Zarina Chekirbaeva ’98 (Naryn, Kyrgyzstan / Glen Ellyn, IL)
Education: BA in Business Administration from the American University of Central Asia, MA in Public Administration from the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM)

   ‘It’s not easy to feel included in the men’s world’

Over the years I’ve done a few dozen interviews with FLEX alumni across the region. All of them have done amazing work in a range of sectors – civil society and democracy-building, business, education, human rights, art and culture, you name it. Naturedly every story is unique but one thing that seems to unite most is their courage. Leaving cushy jobs and comfortable lifestyles for the sake of doing something interesting, unusual and therefore risky is, in the eyes of many, not extraordinary, but almost a logical path to take. As one FLEX alumna told me once: ‘After moving to the other side of the world at the age of fifteen, with limited English and even more limited knowledge of American culture, nothing seems like an unachievable challenge’. Zarina Chekirbaeva’s story fits this quote perfectly. In her interview she told why she had decided to leave her well-paid job to work for a doomed start-up and what it means to be one of the only females in Kyrgyzstan’s big business.

After graduating from university Zarina worked hard to become a Corporate Affairs Vice-president in a gold-mining company in Kyrgyzstan. Her salary was great and the job was quite challenging, but after a while she understood that there was something missing in it – an opportunity to make a difference. So when she was invited to lead the American Chamber of Commerce in the Kyrgyz Republic – a business association which at the time was seen as failing and predicted to shut down imminently, she hesitated:

‘I knew that I’d be leaving lots of important things behind, primarily financial stability and certainty in tomorrow. But I was really tempted by the idea of having my own voice, capacity to design the future of the organization and being able to be more useful in the world in general. So, after many days and nights of hesitation I quit my job and went to work for the start-up. I haven’t regretted this decision once since’.

Now one of the largest leading business associations in Kyrgyzstan, AmCham represents over 90 companies, promoting and protecting the interests of both local businesses in the international arena, as well as of foreign companies in Kyrgyzstan. In carrying out its activities, AmCham serves as the connecting link between businesspersons, politicians, and investors. Zarina represents the association on all levels of the government and makes sure that the voice of business is heard and presented appropriately.

Like in many fellow former Soviet countries, Kyrgyzstan’s big business is still young, so learning from the experience of its international counterparts is crucial. Zarina is keen on bringing this expertise into the country by setting up business councils and helping local businesses to find partners on the global market. Yet, as much as she enjoys her work, not all the challenges she faces are equally exciting:

‘Out of 100 heads of companies and business associations, there’re about four women, including me. In our culture, men are brought up to be successful and women are brought up to stay at home and support them. And even though I’m now seen as a leader with a successful track record, it’s not easy to feel included in the men’s world.

Zarina firmly believes that she wouldn’t be as strong and confident without the FLEX experience.

‘During my FLEX year I learned how to rely on myself and feel confident in situations which weren’t familiar or easy. That’s why worries about gender inequality can’t stop me from developing. In fact, it’s probable that nothing can. The FLEX program has taught me to focus on improving my skills and on relying on my experience. It has also made me realize that everyone in life needs to be given an opportunity’.

The social corporate responsibility program of the AmCham Association is aimed at exactly that – providing children with autism, Down syndrome, and cerebral palsy with an opportunity to receive education or exposure to the society in an inclusive environment. AmCham actively supports two public foundations working with children with disabilities by involving them in sports and inclusive education.

‘By our own example, we are trying to encourage businesses to strengthen their social corporate responsibility. I firmly believe that through joint efforts we can contribute to the prosperity of our countries. Business is more than just earning as much money as you possibly can,’ says Zarina.

American host family has been a great source of inspiration to her. A few years ago, they travelled to St. Petersburg, Russia to adopt a five-year-old girl, named Masha, from a local orphanage and Zarina joined them there for a month. Together they visited the orphanage every day and the FLEX alumna helped with translation and communication in general.

‘Masha calls me her older sister and is always excited to see me. I’m still very close with my host family. While living with them, I understood a lot about the importance of being independent and taking advantage of opportunities.

Her message to the FLEX alumni is based on her story: ‘Each of us is unique and brings a wealth of greatness to this world. We have received an extraordinary opportunity to succeed and we should be united in our motivation to change the world for the better. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” Carpe Diem, dear friends!”

Interview taken and written by Tatyana Movshevich ‘04