She enters the room like a superstar – her back straight, a friendly smile on her face. Babba Canales has that genuine It factor. It could be the fact that she is as tall and slender as a supermodel, or that her long black hair is insanely shiny, but it's more than that. In her case, it's a combination of self-confidence and likeability. We meet in New York, where Babba lives with her husband Carl Rivera, co-founder and CEO of online marketplace Tictail. However, her story starts far from Manhattan in the small town of Kristianstad, Sweden, where Babba – short for Barbara – grew up as second-generation immigrant with excellent school grades and a passion for fashion. "My family is from Chile," she says. "My mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad had various jobs during my upbringing. He’s really an amazing artist, and had he lived in Stockholm or NYC I'm sure he would have been successful but Kristianstad is too small and unfortunately the language barrier was a problem for him when he came to Sweden." Babba says there was no shortage of love when she was growing up but her friends had more money than she did and it was hard to keep up with their traveling and nice clothes. Then, around the age of 14, she realized she could work and make her own money. In no time she had three extra jobs, in addition to her schoolwork, and was able to go on trips with her friends and buy the clothes she liked. "I was so amazed by the fact that I could work, which I absolutely loved, and by doing so have the freedom to do the things I wanted to do. Working was never boring to me. I loved it. I worked at a café so I learned all about different teas and how to bake. I was so open to new things and to learning everything about everything." She finished school with top grades and the promising but sometimes pressuring fact that she could do everything she wanted in terms of education. "I had this idea that I had to go to university and have a degree. At the same time I visited tons of schools and felt that university seemed so isolated from real life and the business sector. So, after a lot of inner conflicts about not going to university, I took two years at a school for sales and marketing." That decision proved to be a smart move as it took Babba to Berlin, and a trainee period at the hip optical brand Mykita. She was passionate about glasses and even wrote a blog on the subject, so Mykita was the perfect place to nurture her digital ambitions. The story about how she got a trainee position at Mykita should be included in every career textbook: "I knew one of the Mykita managers used to comment on my blog, so I wrote to him pretending not to know that he knew about my blog. He told me to come to Berlin to do an interview for the position and I was super-happy."
Unfortunately, the interview was a disaster; Babba was unused to speaking English and was so nervous that she left the meeting drowned in sweat and disappointment. "I knew the interview went really badly so I decided on Plan B. I wrote to the manager suggesting three very straight-forward assignments that I could take on if I got the job. I think that was my win. I separated myself from the other applicants by telling them exactly what I would do with my time." She got the job and spent a year in Berlin working with the company’s digital profile, before returning to Sweden to set up her own digital agency in Stockholm. Later she was hand-picked for the Swedish launch of Uber. "I think my strength was that I was so naive; I thought everything was possible and had no limits. I had a meeting with everyone who was anyone, told everyone to download the app when I had speaking engagements, and saw opportunities everywhere." It worked. Uber Stockholm quickly became the company's fastest growing market and was made an example for other countries. "After a few years I felt I hit the glass ceiling in Stockholm, and asked to be moved to NYC. I then worked with Uber's fashion partnerships in NYC and moved here in 2014." She subsequently left Uber to work with a start-up suitcase company, Away, before launching her own agency, By Babba. For the first time in her career, Babba is her own boss and the idea to bring all her previous experience into one agency that carries her name has proved successful. She guides fashion and tech companies in building their brands in the innovative digital world that Babba knows so well. “My time at Away was an express course in starting my own business, and this is the right time for this as more and more companies want to be part of the New York market.” Since our meeting barely a week has passed without Babba's face popping up everywhere: as a poster girl for Lindex, in Vogue, on every fashion editor's Instagram account, and so on. So remember her name. It's a pretty safe bet is that, in the future, young entrepreneurs will ask themselves 'What would Babba do?'
Text: Sofie Zettergren Photo: Anna Schori