tell, tell me about when to go back to Harvard, any courses or professors, or activities that you were involved in, that continue to resonate? You mentioned one professor or a couple. Were there any others that that you had that, you know, still affect your life in some way?


Natalia Tsarkova  43:18


I would say the the VES department that was my home, you know, I watched like two movies a day. Do you remember Vlada Petrich, you know, he was so funny. He was like one of the most hilarious characters. There were so many professors in that department. And also Susan Boym, who unfortunately passed away, who remained a good friend for years after, she was the only sort of a, you know, she was an expert on Soviet art and modern art. And Liah Greenfield, who was my thesis advisor, she moved on to BY afterwards, but I, I was fortunate enough to work closely with her, you know, she was also an emigree from St. Petersburg, via Israel, you know, she, she was brilliant student of Bloom, and, you know, she studied at Chicago, and she was one of those professors in Social Studies, who was definitively Weberian, you know, and so, that really impacted me this kind of split between Marx and Weber, of course, coming from a communist country, I was very skeptical of a very Marxist kind of lean of many professors, you know, and so, My thing was all about, you know, once again, how culture impacts society before economy, which of course now I, you know, most things are true, you know, so Liah, hired me to help her with her book on Nationalism, that I was actually helping her write as I was writing my social studies thesis. Roger Fisher and Getting to Yes, I mean, I couldn’t work off campus, and I couldn’t even get work in a bar, which I would have liked to. So I had to look for jobs on campus. So my first jobs were, I remember just arriving at Harvard. I still Russian research center. So I just walked in and I told the assistant, Hi, I’m so and so and she said, wait right here. and out comes this man who I don’t know, he says, Hey, I read about you, that was Marshall Goldman, who was like a big Soviet studies professor and the head of the Russian research center. So he took me out to lunch and hired me immediately. So, you know, Roger Fisher is somewhat similar I was I was working at the Negotiation Project, translating for Russian dignitaries coming in and trying to learn how to negotiate and trying to teach them at 19, that their idea of negotiation was wrong, because they really weren’t very good at negotiation. You know, so all of those experiences, I would say, but I had to work, you know, I was, I was on a full scholarship, but I, you know, still I needed cash to buy books and clothes. And so I worked about 20 hours a week. So a lot of my life at Harvard was study hard, work hard. And then towards the end, see a lot of movies. And Bob Gardner really remained to me someone who I would go and see for years after, and it was this kind of a friendship, you know, when I made my film, I swear to you, can I tell a weird story? You know, I was, okay, let’s like really private for our class, but since it’s for our class, you know, so I was, still was kind of like the Gypsy. So there were some blocks, you know, like, it wasn’t happening, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna be able to make it or not, you know, it was my first time film, very challenging to make it for a big television channel. And it was like, June end of June, I think. 2014 It would be I think, and we tried to do some shoots, it wasn’t working. And I was in a pool in our house with my daughter there. And I see this beautiful falcon sit down on the border of the pool. And look me in the eye, and then walk along the pool, and then open it’s amazing feathers, which were bright fuchsia underneath and fly over my head. And I’m standing there in the middle of the pool stand. And then I ran to my husband who had worked with Shamans in Arizona, I mean, I was not into any of that, you know, like, for me, all of that stuff was kind of loco. And I tell him, I just saw this thing. And it feels like an omen, I don’t understand what this was. And I found out that that night, Bob Gardner had passed away. And he was very well known for his film called Dead Birds. And also the Forest of Bliss. And my film took off, I swear to you, like my film took off, like, within a few months, I was making it, I lost all of the blocks I had internally, that were preventing me from making it happen. Because oftentimes in creative projects, we are creating blocks, you know, and I just went for it, I was not no longer trying to make the best film in the world. I was just making it. And it was made, you know, so I remember that forever. I mean, I I really, really cared about, about so many professors who have, you know, really, really connected to them, I feel like at Harvard, but that particular story I told my daughter about, you know. I took her to see his retrospective at Georges Pompidou museum when she was very little, she couldn’t understand anything, but I did that. And I’m really, really grateful. I mean, there are people who change your life, you know, by believing in you by, by trusting you by giving you that sense of, you know, you can do it, you can make it and for me, definitely here and then a few other professors, I still keep some of my papers, there was a teaching assistant director at the American Repertory Theater, who was a teaching assistant at the Marjorie Garber Shakespeare course, who left the most amazing, insightful notes on my papers, and I still have them here. Like I show them to my daughter sometimes because they really, I mean, to me, I mean, what you need mattered so much even to be at Harvard. You know, imagine that, you know, girl from Latvia, never planned on this never counted on this. So I certainly took every single moment I could to learn and to connect to classmates, but also to professor’s


Will Bachman  48:57


Natalia, I could keep asking you questions, but I know our time is up. Where can people find you and your app online? So


Natalia Tsarkova  49:05


the app is Tribo. live. And, you know, my email, they can, you know, I mean, basically, our class of actually still exists, so they can actually DM me. I’ll give you my email. It’s no problem. It’s So if anybody wants to join the app, and be invited to our class tribo ,  they’re welcome to and so because I’m still hoping that we could use it to share stories is completely private, completely secure. And it’s a good place to record videos, stories, share, you know, even polls and quizzes, you know, so that’s one and then if anybody wants to see my movie, I’m more than happy. I’ll send you a screening link to watch the film The Gypsy Kings film because the music is really beautiful and it and I, I thought that will be fun to share it with the class. Wonderful.


Will Bachman  49:58


Natalia. Thank you so much what an incredible journey you’ve had and I look forward to staying in touch and hearing what your what you do next with Tribo Thank you so


Natalia Tsarkova  50:07


much well it was really a pleasure and hello to everyone I absolutely love our class I think it’s an amazing class