Born into a French-Italian family in Budapest, Hungary, Linda Picard was left to her own devices at the tender age of 16 when both of her parents walked out of her life. “It was a volatile marriage, a romantic drama. They had wed and divorced twice, and there was a lot of blame. When my father moved with his new family to the countryside, my mother left without me as I reminded her too much of what had passed between them.”
Staying in the family home alone with some money her father left her, Picard survived by teaching English and drawing to school children until she finished high school. It wasn’t easy, especially as she was unknowingly suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes infertility, compromises energy levels, and generally slows down metabolism. On turning 18, a time when most of us are dreaming of college, she was able to sell the apartment and invest in a small studio where she lived while she worked as a media planner at MindShare, the global media agency. From there she did a brief stint as a researcher manager for a music TV channel until McCann Erikson hired her.
Twenty years of age at the time, the independent Picard knew she needed to secure a degree if she was going to make a go of it so she enrolled in Kodolányi János University of Applied Sciences to study economics while she mastered marketing by day at McCann. “It’s all a blur. I don’t think I really slept for five years. I went to work at 9am, worked 12 hours and then hit the books until about 3am every morning. Somehow, I did it but it’s not an experience I would like to repeat.”
While still in university, the perfectly English-accented Picard headed to InterCom Ltd where she managed overall marketing communication for Fox, Sony, Warner and Disney titles in Hungary. After three years in film distribution, she moved to London as a freelance producer in the entertainment industry organizing music and film events. Discovery Networks recruited her as an on-air marketing planner. “It was a brilliant opportunity for me, but I just got a bit depressed with the weather and the mentality.”
An invitation to an international film festival in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), became a turning point for her. Picard was surprised at how at home she felt. “It’s a beautiful here. People are very friendly and it’s all so new.” That newness wound up speaking to Picard in ways beyond the shiny modern high rises of Dubai. “I got the feeling I could start over and do something completely different and interesting.” On her return to the UK, she sent her CV to a local film distributor, Empire International, which represents the biggest Hollywood studios in the region. After a second visit to Dubai for an interview, Picard joined the family-owned business as their marketing manager for the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Syria, and Ethiopia. “In the beginning it was a bit tough. Upper and mid-management were very welcoming, but there were a lot of challenges for me especially being a woman. I disrupted the equilibrium somewhat. While women are respected in the region, they are not taken that seriously although things are rapidly changing for the better in the UAE today.”
After three years and a few marketing awards, she felt it was time to move on: “Dubai is such an exciting place to be. Everything is developing, growing out of the desert. But at the same time, because so much is new, the employment legislation and contract law is evolving. So career moves always come with potential risk but nevertheless, I decided it was time to jump to a new opportunity. Unfortunately I jumped into a big hole.”
Picard signed on with a licensing agency that had a contract with some major studios. At the time, licensing was not well established in countries like the UAE and the dynamic Picard felt she could make her mark in the up-and-coming field. By three months, she realized something was seriously wrong. Despite having closed a $100K deal with a large local company, she failed to receive any commission and her salary was not forthcoming. With her employer holding her passport, which he needed to apply for her work visa, Picard had had no alternative but to wait the situation out. It turned out the agency was not processing her visa but rather holding her passport as collateral. “It’s hard to say why I waited so long before acting when it felt fishy from day one. I guess I thought I was just being paranoid. After all, the visa process can take up to two months so I just hoped it would all be fine.”
With no other recourse, Picard reported her employer to the Ministry of Labor. Although the authorities were helpful, there was a language barrier and misunderstandings on both sides. “Everyone was following procedure, but I couldn’t decipher what was happening around me. In the end, the authorities invited me to the Ministry eight times for mediation to resolve the situation, but each time my employer failed to show.”
After eight weeks, the Ministry finally launched an investigation and uncovered the extent of the agency’s fraudulent activities. Picard was not the only employee to be deceived. She ended up filing two cases with the courts, one to recoup the owed salary and fees and another to get her passport back. “I couldn’t leave the country without a passport. I couldn’t work as I had no visa. I didn’t have any income. I had not done anything wrong. I had simply signed a contract and became a victim of the system.”
It took ten court hearings over the course of a year for Picard to see justice. She drained her savings, resorted to freelance marketing work, and finally ended up sleeping on friends’ sofas. A Latin and Oriental dancer of more than ten years, dancing helped see her through the tough times. She won her case with the help of an Emirati lawyer and – despite not receiving back-pay from her bankrupt employer – got the recognition that she had been wronged.
The damage was done, however. Any potential employers in the film and entertainment industry were nervous about her status and so she found it difficult to find a job. As luck would have it, a friend put in a word for her at a well-established British law firm, which was looking for someone to manage a visa and immigration system they were establishing. “They were interested in my experience as I had been through the ringer so to speak. The good part was that they understood my situation and where I was legally so it worked out well. As I had gone through a terrible year, struggling to understand with the legal system, I really felt I was in a good position to help others navigate the process. Unfortunately, the only way to learn the legal system here is to experience it.”
Despite all she has been through, Picard is keen to stay on in Dubai for now although she has images of Singapore in her future. Ever the optimist, she sees her experience as just that – experience. “My life would have been a lot easier if I had stayed where I was but I’ve learned a lot from the highs and lows. I never expected to end up as a specialist in visa and immigration policy but things have a funny way of working out. What might seem like a blow at the time, can turn out to be a pivot point from which many new opportunities become available once you open yourself to the possibilities. Just don’t give up. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today and, for the most part, I’ve done it on my own, more by necessity than choice.”
It’s been an interesting ride so far, let’s hope those possibilities are a little smoother in Picard’s future.
Tips from Linda Picard
- Never take anything for granted!
- Fight for your rights and whatever you believe is right.
- Find the time and place to give back, there is always a need and a cause.
- Don’t forget to be grateful and thank everyone who has ever helped you. If there is no one to thank, then don’t forget to be grateful to yourself and the universe.
- There is no such thing as impossible, never accept it as an option.
- Dance and sing as much as you can…