Mila Kulebakina originally hails from Kyrgyzstan, in the former Soviet Union, but she named her cleaning company Neva Home Cleaning after the beautiful river in St. Petersburg, Russia. She lived in St. Petersburg for four years but then moved to the U.S. The name “Neva” is Finnish for “new,” and she made a completely new beginning in New York.
Landing in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn, Mila found herself working very long hours for very little pay in a huge food store in the Russian-speaking area of town, selling cheese, sausage, and fish for 12 hours a day at $7.50 an hour. She found herself surrounded by people who were all speaking Russian and wondered why she’d moved all this way to be isolated in a Russian community. After six months, she courageously broke out and cut her ties to all Russian friends, moving to another area of town. She began taking on freelance cleaning jobs while she worked to improve her English-speaking skills.
Adjusting to life in New York has been challenging, although her language skills are excellent. “I like New York, but sometimes I don’t like the apartment I live in. It’s a pretty small studio and I used to live in a two-story house.”
Mila founded Neva Home Cleaning early in 2015 once her freelance schedule got out of control. “I shared my customers when I was overbooked. If I couldn’t take a customer, I gave it to my friend,” she said. Realizing that the demand was there, she took the plunge and started her own business. She had previously worked as a finance analyst and taught university classes in finance back home, and she soon put her business skills to work for Neva.
None of these jobs were anything she dreamed of having when she was growing up. “When I was a little girl I wanted to be a hair cutter, a barber. This was a much more realistic dream than being a banker or running your own business,” Mila said.
She now manages the business and leaves the majority of the cleaning to her crew, which flexes up to 12 people during the busy season. Mila insists on calling her staff “colleagues” to show them that they deserve as much respect as the owner of the company. She recruits cleaning talent through the “Russian Facebook” and through word of mouth referrals from her staff.
Although she’s mostly hands off, she carefully trains her staff on how to clean. “Sometimes they visit a house and see a big mess and panic about how they’re going to get it all done within a limited time. If you don’t have instructions, you panic.” Mila makes sure the team knows exactly how to handle the jobs they take on.
“I work with some people who don’t speak English at all. I try to support them and help them and encourage them to learn ten words a day,” she said. A few weeks ago a customer called her with an emergency last-minute clean and she had no choice but to send a woman who didn’t speak English. “The cleaner called me and said ‘They don’t understand Russian, can you imagine that?’ and I laughed and told her to wake up, that this is New York (not Russia).” Despite the language barrier on that occasion, the client was very happy for the last-minute service.
Mila finds herself glued to her phone at all hours, answering calls. “Sometimes I get calls at 11pm or midnight and I try to answer because New York never sleeps. I am on the phone all the time.”
One of her goals this year is to get administrative help so she can branch out a bit. “I want to have a video channel about cleaning to teach people how to clean,” she said.
Besides rollerblading and slaloming around parks in New York, she relaxes with yoga. Mila also is an avid learner and gobbles up information from other cleaning business owners. She found our article about Elizabeth Buchanan’s Maid to Shine particularly helpful. “I like to read your articles about best practices for cleaning companies. This is the best way newbies can learn how to do the business. I loved the story about Elizabeth’s idea to start her own line of cleaning products. I’m thinking about doing this and am not sure how to start.”
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