Renee Stillings has been the Program Director for SRAS since 1996. She is also a co-founder of Alinga Consulting Group and a board member of the US-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England. All pictures (and captions) submitted by Renee Stillings.
SRAS: When did you first become interested in Russia?
Renee Stillings: In high school. I was already taking all of the language courses possible (Spanish and German). I was fascinated by the USSR, and reading the Soviet Life issues in our local library. I remember being told that the USSR was not an option for an AFS year abroad and that prodded me to get a little Penguin Russian language book, some recordings from the library, and try to learn on my own. I still remember the first phrase in that book – “Vot dom.”
SRAS: After earning a degree in biomedical engineering, you moved to Moscow where you eventually started two successful businesses providing education (SRAS) and outsourced business (Alinga) services. How do you explain this giant leap?
RS: I again attempted to study abroad in college, but in those days there were not many options for engineers, and in general the 4-year curriculum, which you really feel pressure to stick to when you are on financial aid, did not make room for it. I did manage to squeeze in two semesters of Russian, however, and enjoyed it. I’ve always been more of a language person, but other influences prompted me to study engineering.
During my last semester I saw a sign in the Russian department about a summer study program at MGU and so I paid a crazy price (it really was, especially now that I know much more about it) to spend the summer after graduation in Moscow. I subsequently interned and then worked in a technical translation company in Boston, and then decided to move to Russia in fall of 1992.
It was a crazy point in my life – first time I’d not had a job, or any particular plan, since I was about 12. Luckily the cost of living in Russia was low in the early 90s, so I was able to hold out for awhile and then just as I realized I had enough cash to either pay my next student loan bill, or buy a ticket home, I found some opportunities to make money in Russia. I have to play the Russian card in response to this question, however, and say that getting involved with education and the outsourced business services was primarily “sudba” (fate) – meeting the right people at the right time in an entrepreneurial environment.
SRAS: Indeed, most who end up in Russia describe it that way – as just sort of happening. I know that you were involved in other business ventures and employment before you eventually hit on two successful business models.
RS: The first entrepreneurial dollar I made in Russia, believe it or not, was making and selling chili to expats (a term for foreigners living abroad). Another American fellow and I bought a bunch of large buckets and pots (stolovaya sized!) and I used some chili mix brought from the states or I mixed my own from spices at the rinok and we made what we fondly refer to as “bathtub chili.” We were able to get away with charging $100 for a 5-gallon bucket! Extra for chopped onions or grated (Russian …) cheese. That was Moscow in those days. It’s actually still hard to find chili – especially good chili – in Moscow. While there are plenty of new foods to try abroad you always find yourself missing tastes from home that are now harder to find.
Like many other young American expats there, I had a few other odd jobs – everything from teaching English to lifeguarding at the embassy pool to production work (page layout, etc.) at the Moscow Times. These were, of course, not leading to a career – so I kept my eye open for other opportunities. I got involved with helping to support a study program at MGU that was organized by a fellow I studied with at MGU in 1990 – and that eventually led to the creation of SRAS.
Then a few friends and I got involved with the financial markets – helping to support a small group of foreign investors by setting up a small brokerage and buying up stock in Russian companies. We had a lot of adventures – mostly good but certainly not for the faint of heart. After the crash of August 1998, while we didn’t really lose any significant amounts, we decided that we would take our experience and use it to help other businesses enter the Russian market. And that is when Alinga Consulting Group was born.
SRAS: You and the School of Russian and Asian Studies have become increasingly interested and involved in Central Asia – culminating in the recent launch of a Central Asian Studiesprogram. How did this interest come about and why have you now put such effort into this area of the world?
RS: My first visit to Central Asia made a tremendous impression. The ability to use language skills (Russian) to understand yet another major part of the world – and one that is so little studied – was exciting. I was fascinated with being able to use my Russian to have conversations about Islam, arranged marriages, and other cultural differences. I found the different effects that Soviet influence had over these vastly different cultures intriguing. It is a fascinating place historically, geopolitically, and culturally.
That said, our primary objective for the new Central Asian Studies program is for it to be about more than just this one region. While it does provide an extremely in-depth study of the region itself from many aspects, I feel the region serves an additional purpose. Because it is a region that is so little studied, it is ideally suited to really develop and test the skills of students looking to work internationally. In a very intense summer or semester period, students will discuss, observe, and put into context cultural differences, historical and geographical influences, and internal and external pressures on policy and economy. In otherwords, the region is really optimal for learning how to understand and work within another culture. You can’t really ask for a more complex region in which to hone your skills in preparation for an international career.
SRAS: Why do you think students should study abroad? Why should they choose Russia and Central Asia over more traditional venues like say, Great Britain or Spain?
RS: The list of “why’s” is very long. Obviously it changes your life. It can affect all of the decisions you make going forward – from course choices to jobs to relationships. Any time you have an intense experience like that it has an impact. Why to choose Russia or Central Asia? Well, to be blunt, as an employer and businesswoman, I don’t find anything particularly impressive about a resume that indicates study abroad in Great Britain or Spain – as much as they are places I love to visit. They don’t provide nearly the challenge, and as such, growth, that Russia does. Extreme experiences get your resume noticed and generate good, substantive stories to use during interviews – ones that demonstrate how you deal with challenging situations. Potential employers love to hear about that. Probably the same rule applies to potential dates …
SRAS: You are now the mother of two young children that you are hoping will be trilingual. What are you doing to encourage them to learn languages early? How is it going with teaching them?
RS: I am hoping at least trilingual. Unfortunately, my husband and I, while speaking other languages, are native English speakers, so we can’t really pull off a bilingual environment ourselves. Although my son’s favorite Russian word now is “dokhla” (choked; died) – referring to any plants that need watering, or really anything that he thinks has seen better days. We have a Spanish-speaking nanny, however, so my hope is that they are initially comfortable with Spanish and I will introduce Russian more intensively later once they have two languages under their belt. One thing I always wish I’d done as a child was to go to Concordia Language Villages and since it also just happens that most of my family is in Minnesota, I will try to involve them in that. I think language is the one thing I can really gift to them. This includes English, which it seems fundamental knowledge of and especially the ability to write fluently in is in steep decline across the US. With a solid language foundation they will always have some tools at their disposal for finding employment and simply deriving more out of life.
SRAS: What advice would you offer students hoping to build careers based in Russia or Central Asia?
RS: Go there. Get in-country experience – as much as possible. My general recommendation is to go on a summer program right after your first year of study. Even if short – just get a taste for the country and culture before you commit three more years to an expensive undergraduate education. Minimally a summer of study abroad can cover what you would learn in a semester or two of study back home – due to your being able to use the language and constantly discuss the subject matter (whether politics or environment) with locals. And if the experience really did confirm that this is a region you want to study more, then take a semester or year abroad your junior year. And really try to maximize your time abroad with things like internships, home stay, volunteering, research, or even just pursuing your hobbies. All this leads to greater immersion in the culture, a better understanding of the people and language, and of course more stories with which to impress future employers.