Once upon a time, way back in 1990, I was a student at Michigan State University. I was a business major, studying Financial Management (yes, ME) and taking elective Russian language classes. I remember my very first Russian class and the teacher went around the room and asked us to introduce ourselves and our major. There were only twelve or so students in the class and everyone was studying history, literature, journalism, etc.... When I declared I was studying business, the doughy, messy bearded junior professor laughed. “What? Are you going to spread CAPITALISM around the Soviet Union?” (Yes, this was in the days of the evil empire. More on spreading capitalism later.)
Sometime during 1992, I joined an international student organization called AIESEC. I don’t remember that day specifically but it is fair to say that decision has had an enduring impact on my life. I attended a leadership conference in Seattle in the summer of 1992 and that opened my eyes to the wonderful world of AIESEC. Everyone at the conference was switched on; busy creating development plans, training modules and cooperation agreements. AIESEC had its own language (involving lots of acronyms) and quirky ways of doing things. This student-run organisation was driven by one goal-peace and fulfilment of humankind’s potential. Lofty? Most certainly. We were motivated. AIESEC was all about spreading a little PLIG (Peace, Love and International Grooviness). And of course, being students, there was also silly drinking games, dances, songs, etc.
In 1993 I became President of AIESEC Michigan State and my team of students set forth on creating a business plan and improving our Local Committee (LC). The central program of AIESEC was an international work exchange. We sent students and recent graduates abroad for work placements. And in turn, our LC would meet with local companies to get them to take on a trainee from abroad. We honed our sales and marketing skills while selling the traineeship program. We fundraised, organised conferences and attended seminars. We recruited more students to join and developed membership. We had friends around the world and travelled widely. We were students with air mile accounts and filo-faxes stuffed full of plans and targets. Flip charts abounded. We had breakfast meetings with the Board of Advisors and tailgated* with KPMG executives. It was fun, exciting and much more interesting than most of my classes.
Midway through my university years, the Soviet Union collapsed and the game changed dramatically. Suddenly it did not look so crazy to be a business major studying Russian.
As I approached graduation, an AIESEC friend mentioned that a couple of AIESEC alumni had started a courier and freight business, Pony Express, in Russia and were looking for someone to come and help with sales and marketing. Given my AIESEC sales experience and my Russian language skills (which weren't great, truth be told), I was a good fit for the position. AIESEC gave me the network to find this opportunity but it also made such a move “normal”. Many of my friends were going on international internships. We were the lucky ones to get the opportunity, so take it.
I did not hesitate and jumped at the chance to move to Moscow. And there I was, working for a courier company, SPREADING CAPITALISM around the former Soviet Union. The plan was to work for Pony Express for a year but I stayed on for six years. I have lived overseas ever since. (And never did pursue a career in Financial Management)
My debut novel, The Girl from the Hermitage, is not about my experiences living in Russia. But I would not have been able to write the book had I not had the experience of living there in the Nineties. At the very heart of this book, the reason that compelled me to write it is a desire to offer the reader a different view of Russia. And hopefully, in true AIESEC spirit, this book will spread a little PLIG.
For more about how my experiences working in Russia influenced the novel, watch me in a discussion hosted by AIESEC Life with Pony Express founder Mark Wheeler.
The Girl from the Hermitage e-book is available now on all platforms worldwide.
The paperback is out now in the UK.
Paperback will be available in USA in January 2021. Pre-order on Amazon here.
*Tailgate-a party clustered around the trunk of a car prior to a sporting event. This particular party involved a whole roasted turkey and a six-foot submarine sandwich.