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U.S.: Mentoring Program Brings Businesswomen Together

Participants in the 2006 program participate in a conference (Courtesy Photo) NEW YORK, May 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As part of U.S. public-diplomacy efforts, 32 women leaders from 20 emerging economies spent three weeks in May in the United States, to learn from the experience of accomplished U.S. businesswomen.

The joint, public-private program was sponsored by "Fortune" business magazine and the U.S. State Department. This is the second such gathering, driven by the idea that people-to-people exchanges foster mutual respect and understanding.

For Maida Champara, an adviser in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Council of Competition, it was her first trip to the United States, and she said that face-to-face experience is invaluable and cannot be replaced by the Internet or publications.

The most valuable experience for one participant was learning more about business etiquette, the art of negotiations, and other skills that make U.S. businesspeople highly competitive around the world.

Champara's mentor was Molly Ashby, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the financial firm Solera Capital in New York. The fact that Solera is a small firm, Champara says, was an advantage because she was able to observe many aspects of its operations in close proximity.

Breaking Through Stereotypes

The other eye-opener, she says, is that spending time with U.S. professionals helped her to overcome stereotypes about the United States, as well as helping her U.S. friends get past stereotypes that they might have had about Bosnia-Herzegovina:

"Everybody knows Bosnia just from the war, I think, Champara says. "And also because of the winter Olympics that Sarajevo had [in 1984]. I think that these are the only two things that are famous in the world about my country. And I just hope that I helped to change that picture, [to show] that there are women there who are educated, that we are not some [primitive] tribes that are fighting each other."

Despite learning a lot about U.S. competition law, which Champara says is far ahead of similar laws in the European Union, the most valuable experience for her was the opportunity to learn more about proper business etiquette, the art of negotiations, and other skills that make U.S. businesspeople highly competitive and successful around the world.

"For me it is actually more about, not about the practice, it is more about the behavior and running a business," she says. "When you see how people here are preparing for their meetings, how they are communicating with other people -- for me, [it] was much different than things that I learned in Bosnia because they are more informal here, I had that feeling."

Business Networking

Yunna Rezaeva, another participant in the 2007 women-leaders partnership, runs a group of restaurants, bakeries, art galleries and souvenir shops in Russia's Far East. Her restaurant, Nostalgiya, in Vladivostok was awarded the Golden Crane award in 2000 as the best restaurant in Russia.

Rezaeva is interested in expanding the bakery business by learning new methods of production, employing new equipment, and developing new recipes. Her mentors were Pat Curran and Linda Dillman, senior executives at Wal-Mart, the world's largest company.

In addition to getting invaluable experience in U.S. business practices, Rezaeva says, her stay in the United States allowed her to network face-to-face and to establish contacts that may be useful for the expansion of her businesses.

As for the restaurant business, she says, the principles for maintaining a good restaurant are pretty much the same in Russia and in the United States.

"I consider my restaurant to be a good restaurant and find many common traits with good restaurants here, in America," Rezaeva says. "The first, main ingredient of a good restaurant is the delicious food, then excellent service, and the ambience."

Asparagus And Oysters

Thomas Keller, who is the only U.S. chef and restaurateur to be awarded three-star rating from the Michelin guide, lists the qualities of a good restaurant in exactly the same order -- "product and execution."

Keller, who attended a culinary conference in Moscow in 2005, says that in a culinary sense Russia has changed tremendously since the era of glasnost and perestroika.

"Certainly, there are extraordinary opportunities in the old Eastern bloc countries," Keller says. "Russia is an amazing place. It will be wonderful to look and to see what they are doing and how they are trying to interpret their cuisine again and watch them grow from [what like] America was 30 years ago when we started to embrace cuisine again."

Rezaeva says that as a result of her participation in the 2007 women-leaders partnership program she may be able in the near future to import some of the ingredients for her restaurant from distributors in northern California who are closer to Vladivostok than the purveyors she deals with now.

"For example, we don't grow asparagus," she says. "How do we deal with it? We are having it flown from Moscow. Or oysters? Our sea is not really clean now; it is dangerous to eat local oysters, so we are having them flown in from Cyprus."

Such long trips make the final product, Rezaeva says, significantly more expensive than if it were flown in from San Francisco or Vancouver, which are less than 10-hour flight from Vladivostok.

Both "Fortune" magazine and the U.S. State Department consider the first two women-leaders partnership programs successful and intend to expand the initiative in 2008.