Karen settled down in Spain and launched a successful business

Karen settled down in Spain and launched a successful business: “Embracing risks has led me to where I want to be in life”

“Bright orange strokes fill up the sky as the sun slowly sets. I’m pouring myself a glass of sweet white wine when the phone rings. The excited faces of my sister and niece appear on my screen. I look at the stack of papers in front of me and put them aside. After the call, I’ll get back to prepping our business meeting to discuss a new franchise of our salad bar. My niece enthusiastically jabbers her head off about her day – and before we hang up, we count the days until her next visit. When I put the phone down, I remind myself how lucky I am to see the ocean, our balcony view, in a different light every day. I lean back in my seat and let the last rays of sunshine warm my face.”

“I was working as a teacher, but the Belgian weather made me take off as often as I could. I spent longer periods of time abroad, in places like New York and Australia, and after each experience it became harder to return home. My mind wandered to ways that would let me combine a life and a job elsewhere. I eventually landed a seasonal contract as a travel rep in Mallorca. I enjoyed the lifestyle, but instantly knew the island was too small for me to stay. Once the season was over, I moved to my next destination. The first place where I felt like the pieces of the puzzle came together, was Málaga.

That’s where I met Jordi. When we first started dating, we had quite a contest going on between us. We were both stubborn; every time he said left, I said right. Each of us was focused on a different direction. I was visiting him in Mexico when he mentioned they were looking for another travel rep. I decided to go for it. That first year, we almost didn’t make it – we clashed so many times. But we were on our own in a faraway country, so there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. We started talking things through and got to know each other down to the core. I recognized the things he liked and disliked, and adapted my ways accordingly. Our first year was a struggle, the second one was focused on acceptance. I think that’s the key to any relationship: accepting the other one for who he or she is and letting go of your expectations. I honestly don’t believe people who say they fell in love at first sight. A relationship requires work, from the very beginning onwards. Today, Jordi and I make the perfect team. We know where we stand with each other in our relationship and our job. He’s the one with the vision, I’m the one who translates it into action.

Paving my path
During our second year in Mexico, we started discussing the future. Either we’d move on to the next destination or we’d quit our job in tourism entirely. Most days, we finished work early and spent our afternoons by the pool. That’s where the idea of starting our own business came to life. It wasn’t a dream I’d had forever. I remember that as a teacher, I talked to my students about working for a boss, unintentionally leaving out the option that they might just as well be the boss. But when I moved from my rural hometown to Antwerp, I met friends who ran their own business and managed their own time. Watching them deviate from the beaten track and create a life that suited them better impacted my perspective and my plans.

Jordi and I quickly agreed we wanted to set up a business in Málaga. We wanted to stay in Europe, and we’d always liked the place – not to mention the climate. With the healthy food scene up and coming, we landed on the idea of a salad bar. I had seen it boom in New York City and we knew we wouldn’t have severe competition in the south of Spain. There are countless places where you can get pizza or a hamburger, while quick healthy bites are much harder to find. We researched as much as we could – Google is your best friend – and talked to other business owners. Our whole business plan was finished by the time we left Mexico. When we arrived in Málaga, things moved quickly. Within two days, we found a building; within a month, we were up and running. Much to our joy and relief, our concept turned out to be a huge success. Roughly a year later, we opened our second location.

Karen and Jordi started their own business, Luxalad, in Málaga

Safety vs. adventure
The initial reactions to our professional plans were mixed. Many of our family members were worried about the dangers and uncertainties, but we tried to explain to them our point of view: either our business would take off and we’d make money, or we’d lose our funds, return to Belgium and find ourselves another job. The worst that could happen was that we’d have to start over – something we knew we were capable of after 5 years of moving around. We had anticipated the worries; we both come from backgrounds where safety is a virtue. I was taught the importance of having a steady job, of avoiding unnecessary risks. But I chose adventure instead. There’s this quote I love: “What if I fail… But what if you fly?” We ran the risk, but with it came a reward money can’t buy – every day, I get to go to work with a smile.

Spain has become home. Life is much more relaxed – and cheaper over here. I’ve read studies in which they say the Spanish live longer and I see why. They’re never in any rush. I’m more relaxed than I was before I moved here, but I admit stress does creep up on me when our supplier delivers apples instead of tomatoes. But I’ve learned to adapt. You won’t get anywhere trying to solve Spanish issues the Belgian way. In the end, those differences don’t affect my quality of life. I’m sure I want to stay here. While the physical distance has become greater, my relationship with my family is closer than ever. Before, when we lived in the same country, we talked or saw each other once a month, now we catch up every two or three days. It’s become easier to pick up the phone and stay in touch. 

Bad timing
If you can’t change it, let it go – it’s a saying I live by. When COVID-19 struck and we had to close our two businesses, I didn’t let the situation knock me off balance. Instead, I kept myself busy with running and home workouts I recorded for friends. One muggy night in July, I went for a solo run because I couldn’t sleep. I returned home by midnight and texted Jordi to let him know I was downstairs. The last thing I remember is pressing the elevator button – I never showed up at our apartment. When Jordi came down to look for me, he found me blacked out by the elevator. By the time I regained consciousness, I was at the hospital, getting stitches for a cut on my head. The doctors diagnosed me with epilepsy and wanted to send me home with medication. But my mother, who’s a nurse herself and flew in as soon as she heard the news, didn’t buy it. She urged them to schedule a scan, which confirmed her belief that something was off: they found a tumor in my brain.

As much as I was struck by surprise, I didn’t panic. My mum and I returned to Belgium instantly and I underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor. I never knew upfront, but there was a high risk I wouldn’t be able to walk or talk – or even survive. While I recovered, I stayed with close family. 2000 kilometers away, our employee had unfortunately landed in the hospital as well, which meant Jordi had to hold down our two forts in Málaga on his own. Timing couldn’t have been any worse. But once we passed the lowest point, we thought, “Whatever happens next, we’ll get married and throw that party.”

In October 2020, Karen married Jordi

Eyes on the road
Until then, we had been waiting for a better time to host our postponed wedding. A few months later, under a fierce October sun, we said ‘yes’. It was small and simple, but we’ve let go of the idea of a huge celebration. Most of the people we’re close to, were there. Looking back, 2020 was a crazy year. I shed my share of tears, but I was adamant about picking myself up and carrying on. Throughout this whole ordeal, I’ve always remained optimistic. I truly believe you have a choice: you decide how you deal with what happens to you. Mindset is everything.

Looking at the future, our dream is to conquer Europe with Luxalad: we’d like to open one in every country. And I hope to outsource more activities, so I can eventually try something else, like public speaking. Since my brain tumor, Jordi and I have decided we won’t have any children. I’m not the mummy-type, and we like our life the way it is. We enjoy being able to travel and sleep in whenever we want. A child costs time, money and energy, and most of ours is dedicated to our business. In the meantime, we’re the best aunt and uncle for the kids of our friends and family members. Everyone defines a successful life differently – for me, it means not having to think twice before you buy something. That’s what my eyes are set on with our franchises – we’re currently at 7 – and the preparations of our move to a new place in winter. Now that I’m healthy again, I have nothing to complain about. My life is worth a 10 out of 10.”

Karen is living her best life in Málaga